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To one who knows the historical happenings concerning the war between the dreaded Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes IV and Judah Maccabee (story of Hanukkah), they must be always struck with a sense of awe and monumental surprise, for when we take a step back and examine the situation on the eve of the rebellion, the odds were clearly stacked in the Seleucids favour. This earth shattering story, intimately recorded in 1st and 2nd Maccabees of the Apocrypha and celebrated at the winter festival of Hanukkah, has all the colour and depth of any literary masterpiece: friendship, loyalty, faith, love, war, torture, betrayal, triumph, honour, courage, wisdom, virility, and standing against all odds. The small, seemingly insignificant Jewish people, surrounded by the behemoth empire of the Greek Seleucids with their vast armies and endless resources, are victorious over their brutal adversary following decades of war. This Seleucid defeat, eventually led to the weakening and collapse of the proud Seleucid Empire. For the Jews of Judea among the conquered nations which made up the Greek empire, a proper comparison would be to liken Judea to a single white dot on a chalkboard. Yet, it was the Jews who would triumph in battle and not the Seleucids. It was a rabble of Jews who became seasoned warriors, defeating massive armies three to four times their number. How could these Jews, who started out as simple masons, carpenters, priests, scribes, shepherds, butchers, vinedressers, farmers, weavers, and potters even have a chance at success? How could they seize victory over a professional, battle-hardened enemy? One may ask, how was this even possible? Well, let’s examine three clear facts which we know to be true. This examination is not meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully will shed light on how Judah Maccabee, the son of a priest, managed to lead the Jews of Judea in open revolt, staging one of the most incredible, daring, military feats in human history.
Number One: The subservient shall never rise!
The fact of the matter is simple, the idea of Jews rebelling in armed response against their Greek overlords never entered Seleucid thinking. Nobody on the Greek-Seleucid side saw it coming. Either they didn’t believe it at first, chose to out rightly ignore it, never thought it possible, or scoffed at the very idea. To say the Seleucids had a low opinion of the Jews would be a huge understatement. To Seleucid kings, nobles, and generals, the subservient never rebelled. History demonstrated that typically kings and generals led rebellions, amassing militias to their side, (i.e. Xenophon’s 10,000, Caesar and Pompey, or the Greeks versus the Persians) so why would Antiochus Epiphanes IV have treated this any differently?
Obviously communication was much slower than. The record shows that out of a result from the intense competitive lifestyle among Greek officers, information was suppressed and not properly passed on, yet still the Seleucids failed to treat the Maccabee uprising as a genuine rebellion for nearly a year since the initial outbreak, thus giving it time to strengthen and morph into a real problem. But at the grassroots of it all, the Seleucids thought they had no reason to worry. They suspected that they were dealing with nothing more than a gang of cut-throats and treasonous thieves. Even when a modern-day student of history looks back over time, the amount of conflicts started by “nobodies” and “peasants” are barely a fraction of a percentage when weighed against the wars and conflicts started by generals, kings, politicians, and warlords.
In the Seleucid opinion, the Jews were a backwater people, with no combat experience possessing strong religious roots. The Jews were divided among themselves, many adopting the Hellenism of the Greeks. Those who rejected Hellas, clung to their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this category was where the Maccabees would arise from. So, when the rebellion was burning bright and the Maccabees were organizing their campaign to crush the Seleucids, the Greeks were making other plans to invade Parthia (a neighbouring superpower). Around the same time, Antiochus passed strict edicts, forcing all the inhabitants of his realm to adopt Greek customs and worship their gods in an effort to strengthen his western borders, due to his fear of the rising power of Rome. While all of this was going on, Antiochus, who saw himself as the next Alexander the Great, hardly paid any attention to the Jews as a result from his ego, overconfidence, and what history told him in regards to dominated, suppressed people.
Number Two: Bad tactics equal a bloody mess!
The harsh edicts in which Antiochus Epiphanes IV issued to all his subjects, were edicts that made it mandatory for all inhabitants to observe and participate in Hellenistic activities, which included pagan rituals. This was Antiochus’ attempt to unify the subjects of his kingdom, in a two-pronged effort to guard against the rise of Parthia in the east and the might of Rome in the west. Rome was becoming more of an expansionist empire, having already defeated Carthage in two wars for supremacy of the Mediterranean Sea and now held Sicily, Sardina and Corsica, parts of west Africa, and swathes of provinces expanding into Europe. So Antiochus, intimately familiar with the Roman mindset from his days as a hostage, feared that the Roman eye would gaze upon his kingdom. Thus, he took swift action to strengthen his western borders. Antiochus also had to guard against his old rival, the Ptolemaic Empire, which had been a splinter kingdom, ruling out of Egypt, since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Since the Jews had fallen under Seleucid rule (190’s B.C.) with the suppression of the Ptolemaic influence, they continued to remain as staunch monotheists in the God of Israel, observing Torah (Bible) and the traditions of their forefathers.
As a result of Jewish refusal to obey his new Hellas laws, Antiochus launched a campaign of persecution, targeting the Jews of Judea which made up the faithful majority who refused to compromise the commandments of Torah and their beliefs in one God. Thus, Judea became divided, with one side making up a significant percentage of Jews (known as Hellenists or Antiochians) who obeyed the king and forsook the Torah, and the other side being compiled of Jews who would rather die then break the commandments. Against overwhelming Seleucid persecution, the Maccabees, led by Judah and his brothers from the village of Modiin, launched a guerilla-style rebellion.
The commander of Jerusalem, Philip of the Phyrgians, failed to take the rebellion seriously, ostracized the Jews and branded them as nothing more than ‘murderers and thieves.’ Meanwhile, Antiochus was rallying a huge army in his capital of Antioch, to invade the lands of Parthia and expand his kingdom. As a result of his inaction, Philip allowed the Maccabees to gain intimate knowledge of the land, establish a system of bases among the friendly villages, create a network of recruiting soldiers to trai them, and settled in the hills around Gophna where they established a base. From here, nearly a year went by in which the Maccabees raided and ambushed Seleucid patrols, slaughtering them, seizing their weapons and armour. After Philip had lost substantial troops, he finally attempted to launch his own campaign into the wilderness, but was quickly destroyed, thereby realizing the threat that faced him. Thus, he had no alternative but to turn to the governor of Samaria for help, Apollonius.
In all his pomp, Apollonius marched 2,500 troops along the Samaritan Road, a road which runs north and south to Jerusalem. This was the easiest and quickest road to take but Apollonius failed to treat the Maccabee threat seriously. Marching his men through the Judean Hills, overcome by heavy armour and cumbersome weapons, they were ambushed by the Maccabees (numbering around 600 men) and massacred…including Apollonius who was decapitated. After this solid victory, Jews flocked to the Maccabee ranks and they went on to win another outstanding victory against Seleucid general, Seron. Seron made almost the identical mistake as Apollonius, except this time taking 4,000 men along a different route, only to be ambushed and slaughtered. Next came Seleucid generals Nicanor and Gorgias, who were commissioned by Seleucid Viceroy Lysias who was governing the capital of Antioch in the king’s absence on his Parthian campaign. Nicanor and Gorgias took an army of 25,000 troops, sought to establish a base camp in Emmaus and chose to divide their forces to launch a double attack against the Jews. However, through Maccabee genius, the Jews dodged Gorgias’ men, leading them on a wild goose chase, and closed in against Nicanor’s 15,000, striking the main base camp at Emmaus with force. In a desperate battle, Judah’s army of 6,000 managed to put to flight Nicanor’s host and capture the camp. Upon Gorgias’ return, he found the camp in ruins, the Maccabees waiting for round-two, and decided to retreat.
When word reached Antioch, Lysias felt he had no choice but to lead his own army. So, he assembled 45,000 men, marched them down the coast, and struck inland for Hebron with plans of reaching Jerusalem from the south. Meanwhile, the Maccabees had been shadowing his advance, and assembling their men outside of Beit Zur, they attacked the marching columns of Lysias’ army and slaughtered 4,000 of them before putting them to flight. Lysias vowed his revenge, and like a dog with its tail between its legs, he withdrew back to Antioch. The Maccabees, unopposed, marched to Jerusalem and captured the city.
The series of Seleucid defeats can only be summed up by stating the obvious: they were unprepared for a guerrilla war, arrogant in their methods, never suspecting what awaited them, unorganized in their tactics, failed to share vital information or treat the threat as credible. The Maccabees on the other hand, capitalized on the Seleucid weaknesses, used their strengths against them, and constantly changed their tactics. They managed to unite the people of Judea, drive out the enemy, and establish an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonean Kingdom, after the family line of Judah Maccabee.
Number Three: Did anyone mention anything about divine intervention?
“Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise.” 1st Maccabees 5
To say that the Maccabees did not believe that God had intervened on their behalf would simply be a untrue. The Maccabees were pious men, with scribes, priests, and teachers of Torah amidst their ranks, and they fervently believed that God would deliver them, sustain them, and rescue them from the wrath of Antiochus’ Seleucid war machine. A strong contingent of the Maccabee ranks, were made up of the Hasidim, or ‘pious ones’, who were be the descendents of the Pharisees and Zealots. These men were fiercely loyal to the Torah, the commandments and traditions of their forefathers and would gladly die in order to preserve their faith. The Hasidim guarded the Torah, building a fence of protection around it (as stated in Pirke Avot- Ethics of the Fathers), and were true men of faith in the God of Israel.
Upon the outbreak of the revolt, the Maccabees refused to bow the knee to Seleucid pressure which demanded that they cease: the practice and study of Torah, circumcision of their sons on the eighth day, gathering to worship in houses of prayer or the temple, prayer, and other elements of traditional, biblical Jewish faith. History clearly shows us that many Jews were intimidated and therefore compromised their faith in an effort to “fit in”, but the Jews of Judea, including the Hasidim and Maccabees, out rightly refused. The historical accounts of 1st and 2nd Maccabees demonstrate this refusal to obey Seleucid law as the Maccabees smashed down pagan altars, continued to study Torah, circumcised sons in the villages, and prayed openly as Jews.
Over and over in the Apocryphal accounts of the Maccabees we see prayer to the God of Israel and a genuine faith that He will not abandon them, plastered across it’s pages. We especially see this character of God clearly defined in the Bible throughout the history of Israel. From Moses to King David, to the righteous kings of Judah or the Jews exiled in Babylon, the yearning hope that God will defend His people and avenge them is a strong tone. In the Bible, we see divine intervention, at times, strike down the enemies of Israel, such as the account in the book of Isaiah concerning the plague that wiped out most of Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army in the year 701 B.C.. However, most of the conflicts and happenings in the Bible, pertaining to the enemies of Israel, are displayed with God encouraging Israel to physically march to war through actions of divine judgement or self-defense. We see generals, prophets, prophetesses, and kings of Israel praying to God and seeking wisdom. Whether this is Moses against the Amalekites, Joshua on the eve of battle with Jericho, King David’s war against the Philistines, or King Hezekiah pleading to God about the Assyrian threat, the belief that God would never abandon His covenant people is not something to take lightly. This in no way should paint the picture of ancient Israel being a warmongering nation, as it is clear in the Scriptures that special service was to be given to strangers in the land or other nations who did not provoke them to war, but it should reveal the reality of those days and the hostile nations of the ancient world.
In the historical accounts of the Bible, we see a clear picture in which the ancient people of Israel invaded a hostile land (by the direct word of God) which was made up of wicked nations. Israel was to be at times a tool of judgement by God who had given these nations centuries of time to repent. Thus, the Maccabees viewed themselves as cut from the same cloth. These men and women, who were firmly educated in the Torah and history of their people, recognized the commonalities and dangers they now faced, as seen in past generations. They were a tiny fragment of righteous people, surrounded in a sea of paganism which sought to obliterate them. The Maccabees had no choice but to trust in the promises that God would uphold the covenant, see their righteous cause, and give them victory. The faith of the Maccabees, and the reflection of their strong biblical conviction, already cemented into their hearts, cannot be ignored when weighing out their actions against the Greek armies who marched against them.
By, Peter J. Fast
Like what you read? Keep an eye out for my second novel, 164 B.C. A War of the Jews – to be published this summer 2014 (click on the “Novels” link on my webpage for more info)
Hanukkah, that Jewish holiday where they make silly music videos and eat all kinds of foods immersed in oil. If you have never tasted deep-fried sufganyot (i.e. special jelly doughnuts) then you must. However, apart from sufganyot, what are some familiar sights you will see? Well, if you are in Israel, or at least in a densely populated Jewish neighbourhood, then you will see decorations, people shopping for gifts, hear the music of the Maccabeats, see dreidels for sale, and lots of cheer…plus we cannot forget tasty pastries. The other most notable sight is the Hanukkiah (candelabra with nine stems) in the window’s of people’s homes. The middle candle is called the shamash or the ‘servant/attendant’ candle and that is the one that lights all the others. The festival of Hanukkah, otherwise known as Festival of Lights or Dedication, always begins at sundown and is celebrated for eight days with an extra candle being lit each night as the holiday progresses. Thus, by the eighth day of Hanukkah, you will have a glowing Hanukkiah with nine burning lights (which naturally includes the shamash which always burns). The lighting of the first candle begins on the far right of the lamp stand, and then for every new day an extra candle is added moving towards the left down the Hanukkiah. When lighting the candles one progresses from left to right as new candles are added. There are three blessings (brachot) which are recited the first night when lighting the first candle, and then all the other seven nights only two blessings are recited for the lighting.
But why do Jews light candles in the first place? What are the origins of Hanukkah and why do they love to cook things in oil?
To answer this question we must go back to the year 167 B.C. where the land of Israel was under the control of the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes IV. At that time, Antiochus was attempting to strengthen his realm, against fears of the growing power of Rome in the west. So, Antiochus created edicts and laws that everyone living in his empire had to adopt Hellenism (Greek ways and lifestyle, which also meant they had to accept pagan gods). Antiochus did not foresee this as a problem, for everyone living in his kingdom worshipped multiple gods to begin with, that is everyone but the Jews. Some Jews, who were Hellenized, accepted the king’s laws, for they would rather be Hellenists than oppose the king. But many Jews in the Satrapy of Judea resisted. Thus, a full-scale persecution erupted where it was forbidden for Jews to go to the Temple to worship the God of Israel, read and study the Torah, circumcise their sons, pray, and meet together for worship. Anyone caught doing this was imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Jews were burned alive in Jerusalem, women were hurled from the walls with their infant sons, and the populace was terrorized. In an effort to flaunt his authority, Antiochus sent his Royal Emissary, Apelles, to Jerusalem and on the 25th of Kislev an image of Zeus (depicted in the likeness of Antiochus for his name Epiphanes meant God-manifest) was erected in the Jewish Temple and a swine was sacrificed on the Burnt Altar. Along with this, Apelles was instructed to travel to all the villages of Judea and force the Jews to erect altars to Zeus and sacrifice swine upon them as a sign of loyalty to the king. Needless to say, this did not bode well for the Jews.
When Apelles, and a small guard of Seleucid mercenaries, arrived in the village of Modiin he met with the village elder, a priest named Mattathias ben Yohannan. Now, Mattathias had five sons: Johanan, Simon, Judah, Eleazar, and Jonathan and they were all devout men. Apelles instructed Mattathias to assemble the village in their best clothes, build an altar, and sacrifice a pig. Mattathias obeyed…but only partially. He assembled all the inhabitants of Modiin in the village center but then refused to build the altar or touch the pig. Apelles forced the inhabitants to build the altar (or had his own men do it) and then began to threaten Mattathias to kill the pig himself or all hell would break loose. Mattathias staunchly refused and before things could get out of hand, a Hellenized Jew offered to make the sacrifice. Upon seeing this, Mattathias rushed the altar, killed the Hellenized Jew and killed Apelles. After that, the entire village attacked the Seleucid guard and slaughtered them all. Then, Mattathias said, “Whoever has zeal for the commandments and Torah follow me.” The Jews of Modiin fled and created a mountain base in the Gophna region. Thus started the rebellion. Shortly after this, Mattathias took ill and died but the mantle of leadership was passed to his son Judah, who became known as Judah Maccabee or Judah the Hammer. There are slight interpretive differences on the exact meaning of Maccabee but we will stick with the common interpretation, ‘Hammer’.
Once Judah was in charge, he set about staging a full rebellion. Mustering together the villages of Judea, they raised hundreds of volunteers who would fight with them, and soon the Jerusalem Seleucid garrison could not repel the revolt. Judah and his men, who became known as Maccabees, became experts in the craft of ambush, and began to slaughter Seleucid patrols on the roads in the hill country. Eventually, Philip, the commander of Jerusalem, had to beg for help from the Governor of Samaria, a man known as Apollonius. In an attempt to squash the revolt, Apollonius march a force of 2,500 men directly south towards Jerusalem. Judah and his army, which numbered less than half of Apollonius’ force, ambushed him among the hills, managed to kill him and wipe out his army. After that, in the year 166, a general named Seron marched to relieve Jerusalem with 4,400 men. He to failed and was killed with his army scattered and defeated.
Once word reached Antioch, the king’s Viceroy Lysias, issued strict orders for the Maccabees to be crushed. These orders were given to three generals named Nicanor, Gorgias, and Ptolemy. The king was campaigning in Parthia, and Lysias wanted the Jewish rebellion wiped out immediately, so Nicanor and Gorgias took a force of 22,000 men, with Ptolemy directing the campaign from his new governorship in the city of Ptolemeus. Nicanor and Gorgias marched south along the coast and then struck inland where they set up a major fortified camp near Emmaus. From there, they scouted the land and discovered a second Maccabee base near Mizpah which was not far away. So, Nicanor and Gorgias conspired, and Gorgias came up with a plan for them to divide their forces. He would march on Mizpah, surprise the Maccabees and defeat them. Nicanor naturally liked the idea and Gorgias set out with around 10,000 men. Now, at Mizpah, Judah Maccabee caught word of what Gorgias was doing and so he took his 6,000 men and abandoned the camp, however not before making it appear as though they were still there. Then he moved through the darkness with his army and journeyed through the hills until he arrived before the Emmaus camp and Nicanor’s slumbering army. Judah then gave orders for his army to form up, and at first light they attacked. Through a heavy battle, Nicanor was defeated with 3,000 casualties and his men fled to the coast. Judah was triumphant and then he had his men plunder the camp before setting fire to half of it. Once this was complete he waited for Gorgias to return. Now, during the night, Gorgias came upon the Maccabee base at Mizpah, and seeing the torch-light and camp still set up, took the bait and attacked it. However, when he found no Maccabees he assumed they had fled into the hills at the news of his approaching army. So, Gorgias gave chase and spent all the night pursuing a phantom. Finally, by morning, an exhausted and angry Gorgias decided to return to Emmaus only to find the Maccabees in possession of it and Nicanor defeated. With that, Gorgias retreated in shame.
Once this news reached Lysias he knew the only way to defeat the Maccabees was for him to personally lead the next army. Thus, he set out raising a large force between 40,000-45,000 men. He marched from Antioch in the spring of 164 and decided on a different route. He headed south, skirting past Samaria and Judea and then struck into the lands of Idumea. Then he turned east, marched his force inland and towards Beit Zur with the desire to head north and approach Jerusalem from the south. His reasoning was simple, the Maccabees had not been operating that far south, would not be comfortable in those lands, and the land was filled with pro-Greek cities loyal to the Seleucid kingdom. If Lysias could get to Jerusalem, he could relieve the garrison, strengthen his army and then set out into Judea with calculated heavy assaults and destroy the Maccabee uprising. However, Judah knew this all to well and leading a force of 10,000 Maccabees he managed to ambush Lysias, slaughter 5,000 of his men and scatter them. Lysias then decided to retreat and Judah marched his army to a vulnerable Jerusalem.
When Judah arrived at Jerusalem, he found the local Seleucid garrison hemmed up in the Akra (a large Seleucid fortress within the city walls next to the Temple Mount) and so Judah and his men strolled into the city and captured it. When they ascended to the Temple Mount they found everything in disrepair and after ordering ritually pure priests to cleanse it, he had the profaned altar rebuilt, the image of Zeus torn down and destroyed and the Temple rededicated.
The legend goes that they only found enough oil to light the great Menorah for one day, yet it would take them eight days to make more oil and the great Menorah was supposed to always burn continuously. So, in faith, they lit the Menorah and it burned miraculously for eight days until they could make more oil. This is where the story of Hanukkah and this is why oil is so important and the eight days of celebration. The Jews celebrate Hanukkah as God’s redemption of His people from tyranny and the freedom that was gained through their struggle. Through the line of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean dynasty was planted, which brought about nearly 110 years of Jewish independence before Rome came in and conquered the land.
Peter J. Fast
So, I came across one of the most bizarre, yet amazing articles the other day which involves a very unique look into a 1,600 year old piece of 4th century Roman art. This is a kind of “archaeology meets modern science” and I know each and every one of you will thoroughly enjoy reading this article published by Smithsonian.com. If the picture below doesn’t intrigue you enough to click on the article link, then please take your temperature…you may have come down with a life threatening disease…maybe the Black Plague. Anyway, enjoy the article and be prepared to get blown away by the incredible mystery of the Lycurgus Cup and the many secrets it will unveil.
By, Peter J. Fast
In both Jewish and Christian belief, one important characteristic of God is that He is a healer who can restore an individual’s body and sustain health. Common to each faith is the belief that life is a precious gift, as man is created in the image of God to worship Him, give Him glory, take pleasure in His creation, and to walk in such a way that he is a delight to God. To Jews and Christians, life is seen as the vehicle for delivering praise to God because He is a God of life and covenant.
One focal point of the quality of life is the sense of blessing through health. Where there is lack of health, sometimes all one can do is cry out to God as Job did. Yet, at the same time it is clear that, even through suffering, it is possible to experience divine peace, the kind that surpasses all understanding.
During times of suffering, we find comfort in God’s Word. In the Tehillim (Book of Psalms), each psalm is arranged into daily groupings for the recitation of prayer by Jewish people all over the world. Added to the Tehillim, are traditional Jewish prayers for the sick and people stricken with disease, such as this one: “And in Your hands is the strength and the power to make great, to strengthen, and to cure every human, even he who is crushed, crushed to the very depths of his soul…O God Who is trustworthy, Father of Mercy, Healer of all illnesses of Your people, Israel, even those near unto the very gates of death.”
In the beginning, God created mankind not to solely “exist,” but to live according to his/her true purpose—to be in a relationship with Him. God’s creation was perfect, prior to sin entering the world, and mankind did not experience bodily degeneration, which leads to sickness and ultimately death. With sin came sickness and the need for healing.
In Hebrew, the word rapha (רפא) is a unique term equated with healing, or the act of being healed or cured. Rapha is used periodically throughout the Bible in different forms, and can take on meanings of divine healing, healing brought about by a physician, spiritual healing, healing of the tongue, or the restoration of a nation.
For the covering or repairing of a wound, the Hebrew word gehah (גהה) can be used, and dictates bodily healing, whether through medicine or one’s outlook on life. However, in this teaching letter we will focus on rapha and the healing which must come from God.
God literally used rapha through the healing power of Jesus (Yeshua) who encountered a paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda. The incident is described in John 5:2–9.
In John’s account, Yeshua visits Jerusalem, enters through the Sheep Gate, and arrives at the Pool of Bethesda, which in Hebrew means “House of Grace.” John states that this pool had five porches, and that this was a gathering place of many sick, crippled, blind, and infirm people. Then, something very interesting is described. An angel is said to have come down to stir the waters, and that the first to reach the pool and enter the waters would be healed. Strange?
It is at this place where John gives an account of Yeshua confronting a paralyzed man who has been a cripple for thirty-eight years. The beginning of the chapter sets the scene. We learn about what is happening at this pool, and a little about the lame man who had been stranded there with no one to care for him. We can only begin to fathom what it would be like for this man who was crippled; his body useless by most people’s standards, lying on the ground as other people were healed. He remains alone and neglected. It would appear as though all love was absent from that place. Then, who should appear in the midst of this man’s misery—Yeshua, the famous teacher, and miracle worker from Nazareth.
When Yeshua asked the paralytic if he wanted to be healed, the man’s answer should not surprise us. He spoke from the pit of despair. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me” (John 5:7). He is filled with anguish and sorrow. He has never reached the water. Not even once!
Now, let’s pause and examine the story. What is wrong with this picture? Some questions need to be asked. Why is the man lying there? What is this place where an angel stirs the water for healing? Since when, in the Bible, does an angel of the Lord heal only on a first-come-first-served basis? Why is it that those people who are healed seem to be those able to reach the pool, yet others—the lame, the blind, and the paralyzed—are left to their own devices? Who is this man whom Yeshua confronts? Finally, what is Yeshua trying to accomplish by approaching this man? To answer these questions, we must first examine some truths in history in order to connect the dots.
Archaeology has shed light on the location of the Pool of Bethesda and what it was used for. In the first century AD, it was located near the Fortress Antonia, and was used both as a place of relaxation by Hellenists, as well as a temple to the god Serapis (the larger temple was constructed in 2nd-3rd century but there was observance prior to this date). Evidence has shown that the pools were used for pagan ritual immersions and pleasure, and would have attracted and catered to Hellenized people. So what is Hellenism?
Hellenism is a derivative of the Greek word, hellas, which encompasses Greek lifestyle in its basic form. Hellenism, according to historian and theologian Emil Schurer, was “the organization of the state, legislation, the administration of justice, public arrangements, art and science, trade and industry, and the customs of daily life down to fashion and ornaments, and thus impressed upon every department of life, wherever its influence reached, the stamp of the Greek mind.”
Hellenism surrounded the Jewish people, and the influence of Greek culture was very appealing. This can be seen in the names of men and women before and during the time of Yeshua, in architecture and building construction, and even in the style in which Herod renovated the Second Temple. Hellenism was a “Greek-minded ideology,” contrary to Hebraic thought in many of its tenets and principles. A large number of Jews, who may have participated in Hellenism to some extent, still rejected the weightier baggage that came along with a Greek paradigm. These issues would revolve around the worship of man, nature, and polytheism, all three of which stood directly against the belief in the one creator God as upheld in the Torah (see Deut. 6:4 for example).
Hellenism also naturally produced hedonism, which encompassed the veneration of the body and the literal worship of pleasure. This belief is contrary to Judaism which places God at the center (theo-centric) not man, and sees creation and pleasure as something not to venerate or worship, but to praise God for. Since hedonism places man at the center and literally worships his physique, to be sick or physically unattractive could result in alienation. Hedonism judges the exterior, God judges what’s in a man’s heart. Therefore, one of the many fallacies of hedonism is that if someone is not able to meet this standard of outward, physical beauty, they could be cast out of society—set apart from community.
This would explain why all the sick and infirm people were gathered at the Pool of Bethesda, separated from the main population. It is likely that these people would have been discarded Hellenists, due to their presence in such a place, seeking healing at the temple of Serapis. We must therefore ask: who is Serapis and how is this pagan god connected to healing?
To understand the origins of Serapis, it is imperative that we visit the period when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after they had been delivered from Egypt. In Numbers 21:4–5, we read that “…the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses…” The Lord sent fiery serpents among the Israelites as a result of their sin, and as they were bitten, they began to die. However, it was not until the people came to Moses in repentance that things shifted and we see God pour out His mercy on His people.
God commanded Moses to “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21:8). God acted through the Hebrew term rapha and restored. He literally took the nation from a place of sin and doubt, to a place of faith, trust, and salvation. God was not instituting idolatry here, but in this unique case, He desired for them to be brought to the end of themselves, and only through the obedience of gazing upon the bronze serpent could they be healed and delivered.
This was an incredible test of faith. The people who had just condemned Moses, accused God, and had symbolically shaken their fists at the Most High, were reduced to pleading for God’s saving power and were restored. It would be wonderful to say that God’s people remembered the true Source of their healing. Sadly, nearly seven hundred years later, we encounter another shocking happening in the land of Israel.
In 2 Kings 18:4, there is mention of a pagan deity called, “Nehushtan” which is clearly equated with the bronze serpent of healing. This verse tells us that King Hezekiah of Judah destroyed the bronze serpent of Moses, as the people of Israel had begun to worship it. Nehushtan had become known as a “god of healing,” replacing the God of Israel. As Merrill C. Tenny writes, “Nehushtan thus exists as an example of how an originally good, redemptive, ritualistic object may be perverted into its opposite and become detrimental to true saving faith.”
Since the reign of Hezekiah was during the Divided Kingdom era of Judah and Israel, it is likely that the worship and reverence of Nehushtan also found its way into the Kingdom of Israel. Hezekiah was able to cleanse his lands, but one thing is commonly known about paganism: idolatry spreads with influence. We can be most assured that it affected the northern kingdom of Israel as well.
During this era, we find another god like Nehushtan, and that is Eshmun of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who dwelt on the northwestern coast of modern day Israel and southern Lebanon. The derivation of the name “Phoenician” alludes to the purple dyes they harvested from the murex snail, which they widely sold, particularly for royal clothing. It is these people we must now investigate to follow the trail of the serpent of healing.
In Dr. Nissim Ganor’s book Who Were the Phoenicians?, we find startling insights into the connection of the Phoenician god Eshmun with Nehushtan. The Phoenicians resided in the large port cities of Sidon and Tyre and were a seafaring people. Evidence in the biblical record and archaeology seems to place them as descendants from the Israelite tribe of Asher, and so they may have had Jewish origins. The possibility that the Phoenicians were of Jewish descent can also be supported by ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus, who described “circumcised people” who had come from Egypt as nomads and settled on the northern coastal plain, a land which had been inhabited by Canaanites and other peoples. It was these Phoenicians who would adopt a god of healing and call him Eshmun.
Archaeology has confirmed that Eshmun was considered to be a god of healing and medicine who was portrayed carrying a pole with a bronze serpent coiled around the shaft. This sounds strikingly familiar when we recall God’s command to Moses in the desert of Kadesh regarding the bronze serpent (Num 21:8). How is this possible? It appears that this idolatry not only affected Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms, but these deities quite possibly were adopted by the Phoenicians, changed to suit their culture, and worshipped.
Ganor gives a detailed report of the 1901 Macridy Bey excavations in Sidon. During these digs, Bey discovered a temple to the Phoenician god, Eshmun. In this temple he found an inscription that read, “God Eshmun sar Kadesh” or “ruler of Kadesh.” This is another crucial point of evidence revealing the possibility that the origins of Eshmun were tied not only to Nehushtan, but to the original bronze serpent erected in the wilderness to heal those struck by plague. Numbers 27:14 gives us the location of the “fiery serpent” passage discussed earlier—the Desert of Kadesh. Eshmun, who is identified as a god of healing clutching a pole with a serpent coiled around it, is called “ruler of Kadesh.” Could this be the Phoenician name for Nehushtan?
There is ample archaeological evidence (pottery, art, clothing, etc.) to make a solid association between the Phoenicians and the Greeks. It is safe to say that the two peoples traded with one another and had contact. So, it should not be a surprise that we find a pagan deity named Asclepius emerging in Greece soon after Eshmun’s appearance in Phoenicia. The Greeks saw Asclepius as a god of healing, associated with sacred snakes, who was often depicted holding a pole with a snake coiled around it.
Greek historian, Will Durant, states that, “In Greek art, a snake is often seen about the figures of Hermes, Apollo, and Asclepius;” and continues that since gods were attached to city-states and professions, “so the physicians of Greece looked back to Asclepius.” Durant goes into detail concerning Greek medicine and Asclepius to mention, “Even in the fifth century, Greek medicine was in large measure bound up with religion, and the treatment of disease was still practiced by the temple priests of Asclepius.”
The annals of Greek thought are silent as to why snakes were connected to Greek mythology in the first place. However, outside Greek literature, evidence of snakes associated with a healing deity can be found in the Phoenician cult of Eshmun and its arrival upon Greek shores. This, therefore would have had a direct influence in the conception of Asclepius. So how does Asclepius fit into our original question: who was Serapis and where did he come from?
As archaeologists uncovered the Pool of Bethesda, a temple to the healing god Serapis was discovered. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, all the lands he had conquered were divided between his four generals, one of those being Ptolemy I (367–283 BC), who took the lands of Egypt to build his kingdom, and styled it after Greek–Macedonian values.
Ptolemy wanted to make his kingdom attractive, especially to the Greeks. Since they considered the animal–human deities of Egypt strange, he decided to create a new god. His desire was that his god would rule the capital of Alexandria, and would contain all the best attributes a god could have. He gave his god all-knowing wisdom (Zeus, Osiris, Helios), the characteristics of fertility (Dionysus), command over the underworld (Apis and Hades), and the beauty of healing (Asclepius). The name he gave his god was Serapis. In Alexandria, he built the enormous Serapeum Temple, which contained the bearded image of Serapis as well as sacred snakes associated with healing.
We know the influence of Serapis spread to the city of Jerusalem as archaeologists have uncovered the temple built for him at the Pool of Bethesda. This pool has been excavated and has revealed its secrets. In the time of Yeshua, there were pipes in the floor of the pool that could release air to stir the water and create bubbles. Each morning, the priests of Serapis would release sacred snakes into the water to swim around and prepare it as an offering for the day. There were also hollow pipes along the pool that would carry the sound of the priests’ voices speaking as they beckoned the people to come to the water for healing.
As if this was not enough, Asclepius, from whom Serapis received his healing characteristics, is often pictured in Greek mythology with the wings of an angel. Was this perhaps the “angel” the Gospel of John describes—an angel who plays favorites, does not heal everyone, and who only heals those who, most likely, do not need healing?
So, what was Yeshua doing there? A basic precept of evil is that it seeks to distort and sometimes appear as if it is from God. This way, it can lure people and deceive them. More than likely, there had to be some sort of healing agent at the pool to keep people in a state of false hope. Whether the healing was temporary or long lasting, it was a place where hope was fleeting and everything was unpredictable. We do know, according to the Bible, that even Satan can mimic God and has limited power when allowed. This distortion of power can be clearly seen when God allowed Satan to test Job or when Pharoah’s priests were able to mimic Aaron and also turn their staffs into snakes (Exod. 7:11).
Satan is the ultimate deceiver, a father of lies within whom nothing good exists. His desire was and still is to be “like the Most High” and he delights in confusion and keeping people from the truth. Christian teaching tells us that Yeshua was very familiar with Satan’s tactics, as seen in the Gospel of Matthew when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11). Yeshua chose to enter the “lions den” to perform a miracle of healing, a rapha. This account demonstrates the extreme degree to which Yeshua was willing to go to in order to heal someone. He told the man to rise, take up his bed, and walk and, before everyone’s eyes, he was healed.
Who was the man Yeshua healed at the Pool of Bethesda? In the verses that follow the miracle of healing, we find that the former paralytic does two things which reveal who he was. First, he answers questions from certain Jews who are concerned with him breaking the Sabbath. Their questions clearly reveal his identity as a Jew. They would not have cared had he been a Gentile. The man tells his Jewish audience that he has been healed and that he only carries his bed because he was told to do so by the healer. When they continue to question him, the healed man is unable to identify the healer as Yeshua, for it is obvious he does not know.
Following their questions, the healed man goes to the Temple. Why? Any number of reasons could have placed him at the Temple that day. Perhaps he was there to be reinstated into the Jewish community after being deprived of temple worship for thirty-eight years. Maybe he was there to pray and repent for looking to Serapis for healing, or even yet, perhaps he was there to offer a sacrifice of praise to God for being healed.
No matter why he was there, the man met Yeshua in the Temple, which solidifies the man’s Jewishness once again. In excavations around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a number of stone inscriptions have been found. These inscriptions were written in Greek and were warnings to prevent non-Jews from entering the inner courts of the Temple. In fact, the closest a Gentile could get to the Temple was the Outer Court. Thus, for Yeshua to greet this man in the Temple, there can be no other conclusion but to say the man Yeshua healed was a Jew.
Perhaps the final lingering question that should be begged is: why would a Jewish person seek healing from a false god? Why would he deliberately trust in something that he must have known to be false? This is a mystery. Yet ultimately, this event sheds light on the inner struggle between a man and God. Perhaps the man’s response when Yeshua first approached him gets us closer to an answer. We can surmise that the man felt abandoned, not just by men, but by God. For years he had felt worthless and deserted. There must have been despairing times where he cried out to God and felt nothing. More than likely, his initial response to Yeshua, concerning his feelings of neglect, was but a mirrored image of his bitterness towards God. Yet, a lingering desire to trust God must have existed. This is clearly evident in his actions once he was healed—he went up to the Temple to worship. He understood where the healing had come from.
In a place where hope was fleeting, Yeshua and the healing power of God confronted Serapis. The God of Israel used rapha to demonstrate not only complete deliverance from disease, but also spiritual healing. The man was radically changed and not only would his position in society be restored, but his literal faith in God was transformed. God’s sovereign will and His nature will forever be the source of true healing. God breathed restoration upon an ungodly place that day at the Pool of Bethesda, and it should be expected that the power of Serapis in that place was broken.
By Peter J. Fast,
Achtemeier, Paul J. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco:
Harper and Row, Publishers, 1985.
Brown, Francis. The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius
Hebrew and English Lexicon. USA:Hendrickson Publishers, 1979.
Davis, Rabbi Menachem. The Schottenstein Edition: Tehillim The Book of Psalms
with an Interlinear Translation. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2001.
Dearman, Andrew J. Religion and Culture in Ancient Israel.
USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992.
Durant, Will. The Life of Greece: The Story of Civilization.
New York: MJF Books, 1966.
Ganor, Dr. Nissim Raphael. Who Were the Phoenicians?
Israel: Kotarim International Publishing Ltd., 2009.
Gesenius, H.W.F. Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the
Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.
Jastrow, Marcus. Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli
and the Yerushalmi and the Midrashic Literature.
USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating
to the Old Testament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Schurer, Emil. Translated: Sophia Taylor and Rev. Peter Christie.
A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ:
Vol. 1. USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.
Tenney, Merrill C. ed. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible:
Vol. IV. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976.
This is a gift to the world in regards to the understanding and knowledge of the 13th century B.C.E.. It is a wonderful thing that such treasures, as discovered in Israel and other places, can be open to the public for viewing and I know that I will be one of the first in line to see such incredible artifacts and pieces from the ancient world. If I know one thing, the Israel Antiquity Authority handles with excellent and professional care every item and does an outstanding job in their exhibits and relaying to the public their findings and the history behind them. I invite you to click on the link below and read this article written by Sharon Udasin for the Jerusalem Post. Enjoy!
By, Peter J. Fast
A little background:
With a lyric flow and colourful hue, Homer’s epic tales twist and turn with great heights of dramatic anticipation, plausible character depth, and morsels of mythic fantasy that have dazzled readers since the days he composed his poetry. Very little is known of the Greek poet called Homer, and yet his works, which were said to have been cradled by the side of Alexander the Great during his campaigns, have never failed to ignite the imagination with dreams of one-eyed monsters, beautiful goddesses, adventures over the ocean, bitter fighting at the walls of Troy, and love which reaches the abyss of Hades. It is about hate, friendship, revenge, honour, pride, self-gratification, love, pity, remorse, heroism, and the strength of mortal man in the face of bickering gods and their enticing will to interfere in the affairs of mankind.
Historians set Homer in his native land of Ionia, which is located in the eastern Aegean. This is where ancient tradition places the poet, in which nothing else is known of his life. The era of Homer is generally considered to be during the late eighth or early seventh century B.C. His composition is framed around the life of a Greek hero, Odysseus (one of many mentioned, i.e. Achilles), who sets sail from his home upon the island of Ithaca, leaving behind his lovely wife, Penelope, to take part in the largest sea borne invasion of the great walled city of Troy, mostly outlined in The Iliad. But for this article, we will work backward in time (like a Quentin Tarantino film), beginning with the absence of Odysseus, his unruly house filled with sniveling suitors for Penelope’s hand in marriage, and the stirring of his son Telemachus to search for his lost father.
Setting aside all the complicated and dramatic tales and relationships of Sparta and Greece, the Trojan Princes Hector and Paris, Helen, Priam, Agamemnon, and Menelaus all boiled together in a feud that brought 50,000 Greeks to the shores of Troy, we shall dive into the world of The Odyssey. The war with Troy will come in “The Iliad: Homer Part 2″, so keep your eyes peeled.
In all fairness, The Odyssey gives the reader in the 21st century a detailed glimpse into how the early Greeks thought, felt, conceived of the world around them, interpreted the nuances and phenomenons of nature, and interacted with themselves. Greece was ruled by city fiefdoms, or known in Koine as “polis“, which made up warlike clans and kingdoms that clashed and strove for power. The two strongest, with a feud that would last for centuries, was the democratic polis of Athens and the land-trampling, heavy hoplite soldiers of Sparta. Sparta would rule the land with its ferocious fighters and stubborn attitude on the battlefield, while Athens would roar across the waves with its seasoned navy.
Homer would write his poetry at the dawning of these powers as their strength grew, and he would dictate his thoughts and imagination based upon how he saw the world through Greek eyes and man’s role under the gaze of the gods. To the Greeks, life was about glory, heroism, and living the Greek life through literature, philosophy, education, personal hygiene, due respect of ancestors, the gods, art, and nature. Two things could sum up Greek life: beauty and the veneration of the body. In one word, Hellenism! This term, derived from the word “Hellas“, means all things Greek in life, and was the central aspect of the quality of life that was expressed through hedonism, which is the worship of pleasure.
While Homer sticks mostly to the adventure and strength found in men and the bonds that are formed through comrades-in-arms, he also pays close attention to Greek qualities: worship of gods, mythology, lore, sex, passion, and exploring the unknown with the belief that all life is ruled by the fury of the gods and man must always act in such a way to appease them. Therefore, Odysseus offers customary sacrifices to Zeus, showing his thanks for being victorious over Troy, and yet offers prayers to Poseidon to guide and guard him on his journey home, although past offenses to the god of the sea will render his voyage much more difficult than he could imagine.
Excerpts in light of Greek thought:
The following excerpt is taken from line The Odyssey lines 294-302, 307-308, translated by Robert Fagles. This section covers the arrival of the goddess Athena with her bronze spear and how she conceals herself to talk with the son of Odysseus, Telemachus. The son, who is observing the pathetic sight of the suitors in his house, watches with disdain as they feast and drink to his father’s “believed” demise, as they appeal to wed his mother and the bereaved wife of Odysseus, Penelope. This is just to give you a taste, you must read, The Odyssey for yourself.
Athena declares to Telemachus about the horrid behaviour of the suitors:
“Shameful!”- brimming with indignation, Pallas Athena broke out. “Oh how much you need Odysseus, gone so long- how he’d lay hands on all these brazen suitors! If only he would appear, now, at his house’s outer gates and take his stand, armed with his helmet, shield and pair of spears, as strong as the man I glimpsed that first time in our own house, drinking wine and reveling there… just come in from Ephyra, visiting Ilus, Mermerus’ son…If only that Odysseus sported with these suitors, a blood wedding, a quick death would take the lot.”
The Character of Odysseus:
Odysseus is the main character and the celebrated hero. Where so many men die at the gates of Troy or under the cruel hands of monsters and sirens, Odysseus is portrayed as a king with value, strength, and most of all, honour. He is a hero in the Greek world of Homer’s time and for centuries to come. He is uplifted as a symbol of virility and manhood, a model to live after. Odysseus is willing to sacrifice everything and anything to get home to his wife, who he has been separated from for ten years, and is best known for two things: being a great hunter and a man of cunning deceit.
Odysseus was a man who knew when and how to use his stealth and power of manipulation to see his will accomplished. He was a survivor, but also someone who was willing to do anything through his laborious journeys to find peace and safety back among his lands as king on the quaint island of Ithica. His cunning nature is best demonstrated in Homer’s account of what Odysseus does to the unruly suitors when he finally does return, to everyone’s surprise. At first coming off as understanding and hospitable, Odysseus has all the suitors distracted, locks them in his feasting hall, strings his bow, and slaughters them all in a bloody and horrific scene.
This fulfills the words of Athena to the son of Odysseus, that if he (Odysseus) were to return, there would be “a blood wedding” to befall the suitors. Thus, designed to be something of a prophetic fulfillment, Athena’s words ring true at the end and Odysseus restores order as Homer leaves us with the sense that finally the mighty heart of a warrior will at last find rest.
By, Peter J. Fast