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!