|In which Mattathias hates his state and enjoys his family: Part One|
It is the privilege of many old people - and I confess that I am no more a young man - to feel that the times in which they live are times of trouble. There are countless occasions when people my age have said that "things are going downhill", or that "things are not what they used to be", and more often than not it is possible to dismiss such sentiments as the sentimental ramblings of old men whose time has passed. No one likes to accept that it is time to retire and to accept that power and authority have passed to another - perhaps more able - generation. I have learnt many things in my life and that is one of them.
But in the last years things really have gone from bad to worse. There have long been new winds blowing in the country and these winds are not just cold and uncomfortable, they are downright menacing. There is evil in the nation already for a number of years and it is quite unlike anything that we have faced for centuries. This threat is new.
In my youth, I still can remember my father taking me to the Temple for the holidays - my father was like me, a priest from the country who visited Jerusalem on a regular basis - and l remember the glory of what I saw. We were proud of the Temple then and of the priestly family who had occupied the high priestly position for generations. But that changed years ago; why, for many years those who have sat on the seat of the high priest have prostituted themselves to the rulers. They are not legitimate rulers - it is almost blasphemy to call these men priests of God. It is a sign of the times in which we live and it bodes very badly. Something is happening; we people of Judah are losing control of our lives. We are at the mercy of forces bigger than us and at this point, it must be said, from appearances, God is in hiding. We do not see his face.
For centuries we did control our lives. Political control, independence - no, these were things ofthe past from the time before our punishment, in Babylon. But we had no need for them. We do not need these outer garments of power as long as we have real control of what is important to us. And that we had. All of our rulers allowed us our freedom on matters dear to us. We controlled our approach to God; our priestly families were honoured both by their own people and by the powers that ruled us. Initially it was the Persians for many generations. They let us come back from the exile and rebuild our Temple and under their rule we prospered and expanded.
Even when their rule was replaced by the rule of the Macedonian, Alexander, the one they call 'the Great', the situation remained the same. We acknowledged another earthly power in order to secure freedom to follow a higher power in our own way. Looking back, we see then the beginning of all our problems but that is to view a situation with hindsight. We did not know it then. After Alexander's death, we were ruled by the powers that ruled after him, first by the Ptolemies from Egypt and then by the house of Seleucus from Antioch in the north, and even under these rulers, we seemed to have our freedoms and our privileges intact.
But the fact is that underneath the surface, evil things were creeping. These last leaders, from Alexander on, brought new and strange ideas, ideas which have no place in our area, in the east at all. We in the orient have long developed our own ways of looking at the world, and despite the fact that we oppose our neighbours on many things including their foolish systems of gods, we do share many assumptions about the world that have developed over thousands of years of mutual contact. But not with these latter rulers.
They have brought in new ideas and new fashions which have no place here in the east. Their way of life is foreign; it developed elsewhere in the distant lands of the west, in the place that they call Greece. They bring the ideas of what they call 'philosophy' and 'science' - strange words these whose like we never knew before and they insist that they have a higher, a better, a more 'advanced' way of seeing the world and understanding it.
If they left us to ourselves they could keep their mistaken notions and we would not care. But in recent years they have started to spread these ideas with a crusading zeal, insisting that others ought to recognise their truths. The worst thing is that many of our people have begun to follow these lies and blasphemies. In the cause of 'modernity', in the cause of 'progress' they go away from our world- view and there are even those who are going away from our way of approaching God.
Nothing is clear to me. Have our ideas not served us faithfully since antiquity, since father Abraham? Then our ideas were modern; then they were the basis of a whole revolution; we were the first to recognise the living God. We are still the only ones who do so. But suddenly our youngsters are filled with a feeling of inferiority; they will only be accepted if they abandon our time-proved traditions and run after these alien ways. But when was it ever important to be acceptable to anyone else but ourselves and our God?
Some thirty years already, Jerusalem, our great and beloved city has changed beyond all recognition. It is filled up with alien institutions unfamiliar even in the days of my youth. There is what is called a 'theatre' and an 'amphitheatre'; there is a 'gymnasium' a place for sport and for what they call 'education'; God help the world if that is the way to bring a child up in the world. We have brought up our children with wisdom for hundreds of years. Now, we have to see them sport naked, revealing their shame to the world in the name of a better way of life?
Even the priests of Jerusalem are infected by this terrible shame. It is aid that many of them finish their work in the Temple and go off to the gymnasium! In fact, Jerusalem has become a symbol of whoring after other ways of life. One day it will become a place where other gods are worshipped.
The rulers are oppressive; they replace the high priest at their whim, selling the office to he who bids the most. The evil king Antiochus, wh has ruled for several years now, went into the Temple and stole its treasures for his war treasury. Things like this have never been.
There is a new rumour abroad now, though in these times one knows not what to think. A rumour that our way of approaching God - our sacrifices, our laws of purity, our circumcision mark of covenant - are to be outlawed. Even for this king that would be hard to believe.
Too many would be opposed; it would require too great an army to suppress our People's wrath if that was to be the case. I look at my sons, five strong boys, faithful to God and to their People. They are not alone; men like them would never bow down before an alien god. And there are many like that throughout our country towns. Jerusalem might be lost; it might no longer be God's city. Its people and its priests might have become its whores and harlots, but there still beats a stubborn pride in the heart of the rest of the people. They will not bow down. The banner of revolt will be flown in this country; not because of Jerusalem, but despite that corrupt city.
As mentioned in the last passage the times in Jerusalem really were a changing. Hundreds of years of generally peaceful development in which the whole community of Judah prospered under the self-government given them by the Persians, had been called into question in the last part of the fourth century b.c.e. when the direction of history suddenly changed.
Till then the Orient had been fairly self-enclosed with cultural and social developments being influenced by the dominant power in north- east Africa, Egypt and by the great eastern powers that rose and fell, such as Assyria, Babylon and Persia within the biblical period. But with the rise of Alexander the Great, new influences suddenly blew in fronm the west, from Europe, carrying with them the fruits of the glorious period of Greek cultural development of the previous centuries. The Greek cultural influences were championed or used by a whole host of state leaders in the ensuing centuries. These were men who traced themselves back to those generals of Alexander who seized power after the break-up of his empire after a very brief period. We call them the Hellenists and it was with them that we enter the period of the spread of Greek culture throughout the east, including Judah.
That influence started to make itself felt among the people of Judah near the end of the third century b.c.e. It is then that we start to see a new kind of Jew emerging, a liberal cosmopolitan who was only too happy to embrace the new cultural trends. Greek cultural, educational and recreational institutions began to appear in the major city of Jerusalem, where there was a rich worldly upper class to whom the attraction of the new ideas was very strong. Among certain sections of the population, including the sophisticated Jerusalem priesthood, Hellenistic ideas were turning into the rage.
At this point the lines between loyal Jews who had been attracted to certain cultural aspects of the Hellenistic world-outlook that they felt to be compatible still with a loyal Jewish lifestyle and others who were accepting the whole package deal, values, religious ideology and all were beginning to become blurred. It is this state of affairs that the author of the first book of Maccabees described in these words.
In those days there arose out of Israel lawless men who persuaded many, saying; "Let us go and make a treaty with the heathen around us, for ever since the time we became separated from them, many misfortunes have overtaken us."
The plan seemed good in their eyes and some of the people went eagerly to the king and he authorised them to introduce the practices of the heathen. And they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, in the heathen fashion, and submitted to uncircumcision, and disowned the holy agreement; they allied themselves with the heathen and became the slaves of wrongdoing.
First Book of Maccabees; chapter 1
It was the beginning of a cultural war among the Jewish people.
We suggest a two-layered exercise to examine the question of Hellenism and its relevance for today.
The first part is a trial in which one or more Jews from the period is accused of disloyalty to the Jewish people, the proof being the adoption of certain aspects of the Hellenistic lifestyle.
The second part of the activity is a modern trial where several of the group have to defend themselves against exactly the same charge.
Chapter Five of "Jerusalem Journeys", Dreams, Dilemmas and Decisions of Jewish Leaders by Steve Israel,
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Chapter Five of "Jerusalem Journeys", Dreams, Dilemmas and Decisions of Jewish Leaders by Steve Israel,