The first book of the Maccabees

Here is my short summary on the first book of the Machabees, that wonderful, heroic tale of the family of the priest of Modin, Mattathias, who dared in the face of utter destruction to stand up to the tyranny of the Greek dynastic rule in northern Syria, which was one part of the great empire that had been established by the Macedonian general, Alexander the Great, in roughly 333 BC. As part of his empire-building procedure, Alexander had promoted Greek culture throughout his new possessions, from Egypt to Persia and the Indus valley. After Alexander died at an unexpectedly early age, his territories were divided between three of his generals. Of the various divisions, we are chiefly concerned here with the power in the north-Syrian town of Antioch, where the Seleucid dynasty appeared, and the new power in the old lands of Egypt, where the Ptolemaic dynasty now appeared – it was between these two that the unfortunate Jewish community was pushed and pulled between. The book itself describes the creation of these rival Greek kingdoms:

“So reigned Alexander for twelve years, and so died. And what of these courtiers turned princes, each with a province of his own? Be sure they put on royal crowns, they and their sons after them, and so the world went from bad to worse. Burgeoned then from the stock of Antiochus a poisoned growth, another Antiochus, he that was called the Illustrious. He had been formerly a hostage at Rome, but now, in the hundred and thirty-seventh year of the Grecian empire, he came into his kingdom.”

I Machabees, 1: 8-11

The Greek powers continued with Alexander’s promotion of Greek culture, but at least the Seleucids were particularly aggressive, and this aggression came up against the well-defined Hebrew and Jewish nationhood and religion. As with all political movements, the advance of Greek customs in Judaea had created two rivalling factions – the Jews who wished to remain with their ancestral customs and religion (‘conservatives’) and the Jews who wished to ‘move with the world’ (‘progressives’). The latter quickly fell into dissipation and began establishing Grecian elements within civic society. 

“In his day there were godless talkers abroad in Israel, that did not want for a hearing; ‘Come,’ said they, ‘let us make terms with the heathen that dwell about us! Ever since we forswore their company, nought but trouble has come our way. What would you?’ Such talk gained credit, and some were at pains to ask for the royal warrant; whereupon leave was given them, Gentile usages they should follow if they would. With that, they must have a game-place at Jerusalem, after the Gentile fashion, ay, and go uncircumcised; forgotten, their loyalty to the holy covenant, they must throw in their lot with the heathen, and become the slaves of impiety.

I Machabees, 1: 12-16

And so the scene was set for the new culture to be imposed by force of law, and the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes set about promptly to destroy the Jewish religion. The first part of the book is about the utter desolation of Jerusalem and Judaea that resulted, as the ‘progressive’ party of the Jews took to Greek customs and the Temple and priesthood were devastated. But there was, as there always is, a ‘conservative’ party and these threw in their lot with the priest Mattathias and his sons, who led a revolt against Antioch and fled for protection to the wilderness of Judaea, from where they began guerrilla warfare against the Greeks. The martial work was left to the more warlike of the sons of Mattathias, Judas, who was called Machabeus, ‘the hammer.’ He and his brothers were therefore the Machabees and the book is their story, how they fortified cities and defended the people against the petty tyranny of the Seleucids. These wicked men went so far as to cunningly massacre the Jews on the Sabbath, because they knew that the Jews would not fight on the Sabbath. The Machabees had to work around that:

“Thus, because it was a sabbath day when the attack was made, these men perished, and their wives and children and cattle with them; a thousand human lives lost. Great grief it was to Mattathias and his company when they heard what had befallen them; and now there was high debate raised: ‘Do we as our brethren did, forbear we to give battle for our lives and loyalties, and they will soon make an end of us!’ Then and there it was resolved, if any should attack them on the sabbath day, to engage him, else they should be put to death all of them, like those brethren of theirs in the covert of the hills. Now it was that the Assidaeans rallied to their side, a party that was of great consequence in Israel, lovers of the Law one and all…”

I Machabees, 2: 38-42

In this battle of the cultures, it was necessary for self-preservation to abandon even the Sabbath rule. In the absence of the advice of an actual prophet of the eternal God, the Machabees made several practical adjustments to create what would seem to be an emergency state of life for the people, when they were under threat. This was apparently acceptable to the ultra-orthodox sect of the Assidaeans, who joined sides with the Machabees, as above. The entire Machabean enterprise – which consisted of the rule over the Jewish people by this family of priests – was itself an emergency set-up and it seems obvious that it was meant to persist only until the Will of God was made manifest through a prophet, such as in times past. Chapter three tells of the ascendancy of Judas as the defender of the people and the revenge of Antiochus IV, who sent a vast army against the Jews. Following a rousing speech, Judas managed the impossible – the destruction of a massive army with a few thousand men. 

“But Judas cried to his fellows, ‘What, would you be daunted by the numbers of them? Would you give ground before their attack? Bethink you, what a host it was Pharao sent in pursuit of our fathers, there by the Red Sea, and they escaped none the less. Now, as then, besiege we heaven with our cries; will not the Lord have mercy? Will He not remember the covenant He had with our fathers, and rout, this day, yonder army at our coming? No doubt shall the world have thenceforward, but there is One claims Israel for His own, and grants her deliverance.’ And now the heathen folk caught sight of them as they advanced to the attack, and left their lines to give battle. Thereupon Judas’ men sounded with the trumpet, and the two armies met. Routed the Gentiles were, sure enough, and took to their heels across the open country, sword of the pursuer ever catching the hindmost. All the way to Gezeron they were chased, and on into the plains by Idumaea, Azotus and Jamnia, with a loss of three thousand men.”

I Machabees, 4: 8-15

And thus, they were able to retake Jerusalem and to restore the sacramental rites of the Temple, after a full rededication ceremony. This is the origin of the Jewish festival of Chanukah, which is celebrated in about mid-December.

“On the twenty-fifth of Casleu, the ninth month, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose before daybreak, and offered sacrifice, as the law bade, on the new altar they had set up. This was the very month, the very day, when it had been polluted by the Gentiles; now, on the same day of the same month, it was dedicated anew, with singing of hymns, and music of harp, zither and cymbals. Thereupon all the people fell down face to earth, to adore and praise, high as heaven, the author of their felicity; and for eight days together they celebrated the altar’s renewal, burned victim and brought welcome-offering with glad and grateful hearts. They decked the front wall of the temple, at this time, with gold crowns and escutcheons, consecrated the gates and the priest’s lodging anew, and furnished it with doors; and all the while there was great rejoicing among the people; as for the taunts of the heathen, they were heard no more. No wonder if Judas and his brethren, with the whole assembly of Israel, made a decree that this feast should be kept year by year for eight days together, the feast-day of the altar’s dedication. Came that season, from the twenty-fifth day of Casleu onwards, all was to be rejoicing and holiday.

I Machabees, 4: 52-59

I don’t mean to run through every detail of the book. Just to demonstrate the power of this heroic narrative, which would have been told and retold and would have been a part of the formation of Christ at Nazareth, less than two hundred years later. The generals Apollonius and Gorgias having failed to quell the rebellion, what should the Greeks do but pile on with armies, men, horses and elephants? It was inevitable that, despite his extraordinary success and military prowess, Judas would fall. Chapter five tells of how the three Machabean brothers, Judas, Jonathan and Simon, joined forces to chase out the Jews who were of the party of the pro-Greeks from the territory of Judaea. They were opposed by pro-Greek cities to the north – Ptolemais, Tyre and Sidon – and from across the Jordan to the east – the old enemy Ammon – and from the south-west, Philistia. Even as they worked to restore Judaea, Antiochus IV died far away in Babylonia. His son Antiochus V Eupator attempted another retaking of Jerusalem, but had to give up the siege to return to Antioch to quell another rebellion. It was the next king, Demetrius I Soter (all these are Seleucid kings of the Greek dynasty, capitalled at Antioch in northern Syria), who having usurped the throne from Antiochus V began the offensive against Jerusalem anew, intending to establish a pro-Greek high-priest at the Temple, after ending the Machabean revolt. Judas knew of the danger and chapter eight tells us about the first diplomatic covenant of the Jews with the rising power of Rome, which was beginning to challenge the Greek kingdoms in the Levant. Notwithstanding this, Demetrius I piled armies upon the Jews and Judas was beaten and died in battle. The rule of the people now passed to his brother Jonathan, who proved to be a mighty warrior too.

“And now all that had loved Judas rallied to Jonathan instead; ‘Since thy brother’s death,’ they told him, ‘none is left to take the field against our enemies as he did, this Bacchides and all else that bear a grudge against our race. There is but one way of it; this day we have chosen thee to be our ruler, our chieftain, to fight our battles for us.’ So, from that day forward, Jonathan took command, in succession to his brother Judas.

I Machabees, 9: 28-31

The general Bacchides now turned his sights upon Jonathan. The rest of the chapter is about Jonathan’s struggle against Bacchides, as the pro-Greek high-priest set up by Bacchides began to have his way with Jerusalem. Bacchides repulsed, Jonathan was able to establish his position as the leader and general of the Jews, from his seat not at Jerusalem, but at Machmas, slightly to the north. The next political hiccup was the arrival of a new rival to Demetrius at the port of Ptolemais in about 150 BC, Alexander Balas, who claimed the loyalty of the Syrian armies and was able for a few years to take up the Seleucid throne. Both he and Demetrius had tried to acquire the loyalty of Jonathan, who had become a significant power in Judaea. Also into the fray had come the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy, who pretended to ally with Alexander and then with Demetrius II Nicator after him, intending himself to have both the Syrian territories and his own Egyptian territories. Within a short time, both Alexander and Ptolemy were dead, and Demetrius II still at Antioch. Jonathan, as given by chapter twelve, now restablished relations with the Romans, who were quickly advancing eastwards, and also with the Spartans, the independent and martial Greek nation that claimed descent from the patriarch Abraham. Unfortunately, Jonathan now fell into a trap set for him by the Greek general Tryphon at Ptolemais; Tryphon wished to acquire the throne at Antioch and thought Jonathan a significant challenge to his enterprise. Simon, the least war-like of the Maccabean brothers, now reluctantly took up the mantle of leadership, for the sake of the people. 

“And what did Simon, when he heard that Tryphon had levied a strong force, for Juda’s invasion and overthrow? Here was all the people in a great taking of fear; so he made his way to Jerusalem and there gathered them to meet him. And thus, to put heart into them, he spoke: ‘Need is none to tell you what battles we have fought, what dangers endured, I and my brethren and all my father’s kin, law and sanctuary to defend. In that cause, and for the love of Israel, my brothers have died, one and all, till I only am left; never be it said of me, in the hour of peril I held life dear, more precious than theirs! Nay, come the whole world against us, to glut its malice with our ruin, race and sanctuary, wives and children of ours shall find me their champion yet.’ At these words, the spirit of the whole people revived; loud came their answer, ‘Brother of Judas and Jonathan, thine to lead us now! Thine to sustain our cause; and never word of thine shall go unheeded!'”

I Machabees, 13: 1-9

The book doesn’t tell us of the end of the wicked Tryphon, who eventually escaped by ship from the Seleucid empire, but it is at this point that Simon became the head of a dynasty of priest-rulers, the Hashmonean dynasty (called after Simon, Shmona), establishing Jewish sovereignty for the first time since the destruction of the Davidic dynasty centuries before, albeit by the permission of the over-king in Antioch. This Greek king probably decided that it was impractical to chase the Hebrew guerrilla fighters around their own home-territory in the Judaean hills.

“When king Demetrius answered the request, he wrote in these terms following. ‘King Demetrius to the high priest Simon, the friend of kings, and to all the elders and people of the Jews, greeting. Crown of gold and robe of scarlet you sent us were faithfully delivered. Great favour we mean to shew you, by sending word to the king’s officers to respect the remissions granted you. The decrees we made concerning you are yet in force; and, for the strongholds you have built, they shall be yours. Fault of yours in the past, witting or unwitting, is condoned; coronation tax you owed, and all other tribute that was due from Jerusalem, is due no longer. Fit be they for such enrolment, Jews shall be enrolled in our armies, and ever between us and you let there be peace!’ Thus, in the hundred and seventieth year, Israel was free of the Gentile yoke at last; and this style the people began to use, were it private bond or public instrument they indited, In the first year of Simon’s high priesthood, chief paramount and governor of the Jews.

I Machabees, 13: 35-42

Demetrius himself was shortly himself arrested and imprisoned by the king of the Medes and the Persians, and we here no more of him. Simultaneously, Simon grew from strength to strength, a ruler in his own right of Judaea, with claims on cities on the Mediterranean coast, such as Joppe (today’s Tel-Aviv). He re-established the diplomatic relations with Rome and Sparta, who both gave him assurances of their protection, which must have helped the Jews to no end until the Romans themselves arrived finally in the Levant in 65 BC, with the general Pompey at their head. For the security and prosperity that followed, Simon was honoured by his nation. 

Here were the Jews, priests and people both, agreed that he should rule them, granting him the high priesthood by right inalienable, until true prophet they should have once more. Their ruler he should be, and guardian of their temple; appoint officer and magistrate, master of ordnance and captain of garrison, and have charge of the sanctuary besides. Him all must obey, in his name deeds be drawn up, all the country through; of purple and gold should be his vesture. Of the rest, both priests and people, none should retrench these privileges, nor gainsay Simon’s will, nor convoke assembly in the country without him; garment of purple, buckle of gold none should wear; nor any man defy or void this edict, but at his peril. The people’s pleasure it was to ennoble Simon after this sort; and Simon, he would not say them nay; high priest, and of priests and people leader, governor and champion, he would be henceforward. So they had the decree inscribed on tablets of bronze, and set up plain to view in the temple precincts; and a copy of it they put by in the treasury, in the safe keeping of Simon and his heirs.”

I Machabees, 14: 41-49

Here we notice the temporary nature of the Machabean situation. Every good Jew knew that the people should be ruled by a Messianic king of the family of King David, and that the high-priesthood was to be separated from this political rule. But until the advent of the Messiah, they wished to entrench the Hashmonean dynasty. This would end finally with the arrival of the Idumean king Herod on the scene. Unfortunately, we are not permitted to end on a happy note, for Demetrius’ son Antioch soon arrived with his own claims and challenged Simon and the Jews’ claim to the land of Judaea, to which Simon made quick reply:

“…to which Simon made this answer: ‘Other men’s fief seized we never, nor other men’s rights detain; here be lands that were our fathers’ once, by enemies of ours for some while wrongfully held; opportunity given us, should we not claim the patrimony we had lost? As for thy talk of Joppe and Gazara, these were cities did much mischief to people and land of ours; for the worth of them, thou shalt have a hundred talents if thou wilt.’ Never a word said Athenobius, but went back to the king very ill pleased, and told him what answer was given; of Simon’s court, too, and of all else he had seen. Antiochus was in a great taking of anger…”

I Machabees, 15: 33-36

Simon was by this time an old man, and he prepared his sons for their role in protecting the rights of the Jews. He could see that the challenges from the Greeks would continue to come, despite the promised protection from the Romans. Inevitably, Simon also was betrayed, and by a certain Ptolemy son of Abobus, possibly a successor of that pro-Greek high-priest Alcimus, who had been propped up briefly in Jerusalem and would wrest the position of the Hashmonean family from them. The book ends with this great betrayal and murder of a hero of the people and two of his sons, Judas and Mattathias. The remaining son, John Hyrcanus I, took up the role of priest-ruler, himself a great hero of the people.

“…a messenger had reached John at Gazara, telling him his father and brothers were dead, and himself too marked down for slaughter; whereupon he took alarm in good earnest; their murderous errand known, he seized his executioners and made an end of them. What else John did, and how fought he, brave deeds done, and strong walls built, and all his history, you may read in the annals of his time, that were kept faithfully since the day when he succeeded his father as high priest.

I Machabees, 16: 21-24

There are other sources available for the history of the Hashmonean dynasty in the time of John Hyrcanus I, and its progress until the establishment of the reign of Herod the Great, who had ingratiated himself to the Romans and was permitted by them to establish a kingdom that rivalled only David’s and Solomon’s in its extent. Herod married a Hashmonean princess called Mariamne (whom he later murdered), but the Hashmoneans would never again have the power they so briefly enjoyed under Simon and his sons.

No to Greek, no to Greek
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