Like many other successful national liberators who went on to assume positions of political leadership, the popularity of the Hasmoneans did not fare so well after their initial Hanukkah victory over the Hellenistic armies. They established themselves as Judea’s dynastic rulers, appointed themselves to the high priesthood, and were torn by constant internecine intrigues. In the context of the fanatical sectarian divisions that typified Jewish society during the Second Commonwealth era, the endorsement of one faction might entail the ruthless suppression of its rivals. Inevitably somebody was going to be very displeased with the Hasmonean leadership.
Perhaps the most controversial of the successors to Judah Maccabee was Alexander Jonathan, usually referred to by the Aramaic variant “Yannai” (Alexander Jannaeus) who ruled over Judea from 103 to 76 B.C.E. Yannai was the grandson of Simeon, one of the original brothers who had led the insurrection against Antiochus Epiphanes that culminated in the purification of the Jerusalem temple and the establishment of Hanukkah. Yannai pursued a risky (but ultimately successful) strategy of exploiting the divisions of the surrounding Hellenistic states in order to achieve a territorial expansion that involved forced conversions of some neighbouring populations.
Yannai favoured the Sadducees, the religious sect that promoted the traditional priestly leadership and their values, against the Pharisees with their commitment to an unwritten ancestral tradition. This discord erupted into a full-scale civil war that lasted six years and left many thousands dead.
It is understandable that the literature of the rabbis, who were the heirs to the Pharisees, did not have much good to say about king Yannai. Somewhat less clear are the attitudes expressed in the Dead Sea scrolls.
The community at Qumran that preserved the scrolls, and which is widely believed to have composed most of them, shared the Sadducee belief in the centrality of the sacrificial worship in the Temple and in the primacy of the hereditary priesthood. As such, we might have expected them to support King Yannai by virtue of his priestly lineage. Nonetheless, in the cryptic “Pesher” texts that hint at the history of their community (usually equated with the Essene sect described by Josephus Flavius), they single out for condemnation a figure whom they dub by the code names “the wicked priest” or the “furious young lion.” This villain is also depicted as an opponent of the Pharisees who themselves attacked the “teacher of righteousness”—who was probably the originator of the Dead Sea sect. If these identifications are correct, then the Qumranites—whose division of the world into absolutely righteous and evil realms did not allow for any nuanced grey areas—surely regarded Alexander Yannai as a straightforward villain.
This reasonable-sounding assumption ran into a serious problem with the publication in 1991 of a brief scroll fragment catalogued as “4Q448.” The manuscript contains what appears to be a prayer for the welfare of the monarch: “Holy One, arise on behalf of Jonathan the King, and the entire congregation of your people Israel who are found in the four corners of the heavens. May they all be at peace. And may your name be blessed for the sake of your kingdom.” There was only one Jonathan who reigned as king during that era, and that was Alexander Yannai. His illustrious great-uncle Jonathan, the brother of Judah Maccabee, never served in that capacity.
To be sure, scholars have been most reluctant to accept the above interpretation without some resistance. For example, the Hebrew expression that is translated here as “arise on behalf of” actually occurs in biblical texts in the sense of “arise against”; which would imply that the prayer is asking not for the protection of King Jonathan, but rather to protect us from him (reminiscent of the rabbi’s blessing for the Czar in “Fiddler on the Roof”). While this reading is not entirely impossible, it appears unlikely in view of the way the text seamlessly groups the king together with the people of Israel. In fact, the kingdom—presumably referring to the state over which Yannai was currently ruling—is depicted as God’s own domain over which he is being urged to extend his protection!
In light of these kinds of difficulties, several scholars have proposed that this particular manuscript, although it found its way into the Qumran caves, was not actually written by the Essenes, but by Sadducees or someone else who had a more sympathetic attitude toward Alexander Yannai. Those scholars can point to other stylistic features of the text that distinguish it from more typical Dead Sea scrolls.
The short passage that was cited above was preserved undamaged (a rare phenomenon among the Dead Sea scrolls). The same cannot be said about the following section of the fragment, for which the left edge of the column is missing and has to be reconstructed from conjecture, and which might have been written by a different scribe. Nevertheless, the surviving phrases leave no room for doubt that the prayer is trying to invoke God’s love and constant protection upon King Jonathan and his nation.
This latter section includes a reference to “the day of battle.” It is possible that this is a generic stereotypical formula of the sort that is still employed in prayers on behalf of heads of state. On the other hand, Alexander Yannai was involved in several military campaigns, including a few very close calls; and various historians have tried to link the words of this blessing with a particular battle.
The first half of the scroll fragment consists of the words of a psalm. To be precise: the text in question is not actually found among the standard canonical Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, but it is included in the collection preserved in the Syriac-Aramaic translation used by the Syrian Christian church, and segments from the Hebrew originals of those psalms were discovered among the Dead Sea documents.
In the Syriac collection, the psalm—which proclaims how God redeems the righteous from the hands of their wicked foes and has chosen Jerusalem as his eternal dwelling-place—is introduced by the heading: “the prayer of Hezekiah when the Assyrians besieged him and he entreated God to save him.” Based on the remaining letters in the damaged fragment, it is likely that the the caption contained an allusion to a passage in 2 Chronicles: “Hezekiah the king and the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz, prayed and cried to heaven.” That verse is describing the dire predicament of the king and prophet when Jerusalem was besieged by the Assyrian forces. According to the biblical account, the prayer was answered with the sudden and unexplained departure of the enemy army.
The situation of Hezekiah and Isaiah might well have been perceived as an apt parallel to the threat that confronted Alexander Yannai around 103 B.C.E. when Judea was invaded by the deposed emperor Ptolemy IX Lathyrus and the conquest of Jerusalem was narrowly averted by the timely intervention of Ptolemy’s mother Cleopatra III (at the urging of her Jewish generals). To be sure, the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls had a special knack for interpreting biblical prophetic texts with reference to their own sect’s recent history.
There are occasions, I suppose, when even the most unpopular heads of state must be respected not for their own merits, but for the nation that they represent. The distinction between patriotism and personal endorsement of imperfect leaders becomes especially vague in times of war and other national crises. In the case of Alexander Yannai it is understable that even a community of his ideological opponents could be reciting prayers for him—not as a person who was himself worthy of their admiration, but as the head an independent Jewish state that had been made possible by the heroism of his Hasmonean forbears.
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