The story of Hanukkah

IMG_5202Hanukkah, 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.dreidels

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 with51 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.

dreidelHappy Hanukkah

Cheers

Peter J. Fast

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Caesarea Philippi: Peter`s declaration of Jesus

13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:13-19 (NKJV)

Caesarea Philippi was built by the successor of Herod the Great known as Philip the tetrarch who made it the capital of his territory. The city was located in the Upper Galilee, near Mount Hermon in a region known as the Bashan which is a high plateau area in the northeastern corner of modern day Israel. The Bashan measures thirty-seven miles east to west, and fifty-six miles north to south. It is bounded on the west by the Rift Valley with Mount Hermon to the north and Mount Bashan to the east. The Bashan stretches south until it merges with Gilead. The landscape of the Bashan is very fertile and rich, with a sporadic amount of extinct volcano`s running down its center which have enriched the soil. During the winter months it can receive a heavy amount of rain 44-52 inches which has been a direct aid in the flourishing of vineyards and fruit groves. In the Old Testament, Bashan is mentioned sixty times but later during the first century we find the region called Gaulantis as it is a province of Rome with the Decapolis to the south.

            During ancient times, and particularly the first century, places of nature attracted the pagans to set up places of worship. At Caesarea Philippi extensive excavations have been done which have revealed a heavy influence and worship of the goat god, Pan. This would also explain the alternate name of the location which is known as Panias. Here, springs and waterfalls can be found where pagans also erected altars to worship nymph spirits and river spirits they believed existed in the water. Dwarfed by the shadow of Mount Hermon, which rises 9232 feet to the north with its snow covered peaks for more than six months of the year, the cultic sites of the city were built against the grotto’s of the high cliffs as temples were erected to Zeus and Augustus. The heavy presence of the large amount of water has to do directly with its proximity to Mount Hermon which receives over sixty inches of rainfall annually. Due to this amount of rain, the moisture seeps into the hard limestone foundations of the mountain and reappear in places like Dan or Caesarea Philippi as powerful springs and falls.

The geographical location influenced the event in which Jesus led his disciples up near the cliffs and temples. Since the city was built and stationed along a major route, connected to Damascus in the east and Dan to the west, this would have made the journey accessible and easy. Thus, Jesus brings his followers there to ask them a question. The Gospel of Matthew accounts Jesus asking his followers who people say He is. Peter is the one who responds pointing out in a direct way the divinity of Jesus and his anointing as Messiah. What Jesus says next is very interesting in direct relation to where they are standing. In the midst of His response Jesus states, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” He does this, with no doubt, while He and his disciples face the largest of the grotto’s which are in the cliff side. Covering the grotto is a temple to Pan where it is also believed to be the gate to the literal Hades. The pagans believed this to be a portal to the underworld and would sacrifice animals in the water and if the blood resurfaced after the animals had been carried away it meant a good omen. Jesus is at that very location, announcing that Peter will build the church of Christ on that rock, being it will be a liberating truth and redemption that these cultic sites and practices could never prevail or rule against, and Jesus declares that the power and chains of Hades will be broken. The geography of the place was a direct part of the event because in the midst of a pagan center, Jesus proclaimed His sovereignty over the wickedness of the place, and stated clearly the foolishness of worshiping anything or anyone else but God.

The Odyssey: Homer

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

A Temple to Serapis in Alexandria

The Background of the Creator:

In the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria there lies the remains of the Serapeum (copied after the Serapeum in Memphis) atop a modest hill where the Temple to Serapis had once stood. The history of such a place is a fascinating historical exploration, transporting one back to an age of gods and goddesses of the Hellenistic world which clashed with people groups of the orient. The creation of Serapis is an interesting tale in itself as it is the story of a god who was invented by Ptolemy I who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.). A childhood friend of Alexander, and one who had been a loyal warrior and general, Ptolemy I carved out for himself a kingdom in Egypt with all the trappings of a Hellenistic kingdom, but one with a touch of the Orient which appealed to him. Bordering the hostile Seleucid Kingdom, Ptolemy I would rule with power, influence, and strength in what would be called the Ptolemaic Empire until his death in 283 B.C.E.

However, one of Ptolemy I’s desires for his new kingdom which had been conquered territory of the Macedonian King Alexander, was to make it an attraction for Greek tourists and anyone else who may visit. Later, after his death, Alexandria would continue to exist throughout the Roman era attracting famous men such as Gaius Julius Caesar and Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Alexandria also would become a city of rich diversity as it would house a large Jewish population, Greeks, Spaniards, Africans, Italians, and so on. Alexandria would also host amazing sites such as the famous Lighthouse (which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) or the Library of Alexandria which boasted a collection of over a million scrolls. Yet, for Alexandria to become a highlight tourist attraction and to pull in vast revenues of trade and people, it would have to relate somehow to the very people it sought to encourage to visit, and that lay within the religious realm. Ptolemy I had the city transformed into a thriving Greek-style capital (with polis, gymnasiums, etc) with a full set of temples to boast of its Hellenism, and in this he invented the god Serapis and gave him a throne in the south-western suburbs of the city.

The Creation:

Just looking at the list of ancient Egyptian deities must have both confused Ptolemy I as much as it made him cringe. It would have only taken a moment for a “civilized” Hellenist as himself to know that these deities would not overly attract Greeks in thralls to a temple which had a statue with a human body and an animal head. Or one with strange symbols plastered over it and odd-looking creatures. This was totally foreign to any Greek mind and Ptolemy would have seen this right away. If he was to bend to Greek taste, then his god would have to have Greek appeal. The creation of Serapis possessed just that. It was a known Greek trait to apply the art of syncretism in the area of religion. Ptolemy I decided first to make Serapis a god of greatness and worthy of worship. He gave Serapis the qualities of all-knowing wisdom (Zeus, Osiris, Helios), the character of fertility (Dionysus),  the beauty of healing (Asclepius) and the far reach into the after world and the grave (Apis and Hades). He blended the Orient with the Greek flavor and it clearly showed. Serapis would be revealed with all the looks of a Greek god. He would posses a great beard, a robe, a simple basket of grain upon his head symbolizing the fertility of Osiris, and the far off, magical like stare in his blank eyes. He would dominate his new temple, with outstretched arms that touched the walls on either side, and at his feet stood the three-headed dog Cerberus of Hades and the underworld. Ptolemy I would build a grand temple and raise it up for all the city to see upon a high platform with a massive one-hundred stone staircase leading up to it. It was an obvious statement of his devotion to the god and a flaunt of money and power at the same time. The result of his master, deified creation would be centuries of worship by Greeks and Romans until Christians in the 4th century A.D. would tear down the temple and destroy the image of the bearded god with the basket of grain upon his head for it represented the very paganism they opposed and wished to root out. What would survive, would later be discovered by archaeologists and identified as the foundations of the temple, and its size, along with a black image in basalt of the Apis bull. In other places throughout the Mediterranean world, Serapis would be discovered upon clay urns, vessels, plates, and finery, as well as small household statues, larger images, and personal amulets. The pagan worship of such a deity may have died out through time and change, but his memory will continue to interest researchers, writers, and historians alike.

By, Peter J. Fast