The second book of the Maccabees

With this second book of the Machabees, I have quite finished the Old Testament. The second book of the Machabees is more properly a book of the Machabees – the followers of Judas Machabeus (‘the hammer’), the son of the priest Mattathias of Modin. The first book had rushed past Judas in a way, after marking his fall in battle, and given much more time to his brothers Jonathan (who was established as warrior high-priest) and Simon (who was established as prince high-priest). That book wished to demonstrate the history of the princely dynasty that Simon would establish and that would hold its own for about a century until the arrival of the Roman legions. The second book is more of a history of the Jewish warrior Judas, who was able to build up the religiously-observant Jews and defend them against the secular Jews, who had allied themselves to the powerful Greek empire capitalled at Antioch-in-Syria. And there are wonderful mystical elements, where the author describes celestial armies fighting alongside the Jews. 

The second book of the Machabees gives us a better introduction to the tyranny of the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Before this, however, there is an obscure narrative about the prophet Jeremias, given to be a guardian of a ‘sacred fire,’ hiding away the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle on Mount Nebo before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans in 587 BC. 

“You shall also find it set down in the dispositions made by the prophet Jeremias, that he bade the exiles rescue the sacred fire, in the manner aforesaid. Strict charge he gave them, the Lord’s commandments they should keep ever in mind, nor let false gods, all gold and silver and fine array, steal away their hearts; with much else to confirm them in their regard for the law. And here, in this same document, the story was told, how a divine oracle came to Jeremias, and he must needs go out, with tabernacle and ark to bear him company, to the very mountain Moses climbed long ago, when he had sight of God’s domain. A cave Jeremias found there, in which he set down tabernacle and ark and incense-altar, and stopped up the entrance behind him. There were some that followed; no time they lost in coming up to mark the spot, but find it they could not.”

II Machabees, 2: 1-6

This event is important because of its historical link to the old Temple of the newer Temple that had been raised seventy years later, and which was about to be profaned by Antiochus and would require a rededication by the Machabees. After the return of the Jews from exile in the fifth century BC, the Persians had established a double rule in Juda, through the leadership of both the appointed governor and the high-priest of the Jerusalem Temple, as Zacharias describes. With time, the high-priest seems to have become very powerful indeed, and a highly coveted position. The book now tells how this situation was the beginning of the troubles under Antiochus IV.

“Yet one citizen there was, Simon the Benjamite, the Temple governor, that had lawless schemes afoot, do the high priest what he would to gainsay him. And at last, when overcome Onias he might not, what did he? To Apollonius he betook himself, the son of Tharseas, that was then in charge of Coelesyria and Phoenice, and gave him great news indeed; here was the treasury at Jerusalem stocked with treasures innumerable, here was vast public wealth, unclaimed by the needs of the altar, and nothing prevented but it should fall into the king’s hands. No sooner did Apollonius find himself in the royal presence than he told the story of the rumoured treasure; and at that, the king sent for Heliodorus, that had charge of his affairs, and despatched him with orders to fetch the said money away.”

II Machabees, 3: 4-7

This Heliodorus soon appeared at Jerusalem in force to collect on this fabled treasure, and it was explained to him by the high-priest Onias that he had been misled by the malicious Simon. But he persisted until he was brutally repulsed by a band of extraordinary and heavenly warriors. 

“What saw they? A horse, royally caparisoned, that charged upon Heliodorus and struck him down with its fore-feet; terrible of aspect its rider was, and his armour seemed all of gold. Two other warriors they saw, how strong of limb, how dazzling of mien, how bravely clad! These stood about Heliodorus and fell to scourging him, this side and that, blow after blow, without respite. With the suddenness of his fall to the ground, darkness had closed about him; hastily they caught him up and carried him out in his litter; a helpless burden now, that entered yonder treasury with such a rabble of tipstaves and halberdiers! Here was proof of God’s power most manifest.”

II Machabees, 3: 25-28

The wretched Simon continued to plot against Onias, and finally the ill-will he generated against Onias bore fruit and he was ousted by a kinsman called Jason, who even purchased the office of high-priest, pledging to be pro-Greek and to guide his people into being more progressive and moving with the times – become Greek, that is.

And here was a brother Onias had, called Jason, that coveted the office of high priest. This Jason went to the new king, and made him an offer of three hundred and sixty talents of silver out of its revenue, besides eighty from other incomings. Let leave be granted him to set up a game-place for the training of youth, and enrol the men of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch, he would give his bond for a hundred and fifty more. To this the king assented; high priest he became, and straightway set about perverting his fellow-countrymen to the Gentile way of living.”

II Machabees, 4: 7-10

However, three years later, Jason too was ousted, and by another kinsman from the same wretched family – a man called Menelaus, who outbidded Jason in purchasing the office, although he initially did not fulfil his promise. 

“Three years later, Jason would send to the king certain moneys, together with a report on affairs of moment; and for this errand he chose Menelaus, brother to that Simon we have before mentioned. Access thus gained to the king’s person, Menelaus was careful to flatter his self-conceit; then, outbidding Jason by three hundred talents of silver, diverted the high-priestly succession to himself. Back he came to Jerusalem, with the royal warrant to maintain him, yet all unworthy, with a tyrant’s cruel heart, more wild beast than high priest. Thus was Jason supplanted, that had supplanted his own brother, and was driven to take refuge in the Ammonite country; as for Menelaus, he got the office he coveted, but never a penny paid the king of all he had promised, however urgent Sostratus might be, that was in command of the citadel.”

II Machabees, 4: 23-27

It was this Menelaus that contrived the execution of the rightful high-priest Onias, his own kinsman, and then set about looting the Temple treasury. He persisted in his office through the period of the rise of Judas and of his greatest successes. Chapter five describes the struggle between Jason and Menelaus for the high-priesthood and Jason’s exile and death in Egypt. When Antiochus IV decided to put fear into the hearts of the Jews and prevent any rebellion against him, he was assisted by Menelaus in the desecration and looting of the Temple.

As for the Jewish folk, he left viceroys of his own to harry them; in Jerusalem Philip, that was a Phrygian born, and outdid his own master in cruelty; at Garizim Andronicus and Menelaus, heaviest burden of all for the folk to bear. But he would do worse by the Jews yet; or why did he send out Apollonius, the arch-enemy, and a force of twenty-two thousand, to cut off manhood in its flower, women and children to sell for slaves? This Apollonius, when he reached Jerusalem, was all professions of friendship, and nothing did until the sabbath came round, when the Jews kept holiday. Then he put his men under arms, and butchered all that went out to keep festival; to and fro he went about the streets, with armed fellows at his heels, and made a great massacre. Meanwhile Judas Machabaeus, and nine others with him, went out into the desert, where they lived like wild beasts on the mountain-side; better lodge there with herbs for food, than be party to the general defilement.

II Machabees, 5: 22-27

And that is our first introduction to Judas, not mentioning the origin of the rebellion of the Machabees in the revolt of the priest Mattathias, Judas’ father, given in the first book of Machabees. Chapters six and seven further describe the outrages performed on innocent Jewish civilians, such as the attack on the holy man Eleazar, and the horrible murder of a family of seven sons before the eyes of their mother, who was finally herself killed. The last of the seven brothers boldly challenged the king before his torture and death, providing a summary of the teaching of the Old Testament:

“‘To the king’s law I own no allegiance; rule I live by is the law we had through Moses. Arch-enemy of the Jewish race, thinkest thou to escape from God’s hand? Grievously if we suffer, grievously we have sinned; chides He for a little, the Lord our God, He does but school, does but correct us; to us, His worshippers, He will be reconciled again. But thou, miserable wretch, viler on earth is none, wouldst thou vent thy rage on those worshippers of His, and flatter thyself with vain hopes none the less? Trust me, thou shalt yet abide His judgement, who is God almighty and all-seeing. Brief pains, that under His warrant have seised my brethren of eternal life! And shalt not thou, by His sentence, pay the deserved penalty of thy pride? As my brethren, so I for our country’s laws both soul and body forfeit; my prayer is, God will early relent towards this nation, while thou dost learn, under the lash of His torments, that He alone is God. And may the divine anger, that has justly fallen on our race, with me and these others be laid to rest!'”

II Machabees, 7: 30-38

This story, horrible that it is, is extraordinarily like to the stories of Christian martyrs, and for a long time and until recently, the Church has honoured these Old Testament Saints and Martyrs with a feast day at the beginning of August. But now the tide was turning, for Judas rose with all his might and cunning and challenged the vast armies of the Syrian Greeks with small numbers of warriors and guerrilla tactics in the Judaean hills, and with great success. While Antiochus IV now fell ill and died in foreign lands, unable to tame the Jews as he wished, Judas and his men were able to recover Jerusalem and the Temple. While the new king Antiochus V placed governors in the territory of Judaea who continued to harrass the Jewish people, Judas and his family expanded their territory by attacking Edomite forts south of Juda, and pushing back against attacks from the old Ammonite territories in the East. When a Greek called Lysias descended upon Juda from Antioch, he discovered a brave and well-equipped army opposing him and decided to offer friendship instead of ill-will. 

“‘King Antiochus, to the elders and people of the Jews, all health! Thrive you as well as ourselves, we are well content. Menelaus has brought us word, you would fain have free intercourse with the men of your race who dwell in these parts; and we hereby grant safe conduct to all of you that would travel here, up to the thirtieth day of Xanthicus … That the Jewish folk may eat what food they will, use what laws they will, according to their ancient custom; and if aught has been done amiss through inadvertence, none of them, for that cause, shall be molested. We are sending Menelaus besides, to give a charge to you.'”

II Machabees, 11: 27-32

Peace having been concluded with the Syrians, Judas managed to establish diplomatic relations with the rising power of Rome, which was pushing against the Greek kingdoms from the west and would soon be a possible source of security for the Jews. Chapter twelve tells of Judas’ fights against the majority-Gentile cities on the Mediterranean coast who had victimised the Jewish people and promised to do more hurt to them – Joppe, Jamnia, Casphin and Ephron are mentioned, all of them humbled to the dust. It is here, as Judas lost men of his company, that we discover the late Jewish practice of not only burying the dead, but praying for the repose of their souls and offering sacrifices for them at the Temple (with the final resurrection in mind!), a tradition that has been preserved in the Church through the witness of the Apostles. 

“Then he would have contribution made; a sum of twelve thousand silver pieces he levied, and sent it to Jerusalem, to have sacrifice made there for the guilt of their dead companions. Was not this well done and piously? Here was a man kept the resurrection ever in mind; he had done fondly and foolishly indeed, to pray for the dead, if these might rise no more, that once were fallen! And these had made a godly end; could he doubt, a rich recompense awaited them? A holy and wholesome thought it is to pray for the dead, for their guilt’s undoing.

II Machabees, 12: 43-46

Now, chapter thirteen tells of the arrival of Antiochus V with a great army and his manager Lysias and the wretched Menelaus. Here, Menelaus fell out of favour with the king and lost his life and the Jews putting on a stout defence managed to hold the attack away Jerusalem until the Syrian army was forced to return to the north, to the humiliation of Antioch V and to the consternation of the Gentile cities on the coast, like Ptolemais (of which Judas now became governor, albeit for a short time), who had hoped that the Jewish insurgency would finally meet its end.

“Thus did he try conclusions with Judas, and had the worst of it; news came to him besides that Philip, whom he had left in charge at Antioch, was levying revolt against him. So, in great consternation of mind, he must needs throw himself on the mercy of the Jews, submitting under oath to the just terms they imposed on him. In token of this reconciliation, he offered sacrifice, paying the Temple much reverence and offering gifts there; as for Machabaeus, the king made a friend of him, and appointed him both governor and commander of all the territory from Ptolemais to the Gerrenes. When he reached Ptolemais, he found the citizens much incensed over this treaty made, and angrily averring the terms of it would never be kept; until at last Lysias must go up to an open stage, and give his reasons; whereby he calmed the indignation of the people, and so returned to Antioch. Such was the king’s march upon Judaea, and such his homecoming.”

II Machabeus, 13: 23-26

Now comes the end of the book, and a new king Demetrius I Soter, who was encouraged to put down the Machabean rebellion by a man called Alcimus, who again coveted the position of high-priest of the Temple and suggested vast returns to the king if the Machabean obstacle were removed. Demetrius promptly sent his general Nicanor to take care of this. Judas encouraged his men with the stories of God’s assistance of the Hebrews in times past, and told them an interesting dream/vision that he had once had concerning the good high-priest Onias, who had been recently murdered, and the prophet Jeremias, who had been the guardian of the ‘sacred fire’ at the beginning of the book and practically hands Judas the blessing of victory in battle. If this book aggrandises Judas Machabeus, this story is a master-stroke. 

“A dream of his he told them, most worthy of credence, that brought comfort to one and all. And what saw he? Onias, that had once been high priest, appeared to him; an excellent good man this, modest of mien, courteous, well-spoken, and from his boyhood schooled in all the virtues. With hands outstretched, he stood there praying for the Jewish folk. Then he was ware of another, a man of great age and reverence, nothing about him but was most worshipful; who this might be, Onias told him forthwith: ‘Here is one that loves our brethren, the people of Israel, well; one that for Israel and for every stone of the holy city prays much; God’s prophet Jeremias.’ And with that, Jeremias reached forward to Judas, and gave him a golden sword; This holy sword take thou, he said, God’s gift; this wielding, all the enemies of my people Israel thou shalt lay low.

II Machabees, 15: 11-16

With this encouragement, the Machabees made a generous assault upon the assembled companies of the Greeks and were extremely successful, of course. And here the book ends, with a wonderful comparison of good writing mixed with poor to good wine mixed with water for good effect:

“Such was the history of Nicanor; and since that time the city has been in Jewish possession. Here, then, I will make an end of writing; if it has been done workmanly, and in historian’s fashion, none better pleased than I; if it is of little merit, I must be humoured none the less. Nothing but wine to take, nothing but water, thy health forbids; vary thy drinking, and thou shalt find content. So it is with reading; if the book be too nicely polished at every point, it grows wearisome. So here we will have done with it.

II Machabees, 15: 38-40
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