110 BC to 90 BC, Psalm 42: Alexander Jannaeus.

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040.The_Death_of_Korah,_Dathan,_and_AbiramThis generation is that of the years between 110 BC and 90 BC.

This generation covers the end of the reign of John Hyrcanus (134 BC / 104 BC), the short reign of Aristobulus I (104 BC / 103 BC) son of Jean Hyrcanus and the beginning of that of Alexander Jannaeus ( 103 BC / 76 BC) son of Jean Hyrcanus and brother of Aristobule I.
Before placing the psalm itself in relation to its generation, we must first look at the title of it.
We are at the beginning of the second book of psalms which marks a break with the first series of psalm, and this psalm is the first attributed to an author other than David himself. This one is indeed « signed » of the sons of Korah. We will first remember who Korah was and try to understand why he is involved in this psalm.

Botticcelli,_Sandro_-_The_Punishment_of_Korah_and_the_Stoning_of_Moses_and_Aaron_-_1481-82Korah is the one who organized the rebellion against Moses and Aaron challenging that all powers be acquired. In fact, Moses and Aaron combined the two powers, the political power (Moses) and the religious power (Aaron).

However, strong of his irreproachable behavior, Moses did not hesitate to put himself in the balance to spare his people from the divine vengeance, in spite of the bonds of fraternity with Aaron he preserved the balance of the pair of the powers.
Subsequently, until this generation, political power and religious power have always been separated:
  • Joshua had political power while Eleazar took care of the divine,
  • During the conquest of the land of Israel, the « judges » succeed one another at the head of the people of Israel while the religious power is concentrated in Silo outside the intrigues of power,
  • The first king of Israel, Saul, is associated with Samuel who takes charge of the religious dimension,
  • His successor David is associated in turn with Nathan who does not fail to remind him of his homework,
  • Solomon is associated with Azaryahu who is in charge of high priest,
And so on until the destruction of the first Temple.
When returning to the land of Israel, once again the pontifical office was independent of the governmental office. Upon the arrival of the Maccabean dynasty, the separation of powers was less clear, but until the generation that interests us none of the successors of Mattathias had dared to proclaim himself king thus avoiding the official accumulation of priestly and royal powers .

Aristobulus-IThis balance of powers is broken, in the generation that interests us, which is the one associated with the first psalm of the second book of Psalms, by Aristobulus who is crowned king. Thus, a descendant of Aaron, of the lineage of the high priests officially takes the political power in Israel thus coming to justify a few centuries later the fears emitted by Korah.

But if Korah could not avoid death during his rebellion against Aaron and Moses, his descendants were spared and occupy a special place in the history of the people of Israel. The descendants of Korah, the sons of Korah, were among the first to join David’s cause when he tried to resist Saul.
All of these facts justify the intervention of the sons of Korah in the story of the generations of the people of Israel and the specific title of this psalm:
(extract of the psalm 42 associated to this generation, verse 1 – title of the psalm – )
  • For the conductor, a maskil of the sons of Korah.
All these facts justify the intervention of the sons of Korah in the story of the generations of the people of Israel and the specific mention of this psalm: « For the conductor, a maskil of the sons of Korah« .
It is still the sons of Korah who will recite the following psalms.
Explicitly for Psalms forty-four to forty-nine since quoted as authors in prologue of each of these psalms. Implicitly for the next Psalm, Psalm 43, since no author will be quoted. We will see for this psalm that the fact that no author is quoted simply means that it is in the logical sequence of present psalm since it is interested in the second part of the long reign of Alexander Jannaeus.
We had already had this principle of « consecutive psalms » for Psalms nine and ten, which were also marked by the long reign of King Ouzzia.
The psalm forty-nine that ends this series of psalms recited by the sons of Korah is the last psalm of the first watch of the night, the last psalm where the Jewish people live in the presence of the Temple, in the presence of the priesthood of the high priest who officiate at the Temple in accordance with the prescriptions of Leviticus.
This last psalm will be the one of the last generation to undergo a curse evoked in Leviticus.
The sons of Korah who have just spoken to initiate the second book of Psalms and to accompany the planned destruction of the Temple can only evoke the painful future of the Jewish people outside this Temple, that is to say after that one will be destroyed at the fiftieth generation and that the Jewish people will thus return in the second watch of the night.
The first watch, if it was terrible for the Jewish people, had the advantage by the presence of the Temple to keep a strong bond between God and his people.
For the second watch, this link, at least in appearance, will be destroyed. If in the first watch, the Jewish people often failed to be destroyed, their bond with God had never really been challenged by their enemies.
By proclaiming himself king, Aristobulus weakens the role of the high priest and thus increases the importance of Jewish sects such as the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes who no longer need to be associated with the priesthood to make followers. If all these sects, and more particularly that of the Pharisees, will help the survival of Judaism in the synagogues outside the Temple, they will be a breeding ground for the appearance of Christianity. This one helped by the Roman power which already marks his hegemony will denigrate quickly Judaism. It will be the same for Islam a few centuries later.
The second book of psalms that integrates the generations of the destruction of the second Temple also incorporates the final dispersion of the Jewish people into the nations. Nations which, around the other two monotheistic religions that are Christianity and Islam, will appropriate the worship of the only God considering the Jewish people as the chosen people – or at least the people having been elected – but also as a people fallen, abandoned by his God.
It is therefore in this global perspective of the future of the Jewish people that we must interpret the beginning of the psalm of our generation:

(extract of the psalm 42 associated to this generation, verses 2 to 4 )

  • As a hart cries longingly for rivulets of water,  
    • As we have already indicated (Psalm 22), the hart symbolizes God in his relationship with his people. He has moved away from his people, but this is not definitive, and God will eventually forgive his people and come closer to them. In this context, the stream symbolizes the passage of time and therefore the future times when God will remember his people.
  • so does my soul cry longingly to You, O God.
  • My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when will I come and appear before God?
  • My tears were my bread day and night 
    • The sons of Korah, who speak in the name of the people, look forward to this time of reunion with God. Because during the long night of the Jewish people, this one suffers long suffering. Day and night, because the psalms of Korah evoke the generations of the night but are inspired during the stay in the cave of Adulam, when the Jewish people is not yet in the night, so still in the day
  • when they say to me all day long, « Where is your God? »  
    • This mocking question will be the lot of the Jews throughout the end of the night from the nations among whom they will stay.

Aristobulus, the son of Hyrcanus, who had just proclaimed himself king, was the victim of a conspiracy to believe that his brother Antigone wanted to take his place. He had him killed. This crime disturbed Aristobulus:

  • Aristobulus [1] soon was touched by such repentance for having taken away his brother’s life as his illness did not increase much. He reproached himself continually for having committed so great a crime; and her grief was so violent that she made him vomit a lot of blood. As one of his officers prevailed, it happened, as I believe by divine permission, that he let himself fall and spread some of it to the same place where the traces of the blood of Antigonus still appeared. Those who saw him, thinking that he was doing it on purpose, uttered such a loud cry that he was heard from the king. He asked them the cause; and no one said it to him, he desired even more to know it, because men naturally enter into distrust of what they try to hide from them, and imagine it worse than it is. Thus Aristobulus compelled them by his threats to tell them the truth: and she made such a strong impression on his mind that, after having shed many tears, he said with a deep sigh: « It seems that I have not been able to hide from God such a detestable action, since he is exercising his just vengeance against me. Until when will this miserable body retain my criminal soul? and is it not better to die all at once, than to shed my blood thus by drop, to offer it as a sacrifice of atonement to the memory of those to whom I so cruelly lost my life? ? In finishing these words, he died, having only reigned a year.
Aristobulus, who had all the honors of the priesthood, deviated by proclaiming himself king.
This attitude was detrimental to him since it led him to kill his own brother, and then took him to death in a just repentance action.
This is what the continuation of the psalm expresses:

(extract of the psalm 42 associated to this generation, verse 5 and first part of verse 6 )

  • These things I will remember, and I will pour out my soul [because of the pain which is] upon me, how I passed on with the throng; I walked slowly with them until the house of God with a joyful shouting and thanksgiving, a celebrating multitude.
  • Why are you downcast, my soul, and why do you stir within me?

Alexander_JannaeusHis successor, Alexander Jannaeus then takes power. Aristobulus, in his short reign, had, by his military action, made it possible to consolidate the frontiers of Judea. Alexander Jannaeus will continue in this way. He attacked the coastal cities, Ptolemais and Gaza, which still escaped the control of Judea.

Kleopatra_VII_croppedThis struggle led to the intervention of foreign forces, particularly Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt, and Ptolemy, who fled to Cyprus after being driven out of Egypt by Cleopatra. This resulted in Ptolemy turning against Judea and devastating her.

The battles engaged by Alexander Jannaeus, because of his hazardous political choices, proved deadly for the Jews:
  • Ptolemy [2] willingly made an alliance with Alexander, and arrested Zoe (who had made himself master of a city and coveted Ptolemais). But when he learned that this prince (Alexander) had secretly sent his mother to the queen, he broke with him, and besieged Ptolemais, who, as we have seen, had refused to receive him. He left some of his leaders with some of his forces to continue this siege, and went with the rest to ravage Judea. Alexander, on his side, assembled to oppose him an army of fifty thousand men, or according to others of eighty thousand, and Ptolemy, having one Sabbath day unexpectedly attacked the city of Azoth in the Galilee. He took it by storm and took ten thousand slaves with booty. After Ptolemy Latur had taken Azoth by force, he went to Sephoris, which is not far off, and gave an assault, but he was repulsed with great loss; and instead of continuing this siege, he went out to meet Alexander, King of the Jews, and met him near Asoph, who was near the Jordan, and encamped opposite him. […] The Jews, astonished at this change (after having had the advantage, the battle turns to the advantage of Ptolemy) and seeing no help from any of them, fled and all the others following their example. The enemies pursued them so violently and made such carnage that they did not stop killing until they were tired of striking. The number of deaths was thirty thousand; and according to Tymagene’s report of fifty thousand. The rest of the army was captured or saved by flight.
  • In consequence of so great a victory and such a long pursuit, Ptolemy retired in the evening in some towns of Judea, and finding them full of women and children, he commanded his soldiers to slaughter them, to to put them in pieces and throw them into boilers of boiling water, so that when the Jews escaped from the battle would come to this place they would believe that their enemies ate human flesh and conceive of them by this means a greater fright.
The beginning of the reign of Alexander justifies the continuation of the psalm declined by the sons of Korah:

(extract of the psalm 42 associated to this generation, second part of verse 6 and verses 7 and 8 )

  • Hope to God, for I will yet thank Him for the salvations of His presence. 
    • Even though the fate of the Jews of Judea is not enviable, the sons of Korah keep their trust in God.
  • My God, my soul is downcast upon me; therefore, I will remember You from the land of Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from the young mountain.
    • These places are the theater of the terrible battles suffered by the Jews of Judaea to this generation.
  • Deep calls to deep to the sound of Your water channels; all Your breakers and waves passed over me. 
    • The unfortunate fate of the Jews of Judea will not be enough, because Alexander Jannaeus will turn against his own people in turn making many victims.
The devotion of the sons of Korah will not make them lose hope in God. Their global vision of the future of the Jewish people through the generations of the night makes them glimpse of the many misfortunes that will befall him and the outrageous attitude of nations towards him.
But these visions also make them see that at the end of this night, God will return to his people who will thus forget all the cries of the night, whether they be those of this generation or those of the next ones.
This is the object of the end of the psalm:

(extract of the psalm 42 associated to this generation, verses 9 to 12 )

  • By day, may the Lord command His kindness, and at night, may His resting place be with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
  • I will say to God, my Rock, « Why have You forgotten me? Why should I walk in gloom under the oppression of the enemy? »
  • With murder in my bones, my oppressors have reproached me by saying to me all day long, « Where is your God? »
  • Why are you downcast, my soul, and why do you stir within me? Hope to God, for I will yet thank Him for the salvations of my countenance and my God.

 

 

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[1] Flavius Josephus / Jewish Antiquities / Book thirteenth / chapter 19. (French: Flavius Josèphe/Antiquités Juives/Livre treizième/chapitre 19 )

[2] Flavius Josephus / Jewish Antiquities / Book thirteenth / chapters 20 and 21. (French: Flavius Josèphe/Antiquités Juives/Livre treizième/chapitres 20 et 21 )