Exploring Babylon Chapter 10
This week in the Jewish calendar, we meet the major foreign powers with which ancient Judaism struggled:
- In the Torah-reading cycle, Joseph is already in Egypt, setting the stage for the whole clan of Yisrael to move, and eventually become enslaved, there.
- Chanukah (in 2017: 12/12-12/20), reminds us of events in the Seleucid (“Syrian-Greek“) Empire.
- The haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah, from Zechariah, is set just after the Babylonian Captivity, during Persian rule.
- In addition, the game of dreidel is sometimes explained with reference to Roman soldiers, and other aspects of the holiday relate to this later empire.
Egypt, Greece, Babylon, Persia, and Rome. That’s a lot of foreign powers converging on any one week.
And there are aspects of Chanukah that tend to equate or conflate oppressors and different experiences of exile. For example, all five of the foreign powers show up in one of the post popular Chanukah songs, based on the 13th Century piyyut, “Ma’oz Tzur.” (More on this soon.) So, there’s an impulse, on the one hand, to roll all the opponents into one enormous, amorphous threat to scrappy, little Yisrael. On the other hand, there’s a tradition of aiming to universalize the Chanukah story, making it into everyman’s battle against tyranny everywhere. Insights can be gleaned by comparing and combining the foreign powers that turn up together this week. But it’s worth examining each of these empires, and its particular arc through Jewish history and thought, to see what light it sheds — on its own and in conjunction with the others.
Doing a thorough exploration is an enormous job, but perhaps we can start where we are, on this day of the third candle of Chanukah.
One Candle: Mikeitz (Egypt)
Egypt has a lot to say about exile and the challenges of a non-homogeneous society, in this week’s Torah portion (Mikeitz, Gen 41:1 – 44:17) alone:
- Joseph’s precarious status and employment situation, here taking an upswing (Gen 41:41-46) after slavery, a rise to power and fall into incarceration (and, before the pharaoh who doesn’t know Joseph and enslaves all his descendants);
- New clothes for a new position;
- A new, foreign name for Joseph;
- A new, foreign spouse, read alternatively as Asenath joining Yisrael or as Joseph’s acceptance into Egyptian society;
- Names for Joseph’s children that reflect experience in exile; and
- Food issues.
Joseph, “the Hebrews,” and the Egyptians each eat separately, “because it was abhorrent to the Egyptians [כִּי־תוֹעֵבָ֥ה הִ֖וא לְמִצְרָֽיִם]” (Gen 43:32). What was abhorrent? The possibilities are many, including, from various commentators: extremely different customs and manners , snobbery on the part of the Egyptians, and religious taboo (one theory: Egyptians revered animals, like the cow, while Hebrews ate beef).
Two Candles: Mikeitz and Chanukah
The story of the Maccabees is multi-layered, and many scholars point to the twin layers of internal strife within Yisrael and the precipitating Greek pressure:
The power the Greeks sought and the threat they posed was not just military, and so it could not be resolved by military means alone; their threat was as much to the identity, faith, and practice of the Jews. What is more, the threat came not just from the Greeks but from the Jews themselves, many of whom, according to the sources, had opted voluntarily to assimilate or gave in rather than resist Greek orders….
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day” (2013)
from JOFA’s Shema Bekolah [her her voice] series
This dynamic has never yet ceased to be relevant to Jewish communities, in- or outside Israel. When this candle’s light is burned side-by-side with the one from Mikeitz, the combine light raises a host of new questions about Joseph’s story.
Three Candles: Mikeitz, Chanukah, and Zechariah
The Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. The first eight chapters of Zechariah’s prophecy are dated to 520-518 BCE, during the reign of Darius I of Persia. This is just after the conquest of Babylon, when Judeans were permitted to return and rebuild in Jerusalem. Work on the Temple had stalled “when the leadership refused to allow local population to join in the labor…, and this group interfered with the building down to the second year of Darius 1” (M. Fishbane, JPS Haftarah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002, p.163).
Zechariah’s prophecy, which includes several visions, supports a leadership duo for the effort ahead: Joshua ben Jehozadak, heir to the priesthood, and Zerubbabel ben Sheathiel, royal heir. Chapter 4 relates a vision in which Zechariah is shown a complex candelabra of seven lamps, “with a bowl on top of it,” and an olive tree on each side. The prophet asks for the meaning of this, and the angel responds in verses 4:6-14 — beginning with “prologue” (4:6-7) and then interpreting the lamps and trees.
In between, the prophecy includes a comforting declaration: “Zerubbabel’s hands have founded this House and Zerubbabel’s hands shall complete it….Does anyone scorn a day of small beginnings?” (4:9-10).
All of this is part of God’s promise to return from exile along with the people (Zech 1). And the JPS commentary also includes a midrash around the word “gullah [bowl],” that is at the head of the candelabrum (Zech 4:2). One of the themes of Zechariah is that God is at the “head,” but God and the people are united in both “exile (golah)” and “redemption (ge’ulah).”
That’s one aspect of Zechariah, taken on its own. And it can surely lend further light the whole topic of foreign powers. But the Chanukah haftarah stops at what Fishbane called “prologue” above:
Then he explained to me as follows: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the LORD of Hosts.
וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, לֵאמֹר, זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר
לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ–כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת:
Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground!
For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’”
מִי-אַתָּה הַר-הַגָּדוֹל לִפְנֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל, לְמִישֹׁר;
וְהוֹצִיא, אֶת-הָאֶבֶן הָרֹאשָׁה–תְּשֻׁאוֹת, חֵן חֵן לָהּ
— Zechariah 4:6-7
In doing so, Fishbane says, the Rabbis not only emphasize that Zerubbabel’s success will be through God’s spirit alone but “transformed the text into a divine warning. Groups wishing to ‘force the end’ through military might, or support projects promising restoration of the Temple, are given divine notice of the futility of their plans” (p.165).
It’s this appearance of Zechariah that shows up this week, with Mikeitz and the story of Chanukah. And taken together, the three candles shed a different light.
To avoid confusion, I’m using “Yisrael,” as both the name given to Jacob after his divine wrestling match (Gen 32:22-32) and the name of the ancient people, as distinguished from the contemporary nation of “Israel.”