Reading into Maccabees, Part 3

Chapter 9

Finally, some strategy! Bacchides returns to beseige Jerusalem, but Judah’s overconfidence does him no good this time: he’s killed, and Bacchides conquers Judea. Judah’s brothers form a government in exile in the Negev. The eldest, John, is killed by local tribesmen, who are slaughtered in revenge at a wedding. They clash with Bacchides, who fortifies the Jewish cities now under his control. Alcimus, meanwhile, decides to desecrate the Temple once more, but then dies, possibly of a stroke.

Bacchides decides this is the perfect time to destroy the Maccabees, now led by Simon and Jonathan. But once more, numbers and superior firepower are no match for local guerillas. Jonathan’s men destroy Bacchides’ war machines, then force him to release his prisoners of war and make him promise never to return to Judea.

Chapter 10

A random Greek named Alexander claims to be the son of Antiochus IV, and gets both Rome and Egypt to recognize his claim. Recognizing that civil war is iminent, both he and Demetrius reach out to Jonathan hoping for an alliance. Each side promises the Jews more and more: cash, territory, money, freedom. But Jonathan is no fool, and sides with Alexander (they’re both allied with the Romans anyway). Demetrius is killed, Alexander becomes King, and he marries Princess Cleopatra of Egypt (not that Cleopatra).

But the feud continues: Demetrius’ son (also named Demetrius), joins with General Apollonius to reconquer Seleucia. Jonathan hears of this and sends his armies to stop them. King Alexander is so impressed that he grants the Jews more territory. Hooray!

Chapter 11

Shit. Ptolemy of Egypt ignores his marital alliance with Alexander and decides to ally with Demetrius, promising that Demetrius can marry Cleopatra once she’s a widow. Ptolemy marches right into Antioch and seizes power. Alexander flees into Arabia, where he’s beheaded by tribesmen loyal to Egypt. Ptolemy dies shortly after, and Demetrius II becomes king.

In response, Jonathan besieges the Seleucid castle in Jerusalem. In the meantime, Demetrius invites Jonathan to negotiate. He praises Jonathan, recognizes him as high priest, and begs him to stop fighting. Jonathan agrees on the condition that Judea receive full independence with new, expanded borders.

Suddenly, the Seleucid army revolts against Demetrius. Demetrius calls the Jews for help, and they send an army to save him, but Demetrius is not the least bit grateful. His general Tryphon returns with Alexander’s young son, Antiochus. Demetrius flees, and Antiochus becomes King Antiochus VI. The book claims that the new King assures the Jews that their freedom will continue, but I’m not sure I buy it because he’s only three years old.

Chapter 12

Jonathan seeks to renew his alliances with Rome and Sparta. He should have made allies closer to home. After putting down another Demetrian rebellion, he goes to Egypt and is killed. General Tryphon kills King Antiochus, makes himself King, and marches on Judea.

They have no prince, nor any to help them: now therefore let us make war upon them, and take away the memory of them from amongst men.

In other words…

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.

Reading into Maccabees, Part 1

Happy Hanukkah, everyone!

For those of you who aren’t in the know, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday celebrating the Jews’ independence from the Seleucid Empire. In America, it’s celebrated as a gift-giving holiday so Jewish kids don’t feel bad about not having Christmas. A lot of purists resent the gift-giving because it’s not part of the original holiday, but as I’ve gotten older, I like it. Jewish kids should have a gift-giving holiday– though I might be biased because I’m really good at picking out gifts for people. We also eat potato pancakes and donuts. My grandma’s recipe is wonderful.

If you’ve been exposed to the Hanukkah story before, you’ll likely have heard some things about magic oil. Well, not exactly: the story of Hanukkah can be found in the Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, historical texts that was left out of the Bible (for reasons to be discussed), but important enough to be kept in the Jewish temple before its destruction. In light of the season, I’m going to plow through Maccabees, highlighting what I find most interesting. On each of Hanukkah’s eight days, I’ll post my impression of four chapters. Let’s see how this goes…

Chapter 1

The Jews of this period loved Alexander the Great. Not only did they start naming their children Alexander and Alexandra; they spent the first eight verses detailing his exploits:

And he went through even to the ends of the Earth…and the Earth was quiet before him…his heart was exalted and lifted up.”

Of all the gentile historical figures of this time, only Alexander is talked about this way. Unlike Cyrus of Persia, who was seen as a kind, fair-minded Gentile, the author of 1 Maccabees truly sees Alexander as his leader.

Anyway, as Alexander is dying, he divides his empire among an assortment of Greek nobles. This turns out to be a terrible idea: these new rulers are universally awful, especially Antiochus the Illustrious. Meanwhile, many of the Jews are assimilating into Greek culture, going so far as to build a gym in Jerusalem. Since you had to be naked in a gym, everyone can see your penis, so increasingly Jewish men making themselves fake foreskins.

Antiochus conquers Egypt (though it doesn’t take), then turns back to Jerusalem and ransacks the Temple, taking its precious ornaments and killing Jews indiscriminately. Two years later, he sends one of his tax collectors to do it again, but this time it’s worse– Antiochus’ emissaries burn down Jerusalem and expel its population, then rebuild it for themselves, going so far as to kill people in the Temple. The Seleucids make it illegal to perform Jewish rites or celebrate Jewish holidays, not just in Jerusalem but everywhere. Holy books are burned when found, people are forced to eat non-kosher food, small boys are hanged for being circumcised. Scripture before this point has described many attempts to wipe out the Jews before, but never in this much detail.

Many Jews choose to die rather than abandon their religion, but the book is curiously ambiguous about whether that’s good or not. Other books have made a case for “passing,” but Maccabees merely finishes the first chapter with “And there was very great wrath among the people.”

Maccabees is clearly written in a biblical style, but this is one way in which it’s different: the world in which it’s set is recognizably our own. The first chapter notes that Antiochus had been a hostage in Rome. The author makes sure to point out that the other vassals only persecuted the Jews because they feared the same would happen to them if they disobeyed. And consider the phrasing from 1 Maccabees 1:26:

And there was a great mourning in Israel, and in every place they were.

Compare to the Old Testament, which doesn’t mention the goings on of other tribes unless they directly involve the Israelites/Jews, or God Himself. Maccabees is a much more worldly book than the Bible, written from the perspective of a people who had expanded and explored. It’s still addressed to the Jewish people, but acknowledges that there are bigger things going on.

Chapter 2

Here come the Maccabees! Actually, only Judah is called Maccabee; it’s not a family name at all, but a nickname, “the Hammer.”

Matthew, Judah’s father, is pissed: he’s seen his people and his temple desecrated. The occupying Seleucids visit the Maccabees in Modi’in, trying to convince him to worship idols. They’re a lot more cautious with Matthew, and they’re right to be so. When a Jew comes into town to worship idols, Matthew kills him and the Seleucid agents.

The Maccabees and their followers flee into the mountains. The Seleucids find a cell of followers, who refuse to fight on the Sabbath and are thus slaughtered. The Maccabees henceforth declare that it’s okay to fight on the Sabbath if you have to (Shades of the Yom Kippur War). They begin recapturing Jewish towns and restoring the old laws. Before Matthew dies, he commands his sons never to give up those laws, and to be prepared to die for them. Wait, didn’t they just agree that they can violate the Sabbath in self-defense?

This gets at the heart of many social justice movements: of course you can keep your head down and be safe today, and no one can blame you, but eventually people will have to stand tall and take action, even if it means putting themselves in danger.

Matthew is buried in Modi’in. He’s still there!

Chapter 3

Judah Maccabee takes over as leader of the rebels and makes huge gains. He makes such a big name for himself (“he was renowned even to the utmost part of the Earth”) that Seleucid armies in neighbouring provinces make plans to invade Judea. Judah assures his followers that God will enable them to win even though they are outnumbered, and they do, but the text doesn’t explain how. Judah just assures his army that numbers aren’t everything. His father was Michael Collins; he’s Ho Chi Minh.

Antiochus is furious. He shakes down his vassals to fund an all-out war, and hires a distant relative named Lysias to lead the army:

And [Antiochus] delivered to [Lysias] half the army, and the elephants, and he gave him charge concerning all that he would have done, and concerning the inhabitants of Judea, and Jerusalem, and that he should send an army against them, to destroy and root out the strength of Israel, and the remnant of Jerusalem, and to take away the memory of them from that place, and that he should settle strangers to dwell in all their coasts, and divide their land by lot.

I’m surprised Lysias didn’t sell the Jews smallpox-infested blankets.

By the way, until now I imagined Antiochus’ capital being in Iran or Iraq; in fact, it’s just up the coast from Israel. Antioch (of course that’s it’s name) is also right by the city of Alexandretta/Iskenderun, which we all remember from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Chapter 4

Anticipating a sneak attack, Judah comes up with his very own version of Operation Quicksilver, diverting the enemy armies into empty hiding places. When the Maccabees reach an enemy camp, they see that the Seleucid army is much better-armed. Judah, channeling his inner Rasta, assures his men that Jah will provide, and he’s right once more.

Again, how are they doing this? The Maccabees don’t even have swords. The author never claims that God actually brought the Jews to victory, only that Judah promised He would.

After that battle, they apparently scare the rest of the soldiers into running away:

A year later, Lysias returns with an army of 65,000 men. Judah has only 10,000, but again they defeat the invaders, and again I’m left wondering how. The author mentions that Lysias sees “how bold the Jews were, and that they were ready either to live, or to die manfully,” but that can’t be the full answer, and in any case it only entices Lysias to return with more troops.

With Lysias gone, Judah commands the Jews to restore the Temple in Jerusalem. First, they fortify the Temple Mount with higher walls (including the Western Wall), then they build a new altar and make new furnishings for the sanctuary. Now the high priest, Judah calls for a period of absoultion and consecration that lasts eight days.

And Judah and his brethren, and all of Israel decreed that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the 25th day of Kislev, with joy and gladness.

Hanukkah, ladies and gentlemen. There was no oil to miraculously light the lamps of the Temple for longer than expected. In fact, this chapter mentions that the lamps used candles!

Lands of the Setting Sun: Stuck


In addition to being one of the oldest cities in Europe, Córdoba is also the hottest city in Europe. And while it wasn’t warm on New Years’ Day, it wasn’t cold enough to snow; it had rained early in the morning when we made way to La Mezquita, a block from our hotel.

La Mezquita was formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba, with its striped arches and beautiful garden. We hung around there for a while, waiting to be let in. The inside of the building isn’t as big as it looks in pictures, and it’s still in use as a religious house. When the Castilians arrived, they built a cathedral inside it, so when you see it from the outside, one building appears to have grown out of the other like a parasitic wasp.

Inside the cathedral was quiet. Finally a priest showed up. My mom, who is not accustomed to seeing priests outside of movies, was enthralled. I was less enthralled by the prospect of being stuck there for an hour, so I convinced her to bail for lunch. As the bells rang for noon, we looked through the streets.


After searching for restaurants we found the kind of place where kings and presidents and prime ministers ate when they visited. Casually wondering really how often Tony Blair made it to this particular city, I noticed that one of the past visitors had been the current King of Morocco. He was a distant descendant of the Sultans and Emirs that would have ruled most of Spain and Portugal from this very city. I later discovered that the restaurant didn’t open until 13:30, so we got the hell out and ate somewhere else while planning the remainder of our trip. We were going to keep going south, beyond even Spain. And I still hadn’t done laundry.

Author’s note: Fellow Bosco alum Jake Hawkes is presently backpacking through Galicia. I didn’t go to Galicia, but we still salute him.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Los Judíos

When the AVE arrived in Córdoba, we fell off the train– we’d come in much earlier than thought, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this train wouldn’t linger in the station very long. We ran right out to the taxi area.

“Hotel Albucasis, Calle Buen Pastor once,” I said to the driver, who may have been the same age as me. Thus began the most terrifying cab ride of my life.

Córdoba is old, it had already been around for centuries when the Romans arrived, and people have been living there ever since. Most of the city, still enclosed by a wall, consists of streets six feet wide with tight curves. The entire street we were on was barely wide enough for the taxi with no way of seeing in front of us, and the guy was driving at 40 miles an hour. But we reached our hotel. This was the Judería.

Córdoba has been a city as long as anyone can remember. The Carthaginians named it Kartuba after a general who was killed near by. The Romans came around in the 3rd century BC, where it was home to the father-and-son philosophers Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Younger. When the Visigoths captured Spain, the Byzantines briefly took it back, but eventually the Moors came and took care of business.

Córdoba under Islamic rule was the capital of Al Andalus and one of the largest cities in the world, much bigger than it is even today. We are told in history class that the Moors were a kind and gentle people who were eventually pushed out by the feckless papists. At least that’s what they said at Barnhart Middle School. In reality, Spain was always a mostly Christian country ruled over by a Muslim minority. Due to the country’s remoteness from the Arab world, it was a pretty lax place: the state of Al-Andalus broke up into several states ruled over by Emirs both Christian and Muslim until they were conquered by Islamic fanatics from Mauretania– the AQIM of its day– who antagonized the country’s impoverished Christian trading partners in the north enough to cause the Reconquista, the western front of the Crusades. Which brings us to La Judería.

For two hundred years, Córdoba was part of the Crown of Castile but still enjoyed religious freedom, and La Judería was the Jewish section during that time. It was a prosperous place with big houses, synagogues; it was Spain’s Upper West Side. It was also home to the Jewish philosopher Maimonedes, better known to me, and to fans of The Big Lebowski, as Rambam.

It's the whole concept of aitch!

All of this, of course, was covered up and forgotten when the Spanish Inquisition came, but the Judería was rediscovered by local monks digging around in the 1870s and Spain today is quite proud of their Jewish history. Sam Ettinger told me that Spain was one of the most antisemitic countries in Europe, but I found no evidence of that whatsoever. My mom and I had lunch first, at an amazing Sephardic restaurant tucked away, as I recall, behind some bushes. I had chicken and rice and falafel. It was spectacular.

After that we visited the Jewish museum, really a restored medieval townhouse filled with whatever artifacts people found walled up in their homes or under their kitchen tiles. Because the streets are so narrow, houses in Córdoba are built with gardens on the inside like donut holes, and this one was spectacular. But I looked over at my mom and something had come over her. Something I’d never seen before. Some of my ancestors are from here; they escaped Spain to go to Odessa, which was then part of Turkey. That’s why I looked like these people. We were here.

I spent the afternoon desperately looking for a laundromat. I was out of clean clothes for the first time since Barcelona, but no place was open. I should mention it was New Years’ Eve. In Spain, people don’t come out to celebrate until after midnight, so the streets were dead as we searched for dinner. I settled for a kebab on the high street near the Plaza de las Tendillas, which was lit up with blue LEDs for the upcoming celebrations.


When midnight did come, the bells of La Mezquita rang like hell through the whole city. I was finally over jet-lag, but sadly not enough to go out any later.