This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Priestly Kings of Salem*

Among the measures introduced by the Hellenistic authorities in their efforts to suppress the Jewish religion, the Talmud tells of an edict that outlawed any mention of God's name in legal documents. Following the success of the Maccabean revolt, the new Hasmonean rulers repealed that offensive decree, and ordained that the standard formula for recording dates should henceforth be in the X year of Yohanan, High Priest to the Most High God. However, the sages objected to this practice, fearing that it would lead to the desecration of the holy name, since people might casually discard their old bills and unthinkingly toss them onto the trash heap, divine names included. So delighted were the sages at their success in abolishing the new practice that its anniversary, the third day of Tishrei, was ordained as a minor festival on which fasting was prohibited. (We no longer observe that date in a festive manner; instead, it is kept as the Fast of Gedaliah.)

Historians have proposed diverse reconstructions of the issues and events that underlay the talmudic story, drawing analogies from other documents of that era, and observing how the writing of dates functioned in ancient politics. They note, for example, that in the Hellenistic world, the prevailing system for numbering years began the count from the Battle of Rafah in 310 or 311 B.C.E., the historic milestone at which Alexander the Great's empire was carved up among his three generals. This dating system, known to scholars as the Seleucid Era and in Jewish sources as the documentary reckoning [minyan ha-sh'tarot], was the only one sanctioned by talmudic law; and it remained in force in Arabic-speaking Jewish communities (especially in Yemen) until quite recently. The Hasmoneans understandably chose to abolish that Greek system, preferring to count the years from the time of their newly achieved freedom. Their introduction of this practice is mentioned in the Book of Maccabees and by Josephus Flavius, who ascribe the change to Simeon the Hasmonean.

The Talmud is the only source that mentions the problem of using God's name on Hasmonean documents or coinage, and the numismatic evidence does not corroborate the claim. Recent scholarly discussions have expressed less interest in the question of the divine name than in the honorific title into which it is embedded: High Priest to the Most High God.

In order to appreciate the full significance of these phenomena, it is useful to review some of the political and religious challenges that were being faced by the Hasmonean leadership in their quest for recognition as the legitimate leaders of the Jewish nation.

Much of the sectarian and political factionalism that proliferated during the final generations of the Second Commonwealth can be traced to a single contentious issue, namely: Were the Hasmoneans justified in assuming royal and priestly authority?

After leading the Jews to their spectacular victory over the Seleucid armies and purifying the Temple from its profanation at the hands of the Hellenists, the family that spearheaded the revolt assumed the roles of kings and high priests. In keeping with the prevailing traditions, there were fundamental religious objections against their claims to each of these titles. Kings of Israel shoule be descendants of David from the tribe of Judah, and High Priests must hail from the line of Zadok. The Hasmoneans possessed neither qualification.

The Hasmoneans and their propagandists turned to the Torah to justify their claims to legitimacy. They sought scriptural precedents for the possibility that a person could be recognized as a monarch or High Priest without belonging to the Zadokite or Davidic aristocracies.

It is probably in this context that we should understand several passages in which the Hasmonean ruler referred to himself as priest of the most high God. This peculiar expression evokes an enigmatic episode from the book of Genesis (14:18-19) wherein Abraham, returning home from battle after rescuing his nephew Lot from his captors, was welcomed by a local ruler:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth.

By conferring upon themselves the title that had been applied to the biblical Melchizedek, the Hasmonean rulers were implicitly directing people's attention to the fact that the holy Torah, the ultimate source of all religious legitimacy, had acknowledged an out-and-out gentile as a rightful king and priest. Furthermore, Melchizedek was not just any local potentate-- he was the king of Salem, which was assumed to be identical with Jerusalem. If the Torah could recognize a non-Jew as a high priest and king of Jerusalem, there could hardly be any serious objections to the Hasmoneans, who were good Jews of priestly (albeit not Zadokite) lineage, laying claim to the same titles!

When we compare these traditions with other Jewish writings from the same era, we observe that the Hasmoneans were actually quite reserved in their interpretation of the Melchizedek episode. Other groups painted him in awesomely supernatural colours.

A document from the Dead Sea Scrolls anticipates the return of Melchizedek in the future as a heavenly judge who will pronounce a divine verdict against the wicked, and then proceed to execute the final judgment against them. This attitude was apparently inherited by some members of the nascent Christian church. The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews designates Jesus as a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, while assigning him the same decisive role in executing the final judgment.

These traditions were inspired not only by Melchizedek's inscrutable appearance in Genesis, but also by a perplexing passage in Psalms 110 that mentions a strange figure who sits at God's right hand on the day of divine wrath as he judges the nations and crushes kings. The Almighty assures this figure that he is a priest forever [or an eternal priest] after the order of Melchizedek. It is not altogether surprising that some ancient readers understood this as a reference to an immortal member of the heavenly entourage who will share sovereignty with the creator in the end of days. For reasons analogous to those of the Hasmoneans, the Christians had a stake in claiming that the archetypal priestly king did not need to claim descent from the Hebrew priestly dynasty.

When compared with the overblown expectations that some of their contemporaries pinned on the figure of Melchizedek, the Hasmoneans come across as refreshingly modest and realistic. Notwithstanding the magnitude of their triumph against overwhelming odds, they did not regard or portray themselves as divinely appointed redeemers, and did not equate their reign with the apocalyptic end of days. According to the Book of Maccabees, Simeon the Hasmonean made it clear that his assuming of priestly and political authority was a pragmatic measure that would only remain in effect until a true prophet should arise.

This sense of unassuming realism puts him a cut above so many of our leaders, past and present, who could settle for nothing less than messianic ambitions, and who have left the highway of Jewish history strewn with disappointment and demoralization.

Indeed, this might be one of the reasons why the victory of Hanukkah continues to be celebrated long after many other exploits have been relegated to obscure historical footnotes.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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