Is the Name of Elohim lost to antiquity only to be speculated among men? A discourse – part II

In my previous article, part I, I mentioned that Elohim did reveal to us in the Old Testament his personal Name: YHWH. But, according to Jewish tradition, as we were told, the Tiberian scribes, who developed the diacritic points, were said to refrain themselves from not verbalizing Elohim’s sacred Name out of reverence and as proactive measure against cause for potential blasphemy. But, did this tradition arise out of genuine spirit of reverence and concern or was there a more sinister root stemming from men’s rebellion against YHWH Elohim?

Is the prohibition against verbalizing Elohim’s Name according to the teaching of Elohim’s Words in the Bible? And more importantly in all things, what is the will of Elohim concerning His people of knowing His Name?

In this part II of my article I am going to bring readers back in time to the era of the Babylonian invasion to the Seleucid Empire to trace back the history of this tradition of prohibition against verbalizing Elohim’s Name.

The Babylonian Period

Around 597 BC king Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. By 586 BC Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian invaders. As a result, the Jews were exiled to Babylon. Thus ending almost one thousand years of the First Temple period of ancient Israel when the Israelite Monarchs reigned the land as mentioned in the Books of Samuel and Kings. This tumultuous period leading up to the impending banishment from their homeland brought about the prophetic warning by the latter three prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It also brought about rampant appearance of false prophets who, by deception of their own heart, caused Elohim’s people to forget Elohim’s Name.

The Persian Period

Around 539 BC the Babylonians were defeated by the Persian King, Cyrus the Great. According to the Bible, in the first year of Cyrus (ca. 538/537 BC) the Persian king made a proclamation allowing exiled Jews of Babylon to return to Jerusalem and subsequently to rebuilt the Temple (ca. 515 BC). This was the period of the rebuilding of Jerusalem as mentioned in the Bible by prophets Nehemiah and Ezra.

The Hellenistic Period

The Achaemenid Empire came to an end in ca. 334 BC when Alexander the Great rose to power and conquered the entire Persian Empire.

After the death of Alexandra the Great in 323 BC the Greek Empire was divided up into four power blocs, namely, the Seleucid Empire, the Ptolemaic Empire, the Antigonid Empire that ruled Macedonia and Greece and the Attalid Empire that ruled Asia Minor before being incorporated as part of the Antigonid Emipire. However, the two larger Empires, the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic, are the ones that concerned us here due to their political and cultural influence on the Jewish history in Palestine.

Geographically, Judea was wedged between the Seleucid Empire based in Syria to the North and the Ptolemaic Empire based in Egypt to the South. As such, it was in a strategic  position in a thug of war for control where the fortune of war was shifted back and forth between the two great powers.

In 312 – 305 BC, Judea was ruled by the Ptolemaic Empire. By 200- 198  BC it was under the control of the Syrian Seleucid king, Antiochus III.

Era of Antiochus IV Epiphanes

According to Josephus, Antiochus III allowed the Jews to live “according to the law of their forefathers.” However, his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned the Seleucid Empire from 175 BC to 164 BC wasn’t at all accommodating to the conservative and religiously observant Jews. In fact, he actively interfered with the religious practice of the Jewish people and was one of the most vicious persecutor of the observant Jews. He was the first king who had proclaimed himself to be the god and had the nation’s coins minted to read: “King Antiochus…God made visible”.

When Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ca. 215-164 BC) ascended the throne the High Priest in Jerusalem at the time was Onias III. Onias was  a pious Jew of the priestly class. He was in the hereditary line of Aaronite priests elected according to the Mosaic order of priesthood instituted by Elohim. Onias was a strong critic against the hellenization of the Jewish people by the growing influence of Antiochus’ anti-Judaism policy. Also at the same time, a group of urban upper class Jews, such as the Tobiads, were very keen supporters of Hellenization that began during the time of Alexander the Great. Their inclination to embrace Greek culture in repudiation of their Jewish root was probably in part driven by the economic and political reasons. Also, the Greek culture was considered far more advanced than any other cultures in the conquered lands and Greek language was the preferred language of that time much like English language is the preferred language of international trade and commerce of our day.

The religious and political climates among the Jewish people during that time were widely divided among various factions composing of the conservatives and religious Jews on one hand and the liberals  and the Hellenized secular Jews on the other hand. Also, during the Second Temple period four major religious sects began to appear on the political and religious scene. They were the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes and the Zealots. It was during this period that the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written.

Then, there was also contention between Jews who favored the rule under the Selucid Empire and those who favored the Ptolemaic Empire.

Jason bribes Antiochus for High Priesthood.

Then came a Hellenized Jew by the name of Jason, whose Hebrew name was Yeshua or Yehoshua (Joshua), who petitioned the Seleucid king with bribery to become the High Priest in place of Onias.  Jason was said to be the brother of Onias but with Greek outlook. Antiochus was always in need of financial resources in his ongoing wars with the Ptolemaic Empire and therefore was too eager to oblige.

Here’s the account of Jason according to 2 Maccabees:

“When Seleucus died and Antiochus who was called Epiphanes succeeded to the kingdom, Jason the brother of Onias obtained the high priesthood by corruption, promising the king at an interview three hundred and sixty talents of silver and, from another source of revenue, eighty talents.

In addition to this he promised to pay one hundred and fifty more if permission were given to establish by his authority a gymnasium and a body of youth for it, and to enrol (sic) the men of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch.

When the king assented and Jason came to office, he at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life.”

[2 Mac. 4:7-10 ]

When Jason became the High Priest in 175 BC (175-172 BC), he built a Greek Gymnasium in Jerusalem and a Greek style city called Antioch which was named after the Seleucid king. He then instituted Greek culture to transform the Jewish tradition while ignoring the ordinance instituted by Antiochus’ father, Antiochus III, that allowed the Jews to live according to the Torah of their forefathers.

Here’s what 2 Maccabees recorded:

“When the king assented and Jason came to office, he at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life.

He set aside the existing royal concessions to the Jews, secured through John the father of Eupolemus, who went on the mission to establish friendship and alliance with the Romans; and he destroyed the lawful ways of living and introduced new customs contrary to the law.

For with alacrity he founded a gymnasium right under the citadel, and he induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat.

There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and no high priest, that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, they hastened to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the call to the discus, disdaining the honors prized by their fathers and putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige.”

[2 Mac. 4:7-15]

Menelaus subverts Jason for High Priesthood

Meanwhile, another ambitious Hellenized Jew,  whose name was Menelaus, went behind Jason’s back  and offered Antiochus a much higher bribe plus a proposal to Hellenize the Jews by force so as to persuade Antiochus to replace Jason, whom he thought wasn’t radical enough in his policy of Hellenization, and as such, to institute him as the High Priest.

Menelaus, being not of the priestly class and never was a priest of any order, also aspired to be the High Priest for political reason. Thus, for the first time during the Second Temple period the office of the High Priest became a political position that could be sold and transferred to the highest bidder.

When Menelaus, with support from wealth aristocrats,  became the High Priest (ca. 171-161 BC. died 162 BC), Jason retreated to Jordan for refuge. Menelaus then connived with his brother, Lysimachus, to have the sacred vessels in the Temple taken so that he could fulfill his obligation to pay off the bribery he promised to Antiochus.

Upon hearing of the Temple treasure plundering, Onias came out publicly to accuse Menelaus of wrong doing. Fearing a formal complaint going forth from Onias to the Seleucid king, Menelaus had him killed by the hands of Andronicus, a lieutenant of the Seleucid king. The Temple plunder continued which led to a violent revolt in which Lysimachus, being appointed deputy to Menelaus while the latter was in Antioch, was killed. Menelaus then accused his enemies of being pro-Ptolemaic persuasion and thus had them sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, in his effort to reform the Jews, Menelaus sought to liberalize the Mosaic laws by incorporating Greek education and their way of life into the Jewish culture. Menelaus even suggested that the Greek god Zeus was the same Elohim of the Jewish patriarchs.

Humiliated Antiochus sacks Jerusalem

When Antiochus was campaigning a war in Egypt (ca. 169-168 BC) and was rumored to have been killed, Jason took the opportunity to conquer Jerusalem. Menelaus was either driven out to sought refuge at the citadel or, according to some sources, was locked up in Acra.

Meanwhile, Antiochus was humiliated by the Romans to leave Egypt. Upon hearing that Jason had revolted against him, he took his army and marched against Jerusalem with great furious as recounted by Josephus:

“King Antiochus returning out of Egypt for fear of the Romans, made an expedition against the city Jerusalem; and when he was there, in the hundred and forty-third year of the kingdom of the Seleucidse, he took the city without fighting, those of his own party opening the gates to him. And when he had gotten possession of Jerusalem, he slew many of the opposite party; and when he had plundered it of a great deal of money, he returned to Antioch.”

[The works of Josephus Flavius: Antiquities of the Jews, 5:3]

The account was also reported in 2 Maccabees:

“When news of what had happened reached the king, he took it to mean that Judea was in revolt. So, raging inwardly, he left Egypt and took the city by storm.

And he commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly every one they met and to slay those who went into the houses.

Then there was killing of young and old, destruction of boys, women, and children, and slaughter of virgins and infants.

Within the total of three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand-to-hand fighting; and as many were sold into slavery as were slain.

Not content with this, Antiochus dared to enter the most holy temple in all the world, guided by Menelaus, who had become a traitor both to the laws and to his country.

He took the holy vessels with his polluted hands, and swept away with profane hands the votive offerings which other kings had made to enhance the glory and honor of the place.”

[2 Mac. 5:11-16]

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Menelaus regained his high priesthood and Jason fled to Asia Minor (ca. 170 BC).

At this point, Antiochus became relentless in his persecution of the faithful Jews and their Jewish belief. As such, he enacted series of anti-Judaism decrees against the Jewish customs and annulled the laws of their forefathers. Having regained the position of high priesthood, Menelaus was said to have invigorated Antiochus in his anti-Jewish policy in order to fulfill his radical agenda of transforming the Jewish tradition in conformity to Greek culture.

Judaism outlawed by Antiochus

Thus, from 167 BC the practice of Jewish religion in Jerusalem and in Judea was outlawed. The decrees set forth the following prohibitions and requirements:

1. prohibition on male circumcision

2. prohibition against keeping the Sabbath

3. prohibition against observing the feasts or Jewish holidays of their fathers

4. prohibition against confessing oneself as a Jew

5. prohibition against vocalizing Elohim’s Name aloud

5. mandatory requirement for sacrifices be made to Greek deities

6. required that Antiochus IV be worshiped as the god Zeus

7. required that the image of Zeus be placed in the Temple at Jerusalem

8. required that pig be sacrificed and become part of new Jewish diet

9. required that ritual prostitution was to be instituted

10. required participation in new pagan cult

The decree was carried out through brutal torture on those who refused to comply. The Jewish Temple was rededicated to the Greek deity, Zeus. The image of Zeus was then placed on the altar with all the Jewish temple vessels removed and replaced with pagan worship vessels.

The persecution of the pious Jews and their worship of Elohim committed by the Seleucid king and the Hellenized Jews lasted for about three years. During this period the faithful Jews engaged in guerrilla warfare under Judah, who was also called Maccabeus, to wage wars against the reign of terror. This is known as the Maccabees revolt.

Finally, the retreat of the Syrian forces came about when Antiochus died in 163 BC while fighting fruitlessly against the Parthians in the east. This allowed Judas to successfully settle an agreement with the successor, Antiochus V Eupator, in which Jewish Temple was officially returned to the hands of the traditional Jews (ca.162 BC).

I will continue the Jewish history from the Maccabees revolt to the Hasmonean period in part III.

Meantime, Happy Thanksgiving!


Update: 03/10/2014 – 1)  10th paragraph 3rd line, grammatical error: “who reign” corrected to “who reigned”; 2) whole paragraph position switch, previously located at 15th paragraph switched to current 23rd paragraph position for flow of connected idea.

Update: 03/25/2014 – Under the heading “The Hellenistic Period” the first paragraph “The Achaemenid Empire, led by Alexander the Great, came to an end in ca. 334 BCE when Alexander the Great rose to power and conquered the entire Persian Empire” should read, “The Achaemenid Empire came to an end in ca. 334 BCE when Alexander the Great rose to power…” Error regretted.

Update: 03/31/14 – ) Apparently there is a discrepancy in the dates corresponding to the Seleucid years and historical dates from different sources, e.g the date Antiochus IV died. Here’s the  explanation from the source as provided below:

Two different uses were made of the Seleucid years:

  1. The natives of the empire used the Babylonian calendar, in which the new year falls on 1 Nisanu (3 April in 311 BC), so in this system year 1 of the Seleucid era corresponds roughly to April 311 BC to March 310 BC. This included the Jews, who call it theEra of Contracts. It is used in the Jewish historical book, now “deuterocanonical”, 1 Maccabees, in 6:20, 7:1, 9:3, 10:1, etc.[4]
  2. The Macedonian court adopted the Babylonian calendar (substituting the Macedonian month names) but reckoned the new year to be in the autumn (the exact date is unknown). In this system year 1 of the Seleucid era corresponds to the period from autumn 312 BC to summer 311 BC. By the seventh century AD / tenth AG, the west Syrian Christians settled on 1 October-to-30 September.[5] Jews, however, reckon the start of each new Seleucid year with the lunar month Tishri.

These differences in the beginning of the year mean that dates may differ by one. Bickerman gives this example:

For instance, the restoration of the temple of Jerusalem by Judas Maccabaeus, approximately 15 December 164 BC, fell in the year 148 of the Seleucid Era according to Jewish (and Babylonian) calculation, but in the year 149 for the court.[6]\