230 BC to 210 BC, Psalm 36: The hippodrome.

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elephants-shutterstock_423766030This generation is that of the years between 230 BC and 210 BC.

This generation is marked by the reign of King Lagide Ptolemy IV Philopator (221 BC, 205 BC). During his reign, he again managed to defeat the Seleucids led by Antiochius III in the battle of Raphia (217 BC). Among the texts relating to this period we can quote the apocryphal texts (for the old and the New Testament) III Maccabees.
Following his victory at Raphia, Ptolemy IV Philopator finds himself in Jerusalem:
  • Having [1] vanquished this attempt (- a [2] character named Theodotus had tried to murder him –), the king (Ptolémée IV Philopator) then decided to proceed to the neighbouring cities, and encourage them.
  • By doing this, and by making donations to their temples, he inspired his subjects with confidence.
  • The Jews sent some of their council and of their elders to him. The greetings, guest- gifts, and congratulations of the past, bestowed by them, filled him with the greater eagerness to visit their city.
  • Having arrived at Jerusalem, sacrificed, and offered thank-offerings to the Greatest God, and done whatever else was suitable to the sanctity of the place, and entered the inner court,
  • he was so struck with the magnificence of the place, and so wondered at the orderly arrangements of the temple, that he considered entering the sanctuary itself.And when they told him that this was not permissible, none of the nation, no, nor even the priests in general, but only the supreme high priest of all, and he only once in a year, being allowed to go in, he would by no means give way.
  • Then they read the law to him; but he persisted in obtruding himself, exclaiming, that he ought to be allowed: and saying « Be it that they were deprived of this honour, I ought not to be ».
  • And he put the question, Why, when he entered all the temples, none of the priests who were present forbad him?He was thoroughly answered by some one, That he did wrong to boast of this.
  • Well; since I have done this, said he, be the cause what it may, shall I not enter with or without your consent?
  • And when the priests fell down in their sacred vestments imploring the Greatest God to come and help in time of need, and to avert the violence of the fierce aggressor, and when they filled the temple with lamentations and tears,
The attitude of Ptolemy IV Philopator against the Jews, who were initially his allies, aggravated by the later attacks that we will describe below is illustrated by the beginning of the Psalm:

(extract of the psalm 36 associated to this generation, verses 1 to 5 )

  • For the conductor. Of the servant of the Lord, of David.
  • The word of the transgression to the wicked man, in the midst of my heart, is that there is no fear of God before his eyes.
  • For it smoothed the way before him in his eyes, to find his iniquity to hate [him].
  • The words of his mouth are iniquity and deceit; he refrained from learning to improve.
  • He thinks iniquity on his couch; he stands on a way that is not good; he does not reject evil.
Struck with a sudden paralysis, the impious king collapses on the ground in front of the door of the Temple. Back in Egypt, Philopator decides to take revenge on the Jews. He promulgates a decree engraved on a column near the tower of his palace.
Dyonisos Fotolia_37495189_Subscription_Monthly_M annoteThe decree, which seems to be addressed primarily to the Jews of Alexandria, proclaims that none of them will be able to go to the holy places – they are synagogues – if they do not sacrifice to Dionysus. The Jews will be counted to suffer a lapse in their status and will be branded with the sign of the ivy leaf, emblem of Dionysus; however, those who voluntarily accept to adhere to the worship of this god, will be spared and will receive citizenship in Alexandria.
Some of them obeyed, but the vast majority refused.
Irritated by this refusal, the king will extend the anti-Jewish measures to the entire diaspora of Egypt. He can count on the support of some of his subjects who reproach the Jews for their religious particularism. He addresses to the local authorities of the kingdom an order (prostagma) in which, after summarizing the events since his campaign in Asia – a good opportunity to oppose his greatness of soul to the perfidy of the Jews – he orders that these be sent to Alexandria with women and children to undergo the supreme punishment which is appropriate to the traitors.
the figure shows a warrior with a spear on the elephantRebel Jews are guilty of preparing a plot against royal power.
Once punished, the king hopes, the kingdom will again enjoy perfect tranquility and a state of prosperity. Whoever hides a Jew, young or old, including infants in their mothers, will be put to death with all his family. Any house in which a hidden Jew is found will be delivered to the flames. On the other hand, those who denounce the guilty will receive two thousand drachmas from the royal treasury and will be able to count on other rewards: Dionysian honors or freedom for the informer if he is a slave.
The Jews are gathered at a hippodrome near Alexandria where five hundred drunken elephants have to trample on them in order to execute them before Philopator can return to Judea to burn the Temple of Jerusalem. It was then that an old man named Eleazar, descended from a priestly family, rises from among the Jews gathered to implore the Lord.
This prayer expressing the faith of the Jews in their God even in the most tragic moments is illustrated by the following of the Psalm, where the evocation of the beasts is not without recalling the imminent threat represented by the elephants:

(extract of the psalm 36 associated to this generation, verses 6 and 7 )

  • O Lord, Your kindness is in the heavens; Your faith is until the sky.
  • Your charity is like the mighty mountains; Your judgments are [like] the vast deep. You save both man and beast, O Lord.
This prayer does not remain without effect. God intervenes to save the captives of the hippodrome.
Although the text of III Maccabees was presumably written late, and therefore well after the facts cited, it is likely that this text is based on real facts recounted by texts now lost. The facts are surely authentic, the elephants had to turn against their masters, but it is likely that if angels intervened, they remained invisible.
In any case, the nature of the story when the miracle that saved the Jews from extermination and allowed King Philopator to return to normal relations with the Jews of his kingdom is illustrated by the end of the psalm:

(extract of the psalm 36 associated to this generation, verses 8 to 13 )

  • How precious is Your kindness, O God, and the sons of man will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.
  • They will be sated from the fat of Your house, and with the stream of Your delights You give them to drink.
  • For with You is the source of life; in Your light we will see light.
  • Extend Your kindness to those who know You, and Your charity to the upright of heart.
  • Let the foot of haughtiness not come with me, neither shall the hand of the wicked cause me to wander.
  • There the workers of iniquity have fallen; they have been thrust away and were unable to rise.

 

 

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[1] MACCABEES III, Chapitre 1, versets 6 à 16

[2] See III Maccabees, Chapter 1, verses 2 and 3