510 AD to 530 AD, Psalm 73: Dsou-Nowas.

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Egnazio_Danti_-_Arabian_penisula_-_Google_Art_ProjectThis generation is that of the 510s and 520s.

To this generation, the West is now only represented by Byzantium while waiting for the nation states of Europe to take their place in history. For Byzantium, this geometry is associated with the end of the reign of Anastase (1st (491-518) and the beginning of that of Justin 1st (518-527).
The reign of Anastasius is marked above all by the struggle between Orthodoxy and the Monophysites, of which Anastase was, moreover, partisan. His successor Justin strengthens orthodoxy and, under the imprint of Justinian, his nephew and future emperor, begins the turning of the empire to a new glorious era.
Meanwhile, in Persia, it is still Qobad who reigns during this generation (498-531), occupied in defending his northern borders against the Huns, after the agreements with Byzantium were broken and then reestablished.
But in the East, history is written elsewhere during this generation.
Precursory events in the wake of Islam are accelerating in the Arabian Peninsula. In particular the struggle of the two monotheistic religions then represented: Christianity and Judaism. For the latter that of the Himyarite kings converted to Judaism because the Jewish tribes of the Hejaz do not have a hegemonic political inclination
It begins with an attack by Christians in Najran on visiting Jews. Then follows the reaction of the Himyarite prince who is probably afraid of a contamination to his kingdom and who reacts violently (which will have the effect of the loss of his kingdom by the reaction of the Abyssinian princes supported by Byzantium):
  • Dsou-Nowas [1] dug a huge ditch, as long as an abyss, from the depth of a spear, and very wide, filled it with combustible material and set it on fire. He summoned the inhabitants one by one, and had all those who refused to embrace Judaism thrown into the fire. About twenty thousand men were killed in this manner; the others fled. The king destroyed everything that had remained standing in the city; he burned the crosses and the gospels; then he returned to Yemen.
This event left traces in the collective memory of the Arabian Peninsula (even if the real justifications were political and not religious), it is particularly evoked in the Koran:
  • perish [2] the Men of the Ditch!
  • The fire, abounding in fuel,
  • above which they sat
  • as they were themselves witnesses to what they did to the faithful.
  • They were vindictive towards them only because they had faith in Allah, the All-mighty, the All-laudable,
  • to whom belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and Allah is witness to all things.
  • Indeed those who persecute the faithful men and women, and then do not repent, for them there is the punishment of hell, and for them there is the punishment of burning.
  • Indeed those who have faith and do righteous deeds, —for them will be gardens with streams running in them. That is the supreme success.
It is necessary, before looking at the psalm of this generation, to remember who is the author (or at least identified as such). It is about Assaf who had already signed a psalm marking a pivotal generation for the Jewish people, since it is the one attached to the generation number fifty, that of the destruction of the second temple and the beginning of the exile within nations.
We had mentioned for Psalm 50 the role of Assaf alongside David in the service of the Temple: to serve God by singing. This will naturally lead him to promote in psalm fifty to privilege prayer to the sacrificial worship that can no longer be done because of the absence of a temple and therefore an altar.
It does not exclude in this context those who pray to God outside of Judaism, while being severe to those, like Paul, who want to serve him on the backs of the Jewish people.
Here we see the difference, Assaf directed the worship and did not deal with the political aspect of the country that was David’s responsibility. This one, moreover, governed the country without trying to bring the good word to its neighbors, the Jewish religion does not have a nature proselyte. The only Jewish kings (Dsou-Nowas and Herod) who had an aggressive proselytizing attitude were themselves derived from conversions.
The personality of Assaf is in fact adapted to the analysis of the events of this generation through his psalm. Generation where a Jewish king tries to fight a satellite of Byzantine Christian power while at the same time, Justin 1st hardens his policy towards the Jews of his empire and so seem to win those who attack the Jews.
The object of the psalm, in the light of the events of this generation, is to show that the fight between “good and evil” can not be done in the light of a single generation
This is what Assaf explains in the psalm of this generation:

(extract of the psalm 73 associated to this generation, verses 1 to 5 to 12  to 15 to 20 to 22 to 28 )

  • A song of Asaph. Truly God is good to Israel, to the pure of heart.
  • But as for me, my feet had almost turned away, in an instant my steps would have been swept away.
  • For I envied the perverse; I would see the tranquility of the wicked.
  • For there are no fetters to their death, and their health is sound.
  • In the toil of mortal man they are not, neither are they plagued with mankind.  
    • Assaf, though serving God, could already see that there is no direct reward of acts for good or evil. Those who do evil may seem better off than those who strive to follow the path of good.
  • Therefore, they wear pride as a necklace; the robbery that they commit envelops their hips.
  • Because of their fat, their eyes bulge; they surpassed the imaginings of their heart.
  • They consume, and speak wickedly about oppression; they speak about the Most High.
  • They have set their mouth against Heaven, and their tongue walks through the earth.
  • Therefore, His people will return here, and the waters of the full [stream] are drain water to them.
  • And they say, « How does God know, and is there knowledge in the Most High? »
  • Behold these are wicked, yet they are tranquil in the world and have increased wealth.  
    • Just as Dsou-Nowas was able to feel a certain injustice in the distrust of the people of Nadjran towards himself, his people and more seriously towards God, Assaf had to face provocations of the same style.
  • But for nought I cleansed my heart and bathed my hands with cleanliness.
  • And I was plagued all the days, and my chastisement was every morning.
  • If I said, « I shall tell it as it is, » behold I have made the generation of Your children into traitors. 
    • But the wisdom of Assaf that will be explained later in the psalm has allowed the latter to avoid falling into the trap of the “bad guys”. He did not try to imitate them by sinking into the violence of reprisals. On the contrary, he has taken refuge with God in order to make the good triumph by understanding that the fight between good and evil is not a stealth fight that is won by force. He disapproved of the attitude of Dsou-Nowas who, under the pretext of defending the good, fighting for God, using evil against the people of Najran. In fact he did not serve the good.
  • And when I ponder to know this, it is iniquity in my eyes.
  • Until I came to the sanctuaries of God, and I understood their end.
  • Only in slippery places do You set them; You cast them down to ruin.
  • How they became desolate instantly! They were completely consumed by terrors.
  • As a dream without awakening; O Lord, in the city You will despise their form. 
    • Assaf justifies his position by stating that justice can only be done by God and that everyone should not deviate from the good and use the weapons of evil under the pretext of wanting to right the way of his neighbor.
  • For my heart was in ferment, and my mind was on edge.
  • But I was brutish and I did not know; I was [as] a beast with You. 
    • The self-administered judgment of Assaf is actually directed to Dsou-Nowas.
  • Yet I was constantly with You; You grasped my right hand.
  • With Your counsel You led me, and after[wards], You took me [for] glory.
  • For whom do I have in heaven, and I desired no one with You on earth.
  • My flesh and my heart yearn; God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever.
  • For behold, those who have distanced themselves from You will perish; You have cut off anyone who strays from You.
  • But as for me-God’s nearness is my good; I have placed my refuge in the Lord God, to tell all Your mission. 
    • Assaf concludes by renewing his trust in God, in the destiny He has laid out for the Jewish people.
To support this optimism, besides the battles, there is the establishment of Mar Zoutra bar Mar Zoutra (Mar Zoutra III) in Tiberias who founds there a talmudic academy (in 520) which will bring a certain light to the Jewish people during a few more centuries: the Saadia Gaon will testify to the scholarship of the people of Tiberias still in the tenth century.



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[1] Tabari / History of the Prophets and Kings: “From Solomon to the Fall of the Sassanids”, chapter: History of the People of the Gap (French: Tabari/Histoire des prophètes et des rois : « De Salomon à la chute des Sassanides », chapitre : Histoire des gens du fossé (p.263) )

[2] The Koran, Surah 85 (The Houses, “al-Burūj” ( البروج ) ), verses 4 à 11