A Hanukka story... for Purim

Today's tensions on the border between Gaza and Sinai are hardly new.

breaking Rafah 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
breaking Rafah 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Today's tensions on the border between Gaza and Sinai are hardly new. There was conflict at Rafiah - at the south end of the Gaza Strip - 2,225 years ago. At that time it was the border between the Seleucids and Ptolemies, between the empires of Antiochus III (the Great) and Ptolemy IV Philopater. The battle went something like this. It was the year 217 BCE, Ptolemy Philopater was on the throne of Egypt and he was worried. His chief enemy, the Seleucid Empire, had invaded Coele-Syria (Lower Syria, later to be called Palestine) and was about to confront him on its southern border at Rafiah. Ptolemy was in a weak position but he had to give battle, not only to save his rule over Palestine/Israel but even to save his own beloved Egypt. The Seleucid army was well organized, Antiochus the Great had a reputation for invincibility. The night before the battle Ptolemy was persuaded to leave his tent by his trusted minister Dositheos, a lapsed Jew, who had got wind of a plot to murder the king on the eve of the battle. The Seleucids liked to make sure of victory. Dositheos had a drunken wretch placed in the tent and he was murdered in the king's stead. That was the first miracle. The next day, the battle was shorter than expected and, against all the odds, it was won by the Egyptians who, at the last moment had brought up their secret weapon, the battle elephants. Victory was theirs, and that was the second miracle. As a result, Ptolemy regained his hold over Coele-Syria, and he marched in triumph to Jerusalem, the capital of the Jews, his colonial people once more. He knew of their peculiar religion and wanted to give thanks for the miracles that had saved his person and his country. He brought the appropriate sacrifices and then demanded the right of the conqueror to enter the Holy of Holies to pay homage to their God. THE PRIESTS were appalled and explained that only the High Priest was allowed into that part of the Temple, and then only once a year. Ptolemy persisted and they read him the laws of the Torah, but still he demanded to enter, asking why it was not allowed, when at any other Temple in his Empire he was free to enter. The word got round the city and everyone rushed to the Temple courts, fell down and prayed that the Pharaoh would retract his demands. Finally the High Priest Shimon Hatzaddik prostrated himself and prayed to God to stop the wicked king, and his words were answered. As he advanced, God made Ptolemy stumble and fall to the ground. Seeing him fall, his bodyguards, afraid he might die, quickly carried him away. Ptolemy soon recovered and, seeing he could not get his wish, he returned to Egypt and vowed vengeance on the Jews. Once back home, he declared that everyone in Alexandria, his capital, had to participate in the sacrifices to Dionysus, the Greek Nature god, and be branded with his symbol, the ivy leaf. If the Jews refused they were to be denied access to their synagogues and they were to be counted in a new census to establish their numbers and their property. Most of the Jews refused to join the rites to Dionysus and this aroused the king's anger so much that he declared all the Jews, including those outside Alexandria, were to be herded together and put to death. In this he had the support of many of the population who resented the Jews with their special dietary laws and their exclusivity, in wanting to be citizens of Alexandria but not socializing, eating or worshipping with others. However some of the Greeks took pity on their Jewish neighbours and hid them in their homes. Ptolemy then issued another decree pointing out the danger of leaving the Jews in their midst, where they might join with Egypt's enemies, and he urged the people to support him in their destruction. Eventually nearly all the Jews of Egypt were rounded up in the Hippodrome of Schedia, a suburb of Alexandria. THERE ANOTHER attempt was made to register all the Jews and their property but because of the large numbers the scribes, who worked for 40 days, were unable to complete the work which was abandoned in some disorder. The king was furious, as some Jews still remained at liberty, but he could not wait to finish the census, he was anxious to proceed. He summoned his generals and ordered them to prepare the elephants for the final assault on the Jews in the hippodrome, to be commenced at his own personal command the next morning. The Jews were tied up and guarded all night. There was nothing they could do to fight back or escape, thus they all fell on their knees and prayed to God for deliverance. Meanwhile the officer in charge of the 500 elephants had them drugged and plied with unadulterated wine and made ready for the stampede. He went off early the next morning to the king to receive his final orders, but Ptolemy was asleep, and the hour for the attack passed. When he finally awoke, Ptolemy was furious, and ordered the killing to start early the next morning. The elephants were again prepared during the night with more wine and drugs until they were in a state of madness and raging to attack. This time the king woke early and came to the hippodrome with his great army to watch the murderous spectacle and give the final order for the attack to commence. As the elephants were marshalled for release from their cages, the Jews fell down in great numbers, praying and wailing, yet determined, now that they were at the gates of death, that they would enter Heaven with a pure heart and with clean hands, not having succumbed to the temptation of conversion to Dionysus. A special prayer was offered up by the distinguished elder Eleazar who pleaded with God to be saved at this late hour, even as He had saved the Israelites from Pharaoh at the Reed Sea, as He had saved Jerusalem from Sennacherib, and Daniel and his companions from the lions‚ den and the fiery furnace. JUST AS he completed his prayer, the elephants were released and goaded forward by their keepers and the troops. At that moment the heavens opened to reveal two glorious angels who descended and sowed havoc among the Egyptians and, as a result, all 500 wine-maddened elephants turned tail, rushed back at their tormentors and trampled them to death. Ptolemy, on seeing this course of divine events, suddenly changed his mind, he turned on his generals and accused them of disobeying orders by trying to kill these poor defenseless Jews! He publicly declared that it was not his wish to kill the Jews, and never had been! The king then ordered his treasurer to set out a grand feast for the Jews and they celebrated for seven days with dancing and praises to God for their deliverance, and Ptolemy celebrated that he had been delivered from wanton destruction of the Jews. The festivities lasted from the seventh of Epiphi to the 14 (end of July) and after that the king allowed the Jews to return to their homes. At their special request, he allowed the Jews to punish those of their race who had converted to Dionysus, and as a result 300 of them were put to death. The observant Jews all returned home, had their property restored according to the census and they instituted the Festival of Alexandria to be held on the date of their miraculous escape from death, on 7th Epiphi (July) each year. THIS IS not called the Purim of Alexandria, it is much earlier than those recorded in medieval Europe and elsewhere, but it reads like a Purim story. It is all described in the Third Book of Maccabees, a Greek document of the first century BCE, which has nothing to do with the first two Books of Maccabees, that tell the story of the Hasmonean Revolt against the Seleucids. It is however set in that period, only 50 years before the revolt, though to date no historical event has been found to match the story. But some elements ring true. There was a battle of Rafiah, unexpectedly won by the Egyptians. Some of the Ptolemies wanted to promote the worship of the Greek god Dionysus, and certainly Jews resented any census that would separately record them and their property. The Jews of Alexandria may have numbered 180,000, a very high proportion of nearly one in three of the population. The story shows many similarities with that of Purim and that of the Maccabees and has a kernel of truth in reflecting the well-known conflicts between the Jews and Greeks of Alexandria that flared up again many years later under the Romans, who took over from the Ptolemies in the era of Julius Caesar and the bewitching Cleopatra VII. The writer is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.