The previous post told the story of the Shamir, and of the building of Solomon’s Temple. In this post, I’ll bring some traditions regarding the destruction of that temple. The Biblical narrative can be found at the end of Kings and Chronicles, and in Jeremiaha 39 and 52. In short, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, claimed the entire region for himself. He sieged Jerusalem, and replaced the King of Judea with a puppet ruler from the House of David. That King, relying on the traditional alliance with Egypt, defied Nebuchadnezzar, who promptly sent Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard to siege Jerusalem again, lay its temples and palaces to ruin and exile the royal and priestly elite.
As always, where the Chronicler saw politics, the sages saw the Hand of God. The destruction of Solomon’s Temple has been woven into legend, as prefiguration of the destruction of the Second Temple and of the martyrdom of the First Crusade.
The Targum Sheni, a collection of Midrashim related to the book of Esther, recounts how Jerusalem was chosen as the target of Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath.
Nebuchadnezzar the Wicked, king of Babylon, did his pagan rites with arrows and idols. He shot an arrow to the west, and the arrow flew toward Jerusalem. He shot an arrow to the east, and the arrow flew toward Jerusalem. And wherever he aimed his arrows, they would not land there, but they turned and flew toward Jerusalem. And then Nebuchadnezzar the Wicked sent his generals toward Jerusalem to fight and conquer it.
When he arrives at the temple, he discovers that since its stones were not cut with iron tools, they could not be destroyed by iron.
When the gates of our Temple saw that an unclean gentile stands before them, they closed on their own accord and would not open. The army of Babylon came, and they brought with them 360 camels carrying iron axes and hatchets. The soldiers hit the gates of the temple with axes and hatchets and could not open them, because the weapons all merged with the gates, leaving the Babylonians with nothing but the wooden handles. Nebuchadnezzar and his advisors were frightened, and would leave the House of God.
Parnitus, one of the King’s advisors, went before the King and said, “Know, Your Highness, that the builders of this house did not build it with axes and hammers and other iron tools, and it therefore fears not the iron. Let me try to sprinkle it with the blood of a pig, so that I would defile it and destroy its holiness; it would lose its power and become a normal gate”. Nebuchadnezzar replied, “Do as you said”.
Partinus slaughtered a pig and sprinkled its blood on the Temple gates and defiled them, whereupon they opened up before the Babylonian host.
In the older and slightly more dramatic version of the story, found in tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, the gates of the temple opened not because of an advisor’s cunning trick, but because of divine intervention.
Nebuchadnezzar sent Nebuzaradan three hundred mules laden with iron axes that could break iron, but they were all shattered on a single gate of Jerusalem, for it is written, And now they attack its gate together: with axes and hammers they smite. He desired to return, but said, ‘I am afraid lest I meet the same fate which befell Sennacherib.’ Thereupon a voice cried out, ‘Thou jumper, son of a jumper, Nebuzaradan, jump, for the time has come for the Sanctuary to be destroyed and the Temple burnt.’ He had but one axe left, so he went and smote [the gate] with the head thereof, and it opened… He hewed down [the Jews] as he proceeded, until he reached the Temple. Upon his setting fire thereto, it sought to rise up, but was trodden down from Heaven… His mind was now elated [with his triumph], when a divine voice came forth from Heaven saying to him, ‘Thou hast slain a dead people, thou hast burned a Temple already burned, thou hast ground flour already ground. (Sanhedrin 96b)
Like every good conqueror, Nebuzardan celebrates his victory with a hearty massacre of the priests. Like every good historian, the sages give him a more elevated reason for doing so.
He noticed the blood of Zechariah bubbling up warm, and asked what it was. [The priests] said: It is the blood of the sacrifices which has been poured there. He had some [animal] blood brought, but it was different from the other. He then said to them: If you tell me [the truth], well and good, but if not, I will tear your flesh with combs of iron. They said: What can we say to you? There was a prophet among us who used to reprove us for our irreligion, and we rose up against him and killed him, and for many years his blood has not rested. He said to them: I will appease him.
He brought the great Sanhedrin and the small Sanhedrin [=The low and high Rabbinical courts] and killed them over it, but the blood did not cease. He then slaughtered young men and women, but the blood did not cease. He brought school-children and slaughtered them over it, but the blood did not cease. So he said; Zechariah, Zechariah. I have slain the best of them; do you want me to destroy them all? When he said this to him, it stopped.
Straightway Nebuzaradan felt remorse. He said to himself: If such is the penalty for slaying one soul, what will happen to me who have slain such multitudes? So he fled away, and sent a deed to his house disposing of his effects and became a convert (Gittin 57b).
The Talmudic tale ends with the conversion of Nebuzardan, but the text of Targum Sheni continues to describe the fate of the priests who somehow managed to escape his wrath.
When the the High Priest saw the priests being killed and slaughtered, he wore his habit and the Ephod, took the keys to the temple in his hand and climbed to the roof of the Temple, where he cried: “Our Temple has been taken by the enemy, abandoned by its owners and forsaken by its guardians”! He jumped into the flames and burned. When the rest of the priests saw the High Priest burning in the fire, they too took their harps and fiddles and other musical instruments, and they too jumped into the flame.
The sages rewrote the Biblical history so that every major event is either dictated by Jews (such as Zechariah), or directly caused by God as a retribution against the immorality of the Jews or their enemies. Their pseudo-historical accounts of such events seem contrived to the modern reader, and justly so. Then again, consider how many people today believe that either President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, God or some combination of the three were directly responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe a few millenia from now, a blogger will have to explain why such narratives were entirely acceptable to the people of the 20th and 21st centuries.