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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Plot.

1.

The story purports to record an otherwise unknown attempt to exterminate the Jews of Egypt under Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–205 BCE). Following his victory over the Seleucid Antiochus III at the battle of Raphia (217 BCE), Ptolemy made a tour of his subject territories, honouring their temples as he went. Responding to a warm invitation from Jerusalem, he also visited the temple there, but insisted on entering the Holy of Holies, to the horror of the Jews. However, following their prayers for deliverance from this violation, God's intervention struck the king unconscious. Full of rage at this rebuff, the king returned to Alexandria, determined on exacting revenge against the Jews. At the instigation of certain courtiers, he issued a decree removing all civil rights from the Jews of Alexandria with the exception of Jewish apostates who, if they embraced the cult of Dionysus, would be treated like citizens of Alexandria. A further royal decree, fuelled by widespread resistance to the first plan and by rumours of Jews' disloyalty to the crown, planned for the extermination of all the Jews of Egypt. The king commanded that they be taken to Alexandria, registered, and executed.

2.

As the burlesque dimension of the story unfolds, each attempt to destroy the Jews is foiled as God intervenes to rescue them in answer to their prayers. First, a complete registration fails because papyrus and calami (reed pens) run out after forty days of writing! Then all the king's attempts to kill the Jews in the hippodrome with 500 drunken elephants come to nothing. Thanks to the Jews' prayers and God's action, the king is prevented from carrying out the execution. First he oversleeps; then he forgets completely about his plan; and, finally, two angels appear to the Jews' enemies, paralysing them and forcing the elephants back to crush them and not the Jews.

3.

The king is brought to acknowledge the Jews' loyalty and that ‘the living God of heaven’ protects the Jews ( 6:28 ). Ptolemy turns from annihilator to protector of the Jews, commanding their safe return home and decreeing a seven-day feast of deliverance for them which the Jews determine to celebrate as a festival for ever. All ends happily except for Jewish apostates: with the king's permission, the Jews execute 300 who abandoned Judaism under the king's first decree, on the grounds that Jews disloyal to God will also be disloyal to the crown. On their return home, with further celebrations, the Jews can look forward to a secure future: ‘They had even greater authority than before among their enemies and were regarded with high esteem and awe; no one at all extorted their property… The great God had accomplished great things for their salvation’ ( 7:21–2 ; tr. Andersen 1985 ).

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