Sunday, June 29, 2008

Women Who Ruled: Salome Alexandra

A fascinating article from Biblical Archaeology Review online about a female ruler I haven't heard of before (now I realize just how many I haven't heard of!) By way of sychronicity, as one of my christmas presents Mr. Don purchased a book for me "Women Who Ruled." I had a chance to relax and read the preface and introduction yesterday - fascinating information! The book itself is similar to a dictionary-encyclopedia, with short biographical/informational entries in alphabetical order. Another great addition to my library. As I read the BAR article, in the back of my mind was the information I've learned from Barbara Walker and her "A Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets" so I cast a jaundiced eye on the patriarchal gloss given to the history of Salome Alexandra and her feminine compatriots. Still and all, I think this article shows without a doubt just how important it was in the Middle East (just before Roman times) to be married to a female of rank in order to exercise power as a king - and how women of rank could and did change the course of history by exercising their own inherent power at strategic points. There is no doubt that these women were king-makers. BAR 34:04, Jul/Aug 2008 The Salome No One Knows Long-time Ruler of a Prosperous and Peaceful Judea Mentioned in Dead Sea Scrolls When people hear the name Salome, they immediately think of the infamous dancing girl of the Gospels. Herod Antipas—the man Jesus denounced as a “fox”—had married his brother’s wife, Herodias. When John the Baptist denounced this illicit union, Herod Antipas cast him into prison. It was Herodias’s daughter, Salome, who danced before Herod at his drunken birthday gala. Her performance so pleased Herod that he promised her anything she wished: up to half his kingdom! At her mother’s urging, Salome asked for the head of Herod’s most famous prisoner on a platter. Fearful of breaking his word before his guests, Herod granted ­Salome’s request and ordered John the Baptist beheaded.1 In antiquity there was a considerably more famous Salome, however, who was revered for centuries. She was so admired that generations of mothers, Herodias apparently among them, named their daughters Salome in her honor. This Salome was the only woman ever to govern Judea as its sole ruler. She is even mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls: the sole woman, and one of only 18 people named in the scrolls.2 She presided over a number of religious reforms that shaped the Judaism of Jesus’ day as well as our own. During a time of chaos, men chose her to lead their nation and fight their battles. Centuries later, the authors of the Talmud regarded her reign as a golden age. Yet this remarkable woman has been largely erased from history. Her name is Queen Salome Alexandra.a Salome Alexandra’s world was a time of uncertainty and confusion. It had been this way since the conquests of the great Macedonian general Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.), who brought Greek culture, foreign ways and new religions to the Middle East. Alexander spread Greek civilization throughout the territories he conquered. As a result, many people in Salome Alexandra’s Judea had adopted Greek culture: a phenomenon known as Hellenism, whose chief hallmark is not only cultural but also religious tolerance. For many pious Jews, Hellenism constituted nothing less than a threat to Judaism’s very survival, since God had commanded, “You shall have no other gods before me.”5 In 167 B.C.E. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Hellenistic Greek king of Syria and heir to a portion of Alexander’s empire, in effect declared war against Judaism. Forsaking the tolerance that had come to define Hellenism, Antiochus banned circumcision, Sabbath observance, dietary laws and Temple sacrifices. In reaction, a Jewish priest named Mattathias ignited a resistance movement to expel the Syrians. His son Judas—nicknamed Maccabee (“the Hammer”)—eventually recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. After Judas’s death, his brothers Jonathan and Simon continued the struggle for independence. Each became not only Judea’s secular ruler, but also its high priest. They and their descendants became known as the Hasmoneans, a name that refers to Mattathias’s great-grandfather, Hasmon. These were Salome Alexandra’s illustrious ancestors, whose deeds are still recounted at the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.6 Mattathias’s son Simon was followed by his son John Hyrcanus (Hyrcanus I). With Hyrcanus a new, less-illustrious chapter of Judean history begins that involves palace intrigues, dysfunctional families and even matricide. Most of what we know of this period comes from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 C.E.), a contemporary of New Testament figures like Paul and Jesus’ brother James. But as regards our heroine Salome Alexandra, Josephus is often uncharacteristically brief, omitting important details and even providing contradictory accounts in his two great works, The Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War (about the great Jewish revolt against Rome in 66–70 C.E.). Although he is not particularly sympathetic to Salome Alexandra (unlike the later rabbis of the Talmud), even he had to acknowledge her remarkable achievements. Salome Alexandra’s story really begins with John Hyrcanus, son of Simon, son of Mattathias. Hyrcanus had four sons (actually five, but we don’t even know the name of the fifth son, and he does not figure in our story), whether by more than one wife we are not told. Hyrcanus’s two elder sons, warriors like him, were named Judah Aristobulus (Aristobulus I) and Antigonus. At some point in his life, Hyrcanus intended them to succeed him. In the end, however, he designated his wife (whose name we don’t know) to be his successor. Upon his death, however, John Hyrcanus’s son Judah Aristobulus ignored his father’s will and proclaimed himself both king and high priest. According to Josephus, his mother “disputed [Judah Aristobulus’s] claim to authority,” which suggests that she had considerable support. So Aristobulus had her imprisoned, where he allowed his mother to die of starvation. Next, Aristobulus turned to his brother Antigonus, ordering him to appear before him unarmed—a test of loyalty to determine whether there was any truth to the persistent rumors that Antigonus was about to seize power. Aristobulus’s wife, Salina Alexandra, intercepted the message, however, and changed its contents: Antigonus is ordered to appear before the king arrayed in his new armor. Antigonus literally walked into a trap. Aristobulus’s bodyguards, acting upon standing orders to prevent anyone carrying weapons from approaching the king, killed him. Upon hearing this news, Aristobulus was consumed with remorse. The physical symptoms from which he had been suffering worsened. He became weakened by intense pain; he vomited blood. Aristobulus died shortly afterward, ending a reign of less than a year. [He killed his brother and felt remorse, yet he starved his mother to death and felt nothing. From his symptoms it sounds to me that someone close to him poisoned him to death with arsenic - good riddance. It is said that poison is a woman's weapon... Perhaps his own wife knocked him off - ] At this point, unloved Alexander Jannaeus, the other brother and son of John Hyrcanus, becomes the focus of the story. Hyrcanus never saw his son Jannaeus. When Jannaeus was still in utero Hyrcanus had a dream or a vision in which God told him that neither of his two beloved sons, Aristobulus and Antigonus, would be his successor. Instead, his future son (Alexander Jannaeus) would become heir to all his possessions. When Jannaeus was born, Josephus tells us, Hyrcanus (hoping to thwart his dream) ordered the young child to be raised in the distant Galilee while his family lived in Jerusalem. Aristobulus’s death left a power vacuum in the state. What happens next is truly remarkable. Aristobulus’s wife, Salina Alexandra, takes charge of the situation. She quickly frees Jannaeus, who had been imprisoned by her husband, and selects him as Judea’s new king and high priest. Never before had a woman chosen the monarch and high priest! Alexander Jannaeus subsequently reigned for 27 years. Upon his death, his wife and our heroine, Salome Alexandra, became Judea’s sole ruler for nine years (76–67 B.C.E.): the most prosperous and peaceful time in her nation’s history. Within four years of her death, however, Judea lost its independence. Long under Roman influence, Judea was now ruled by Rome directly. It would not become a sovereign nation again for more than two thousand years. [The article does not say and so I am left to wonder: was Salina Alexandra, wife of the late Aristobulus, related to Salome Alexandra, wife of Alexander Jannaeus?] But that was four years after Salome Alexandra died. In her lifetime, she defied the odds to become the most powerful woman in Judea’s history. Salome Alexandra’s marriage to Alexander Jannaeus, through whom she acquired the throne, was a September-May match. If the dates Josephus gives are correct, she was 29 years old at the time and he was between 14 and 16.7 It is highly unlikely that a young man of 14 or 16 would have chosen a 29-year-old woman as his wife. The marriage of Salome Alexandra and Alexander Jannaeus was almost surely arranged by their parents, which was the custom of the time. It was clearly an unhappy union. [No evidence is given for this statement, and for all we know, young Alexander J. may have been quite eager to get his hands on a hot, older experienced woman, who clearly also came with "extras" - such as familial power to rule.] Salome Alexandra’s rule contrasted sharply with that of her late husband Alexander Jannaeus, who was one of the most ruthless kings in Judea’s history. His youth and inexperience nearly brought his nation to ruin. His foolish attack on the Mediterranean port city of Ptolemais (Acco) led to an invasion of Judea by an Egyptian pretender, Ptolemy Soter, whose forces were in Cyprus. Soter easily defeated Jannaeus’s forces and wiped out between 30,000 and 50,000 Judeans. According to Josephus, as Soter’s men ravaged Judea they boiled women and children—and ate them.8 [Yeah, right. A classical example of media bias!] Jannaeus’s reign continued to be filled with violence and endless warfare. Although he considerably expanded his kingdom in nearly every direction, his people abhorred him. Josephus reports a telling episode that occurred on Sukkoth (the Feast of Tabernacles), one of the three pilgrim festivals when Jews flocked to Jerusalem in droves. Sukkoth observance involves waving a palm frond and carrying a lemon-like fruit called a citron (etrog in Hebrew). As high priest, Jannaeus presided over the Temple ceremonies. On this occasion, the festival pilgrims pelted Jannaeus with their etrogim. Jannaeus’s retaliation was brutal. Over the next six years he killed more than 50,000 of his own people. Once, while he publicly feasted with his concubines, he crucified 800 Jews after slaughtering their children and wives before their eyes. The people of the Dead Sea Scrolls viewed this atrocity as such an unprecedented act of cruelty that, as was their custom, they looked to Scripture for an explanation. How could God allow this to happen? The commentaries they wrote looking to Scripture for an explanation of current events are called pesharim (plural of the Hebrew pesher, meaning “interpretation”). A pesher cites a scriptural verse and then connects the sacred text to a current event. The pesharim rarely name individuals, however; they prefer epithets that describe the personalities of the people they denounce. The Nahum Pesher contains a number of historical allusions that allow us to identify Alexander Jannaeus as “the Lion of Wrath.” The pesher also alludes to his wife Salome Alexandra as a prostitute. For the author of the pesher, Scripture had predicted the deeds of both Salome and her husband. The pesher mentions by name the Syrian king Demetrius who, with the support of the Pharisees, had invaded Judea in an ill-fated effort to remove Alexander Jannaeus from power. The pesher then quotes the Book of Nahum 2:12: “The lion catches enough for his cubs, and strangles prey for his mates.” The ancient reader would know that Nahum continued, “?‘I am going to deal with you,’ declares the Lord of Hosts” (Nahum 2:14 [verse 13 in English]). The pesher text then refers to the lion in the Nahum text as “the Lion of Wrath” who kills some of his people by “hanging them alive” (i.e., crucifixion). Because Alexander Jannaeus crucified the Pharisees who had invited Demetrius to invade Judea, it is clear that Jannaeus must be the “Lion of Wrath.” In subsequent passages the Nahum Pesher quotes additional verses from Nahum to describe a change in government and the reign of a woman: “Because of the countless fornications of the prostitute, the alluring mistress of sorcery, who ensnares nations with her harlotries and people with her sorcery” (Nahum 3:4). Again the ancient reader would know that this passage was followed by: “?‘I am going to deal with you,’ declares the Lord of Hosts” (Nahum 3:5). The pesher is clearly alluding to Salome Alexandra and her reign. The Dead Sea Scroll sectarians denounce her simply because they rejected all Hasmonean monarchs. The pesher also seems to have had difficulty accepting the reign of a woman since they wanted the reader to equate the evil “prostitute” denounced by Nahum with Salome Alexandra. Josephus tells us very little about Salome Alexandra during her husband’s reign of terror. In Jannaeus’s last three years in power (79–76 B.C.E.), he suffered from the effects of a lifetime of heavy drinking and quartan fever or malaria, yet he continued to wage war to expand Judea. At this time, and during the many years he spent campaigning outside Judea, Salome Alexandra must have acted as regent. This is suggested by the manner in which she became queen. When Jannaeus was across the Jordan besieging the city of Ragaba, she was there.9 Jannaeus realized he was dying. In Josephus’s words: Alexander [Jannaeus therefore] bequeathed the kingdom to his wife [Salome] Alexandra, being convinced that the Jews would bow to her authority as they would to no other, because by her utter lack of his brutality and by her opposition to his crimes she had won the affections of the populace. Nor was he mistaken in these expectations; for this frail woman firmly held the reigns of government, thanks to her reputation for piety.10 When Jannaeus died, Salome Alexandra continued his military campaign, successfully captured Ragaba and returned home to Jerusalem as the nation’s new monarch. Judea’s future was now in the hands of a woman. The Judeans willingly accepted a female ruler even though Salome Alexandra had two grown sons! Salome Alexandra appears to have made peace with her husband’s enemy, the Nabatean king Aretas, and apparently undertook a military expedition to help him regain Damascus from a strongman named Ptolemy Mennaeus. By this action, Salome Alexandra brought peace to Judea’s eastern and northern frontiers, long a scene of conflict during her husband’s reign. Salome Alexandra realized that she had to adopt some of her husband’s policies and keep a strong military, lest neighboring powers seek to annex Judea now that a woman held the reins of power. According to Josephus: [She] took thought for the welfare of the kingdom and recruited a large force of mercenaries and also made her own force twice as large, with the result that she struck terror into the local rulers round her.11 Josephus also remarks that she “proved to be a wonderful administrator in larger affairs,” doubling the size of Judea’s army and hiring additional foreign troops. In a later expedition to Ptolemais—scene of her husband’s disastrous expedition—she confronted the Armenian king Tigranes, who abandoned his plan to invade Judea and left the region. He apparently realized that a fight with the powerful Queen Salome Alexandra, and her considerable military force, was not worth the trouble. Unlike her husband, Salome Alexandra successfully used the mere threat of violence to prevent conflict and bring peace and stability to the region. Salome Alexandra not only made peace with her husband’s foreign enemies, but also with his religious foes. It was during the Hasmonean period that the Pharisees and Sadducees—both familiar to readers of the New Testament for their encounters with Jesus—became prominent religious parties. Both struggled for the hearts and minds of ordinary Judeans. Unfortunately, we do not have any document that we can definitively say was written by a Pharisee or a Sadducee of Salome Alexandra’s day. Scholars must rely upon later, often-inaccurate, sources to learn about them. According to the New Testament: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angels, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Acts 23:8). Although Jesus called the ­Pharisees “hypocrites” (Matthew 12:13) and “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:23), these references are unfair. Because Jesus and the early Christians believed in resurrection, they viewed the Pharisees as their greatest rivals; for this reason, the New Testament accounts cannot always be trusted to present a fair and balanced portrayal of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were greatly respected by the people of Jesus’ day. This was because they promised the masses the hope of an afterlife. Moreover, unlike the aristocratic Sadducees, a group largely composed of upper-class priestly families, the Pharisees were ordinary Judeans. In keeping with their common roots, the Pharisees emphasized simple, pious living and devotion to the Torah. Most important, the Pharisees believed in the Oral Law: teachings that were purportedly passed down from the time of Moses until their day. They considered these laws binding along with the written laws of Scripture. The Oral Law was popular among the masses since it often made life easier. This was especially true of the Sabbath. For example, in Salome Alexandra’s day the Sadducees taught a more rigid adherence to the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. The Hasmoneans had once been Pharisees. But Salome Alexandra’s father-in-law, John Hyrcanus, became a Sadducee. When the Pharisees challenged his right to serve a high priest, he not only abrogated the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law, he persecuted those who continued to observe and teach it. The people had no choice but to accept the Sadducean way; otherwise they would be banned from worshiping in the Temple. When the Sadducees took control of the Temple, they disregarded the Oral Law. This made them very unpopular with most Judeans who already distrusted them for their ties to the government. Salome Alexandra alone among the Hasmoneans recognized that the Sadducees were immensely unpopular and that the Hasmonean monarchy faced an uncertain future until it made peace with the Pharisees. Although Hyrcanus’s sons Judah Aristobulus, Antigonus and Salome Alexandra’s husband, Jannaeus, remained Sadducees, Salome Alexandra was a committed Pharisee. The Talmud, the compendium of Jewish Law and lore, preserves several stories about Salome Alexandra that suggest she openly supported the Pharisees during her husband’s reign. During her own reign, with the help of a leading Pharisee named Simeon ben Shetah, the court system was reformed, and the ketubah—the woman’s marriage contract that specified the obligations of the groom toward his bride—was introduced. A continuous stream of tradition from the first century B.C.E. to the redaction of the Mishnahb at the end of the second century C.E. associates wealthy influential women with the Pharisees. In exchange for their financial support, the Pharisees gave these women greater religious and legal rights than the Saducees did. Also during her reign, children were required to attend school, a decree that presumably included young girls. The Talmud preserves a charming story about Salome’s reign that reflects the high regard in which she was held: The story is told that in the days of Simeon b[en] Shetah and in the days of Salome the Queen, that the rains would come down from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, until the wheat became like kidneys, the barley like olive pits, and the lentils like golden denars. The sages gathered some of them and put them aside for the coming generations.12 Because the rabbis who wrote the Talmud were the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees, modern Judaism is, to a great extent, the direct descendant of the Pharisaic Judaism developed in part through Salome Alexandra’s patronage of the Pharisees. What about Salome Alexandra’s children—Hyrcanus (II) and Aristobulus (II)? After all, in the normal course of things, they could expect to succeed their father. Again, we rely on Josephus: Of these sons, the one, Hyrcanus [II], was too weak to govern and in addition much preferred a quiet life, while the younger, Aristobulus [II], was a man of action and high spirit. As for the queen [Salome] herself, she was loved by the masses because she was thought to disapprove of the crimes committed by her husband. [Salome] Alexandra appointed Hyrcanus [II] as high priest because of his greater age but more especially because of his lack of energy; and she permitted the Pharisees to do as they liked in all matters, and also commanded the people to obey them; and whatever regulations, introduced by the Pharisees in accordance with the tradition of their fathers, had been abolished by her father-in-law Hyrcanus [I], these she again restored. And so, while she had the title of sovereign, the Pharisees had the power.13 Although Josephus wanted to portray Salome Alexandra as a pawn of the Pharisees, a close reading of his accounts suggest that she was a strong-willed and independent monarch. She had, after all, remained a Pharisee at the time when her husband had persecuted, and even crucified, members of this religious movement!14 Salome Alexandra’s only failure was, perhaps, her younger son Aristobulus. She apparently never won his loyalty. He was too much like his father; he was a military man and a Sadducee. Moreover, the two sons hated one another. When archaeologists excavated the magnificent winter palace of the ­Hasmoneans in the warm desert oasis of Jericho, they uncovered two identical adjacent complexes that Salome Alexandra had built: one for her son Hyrcanus, the other for her son Aristobulus.15 Salome Alexandra must have loved both of her sons, but she apparently realized that she had to keep her two sons apart from one another even in their leisure time! Although she sought to provide both with the same comforts and amenities, the elder one, Hyrcanus, was clearly her favorite: She had chosen him to be Judea’s high priest. According to Josephus, the younger Aristobulus, “let it be plainly seen that if only he should get the opportunity, he would not leave his mother any power at all.”16 In 67 B.C.E., Salome Alexandra became ill. She was 73 years old and had ruled Judea for nine years. Aristobulus took advantage of her physical limitations and staged a coup. She ordered her son Hyrcanus and her officials to use any means necessary to quell the rebellion. Salome Alexandra spent her final hours leading the nation. Before her death, she likely appointed Hyrcanus as king. His reign lasted only three months, however, before he relinquished the throne to his bellicose brother. Unfortunately, at the urging of his friend Antipater—father of Herod the Great—the inept Hyrcanus tried to regain his former titles. The Romans took advantage of this sibling rivalry and, in 63 B.C.E., invaded Judea. Hyrcanus was restored to his position as high priest, but not as king. Judea was now declared a Roman possession. The Hasmonean age was over. Direct Roman rule had begun. The last word belongs to Josephus: [Salome Alexandra] was a woman who showed none of the weakness of her sex; for being one of those inordinately desirous of the power to rule, she showed by her deeds the ability to carry out her plans, and at the same time she exposed the folly of those men who continually fail to maintain sovereign power.17 Although largely forgotten today, Salome Alexandra was likely the greatest Hasmonean ever to have sat upon the throne. Additional Reading from the BAS Library: Salome’s Dance BR 18:01, Feb 2002 Footnotes: I'm not going to copy all of them here, but I wanted to make sure this gets translated. It's footnote 'a', about Salome's name: But she is also known by several other names—Shel-Zion, Shalmonin, Shalmza and Shlamto. The esteemed historian of ancient Judaism Jacob Neusner has called her “a queen whose name no one can get straight.”3 The Dead Sea Scrolls have now revealed for the first time in more than 2,000 years her real name: Shelamzion. Its shorter version is Salome.4.

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