Jerusalem 3000
Lecture 5 - Return to Zion and the Second Temple

By: Alick Isaacs

With the destruction of the temple, the Jewish people entered an era of crisis. The Bible emphasises God's triangular relationship with the Jewish people who settle the land of Israel. The destruction of the First Temple brings about the breakdown of this triangle. In 586 BCE, the Jewish people are separated for the first time from the land and from the city of Jerusalem. This is when God ceases His open communication with the people through prophecy and hence the Bible, the book of prophetic historiography, soon comes to a close with the events which describe the aftermath of the Babylonian conquest.

2. Where is God?
In Babylon, the exiled Jews prospered. Recent research into the names used by the Jews in Babylon indicates that they were culturally well integrated along with the other exiled nations conquered by the Babylonians at this time. Two of the later books of the Bible describe the life of the Jews in exile: The book of Esther and the book of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The book of Esther portrays a prosperous well integrated Jewish community. Mordechai reaches the position of supreme minister, second only to the King himself, while Esther of course is the Queen of the empire. The book of Esther is unique amongst all the books in the Bible, being the only one which makes no mention of the name of God. This is not an oversight; the absence of God's direct presence in the book is, I think, the key to understanding the meaning of the whole story:

The book is set in the time of the Babylonian exile, following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 515 BCE. It opens with a description of King Ahasueurus's feast. A delicious spread is served on an "assortment of beautiful vessels", a phrase which conjures up associations with the beautiful golden vessels which were pillaged from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. We are immediately reminded that the Temple rituals have been discontinued and the holy vessels are desecrated. The Jews are a nation in exile who have not abandoned their national identity and are thus exposed for the first time in their long history, to the threat of persecution. This threat is embodied in the character of the evil Haman. Incidentally, the book highlights the ancestry of Haman, who hails from the family of Agag the Amalekite king.

Mordechai, we are told was a descendent of King Saul, who was punished for sparing the life of Agag. All this suggests that old accounts are now to be settled since the Jews in exile are without a Temple and vulnerable, as they were in the time of Saul.

Ultimately, the Jews prevail. Mordechai wins the favour of the king; Haman is executed, and the Jews are saved. All this happens, as we have said, while no mention is made of the name of God. Strikingly, the absence of Divine presence in the book is supplemented with the power of 'Fate'; for example the date for the destruction of the Jewish people is determined by "lottery" (Purim in Hebrew). The of the episodes described at the beginning of the book are stories of good fortune. It only becomes apparent towards the end of the story that it is by this good fortune that Haman's threat to destroy the Jews is averted. By 'chance' the king recalls Mordechai's good service at the exact moment when Haman arrives at the palace in hope of strengthening his own position in the kingdom. Instead of gaining for himself at Mordechai's expence, Haman ends up humiliated publicly while honouring Mordechai. Again, by good fortune, Esther the Jewess becomes Queen after Vashti loses the favour of the king in a trivial and irrational dispute. At the time when disaster strikes Esther is already well positioned to play an instrumental role in saving the Jewish people. She was fortunately for the Jews chosen by the king from all the women of the land to be Queen.

She conceals her Jewish identity from the king using this to her advantage at the critical moment when she discredits Haman for wishing to annihilate her people.

In the midrash, the book of Esther is interpreted as a story where God is pulling the strings behind the scenes. This accounts for Divine presence even although God's name is never actually mentioned. The irrational sequences of events are given special meaning. Vashti's irrational refusal to appear before the King is explained as a refusal to appear; not in her crown as the narrative says, but wearing only her crown. Mordechai's refusal to bow before the evil Haman is not an irrational act of defiance but a refusal to bow to the idol, which according to the midrash, hung around his neck. The book is given a different structure and meaning. The story itself, and the midrashic interpretations mark a new stage in our perception of God's involvement in Jewish history. This is the age of exile when God's presence is no longer directly apparent through prophecy. The book of Esther argues that even in exile God continues to determine the 'fate' of the Jewish people. You have to read between the lines of history and search for the Divine meaning of historical events. This is perhaps the Bible's answer to the question which we discussed in lecture Four, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" The presence of God is still felt even when the Jewish people are in exile. But the nearness of God which characterised the First Temple period will never return until all the Jewish people are once again reassembled in the land of Israel.

3. Cultural Crisis
The absence of God's presence directly felt by the Jewish people through prophecy created a sense of cultural crisis. The people of God, lost an important part of their identity.

The book of Ezra and Nehemia describes the events which followed the conquest of Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus. Cyrus, on conquering Babylon issued a declaration permitting all the conquered nations in exile in Babylon to return to their homelands. As Babylon declined and Persia rose, 70 years of exile come to an end. The Jewish people have their land restored to them but the Jews preferred to remain in Babylon.

Only few participate in the return to Zion. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemia, they begin rebuilding the destroyed city of Jerusalem and ultimately rebuild the Temple. We now move into the Second Temple period.

The new Temple was a very poor replica of the Solomonic Temple. This temple was built by the old and the poor; those who had chosen to leave Babylon and return to Zion. The old perhaps still cherished their childhood memories of Jerusalem in its days of glory. The poor, who had not prospered in Babylon, had the most to gain and the least to loose from leaving Babylon behind and trying their luck in Zion. The returning exiles had none of Solomon's wealth and were of course unable to reproduce the spleandour of the First Temple and its magnificent vessels. The new Temple was greatly reduced in stature in comparison to the Temple which had once stood on Mount Moriah. The Jews of Zion were ignorant of the law and uninspired by the new Temple. The stature of the Temple was perceived as reflecting the stature of the God who resided in it. They became disillusioned and ashamed of the God whose direct presence they no longer felt and whose Temple was of no consequence. Ezra began re-educating the returned exiles in the ways of the Torah instituting to this end the custom of public Torah readings. This is still practiced today in Synagogues on Sabbath mornings and afternoons, and on Monday and Thursday mornings. This was an era of severe cultural crisis.

4. Hellenism
In 332 BCE Alexander the great conquered the whole of the Mediterranean basin including Jerusalem, and shortly after his conquest he died. His empire was divided up amongst his generals and Jerusalem fell between the rule of the Seleucids in the north and the Ptolemies in the south. The Book of the Maccabees I describes the events as follows:-

    "It came to pass after Alexander of Macedon...had utterly defeated Darius....the whole earth was silent before him, and he became exalted...Afterward he fell sick, and knew that he was going to die. So he called in his distinguished servants...and divided his kingdom among them...Alexander had reigned for twelve years when he died.

    ...After his death they all put on crowns, as did their sons after them...In those days there arose out of Israel lawless men who persuaded many saying, "Let us go and make a treaty with the heathen around us.."

Unlike the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians, the new Greek empire did not adopt the practice of absorbing conquered nations by sending them into exile. Alexander created cultural homogeny in his empire by exporting the conquering culture, Greek Hellenism. Hellenism glorified the power of human physical and intellectual achievement. With Alexander's conquests Greek philosophy, sports, games,language, food and dress spread throughout the world. After 332 BCE the Jews of Jerusalem, as described in the first book of Maccabees above, also came under its influence. The Jews of Jerusalem, disillusioned with their God and His temple, were attracted to the ways of the heathen. In contrast to the fallen glory of their silent God, the power of Greek culture was apparent throughout the world. For many, Hellenism was very appealing. It taught the Jews to worship themselves; to strengthen their bodies and develop their minds. It introduced them to the language, food and clothing, spoken, eaten and worn by prosperous nations throughout the world. It replaced the bondage of theocentricity with the exhilarating freedom of anthropocentricity, offering catharsis and comedy, intellectual stimulation and physical challenge. And so they urged,

    "Let us go and make a treaty with the heathen around us, for ever since the time we became separated from them, many misfortunes have overtaken us."

The Jews of Jerusalem Hellenised.

    "They built a gymnasium in Jerusalem in the heathen fashion, and submitted to uncircumcision."

Circumcision, which in the Hellenistic world was perceived as defiling the perfection of the human body, was also the deepest symbol of the unique covenant between the Jewish people and God. The Jewish people now became divided into two distinct camps, those who Hellenised and those who remained determined to resist. But, whether you look at the Hellenised or the anti-Hellenised, Greek culture left its mark on everyone who came under its influence whether they were adopting it or opposing it. Judaism was clearly never going to be the same. The whole second temple period history of the Jewish people is conducted in the shade of Greek, and later Roman, Hellenistic culture. It permeates the deepest levels of Jewish consciousness and behaviour. We shall now see two examples of this phenomenon:

  1. Simon the Maccabee.
  2. Simon's descendent John Hyrcanus king of Jerusalem.

Notice by the way the king's Hellenised name; part Hebrew part Greek. Greek names and half names were common in the family of the Hasmoneans, among them Alexander Yannai [Janneus], Aristobulus, Antigonus and Hyrcanus.

    5. The Jews Rebel - The Rise of the Hasmoneans
    Under the Leadership of Judah the Maccabee from the line of the Hasmoneans, the anti-Hellenist Jews of Jerusalem rebel against the Greeks in 164 BCE. Five years prior to the Hasmonean revolt, in 169 BCE Ptolemy in the south fought a war with the Seleucids in the north. Since the death of Alexander these two parts of the empire had been at war. As I quoted above "After his [Alexander's] death they all put on crowns as did their sons after them" i.e. they each claimed for themselves the status of conquering emperors, placed royal crowns on their heads which they would pass on to their sons, and developed aggressive foreign policies. In 169 BCE the tension between the two Greek emperors broke out into an open war. Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the Seleucid emperor, emerged victorious from the conflict. But in actual fact both sides were decimated by the war. Precisely at this moment of weakness, Antiochus became concerned with the potential threat which Judea posed to him. His fear of insurrection at a time of weakness lead him to adopt a policy of aggressive Hellenisation of the Jews. Their individual cultural identity made them a threat to the security of his empire. He forbade the observance of Jewish ritual, but more significantly, in 169 BCE he entered the temple in Jerusalem and desecrated it:-

      "After subduing Egypt [Ptolemy]...Antiochus turned back and came up against Israel and entered Jerusalem with a strong force. And...he went into the sanctuary and took the gold altar and the lampstand for the light [Menorah], and all its furniture and the table for the presentation bread and the cups and the bowls and the gold censers and the curtain and the crowns and the gold ornamentation on the front of the temple, for he stripped it all off....Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that they should all become one people, and everyone should give up his particular practices."

    Antiochus desecrates the temple and enforces cultural homogeny. While the book of the Maccabees emphasises the power of this great king in order to further engrandise the victory of the maccabees, it is clear that Antiochus policy is governed by weakness. Antiochus now faces a new threat. With the decline of Greek influence in the second century, the people of the city of Rome are now spreading their influence and gaining in strength. This was thus a perfect time for rebellion. Judah rebels, enjoying support from within after Antiochus's indelicate desecration of the Temple and enjoying external backing from Rome. Judah rises with the wave of Rome to a remarkably well timed military victory.

    Judah died in the rebellion and was succeeded by his brother Simon.

    Simon, who was a Hasmonean, i.e. from a priestly family in the tribe of Levi pronounced himself king of Jerusalem. He became the first Jewish king to rule the city since the destruction of the First Temple. But, Simon, unlike the Jewish king who ruled before him, was not a descendant of King David nor was he from the tribe of Judah. Simon, the first Hasmonean king who purified the desecrated temple and reestablished Jewish culture in Jerusalem, behaved, perhaps inadvertently like a Hellenist. In conquering, he placed a crown on his head which he passed on to his children after his death. The Hasmoneans ruled in Jerusalem and fought against Hellenism, but Hellenism was bigger than they were it had permeated their world to the extent that they who opposed it were themselves unwittingly part of it. Hellenistic values controlled the mentality of the Hasmonenan kingdom. A king who conquered took the crown for his family, regardless of whether or not he had been anointed by God. The human achievement of conquest deserved the human reward of power. This was not corrupt of Simon, it was simply the way to behave in the world in which he lived.

    In 113 BCE John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean king extended his kingdom. John Hyrcanus conquered the kingdom of Idumeia forcing the Idumeians who came under his rule to adopt his religion. This example of forced conversion to Judaism is almost unique in Jewish history. John Hyrcanus who sought to struggle against Hellenism and its impact on Jerusalem conquered his Hellenistic neighbours. But he knew no other than the Hellenistic methods of subduing the Idumeians and absorbing them into his kingdom.

    His policy of enforcing conversion to Judaism on the Idumeians was simply a policy of exporting the culture of the conqueror to the land which he had conquered. Many Idumeians fled, destroying their homes and cities on the way. Many, in particular the influential and powerful, remained and adopted Jewish religious practices. These new Jews, while Jewish in religion remained Hellenistic in culture. One of these converts was an influential man of the city of Maresha whose name was Antipater. His son's name was Herod.



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    23 Aug 2005 / 18 Av 5765 0