lethargic_man: "Happy the person that finds wisdom, and the person that gets understanding."—Prov. 3:13. Icon by Tamara Rigg (limmud)
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In Exodus 25:31-40, the Torah relates G-d's instruction to make a lampstand (Menorah) for the Temple, in a shape apparently inspired by that of the plant, Salvia palaestina (a member of the sage genus). From the late Second Temple period onward, the menorah became a Jewish symbol and representations of it are to be found. However, Sean Kingsley argues in his book God's Gold that there's no evidence whatsoever for the existence of a lampstand in this period during the First Temple period: no representations of it have been found, and none of the surrounding peoples had anything remotely similar. He concludes the original menorah was a cultic lampstand in a single piece, like a thick column, with seven oil lamps sitting on the flat top.

Given the above, I was curious to see the following in Josephus's description of the temple built by Onias IV at Leontopolis, in Egypt:

He made the structure of the altar in imitation of that in our own country, and in like manner adorned with gifts, excepting the make of the candlestick, for he did not make a candlestick, but had a [single] lamp hammered out of a piece of gold, which illuminated the place with its rays, and which he hung by a chain of gold.

A bit of context: Immediately prior to the Hasmonean revolt, Antiochus IV Epiphanes took the High Priesthood away from its rightful incumbent, Onias III, and gave it to his brother Jason, and then later to their brother Menelaus. It was at this point that Antiochus entered the Temple and plundered it of its vessels, including the Menorah, as described in 1 Maccabees 1:21 (and probably somewhere in Antiquities too, could I be bothered to dig out the reference). 1 Maccabees 4:49 states that when the Hasmoneans reconquered the Temple, "they made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table." How did they get those, if the old ones were taken by Antiochus into Syria? Possibly here is where a new Menorah was made. It's perhaps not insignificant that I don't think we have representations of the Menorah from before the Hasmonean period, i.e. after this.

That said, even the staunchest of Bible critics would concede that the Torah reached its current form by the time of Ezra, centuries earlier, and it does give clear indications that the Menorah is to be in the form of seven branches. OTOH, it also clearly says that it is to be made of a single piece of gold, which would be rather tricky to do with a seven-branched candelabrum. Might it have been the case, do you think, that the original Menorah could have been of a single piece, like a thick column, with the representation of the classical, sage-inspired, design in bas-relief on the front?

And, as one final note on this: It's interesting to see how the form Onias gave to his menorah, hanging by a chain from the ceiling, evokes that of the Eternal Light in many synagogues today.

[Josephus] Josephus notes         Jewish learning notes index


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