Surviving by Miracles: A Discussion of Jewish Survival

About a month ago, January 27, 2015, was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  While the actual liberation of Auschwitz is a positive event in history, the observance of this event is much more of a mourning event than a celebration, more of a fast than a feast.  It marks the time when an effective end was made to this horrible chapter in Jewish and human history, but it also acts as a memorial for the great many people who lost their lives in the preceding years during the operation of this camp and many camps like it.

I wanted  to write a blog post about this 70th anniversary event at the time, but circumstances in life prevented me from giving it the time I thought the subject really was due.  However, Purim is only a few days away, and since it is itself a Jewish celebration that looks back on an attempted holocaust which was thwarted by the invisible hand of Elohim, I think it's as good a time to take a look at this history sweeping subject now as it was then.

Without a Miracle, Nobody Survived

I read an article a day or so after the memorial about a Hungarian-American Rabbi at a congregation who had survived Auschwitz literally by the skin of his teeth.  The article is called Sacrifice and Redemption in Auschwitz and it concentrates on how in the face of human cruelty, miracles were a necessity to survival.  This young man and future Rabbi, about to be executed with so many others in the gas chamber, decided not to scream, but instead to pray... and not just any prayer, but the words of the portion of the Torah known as the "Akeidah", the binding of Yitshaq (Isaac).  Quoting from the article:
"'Sensing the end might be very near, I opened it quickly to the Akeidah,... And with more feeling than ever, I began to recite the last prayer of my short life... "And they came to the place of which God had spoken to him, and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac his son and placed him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife, to slaughter his son. And an angel of God called to him from heaven and said, 'Abraham! Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' And he said, 'Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.'"... As soon as I said these words, a commotion broke out with SS officers rushing into the room yelling, 'Get dressed quickly' and we were ushered out of the room with great haste. They told us the Americans were coming and the Nazi cowards had enough trouble disposing of all the bodies that were already dead. They couldn't afford to create any more bodies and as such we were better off alive to them.'  He sighed deeply, 'No, my friend. Without a miracle, nobody survived.'"
I find this account to be extremely moving.  I believe absolutely that this intervention in his life and the lives of those who were saved with him was indeed a miracle from the strong arm of Elohim.  I also know that this wasn't the first time, and I doubt it will be the last, when Jews have had to survive by what can only be described as miracles.  By any right, it is itself an absolute miracle that the Jewish people are still around, still a community, and still cohesive in their determination to remember their history and their mutual bond.

Assyrian Siege and Attempted Transplantation

Around 690 B.C.E., the Assyrians invaded and attempted to destroy and deploy the entirety of then existing Jewish civilization, the Southern House of Yahuda (Judah) in much the same way that it had done earlier to the Northern House of Yisrael.  The method of the Assyrians was intended to bust up family ties, religions, traditions and even associations to land, by deporting every individual of a conquered nation to another conquered nation.  This kind of uprooting and transplanting eventually resulted in a destruction of the culture, including a loss of a people's history.  This is precisely what happened to the Northern House of Yisrael, which even today is referred to as the "Lost 10 Tribes of Israel".  They are called this not only because their identity is lost to the world, but because their identity is so thoroughly lost even to them.  The descendants of these Northern 10 tribes forgot their own origins and identities due to the fact that their transplantation and destruction was so devastatingly complete in the Assyrian method.

Had the Assyrians been able to do the same to the Southern House of Yahuda, then the cultural annihilation of the Jews would have very likely been so complete that today the term Jew would not be in our vocabulary.  Notice that this is precisely the threat he levied against the citizens of Yahuda:
"And the Rabshaqeh stood and called out with a loud voice in the language of Yahudah, and spoke and said, 'Hear the word of the great sovereign, the sovereign of Ashshur (Assyria)! Thus said the sovereign, "Do not let Hizqiyahu (Hezekiah) deceive you, for he is unable to deliver you out of his hand, and do not let Hizqiyahu make you trust in YHWH, saying, 'YHWH shall certainly deliver us, and this city is not given into the hand of the sovereign of Ashshur.'" Do not listen to Hizqiyahu, for thus said the sovereign of Ashshur, "Make peace with me by a present and come out to me, and let each of you eat from his own vine and each from his own fig tree, and each of you drink the waters of his own cistern, until I come. Then I shall take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive-trees and honey, and live, and not die. But do not listen to Hizqiyahu, when he misleads you, saying, 'YHWH shall deliver us.' Has any of the mighty ones of the nations at all delivered its land from the hand of the sovereign of Ashshur? Where are the mighty ones of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the mighty ones of Sepharwayim and Hena and Iwwah? Did they deliver Shomeron (Samaria, i.e. the Northern House of Yisrael) from my hand? Who among all the mighty ones of the lands have delivered their land out of my hand, that YHWH should deliver Yerushalayim from my hand?"’” (2 Melakim / 2 Kings 18:28-35).
However, the arm of Elohim did intervene when a plague was inflicted on the invading armies, a miracle by any account.  We read about this miracle here:
“'Therefore thus said YHWH concerning the sovereign of Ashshur (Assyria), "He does not come into this city, nor does he shoot an arrow there, nor does he come before it with shield, nor does he build a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he turns back. And he does not come into this city," declares YHWH.  "And I shall defend this city, to save it for My own sake and for the sake of David My servant."'  And it came to be in that night that the messenger of YHWH went out, and smote in the camp of Ashshur one hundred and eighty-five thousand. And they rose up early in the morning and saw all of the dead bodies. And Sanherib (Sennacherib) sovereign of Ashshur broke camp and went away, and turned back, and remained in Nineveh. And it came to be, as he was bowing himself in the house of Nisrok his mighty one (i.e. "god"), that his sons Adrammelek and Shar’etser smote him with the sword, and they escaped into the land of Ararat. And his son Esarhaddon reigned in his place." (2 Melakim / 2 Kings 19:32-37).
The Jews were saved from the ruthless deconstruction planned by the Assyrians, but as we will see, the repose was temporary.

Babylonian Exile and Medo-Persian Return

When the House of Yahuda was taken captive around 100 years later by the Chaldean Empire, their identity was spared due to the fact that the Chaldeans did not retain the same extremes in their resettlement policies   Though transplantation was still carried out, it wasn't as complete as the Assyrian counterpart, nor did it include such a complete attempt at destroying cultural ties.  Now don't mistake me here -- the Babylonians not only intended to rule, but to proliferate their culture at the expense of the cultures of others.  My intent is not to whitewash Babylonian rule, it is merely to note that their methods were not as extreme, and with some care and careful hiding, a subculture could continue to exist under Babylonian rule.  Certainly survival of the Siege itself required the intervention of Elohim, which is obvious to anyone who reads the account of the Nabi Yirmeyahu (the Prophet Jeremiah) called in English Bibles by the name "Lamentations", which shows the fury and aftermath of that event in grisly poetic detail, and certainly surviving within Babylon depended on miracles, as one can easily see from a reading of Sefer Daniyel (The Book of Daniel) which in several instances chronicles exactly that.  There is no way I will allow myself to be guilty of downplaying these events, but the slight difference between the Assyrian and Chaldean Empires allowed Jews to retain their primary identities and their association to their culture within the latter, while the Northern tribes of Yisrael did not fare as well under the rule of the former.  And because they kept their identities within Babylon, Jews were able to remember their heritage well into the next great Empire to succeed Chaldea.

That Empire, namely the Medo-Persian Empire, took a decidedly liberal tact among its conquered subjects.  Make no mistake here, this liberality was not exercised in its vicious implementation of its supreme authority.  The Medo-Persion Empire's treatment of those who would not fall in line under its rule is legendarily vicious and relentless.  The Empire was known for punishing even the appearance of rebellion, and the bloody handprints of its rulers are left behind in their attempts to root out, subjugate, and even destroy the royal lines of the peoples of their conquered territories, as well as their supporters.  But while the Empire expected absolute obedience to their rulers and typically wiped out power centers that represented even potential competition to their authority, they were by degree at least more culturally sensitive to various peoples that had been deposed by their antecedents, showing in general little interest in forcing cultural subjugation or integration as those preceding empires were.  A good example of how different the Medo-Persian Empire was can be seen in their treatment of something as simple yet as culturally adhesive as language.  Aramaic had become the lingua franca of the world in part due to the fact that the Assyrian Empire had forcibly relocated so many Aramaic speakers across the known world, and also because the Babylonian dialect of Aramaic was the language of the succeeding Empire, Babylon, which expected their language to be used throughout their territories.  The Medo-Persians on the other hand had little interest in forcing their conquered peoples into using their language.  They allowed Aramaic, the existing linga franca, to be the medium through which all of their empire was governed, but even Aramaic was not enforced as a standard, but was merely used as a common medium for native communication.  Though the Medo-Persian kings didn't as a rule speak Aramaic, a corps of official translators was established which would translate rulings and other communications meticulously into Aramaic.  These would then either be delivered in that language in the many territories in which the language was already well understood, or translated into the languages of the peoples who had not assimilated to the Aramaic standard.

While it doesn't seem like much, it shows that the rulers of the Medo-Persian Empire were generally more interested in the raw securing of their power than in the infiltration of the various cultures over which they ruled, and that they reserved the vicious implementation of their regime to the former rather than the latter.  This also perhaps explains why this Empire was a bit weaker than its corollaries.  Beyond just language, it's clear that they eventually moved to accommodate some of the previously deposed cultures by showing some official respect to their attempts to retain their identities.  One king of Persia, Cyrus the Great (called in Hebrew "Koresh"), issued a document that some see as the first document guaranteeing human rights in the world.  Known in modern times as The Cyrus Cylinder, it is considered questionable by some to call it a human rights document, but it certainly does show that the Persian Empire under the rule of Cyrus freed a great many of the captive Babylonian slaves obtained from previously conquered nations, allowed a great many of them to return to their native lands and rebuild, and instituted one of the earliest known threads of religious and cultural tolerance.  This demonstrates that from the very beginning, this Empire took on a much more conciliatory role to the peoples that it conquered and over which it ruled.  One of the greatest examples of this approach, and another great example of the hand of Elohim performing miracles in the presence of his people, is in an act of reconciliation that demonstrated this interest in establishing the right of return within Medo-Persian ruling sensibilities, which occurred when the Empire made the decision to allow those Jews under its authority to return to Yahuda (Judea), and to rebuild Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) and the Heykal (Temple).  This act and its follow-through essentially reconstituted that part of the culture of the Jews which had withered during their captivity, and which ultimately continued to ensure their survival in the world not only as a distinct people, but as the People of the One Elohim.

The Story of Purim: Medo-Persian Holocaust Averted

But the return and rebuilding would take many many years, and things were not rosy for Jews throughout the Empire while this rebuilding was taking place.  The same disconnect from active cultural infiltration within the operation of the Empire that ensured their right of return seems to have also left the Government susceptible to machinations of those insiders who had learned how to game such a system.  One such individual is known as Haman the Agagite, an official who had gained very special favor within the court of the reigning Persian King Ahasuerus.  Haman was an anti-semite of the strongest flavor who had allowed himself to become incited against all Jews from a simple incident that he interpreted to be a slight against him by a Jew in the area known as Mordecai.  Haman had been given a special privilege by order of the King that everyone who saw him riding in the streets of the city on his horse should bow to him as he rode by.  Mordecai, however, would not comply, and though it was not explicitly stated why he refused, it's obvious the reason was that as a Jew, he would bow only before his Elohim and not before any man.  This failure to bow enraged Haman, and from that time on he had in his heart a plan to destroy Jews from the face of the Earth.  Since Jews had been given a special dispensation to return to their homeland and rebuild their religious city, religious place of worship, and very religious culture, Haman could not simply introduce his plan through direct identification of these peoples.  Instead, he had to work in his desires by subterfuge, something he was apparently very good at.  He laid charges of sedition for the Jews without naming them explicitly and the King readily agreed to allow the extermination of this people.  Haman then worked on the details to allow this to occur at special dates throughout the Empire selected by lots.

What Haman did not know is what Elohim was doing behind the scenes, almost invisibly, for the protection of his own people.  He had no idea for instance that through special circumstances that Haman himself had had some part in, King Ahasuerus had married a Jewish woman and even taken her as his favorite wife.  Neither of them knew that she was Jewish as she had not divulged her lineage.  What Haman also didn't know is that she was in fact the niece and previously the ward of Mordecai, the very man he intended to execute and from whose activities he had justified his machinations against the Jews in the first place.  He also did not apparently know that Mordecai had been instrumental only a short time before in saving the King's life by hearing of a planned assassination and then informing his niece, which in turn informed the King, which recognized Mordecai for giving him the information.

Mordecai saw Haman's plans and once again informed Esther, the niece who had become Queen, and she took it upon herself to risk death by going into the King uninvited to create a party for the King to which she insisted that Haman be invited.  Haman gleefully went to this party, believing he was receiving the Queen's favor at the hands of the King, and was in turn invited by the Queen to attend a second banquet along with the King.  Haman, believing that he is receiving special honors, runs off to make special plans for the Jew who had failed to bow before him, Mordecai, having built gallows specifically for his execution.  At this second banquet, Queen Esther exposed the plot at the dinner, insuring his demise.  King Ahasuerus being unable to rescind the previous order for the execution of the Jews (believed to be due to a quirk in Medo-Persian law in which such laws are permanent and unalterable), he issued orders allowing Jews in each area in which they were targeted to overtly defend themselves.  The result is that Jews were prepared to do so, and successfully carried out their defense each on the day of the designated extermination in the areas in which they resided.

Now the story is a bit more involved than this, and I've had to condense it in a way that simply cannot do justice to the whole.  You can read all of this in the Megillot, also known as the "Book of Esther" in Christian Bibles.  Given that Purim is in a few days, I encourage everyone to read this chapter in the Scriptures and become more familiar with these events in Jewish history.  Despite its serious subject matter, the story also takes on a bit of an undeniably comic tone.  It's hard not to smile at the hidden and mistaken identities, the twists and turns in the plot, and the seeming coincidences that thwart the villain Haman at every turn, presented in a comic style that could have been lifted from one of Mozart's opera buffa.  It would be hard, for instance, for anyone not to smile at least a little when Haman, realizing that he has been thwarted and effectively doomed, runs to the Queen and begs for his life, and in the intensity of his begging ends up on top of her in what would look to anyone like a compromising situation, only to have the King enter right at that moment, witness what he mistakes to be a sexual assault against his wife, and move to cement Haman's ultimate fate.  We read that portion here:
"The Sovereign (king), arising in his wrath from the feast of wine, went into the palace garden. And Haman remained before Sovereigness (Queen) Ester, pleading for his life, for he saw that evil had been decided against him by the Sovereign. And when the Sovereign returned from the palace garden to the place of the feast of wine, Haman was falling on the couch where Ester was. Then the Sovereign said, 'Will he also molest the Sovereigness while I am in the house?' As the word left the Sovereign’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face. And Harbonah, one of the eunuchs, said to the Sovereign, 'Also, see the stake, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai, who spoke good on behalf of the Sovereign, is standing at the house of Haman.' And the Sovereign said, 'Impale him on it!' And they impaled Haman on the stake that he had prepared for Mordecai, and the Sovereign’s wrath abated." (Megillot / Esther 7:7-10).
Ultimately, Haman was executed at the very gallows he had made for Mordecai.

So the Megillot is not only a very enlightening read with a very serious subject, but also a very entertaining read.  Most of all though, I love this scroll for one very important reason: Elohim is never once mentioned explicitly within it, neither by name nor by title nor by entity.  That would at first seem like a reason for a serious worshipper of Elohim to set the volume aside were it not for the obvious fact that Elohim is decidedly active throughout the book, though in a very hidden and non-explicit way.  The events in the story take place over many years, even possibly several decades, and throughout that time it is obvious that the powerful yet, in this case also very subtle Arm of Elohim is acting behind the scenes to ensure the survival of His People while in their exile, and to ensure that he keeps the "light" alive that he promised for the sake of his servant David.  When we read these events in condensed format, it's obvious to us that Elohim is involved, but imagine if we only saw these events in very tiny doses over many years.  Would any of us so clearly see His Hand working within the world around us to ensure our safety if we had to experience it not in a short ten chapters but in perhaps as many as ten or twenty years?  This story is a powerful reminder of how Elohim works in our lives and in the events of the world, even when His movements are so subtle and so invisible that we cannot fathom it until presented a summarized retrospective.  I believe Elohim inspired the text to be written like this on purpose to note to us the presence of his invisible arm in our lives.  The associated Jewish celebration that memorializes these events, known as Purim, is a wonderful time to remind ourselves of this basic fact, and renew our faith that Elohim saves us sometimes by invisible miracles.

Alexander the Great and the Greek Invasion

After these events, and well after the Medo-Persian Empire's allowance for Jews to return had resulted in a rebuilt Yerushalayim and Heykal and a general though somewhat incomplete return to that land from exile, Kingdoms once again changed hands, this time with the Greek Kingdom overcoming and supplanting the Medo-Persian Empire, primarily at the hands of Alexander the Great.

Alexander and the Greeks took a different tact than any of the previous empires in that its approach to subjugating conquered peoples. Their approach generally included conciliatory assimilation of the culture of the conquerors with the culture of the conquered.  Rather than attempting to undermine and destroy religious and ethnic ties by direct force, the Greeks sought to do so by accepting and absorbing them, and ultimately mixing their own religious concepts into those of their new subjects.  Certainly such assimilation had occurred before, but this planned approach to domination by dilution was never carried out so successfully in history as it was by the Greeks.  This worked for the Greek Empire so well with so many cultures mainly because these cultures were polytheistic themselves and had a long history of aforementioned voluntary forms of such assimilation.

The Egyptians for instance found it very easy to share their own gods and religious practices while adopting Greek gods and religious practices because the practice was not entirely new to them in the first place.  In fact, there was a common belief among Greeks that they took most of their culture, including their religion, from Egypt well before their Empire gained such dominance.  When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt during his Empire building campaign, the Egyptians almost certainly viewed him not as an invader but as a liberator.  Egypt's conservative nature had ironically caused it to be rebellious at the foreign invasion of the Medo-Persian Empire, which seemed to have no interest in really understanding or participating in Egyptian culture.  That Empire ran Egypt like a business, to get as much wealth and grain out of it as they could, which had caused both its rulers and its people to suffer horribly at Persian hands,  When Alexander the Great took Egypt from the Persians, he was freeing them in a sense from that rather harsh occupation.  Additionally, Alexander took the tact of appearing to be of the same blood and the same culture as the Egyptians.  He immediately sought to gain a mandate for his authority to rule Egypt by seeking out the Oracle of the Libyan form of the Egyptian god Ammon, named Amun by the Libyans.  The Oracle declared Alexander the "son of the Sun", and Alexander used this legally binding pronouncement to establish a divine kinship with the Egyptians, as well as to justify his position as the new "Pharoah".

However, Alexander came did not come into Yahuda (Judea) with the intent of being a liberator.  Rather, Josephus tells us that he had intentions to conquer and subdue, to pillage and destroy, due to what he considered to be overt disobedience of the Jews and other inhabitants of this area.   However, Elohim had other plans, as Jospehus tells us here:
"Now Alexander, when he had taken Gaza, hurried to go up to Jerusalem; and Jaddua the high priest, when he heard that, was in an agony, and under terror, as not knowing how he should meet the Macedonians, since the king was displeased at his foregoing disobedience.  He therefore ordained that the people should make supplications, and should join with him in offering sacrifice to God, whom he begged to protect the nation, and to deliver them from perils that were coming upon them; whereas God warned him in a dream, which came upon him after he had offered sacrifice, that he should take courage, and adorn the city, and open the gates; that the rest should appear in white garments, but that he and the priests should meet the king in the habits proper to their order, without the dread of any ill consequences, which the providence of God would prevent... And when he understood that he (Alexander) was not far from the city, he went out in procession with the priests and the multitude of the citizens.  The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different than that of other nations." (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book 11, Chapter 8, Sections 4-5)
Alexander seems to have taken the conciliatory gestures of the Cohen HaGadol (High Priest) as a sign that his presence was the will of the Elohim of Yisrael, as he had seem this very situation in a dream held before moving into the territory:
"And when the Phoenicians and the Chaldeans that followed him (Alexander) thought they should have liberty to plunder the city, and torment the high priest to death, which the king's displeasure fairly promised him, the very reverse of it happened; for Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereupon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high priest.  The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about; whereupon the kings of Syrian and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him to be disordered in his mind." (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book 11, Chapter 8, Sections 5)
Those with Alexander clearly had an intent to destroy what Elohim had allowed to be rebuilt, and Alexander himself also seems to have been intent on this.  Yet, when he saw the conciliatory gestures of the Cohen HaGadol (High Priest) and the other Cohenim (Priests), he relented, and accepted the gesture.  Clearly distraught, the Phoenicians and Chaldeans and perhaps many others within his Army wondered why he had shown such honor to the Cohen HaGadol, which to them appeared to be adoration.  Alexander replied to them:
"'I did not adore him, but that God who has honored him with his high priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how i might obtain the dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea there, for that he would conduct my army and would give me the dominion over the Persians; thus it is that, having seen no other in that habit, and now seeing this person in it, and remembering that vision, and the exhortation which I had in my dream, I believe that I bring this army under the divine conduct, and shall with it conquer Darius, and destroy the power of the Persians, and that all things will succeed according to what is in my own mind.'" (ibid)
So while Alexander sought to establish his legitimacy with the Egyptians by seeking out the approval of their deities, his experience with the Jews worked in very much the other direction.  He associated his divine mandate with a dream he had previously had in which he saw a deity promising him victory and dominion over Persians and the territories and peoples of their Empire.  Seeing the Cohen HaGadol appear to him in the very garb that he had seen in that dream seems to have caused him to believe that this dream had come from the Elohim of the Jews.  Alexander therefore had some conciliatory gestures of his own, as we continue to read:
"And when he went up into the temple, he offered sacrifice to God, according to the high priest's direction, and magnificently treated both the high priest and the priests.  And when the book of Daniel was showed to him wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that he himself was the person intended.  And as he was then glad, he dismissed the multitude for the present; but the next day he called them to him, and directed them to ask what favors they pleased of him; whereupon the high priest desired that they might enjoy the laws of their forefathers, and might pay no tribute on the seventh year.  He granted all they desired.  And when they entreated him that he would permit the Jews in Babylon and Media to enjoy their own laws also, he willingly promised to do hereafter what they desired." (ibid)
Alexander literally read prophecies referring to him and his deposition of the Medo-Persian Empire, further cementing his own belief that the Elohim of the Jews had in fact been directly involved in his victories.  So enamored was he with this realization, he granted the Jews the right to live under their own religion and laws within their territory and within other territories to which they had been deported, an arrangement that would seem to have precluded any planned cultural integration.  It seems obvious to me that Elohim had diffused a planned invasion, the viciousness of which would have been an incredible tragedy among His people, and He simultaneously diluted the Greek plans of diluting the operation of His Heykal and the execution of His Torah upon achieving victory.  It was a win-win situation for the Jews, but as well will continue to see, there would be future threats, and not all of them would be handled so gracefully.

The Story of Channukah: Surviving Greek Assimilation

Alexander the Great died rather unexpectedly, and as he left no successor, the Greek Empire he had made great was divided up into four Kingdoms, given to four of his generals.  These eventually split beyond merely four, and territory was often traded between them in the battles they fought with each other.  The Kingdom which ruled over Yahuda (Judea) and the territory of Yisrael was at this point in the story the Seleucid Kingdom.  Without Alexander there to honor his decree, its enforcement waned over time.  Greek resolve to integrate and absorb began to reassert itself, and while the Greek Empire's attempts to do this with the Jews never really panned out the way it did in other conquered territories.  It saw some success, and indeed did successfully corrupt the resolve of many of the Jews, but the approach never completely absorbed them into the Empire, nor the Empire into their hearts and minds.  Eventually, when the attempts to completely assimilate them into the Empire were seen as a failure, the Greek Empire would graduate from negotiated Hellenization to its more forceful sibling.

Well into this period of rule, the ruler of that Greek off-shoot Kingdom, one Antiochus IV Ephiphanes appointed an individual named Menelaus as the Cohen Hagadol (High Priest) to the Heykal, replacing existing Cohen Hagodol Jason.  Now dethroned, Jason took exception to this and with a military band of rebels, incited a riot within the city.  Menelaus had to flee the city and its riot to save his own life.  Once Antiochus heard what had occurred, he attempted to bring a "final solution" to what he obviously perceived to be an on-going "Jewish problem".  Antiochus decreed a law against the practice of the Jewish faith, entered into Yerushalayim, massacred large parts of the population indiscriminately, and corrupted the Heykal by placing a statue of the Greek god "Zeus" within it.  Reportedly, offerings of pigs were made to "Zeus" within the Heykal, and these events essentially defiled it.  He also decreed that Jews should be thus treated in neighboring cities where Jews were under their jurisdiction.  We read about most of this in these passages in the apocryphal books of the Maqqaboth (or Maccabees):
"When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.
"Antiochus ... appointed governors to cause trouble for the people. In Jerusalem he placed Philip, a man from Phrygia who was more evil than Antiochus himself. At Mount Gerizim he placed Andronicus. In addition to these, there was Menelaus, who mistreated his fellow Jews far worse than the governors did. Antiochus hated the Jews so much that he sent an army of 22,000 mercenary troops from Mysia to Jerusalem under the command of a man named Apollonius, with orders to kill every man in the city and to sell the women and boys as slaves. Apollonius arrived in Jerusalem, pretending to be on a peace mission. Then on a Sabbath, when all the Jews were observing the day of rest, he led his troops, who were fully armed, in a parade outside the city. Suddenly he commanded his men to kill everyone who had come out to see them. They rushed into the city and murdered a great many people.
"Not long after this the sovereign sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of [Elohim]; also to profane the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus, and that on Mount Gerizim to Zeus the Hospitable, as the inhabitants of the place requested... They also brought into the Temple things that were forbidden, so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the Torah. A man could not observe the Sabbath or celebrate the traditional festivals, nor even admit that he was a Jew. At the suggestion of the citizens of Ptolemais, a decree was issued ordering the neighboring Greek cities to act in the same way against the Jews: oblige them to partake of the sacrifices, and put to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks. It was obvious, therefore, that disaster impended. Thus, two women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall. Others, who had assembled in nearby caves to observe the Sabbath in secret, were betrayed to Philip and all burned to death." (2 Maqqaboth / 2 Maccabees 5:11–14, 5:21-26, 6:1-11).
This was an abomination "that makes desolate" for two reasons: the physical desolation of the inhabitants of the city with murder and slavery, and the spiritual desolation of the Heykal as it rendered it unsuitable for the duties of the Cohenim (Priests), and made the observance of the Torah nearly a capital offense.  Antiochus almost succeeded in stamping out the Jewish faith in the confines of its own traditional homeland and throughout his branch of the Greek Empire by these measures, more extreme than the normal Greek practices, and he would have been successful were it not for a group of rebels which came together in defensive protest to these decrees and activities.  We read a short bit about the origins of this group from the accounts of the Maqqaboth (Maccabees):  "But Yahuda Maqqabi and about nine others escaped into the barren mountains, where they lived like wild animals. In order not to defile themselves, they ate only plants which they found growing there." (2 Maqqaboth / 2 Maccabees 5:27).

This group of rebels was formed and initially led by a rural Jewish Priest named Mattathias the Hasmonean. Mattathias would die almost a year later, passing the baton of leadership to his son, Yahuda Maccabee.  He then led a successful revolt one year to the day when these events began.  The Heykal was cleansed and restored to its qodesh functions, the Jewish religious practices were restored, and for many years thereafter, the Jews had some independence from Greece.  This independence would end with the Roman conquests of the Qodesh Land about 100 years later.  These events, by the way, are the foundation of the celebration of the Jewish winter festival known as Channukah.  This particular attempt to wipe out Jewish culture by forced assimilation is literally full of miracles -- the defeat of a large and powerful branch of the Greek Empire by a ragtag group of Jewish rebels itself is almost too hard to believe were it not for the historical veracity of the story from more than strictly Jewish sources.

The Crusades: Building Blocks to the Holocaust

Yet another period in which Jews faced incredible odds against their survival was during the long period in which the Crusades were carried out by Western Christianity.  The Crusades are often viewed by many Christians, particularly Catholics, as a period of spiritual renewal, an attempt to reclaim the "Holy Land", and a period of overt Christian pilgrimage.  For Jews however the view of these times is very different, as it would be frankly for any group that suffered so horribly as a result of their operation.  The fervent preaching that led to the Crusades inevitably resulted in many pogroms against Jews, pogroms responsible for the murder of thousands.  The first of these became known as the "Rhineland massacres", carried out from the religious fervor generated as a prelude to the First Crusade of 1096 to 1099, but they certainly were not the last of such heavy persecutions, which sprung up in every major event in each successive Crusade.  As a result of these events, the Crusades are seen as a very long and bitter period in Jewish history in the Middle East, where both Karaite and Rabbinical Jews joined with Muslim forces to protect Yerushalayim from the invading Western forces, with many eventually committing suicide when faced with defeat, but they are especially dimly viewed in Europe, where Jews were systematically targeted and murdered by both Government and vigilante forces.

In a sense, the Crusades were a turning-point in the status of Jews throughout that continent, the beginning of a long decay of both the human rights of European Jews and relations between Jews and Christians throughout the world.  Many consider these events to have been preludes and building blocks towards the eventual Holocaust, and for good reason.  Wikipedia says this about the fate of European Jews, and general Christian-Jewish relations in the Crusades:
"The attacks were opposed by the local bishops and widely condemned at the time as a violation of the crusades aim, which was not directed against the Jews. However, the perpetrators mostly escaped legal punishment. Also, the social position of the Jews in western Europe distinctly worsened, and legal restrictions increased during and after the crusades. They prepared the way for anti-Jewish legislation of Pope Innocent III. The crusades resulted in centuries of strong feelings of ill will on both sides and hence constitute a turning point in the relationship between Jews and Christians."
While as that quote states, many Church authorities very likely opposed violence against the Jews as a part of these events, it is well attested that the fervent anti-semitism among not only commoners but many of high ranking authority prescribed a clear intention to proscribe Jewish lives to the altar of atonement for the death of "Jesus", to include Jewish persecution if not outright genocide, as a necessary aspect of the Crusades.  One of the most famous and infamous of the leaders of the First Crusade was the Frankish Knight Godfrey of Bouillon.  It is recorded that he insisted on "vowing to go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name 'Jew', thus assuaging his own burning wrath." (Racism: A Global Reader, Part 9: Racism Against the Internal Other, page 254, ed. Kevin Reilly, Stephen Kaufman, Angela Bodino).

It is indeed a great miracle that Jewish communities survived these events, especially given their depth to time and their span.  It is also a bit ironic that many Christian evangelists still to this day insist on using the term "Crusade" for their evangelistic meetings, even those which attempt to bring Jews to their way of thinking.  To the average Jew, it isn't a far cry from calling such an event a "Holocaust", especially given the popular view that the Crusades were long-term precursors to that devastating conclusion.  Christians often do this out of ignorance, not really understanding the horrible place in history the Crusades represent for so many Jews, but the information is so readily available that it's difficult to excuse the continued defiant and basically heartless use of the term to represent a meeting in which they claim to preach about the very Jewish Arm of Salvation they believe that they represent.

The Abomination that Makes Desolate

Though many attempted genocides of the Jews have been covered so far, one of the worst occurred very shortly after the time that Yeshua (Jesus) walked the Earth, yet is largely unknown or deemphasized among many Christians.  I am of course talking about the Roman Siege of Yerushalayim, and ultimately all of the land of Yisrael, which took place in the 70s C.E.  This is a photo of the "Burnt House", a remnant from the Old City of Yerushalayim of a Jewish home that was burned during that siege.  It is a stark reminder of a particular past holocaust-like event which almost led to the complete destruction of the Jews.

On several trips to Yerushalayim, I had wanted to visit this site, but circumstances prevented it.  I was finally able to visit it during Pesach (Passover) and Chag HaMatzah (Festival of Unleavened Bread) in 2014.  Though this site is very small, it is a priceless reminder of just how devastating the Roman siege of Yerushalayim was in the 70s C.E. It belonged to the Katros family, a family of Kohenim (Priests), responsible for carrying out the duties in the Heykal (Temple), which was also destroyed during this siege.  In fact, they were probably destroyed in the same fire, or within days of each other. As human bones were found here, it is believed that the members of the Katros family were likely killed before the burning; a set of arm and hand bones in particular were found right on one of the stone edifices visible below.

This is an image of plaques on the wall at the Burnt House which quote Josephus on this tragedy.

  1. "And so it was decreed that the righteous would be swept away with the wicked, and the city would be destroyed with the rebels."
  2. "And no one shed a tear at the tragedy, and no one eulogized the dead, because hunger had subdued all of their human emotions."
  3. "They piled mounds of corpses in the street and drenched the city with so much blood that in many places blood extinguished the flames."
The Heykal (Temple) was completely destroyed in this siege, reduced to nothing but rubble, it's qodesh treasures taken out as plunder, and any remainder set on fire.  This is, I believe, the tragedy that Yeshua (Jesus) told his talmidim (disciples) about when he sat on the Mount of Olives, shortly before the Pesach in which he gave his life:
"And Yeshua went away from the Qodesh place (Temple) and his Talmidim came to show him the buildings of the Qodesh place. And Yeshua said to them 'Do you see all of this? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another which will not be thrown down... So when you see the abomination that lays waste, spoken of by the Nabi Daniyel (Prophet Daniel), set up in the Qodesh place, then let those in the land of Yahuda (Judea) flee to the mountains... For then there will be great distress, the like of which has not been seen since the beginning of the world, no nor ever shall be. And if those days were not shortened no one would survive, but for the sake of the chosen ones, those days shall be shortened.'" (Mattityahu / Matthew 24:1-2, 15, 21-22).
This sequence of prophetic warnings is known within Christian circles as the "Olivet Prophecy", due to the fact that Yeshua gave the prophecy to his talmidim (disciples) while sitting on the Mount of Olives.  It has been the subject of speculation for the entire 2000 years since it was given.  Most have tried to fit those words into modern times, and certainly some part of it is intended to be a "time of the end" prophecy, but I am firmly convinced that at least the portion I quoted took place in the 70s C.E.  In that segment of Scripture, Yeshua points out that the prophecy given to Nabi Daniyel about the "abomination that lays waste", often called the "abomination of desolation", is something that many of these individuals he is speaking to directly, his talmidim, will actually witness, and his warnings are to them and to all those who believe in Yeshua because of their future work.  He makes this clear when he says "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."  (Mattityahu / Matthew 24:34).

Yeshua quotes the Nabi (Prophet) Daniyel here, and so the proper interpretation of his words depend on the proper interpretation of Daniyel's words.  Because Daniyel speaks of two abominations of desolation, one in one sequence of prophecy clearly referring to an event which took place during the reign of one of the branches of the Greek empire and which was previously described in this article, and another twice in two sequences of prophecy which reference a time later than the reign of the Greeks, the two are often compared and similar expectations are had about the latter based on the former.  In the former "abomination of desolation" that Daniyel refers to, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire outlawed the worship of YHWH and polluted the Heykal (Temple), and slaughtered many Jews in the process.  Certainly this first event is properly called an abomination that makes desolate, but Yeshua is referring in his case to the second event, not the first, which at the time he said these things was  yet to come, and which would be carried out ruthlessly by a much more determined foe: Rome.

The Roman Siege of Yerushalayim was hands-down one of the most bloody and destructive periods of war  in history.  Calling it even war is too generous to the Roman forces, as it operated more as an outright slaughter, a wanton act of blood lust.  A good article on this event can be found at History.Net and is entitled First Jewish-Roman War: Siege of Jerusalem, which had this to say about the level of carnage:
"When the last resistance in the city failed, the Romans slaughtered until their arms grew weary: Now devouring fire and quenching blood fought their own battle for control of the streets. The total Josephus gives for the dead in the siege — 1.1 million, or nearly half the Jews in Judea — may be somewhat less unlikely than most such stratospheric figures that survive from antiquity. The siege of Jerusalem was probably the greatest single slaughter in ancient history. Not only was the city sacked and burned, but Titus gave directions that what remained should be wholly demolished, except for a stretch of wall and some high towers that were left as a symbol to the world of Roman strength — and as a warning to anyone who might again defy the fury of the Romans."
Certainly an event of this magnitude of outright desolation is worthy of being called an "abomination that makes desolate".  But like the precedent set by the Greeks in their own siege of Yerushalayim centuries earlier, this one wouldn't stop at desolation of carnage and mere physical destruction.  The spiritual element of desolation also corresponds to the previous historic event from this article on titled The Destruction of the Temple:
"...the Temple was engulfed in flames. The Jews frantically tried to stop the fire, but were unsuccessful. In despair, many Jews threw themselves into the flames. The Roman soldiers rushed into the melee. Romans and Jews were crowded together, and their dead bodies fell on top of each other. The sound of screaming filled the air and the floor of the Temple was covered with bodies, with blood streaming down the steps. 
"The Romans brought idols into the Temple and offered sacrifices to it. They took the golden vessels of the Temple and killed everyone they found. Before the fire consumed the Temple completely, Titus entered the Holy of Holies and performed the most despicable acts. The still-surviving Jews in the Upper City could only watch as the Temple burned down to the foundations. It burnt well into the next day. 
"When the flames finally died down, left standing was the retaining wall on the western side of the Temple Mount. This is the Western Wall that still stands in Jerusalem today, where Jews over the centuries have gathered to pray."
Yeshua stated that the "time of trouble" would end for the sake of preserving the "elect".  The "elect" is a reference to the Jewish people as a whole in some sense, but especially would have included his followers at that time.  So based on Yeshua's words, if Rome had not ended the siege at some point, and the campaign had continued as it was in the same bloody and merciless fashion, it is possible that Jews as a race wouldn't be around today, including those original followers of Yeshua which included his talmidim.  So Yeshua's words that the shortening of the days was necessary to prevent this genocide are quite poignant.  One particular part of what Yeshua says in that prophecy also directly relates to these incidents: "And woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days." (Mattityahu / Matthew 24:19).  Those words are a lot more relevant than they might seem on the surface.  In fact, they are much more specific and far less general than they seem at first.  Josephus describes why I believe Yeshua stated such concern for expecting and nursing mothers in that time in one of his most haunting accounts from the tragedy:
"Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means 'House of Hyssop'). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved with the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such foods as she had been able to procure, was being carried by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was ever fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, 'My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueler than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of cold horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews.' With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on her at once, smelling roasted meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. She assured them she had saved them a share, and revealed the remains of her child. Seized with horror and stupefaction, they stood paralyzed at the sight. But she said, 'This is my own child, and my own handiwork. Eat, for I have eaten already. Do not show yourselves weaker than a woman, or more pitiful than a mother. But if you have pious scruples, and shrink away from human sacrifice, then what I have eaten can count as your share, and I will eat what is left as well.' At that they slunk away, trembling, not daring to eat, although they were reluctant to yield even this food to the mother. The whole city soon rang with the abomination. When people heard of it, they shuddered, as though they had done it themselves." (Josephus, The Jewish War, Book VI, 193-213).
How thankful we all should be that Elohim did indeed cut those days short, preventing the extinction of the elect under the most woeful of circumstances.

A Lamp Forever

Many years ago, when YHWH decided that the Northern Kingdom of Yisrael would become what we now know as the "Ten Lost Tribes" by going into a captivity with the Assyrians and a long-term amnesia as to their historic identity that hasn't yet ended these more than two millenia since, He showed mercy to the Southern Kingdom of Yahudah and spared them and the city of Yerushalayim.  Even when they were eventually conquered and taken into captivity, He allowed them to retain their identity among the nations, unlike their Northern brothers.  His reasons for this were made clear time and again within the Tanakh, but particularly in this passage:
"And in the fifth year of Yehoram son of Ahab sovereign of Yisra’el – Yehoshaphat was sovereign of Yahudah – Yehoram son of Yehoshaphat began to reign as sovereign of Yahudah. He was thirty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eight years in Yerushalayim. And he walked in the way of the sovereigns of Yisra’el, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. And he did evil in the eyes of YHWH. However, YHWH would not destroy Yahudah, for the sake of David His servant, as He promised him to give a lamp to him and his sons forever."
 (2 Melakim / 2 Kings 8:16-19).
YHWH made a binding covenant with David forever, one that He promised would remain forever, which stated that he would have a dynasty among his people forever, a son who would always be fit to rule, and a people to be led.  Even when Yahudah finally went into captivity by the hand of the Chaldeans for the sins of its people, YHWH remained with them, and allowed them to return a shorter time later under Medo-Persian rule.  When they went into their deeper exile after Rome's later assaults against them, YHWH allowed them to be subjected to further persecutions and attempts to destroy them, but all of them failed; this particular remnant of Yisrael never lost their identity.

And this difference between the two was performed by YHWH with a specific purpose in mind.  No exile will last forever.  As YHWH declares, there will be a time when all of Yisrael, from all the nations where they were scattered, both the descendants of Northern Yisrael and Southern Yahudah, will be gathered from all around the Earth in a second Exodus.  This will permanently heal the breach between the outcasts of Yisrael and the disbursed of Yahudah, and the entire world will come under the Reign of the living Elohim!  This worldwide Exodus will will make the first Exodus from Mitsrayim (Egypt) look like a minor historical hiccup by comparison.  And that charge will be led by none other than the seed of David, the "root of Yishai (Jesse)", the Mashiach (Messiah):
"'Therefore I shall gather the remnant of My flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and shall bring them back to their fold. And they shall bear and increase. And I shall raise up shepherds over them, and they shall feed them. And they shall fear no more, nor be discouraged, nor shall they be lacking,' declares YHWH. 'See, the days are coming,' declares YHWH, 'when I shall raise for David a Branch of righteousness, and a Sovereign shall reign and act wisely, and shall do right-ruling and righteousness in the earth. In His days Yahudah shall be saved, and Yisrael dwell safely. And this is His Name whereby He shall be called: "YHWH our Righteousness."  Therefore, see, the days are coming,' declares YHWH, 'when they shall say no more, "As YHWH lives who brought up the children of Yisrael out of the land of Mitsrayim (Egypt)," but, "As YHWH lives who brought up and led the seed of the house of Yisrael out of the land of the north and from all the lands where I had driven them." And they shall dwell on their own soil.'" (Yirmeyahu / Jeremiah 23:3-8) 
"And in that day there shall be a Root of Yishai, standing as a banner to the people. Unto Him the gentiles shall seek, and His rest shall be esteem. And it shall be in that day that YHWH sets His hand again a second time to recover the remnant of His people who are left, from Ashshur and from Mitsrayim, from Pathros and from Kush, from Eylam and from Shin'ar, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. And He shall raise a banner for the nations, and gather the outcasts of Yisrael, and assemble the dispersed of Yahudah from the four corners of the earth. And the envy of Ephrayim shall turn aside, and the adversaries of Yahudah be cut off.   Ephrayim shall not envy Yahudah, and Yahudah not trouble Ephrayim... And YHWH shall put under the ban the tongue of the Sea of Mitsrayim (Egypt), and He shall wave His hand over the River with the might of His Spirit, and shall smite it in the seven streams, and shall cause men to tread it in sandals. And there shall be a highway for the remnant of His people, those left from Ashshur, as it was for Yisrael in the day when he came up from the land of Mitsrayim (Egypt)." (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 11:10-14, 16)
Elohim has kept a lamp alive for David, and for Abraham, Yitshaq, and Ya'akov, and someday all men of goodwill and with the fear of Elohim will benefit from it when the promise of the Seed of David will come to complete fruition.

Final Note

For a good explanation of Daniyel's prophecies about the "Abomination of Desolation", and Yeshua's "Olivet Prophecy", I recommend Todd Bennett's book The Final Shofar, which is available in print and as an eBook.  This is the final book in his 12 volume "Walk in the Light" series, a series that I have benefited from immensely over the past five years.

1 comment :

  1. It is hard to find all that was brought out in your article. Thank you for a well written and concise element of truth in the History of the Jewish people.