Reading into Maccabees, Part 2

So, I had to find out about this oil thing.

The Hanukkah story I learned as a child is that when the Maccabees restored the Temple, they only had enough kosher oil to light the menorah for one day. But, miracle of miracles, the oil burned for eight!

In the last reading, I mentioned that the Temple is actually lit by candles. I may have spoken too soon. Where the Coptic text I was reading said “candles,” the King James Version of 1 Maccabees clarifies that they’re actually “candlesticks” on which the oil lamps are stood.

Nevertheless, 1 Maccabees is a stubbornly unmiraculous book, and the story of the “Miracle of Hanukkah” infuriated me because it wasn’t in the text: it was an unfounded myth, like the Tooth Fairy. So I looked further into it, and discovered through an article from Professor Shawna Dolansky that the story of the oil is in a Jewish sacred text:

…Hanukkah, not being a holiday mentioned in the Jewish Bible…was at best a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar for many centuries. About 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees, the Talmud relays the story of the miracle of the oil.

In the eyes of medieval rabbis, the Maccabees were not heroes, but zealots– a viewpoint we’ll encounter again in due time. The miracle of the oil, then, takes the story out of the hands of religious fundamentalists and into the hands of God. Besides, if you’re going to have an eight-day holiday, it might as well have a miracle.

Anyway, the first Hanukkah was always the end of the story as we knew it. But here, we’re only 1/4 of the way through 1 Maccabees. What’s next?

Chapter 5

All of the idealism of the first chapter is gone. The author of 1 Maccabees now has nothing but contempt for Judah’s neighbours. Hey, scholars: was 1 Maccabees written during the events it describes? It certainly reads like it: the lack of detail with regard to the battles is exactly what I’d leave out if I’d just finished fighting them, and the creeping cynicism of the author wonderfully conveys the passage of time.

The Maccabees take out all of their neighbours, including the Edomites (so much for Esau’s “great nation”), Ammonites, Philistines, Nabateans, and Galilee. This, of course, mightily pisses off those who survive. Timothy, king of Ammon, hires an army of Arabs, and says that if Judah doesn’t cross the Jordan, they will be safe to attack. But Judah does cross, Timothy is defeated, and those Jews residing in the area are invited to come back to Judea. This is followed by more fighting. It is boring.

Chapter 6

With his empire on the verge of total collapse, Antiochus tries to sack Elymais (a city made great by Alexander, the author boasts) and fails miserably. Only now, on the way back from another failed conquest, does he learn of everything that’s happened in Judea. Antiochus panics, takes responsibility for the fact that his genocide brought this defeat upon him, and dies.

So passes Antiochus IV, and so arrives Antiochus V.

After some very confusing prose– there’s a battle, but it’s impossible to tell who’s fighting whom or where– the new Antiochus re-invades Judea, and initially wins, but because it’s a Jubilee year, there’s not enough food and the Seleucids begin to starve. In light of this, they decide to sign an armistice with the Jews. As they leave, they tear down the walls of Jerusalem, but they leave nonetheless.

Chapter 7

Demetrius is a Seleucid prince, and thinks he has a stronger claim to the throne than his 11 year-old cousin, Antiochus V. The only problem is that he’s a hostage in Rome. So he escapes (sadly without further detail), returns to Antioch, and has both Antiochus and Lysias killed. The assimilated Jews come to Demetrius demanding that the Maccabees be overthrown, and that they themselves should be put in charge of Judea.

Demetrius appoints the priest Alcimus and the Greek general Bacchides to lead this new Jewish front (The People’s Judean Front? The People’s Front of Judea?). They send diplomats to flatter the Maccabees, but secretly plot to incite revolt. Judah is furious, considering the traitorous Jews to be worse than the Seleucids, and goes around killing anyone suspected of betraying him. Alcimus flees, and Demetrius sends Prince Nicanor to take down the Jews. Nicanor is defeated, but promises to destroy the Temple if he ever returns while Judah still lives. In the next battle, Nicanor is killed. Judah declares that this day, Adar 13, will also be a holiday forevermore. Unfortunately, that’s already a holiday: the Fast of Esther.

Chapter 8

All About the Romans.

This chapter is mostly concerned with the exploits of the burgeoning Roman Republic, how wealthy it is, how the Senate is great, and how they’re horrible enemies but faithful allies. Judah proposes an alliance with the Romans, and the Romans agree, on the condition that they can modify the new treaty whenever they want. Uh-oh.

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