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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
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.
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.5 Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
7 The sick man answered Him, “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.”
8 Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 9 And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath.
John 5:2-9 (NKJV)
The Pool of Bethesda is located in the city of Jerusalem in the Hill Country of Judah which is in the central part of Israel. In the first century, Jerusalem was part of the Roman province of Judea and was built upon a mountain with two valleys wrapping around it on either side (Hinnom Valley to the west and Kidron Valley to the east) and a valley cutting through the center of the city called the Tyropoeon. Across the Kidron Valley is the Mount of Olives which rises above the heights of the city, and to the north of this mountain, it dips into a saddle and rises to form another ridge called Mount Scopus. The region in and around Jerusalem is dry most of the year with annual rainfall between 28-36 inches during the winter months. Throughout the spring (May to mid-June) the temperature is mild, yet it gradually increases as summer is a dry, hot, and dusty time, especially with its locality with the Negev desert to the south. During the summer, it is common for winds to blow in from the eastern and southern deserts to form a thick brown haze around the city called a sharav where the temperature spikes and the humidity can drop forty percent. The sharav dries everything and leaves a blanket of dust on the land, but in the area of Jerusalem and to the north the sharav also helps ripen the grains of barley and wheat for harvest. Finally, by mid-September to mid-October, the end of summer approaches, which ushers in the fruit harvest and the rainy season.
For the Jewish people, Jerusalem has always been the spiritual heart beat. It was in this city that David established his capital, Solomon reigned, the first and second temple stood, and where it is believed the Messiah will return. Jerusalem is a city over 3,000 years old, but is a place that has been identified as Jewish for almost all of its history. It was where Jesus of Nazareth was dedicated in the temple as a boy, would have attended the feasts, spent his last days teaching, observed the Last Supper with his disciples, was crucified, and then was resurrected from the dead to ascend into heaven from the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem was the pulse of religious Jews, and the birth of the Church, yet it was also a hotbed for ideals and under strict Roman control with the Fortress Antonia dominating the northwestern end of the Temple Mount.
The geography of Jerusalem played a direct role in the events that transpired during the final days before Jesus was arrested and crucified. Everything He did, He did for a reason as Jesus challenged social norms, called for repentance, and preached. After His arrival into the city upon the donkey where He was celebrated as a triumphant king, Jesus entered into the Pool of Bethesda, which is located slightly northeast from the Fortress Antonia and in close proximity to the Temple Mount. The central place of the pools was a prominent Gentile area where people who were ill and diseased gathered near the waters to be healed. The Gospel of John gives a brief description of this pool, mentioning that it has five porches; archaeology has shown this site to be a temple to Serapis (Greek: Asclepius), who was the god of healing.
Serapis was a conglomeration of deities, created by Ptolemy I who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Serapis was believed to have a unique set of powers and was identified with sacred snakes as he took on the embodiment of Asclepius, a Greek deity of healing. Serapis was an appellation of Greek and Orient qualities that appealed to the Romans and, therefore, we find a temple set up with twin pools near the Fortress Antonia. Most likely the five porches also possessed a military chapel for the soldiers near the pools where people came to be healed. At the pools themselves, history reveals to us that the priests would send a snake into the waters and proclaim healing for anyone who could step in. Excavations have also shown pipes leading into the pools so that air could be sent through to create bubbling and a stirring motion which John also attributes to the angel (Asclepius could sometimes be pictured with wings).
At the pool, Jesus found a lame man who had been stricken with disease for thirty-eight years, had been unable to crawl to the pool for healing, and was abandoned as there was no one to assist him. This shows the character of Hellenism which venerates the body and, therefore, a sick or diseased man would have no place in Hedonistic thinking. Rather, the people most likely to be healed would be those with hardly any ailments at all who could reach the water easily. However, Jesus deliberately went to this place to declare war on Serapis, to show to everyone who the real Healer is, to rescue a man, and unlike Serapis, Jesus did not choose favourites. Therefore, this geographical place had a direct result in what Jesus wanted to do and what He wished to declare. He simply asked the man if he wished to be healed, the man declares his frustration and misery, and the man is healed. Jesus demonstrated who He was and declared to all the deception of Serapis and the priests. He did this without any doubt in the presence of many other sick and crippled people who were waiting for the water to stir.
By: Peter J. Fast
13 And after some days King Agrippa and Bernice came to Caesarea to greet Festus. 14 When they had been there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying: “There is a certain man left a prisoner by Felix, 15 about whom the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, when I was in Jerusalem, asking for a judgment against him. 16 To them I answered, ‘It is not the custom of the Romans to deliver any man to destruction before the accused meets the accusers face to face, and has opportunity to answer for himself concerning the charge against him.’ 17 Therefore when they had come together, without any delay, the next day I sat on the judgment seat and commanded the man to be brought in. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no accusation against him of such things as I supposed, 19 but had some questions against him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. 20 And because I was uncertain of such questions, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there be judged concerning these matters. 21 But when Paul appealed to be reserved for the decision of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I could send him to Caesar.”
22 Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I also would like to hear the man myself.”
“Tomorrow,” he said, “you shall hear him.”
23 So the next day, when Agrippa and Bernice had come with great pomp, and had entered the auditorium with the commanders and the prominent men of the city, at Festus’ command Paul was brought in.
Acts 25:13-23 (NKJV)
The city of Caesarea Maritima was located in the Roman province of Samaria, with Judea and Idumea to the south, and Galilee and Syro-Phoenicia to the north. It was developed along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in northern Israel along the Sharon Plain, which runs thirty by ten miles and is a flat area that consists of soils washed down from the hills. To the north can be found the Shephlah Carmel, which is a range of mountains that runs inland to the east. This creates medium-sized ridges with broad lush and rich fertile plains and valleys between them. Since it is further north, Caesarea Maritima can receive between 28-32 inches of rain during the rainy season (December to March) and experience sea storms and high tides. However, during the heat of summer, the rich soils around the city and in the coastal plain are excellent for growing citrus crops which can still be seen today.
Caesarea Maritima was built and dedicated by Herod the Great in the year 10 BC, after twelve years of construction, and established as the main port city of the land. He built it in a Hellenistic fashion as it possessed a theater, amphitheater, hippodrome, temples, and a man-made port of breakwaters, docks, and quays which could harbor over six hundred ships. Thus it became a city of trade and commerce. Dedicated to the Emperor Augustus, the city soon became the Roman administrative capital of the land and rivaled other port cities such as Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos in the north, or Joppa in the south. Due to the soils washed down from the mountains, swamps had been created which posed as an obstacle to Herod the Great through his construction. Therefore, his plan was to drain the swamps by cutting channels to the sea, and then bring in fresh water by tunnels and aqueducts from springs located at the foot of Mount Hermon twelve miles to the northeast.
Since Caesarea Maritima was the seat of Roman power in the land, once Paul had appealed to Caesar following his arrest, he was brought to the city to be placed in confinement until he could be transported to Rome. His place of confinement is believed to be the Sea Palace which juts out into the sea upon a created land bridge of stone. It was built according to all the wealth and pleasures of the day, including swimming pools and baths, and it was most likely here that Paul would have been placed under house arrest. The reasoning behind this was since he was a Roman citizen and had appealed to Caesar, he would have had to be treated with care and this would be a likely place to hold him. The account in the Book of Acts has Festus, Governor of the land, speaking about Paul with King Agrippa II and his sister who have arrived in Caesarea. Agrippa mentions to Festus that he would like to hear Paul speak in defense and Festus makes the arrangements for the next day for it to be held in the auditorium, or amphitheater.
The importance of the city and its location along major roadways made it a prime geographical place for Paul to be held. Since it was the administrative capital and the largest port, therefore once Festus had questioned him in Jerusalem and agreed to transport Paul to Rome, Caesarea would be the natural place to send him to first. The geography of the city and its layout played a direct part in Paul’s trial. Not only was he held there, but he was given a platform to speak and defend himself in the amphitheater. Acts 25:23 mentions that Festus, King Agrippa, his sister Bernice, commanders, and prominent men of the city entered the auditorium/amphitheater and that Paul was brought before them to defend his faith. The amphitheater still stands today and has had extensive excavations done to it which reveal its size, entrances, and architecture, but also show the places where dignitaries would have sat. Therefore, we know where Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice would have sat, and most likely, as trials were public events, the theater could have been full, that is with nearly five thousand people.
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
His Rise to Power
In the lands of Pontus and Armenia Minor (northern Anatolia- present day Turkey) a king would arise from a long line of rulers that had stood diametrically opposed to the emerging power of Rome. In the year 120 B.C., Mithridates VI would rise to be king of an empire that would once again challenge the supremacy of the known world from the ever tightening grasp of Roman influence. In time, Mithridates would take the title, “the Great” or Megas and would also be known as Eupator Dionysius. The title, “Eupator” means, “born of a noble father” and his connection to the god of wine and revelry, Dionysius (Bacchus-Roman), is evident.
To understand the opposition Mithridates VI felt towards Rome we must explore his early roots, ancestry, and his rise to power as a influential king. Mithridates was a prince of Persian and Greek Macedonian ancestry. He claimed descent from the Persian King Darius I, and was descended from the generals and kings of Alexander the Great: Antigonus I Monophthalmus, Seleucus I Nicator, and Regent, Antipater (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithridates_VI_of_Pontus). Mithridates was raised in the Kingdom of Pontus and had direct ties with the Seleucid Kingdom. As royalty, he would grow up in the courts of Pontus, learn how to dictate and rule an empire, but most importantly to hold onto power and resist all influence of the perceived threat and enemy of Rome.
The previous ruler and king, Mithridates V, would be assassinated by poison at a banquet in 120 B.C. in the city of Sinope, the same place where Mithridates VI was born, and the kingdom would pass to Mithridates VI and his brother Mithridates Chrestus. However, they were both too young to rule and the throne would be temporarily led by their mother, Laodice VI as regent. She would rule as regent from 120-116 B.C. (perhaps to 113 B.C.) and it became known that she favoured Mithridates Chrestus over his brother Mithridates, and so Mithridates escaped his mother, (whom he felt desired to kill him) and went into hiding.
Between the years 116-113 B.C. history shows us that Mithridates returned to Pontus, and in a series of events was hailed as “King” by the people which was a challenge to his mother and brother who had been ruling as co-regent. Through this grab for power, Mithridates was able to usurp the throne, and threw both his mother and brother into prison and both were shown clemency. Later, Mithridates mother Laodice VI would die of natural causes in prison and his brother (Mithridates Chrestus) would also die, however it is not clear if this was a natural death or an execution. Thus, Mithridates VI would finally stand alone as the sole ruler and king of Pontus. He gave both his mother and brother a royal funeral, and following this took his older sister (of 16 years), also named Laodice, as his wife to preserve the royal bloodlines and to insure the succession of legitimate children which was a common practice among Persian rulers and found among the dynasties of the Seleucid and Ptolemies. His ideals soon became clear, Mithridates VI, now king of Pontus and a vast kingdom, desired to make his empire the dominant force to reckon with in the Black Sea region and the Anatolia. Time would soon tell.
His Obsession with Poison
Perhaps because of the common use of poison as a tool for assassination, and because the King Mithridates V was murdered by poison, Mithridates VI soon developed a paranoia that he to might one day succumb to such a fate. The understanding that a king of much power and influence has enemies, is always a clear notion. With the fact that in those times, slipping poison into food or drink was a reality that had been one of the choice methods of assassination for thousands of years, Mithridates began a rigid program to educate himself on every form of poison. It was common for him to mix different herbs together, develop lethal poisons and then take small, self-administered, non-lethal doses in order to ensure that his immune system would be able to survive. He studied everything he could get his hands on, and consulted some of his most trusted advisers. Such was his desire to avoid death by poison, that it became a serious fear of his in an attempt to make sure he was immune to every type and consistency of poison. In our present day, this practice has become known as, Mithridatism which is a system that is practiced in parts of the world and in unique fields, such as snake handlers or people who work with poisons of a special nature.
His War with Rome
With a desire to expand his kingdom, Mithridates set out on a series of conquests that would eventually land him in the very lap of fighting Rome. Mithridates subjugated the people of Colchis and then clashed with the Scythian King Palacus in the Pontic steppe. Other kingdoms surrendered to Mithridates, such as the Crimea and Bosporan kingdoms in return for Mithridates to protect them against the Scythian power. Within time, and after a number of engagements where the Scythian’s lost numerous battles with heavy losses, they submitted to Mithridates and accepted him as their overlord. The next step, however would be crucial and lead directly to confrontation with Rome.
After great success in the Crimea, the young Mithridates turned his attention to deeper in the Anatolia region and the rise of the Roman Republic which was nearing him. Close to the borders of Mithridates VI’s kingdom, reigned King Nicomedes III of Bithynia who was steering his kingdom to an anti-Pontic alliance with Rome which Mithridates clearly did not approve of. In past years, Nicomedes III and Mithridates VI had coexisted with a shaky agreement, but now there was a fall out between the two kings over the area of Cappadocia, and Nicomedes III lost a number of hard fought battles. Reeling from the defeats and feeling the pressure from Mithridates VI’s ever encroaching threat, King Nicomedes III of Bithynia had no choice but to call on the assistance of his fostering alliance with Rome. For Mithridates VI, this left him no choice but to engage head on with Rome, if he ever desired to continue expansion.
Thus, Roman legions would intervene, on behalf of Nicomedes III twice during the conflicts of 95-92 B.C., forcing Mithridates VI to a standstill and bolstering up defenses so the Pontic king could not expand. The next ruler of Bithynia was Nicomedes VI and Mithridates planned and conspired to overthrow the new ruler, but he failed and the Bithynia ruler, at the behest of his Roman advisers, declared war against Pontus. At this time, however, Rome was entangled in the mess of the Social War, and the Italian countryside was a slew of inner fighting, murder, and pillage for dominance and control. During this time only two Roman legions remained in Macedonia and with a coordinated invasion alongside an army from Bithynia, they attacked the Kingdom of Pontus in 89 B.C.
However, things would quickly swing in Mithdirates’ favour as he would trounce and defeat the Roman-allied army and drive them out swiftly. In the wake of defeat, the victorious armies of Mithridates were welcomed into Anatolia where they conquered it in full in the year 88 B.C.. Mithridates then set out upon orchestrating a massacre of all Roman and Italian settlers who remained in Anatolian cities wiping out the entire Roman presence, 80,000 in all. This incident would forever be known as the “Asiatic Vespers” and the Romans would respond by raising a large invasion force.
Mithridates set himself up as the champion of Hellenism and having absorbed Greeks and Ionian Greeks into much of his newly expanded kingdom, made himself appear as the saviour of Greek ideals and life. Thus, Mithridates would be accepted by Athens who would defect to his side and welcome him into mainland Greece. During this time, Mithridates also sped up his vicious war against Rome, even bringing it to the island of Rhodes where he besieged the colony with a war fleet. With this, the neighbouring kingdom of Armenia, King Tigranes the Great, established an alliance with Mithridates by marrying one of his daughters, and would later become instrumental in the coming war with Rome.
The First Mithridatic War would see the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla win a number of decisive victories over Mithridates VI and force the Pontic king out of Greece altogether. However, after receiving troubling news about anarchy in Rome from his political enemy Gaius Marius, Sulla would make a hasty treaty with Mithridates and leave for Italy. The Roman forces which remained, would be commanded by a man named, Lucius Licinius Murena who would by the year 83 B.C. pursue the war with Mithridates (out of account that Mithridates rallied his forces and posed another threat) since the Senate had never ratified Sulla’s treaty to begin with. This would usher in the Second Mithridatic War which would see the seasoned forces of Mithridates destroy the “green” legions of Murena before a shaky peace was reached in the year 81 B.C..
When Necomedes VI died nearly a decade later, he left in his will his desire to bequest his kingdom over to Rome. For Mithridates VI this would be the worse situation the Pontic king could ever conceive of as he raised a large army and attacked again prompting the Third Mithridatic War which would last from 73-63 B.C.. Yet, for Mithridates and his long arduous record with fighting Rome, this would be his last war.
First Rome responded with sending armies under General Lucullus and then finally under Pompey who would drive deeply into the Pontic Kingdom and destroy all resistance by 63 B.C., thus ending the war on a large scale. Mithridates VI, however, would survive for a little while longer as he fled with a small army to Colchis (modern Georgia) to the lands of the Crimea. There, with his eldest son, Mithridates VI made plans to assemble a great and vast army to once again march against Pompey and the Romans and take back his captured kingdom. Yet, soon his eldest son rejected the plan and refused to march to war, Mithridates had his son killed and seized control of the Bosporan kingdom. He sought to raise forces but would struggle as inner civil war among his family and Roman exiles within his army would rage. Finally, Mithridates would withdraw in shame to the citadel in Panticapaeum where he was surrounded by his enemies who sought to overthrow him. With no way out, and the great king and enemy of Rome sensing his end, he decided on his terms to take the noble way out…suicide. However, his years of strengthening his immune system against the use of poison would prove to be his greatest enemy in his final moments as the despondent and furious king attempted to take his life by poison but found it was to no avail. Thus, ordering a mercenary to run him through with his sword, Mithridates committed suicide and brought to an end the great Pontic Kingdom and its ruler who hated Rome. In the end, ironically, it would be a representative of Rome, the champion Pompey Magnus, who would take the body of Mithridates VI, and bury him in the rock-cut tombs of his ancestors in Amasya, which had been the old capital of the kingdom of Pontus, and the heart of Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysius’ kingdom.
By: Peter J. Fast
Among all the paganism of the ancient world, and the gods and goddesses people worshiped, there may be none more complex in nature, terrible in homage and mysterious in identity then the name, Moloch. When examining and reviewing idolatry of the ancient world, it is like peering through a spyglass at an entangled labyrinth of twisting paths and blocked roads. What we must rely on to clear those roads and gain access to understanding are written records, reliefs and frescoes, archeological remains, and geographical land marks. It is always important to know that paganism in the ancient world was physically seen everywhere and entwined into society, just like name brands or slogans are today in the 21st century. Images of idols could be found on hairpieces, combs, perfume bottles, oil lamps, door frames, jugs and vessels, armour and weaponry, equipment for horses, records of history, clothing, jewellery, etc. The deities were talked about, revered in nature, forged into standing idols and altars, and explained through myths. Often when drastic patterns of nature would effect the land (i.e. crops and drought), the awareness of the gods would increase as would desperation to appease the power. This awareness would take the forefront with the hope to appease the deity to such an extent that he/she would relent from their intended wrath or displeasure. It would be at this center stage, concerning such fear of the unknown, that Moloch would find himself with throngs of worshipers prepared to do anything.
Historians, anthropologists, theologians and archaeologists alike that commit vast amounts of time to the study of mythological beliefs of the ancient world, all wrestle with the memory of Moloch. Little information exists about who or what exactly Moloch actually was and what kind of god he represented and was believed to be. One of the best texts of understanding Moloch is the Hebrew text of the Bible, and a number of other Jewish sources which we will explore further on. Yet, the problem remains that as far as information and cataloged evidence goes, there is not much that has survived to give us a full dimensional and accurate picture of Moloch. So, a level of speculation must enter into the picture, but speculation based on what we know about ancient pagan societies, what their gods/goddesses demanded from their loyal patrons, and how these false deities influenced peoples lives. We will examine the Bible and other sources, and try and formulate an image of Moloch and what we know about him. Thus, for now, I will attempt to place Moloch in his historical setting so that we may be able to grasp an essence of who worshiped this god, why he is considered to be one of the most sadistic of gods, and why some of the most harshest warnings and judgements found in the Bible were directed at him and those who would succumb to his worship.
Origins and Biblical Evidence:
The worship of Moloch (with early roots tied to the Ammonites) was common during the 13th-5th century B.C.. It was practiced in large part by the Canaanites, Phoenicians (which most likely had Judaic roots as a people from the tribe of Asher) and other related cultures in North Africa and the lands of the Levant as far as the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The name, Moloch, is a Semitic term that derives its root meaning from the word, ‘king.’ As a god, Moloch was part of cult worship which revolved around a kind of propitiatory child sacrifice system where the children were offered by the parents themselves in a honour ceremony to the god. This kind of sacrifice was void of any edged knives or weapons, but instead gave homage to fire which was connected with Moloch. Thus, for what we know about this cult, the children (male and female- 2nd Kings 23:10) were offered to Moloch by being consumed by fire. “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch.” Leviticus 18:21-23.
In Biblical text, we see the cult religion of Moloch infiltrate elements of the Kingdom of Judah as we see King Manassah, overseeing and allowing sacrifices to take place in the Hinnom Valley, which is outside Jerusalem. The terms, Gehenna (Greek) and Gihinnom (Hebrew) both describe this valley which the Bible also calls it, Valley of the Son of Hinnom. In 2nd Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31, 19:2-6 we see the apostate Israelites and followers of various forms of Ba’al and other Canaanite gods, including Moloch, offer their children to the fires. Later, the term Gehenna would be used to demonstrate a picture of hell where the wicked will perish.
We see clearly in the Bible (Leviticus 20:2-5) warnings from God through Moses to His people, Israel, against the practice, veneration and worship of Moloch. “Again you shall say to the children of Israel, or of any of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who gives any of his descendents to Moloch, he shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 20:2) This will also result in God turning His face from the accused and having the perpetrator cut off from Israel for it is viewed as a defilement against God and directly profaning His holy name. Then the passage is opened up from the individual to the community, should many people take part in the worship of Moloch. “And if the people of the land should in any way hide their eyes from the man, when he gives some of his descendents to Moloch, and they do not kill him, then I will set My face against that man and against his family; and I will cut him off from the people, and all who prostitute themselves with him to commit harlotry with Moloch.” (Lev. 20:4-5). The warning is clear and judgment declared, thus by the time King Manassah reigns over Judah, and allows the worship of Moloch to occur, we see swift judgment following in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by the Babylonian Empire.
In the Hebrew text we see the letters מלך (mlk) used which stand for “melek” or “king”. However, when examined and vocalized in the Masoretic text we hear the name, moloch which has been the traditional pronunciation for the god. Yet, the name in its form regularly appears as (lmlk) when translated letter for letter from the text. The Hebrew equivalent for the “l” means simply, “to”, but it can also take on further meanings such as, “for” or “as/an”. Thus, one could translate the text and read the name as, “to Moloch” or “for Moloch” or “as Moloch”, or “to the Moloch” or “for the Moloch” or “as the Moloch”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch) If we translate this this as, “king” then it gives us either two options, either this is a title and we do not know the true name for Moloch apart from the people of that day who referred to him with honour as, “king,” or that simply was his name, such as Ba’al meaning, “master”.
In reference to the mention of children being sacrificed to Moloch as seen in the Bible, this term “children” is translated as “offspring” or “seed” and demonstrates a literal action displaying the seed, as the continuation of a family, being willingly offered to Moloch into the flames. As it is also seen, offspring could have meant a single family also offering all of their children to Moloch, both male and female. As far as the age of the children, that is not known, although it is a common assumption that they were babies.
Jewish Classical Sources:
In the 12th century A.D. the Jewish rabbinic commentator and revered teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (1040-1105 A.D.) known by the acronym name as Rashi, dealt with the question of Moloch in his examination of Jeremiah 7:31. He stated, ” Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”
Rashi dealt with the fact that the entire ceremony was designed to put people in a trance as they worshiped Moloch and to quench any emotion or reluctance on behalf of the parents offering the children. He gives a description of Moloch and how traditionally he was viewed throughout the Oral History of the Jewish people and the common understanding in rabbinic Judaism. Nevertheless, it is clear that Moloch was wicked and that the institution of such a deity was blasphemous and therefore was worthy to incur the wrath of God upon the people who committed the apostasy. Other forms of rabbinic tradition to support Rashi is attributed to the Yalkout of Rabbi Simeon who said, “that the idol was hollow and was divided into seven compartments, in one of which they put flour, in the second turtle-doves, in the third a ewe, in the fourth a ram, in the fifth a calf, in the sixth an ox, and in the seventh a child, which were all burned together by heating the statue inside.” This is simply impossible to know for sure, but still may have an ounce of truth in it as it was common for these types of animals to be used in sacrifices to gods and goddesses and if we know one thing about the sacrifices in the Hinnom Valley during the days of Manassah, Moloch was only one of many other gods present.
In closing, despite not having all of the details concerning Moloch, it is true that he was a cruel and terrible god. He demanded victims for the obedience of wicked and deceived people to offer, many of whom chose to deliberately turn their backs on the true God to serve a false one. Not only would their own flesh and blood pay for their transgressions and deliberate rebellion, but entire kingdoms and peoples would be vanquished, crushed, exiled, and wrenched from their lands in judgment. The line of kings both in Israel and Judah would be cut off, the Canaanites and Ammonites would vanish from history, and things would never again be the same. Although, in the time of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel the Jewish people would once again return and cleanse the land, they would again feel the weight of judgment and oppression through the occupations of the Hellenist Greek world and the Romans. From there, Jerusalem would be destroyed in 70 A.D. and again in 135 A.D. and the people would be scattered again. However, nearly two thousand years later the entire world would behold an amazing event as a nation would be born in a single day (Isaiah 66:8-11) and God would be shown to remember His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as He restored Israel on May 14th 1948.
By, Peter J. Fast