The Books of the Maccabees

Greek attack!

After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth.
1 Maccabees 1:1-2

The Books of the Maccabees are the most exciting books of the Bible since Joshua. We got elephants in the land!

They showed the elephants the juice of grapes and mulberries, to arouse them for battle. And they distributed the beasts among the phalanxes; with each elephant they stationed a thousand men armed with coats of mail, and with brass helmets on their heads; and five hundred picked horsemen were assigned to each beast. These took their position beforehand wherever the beast was; wherever it went they went with it, and they never left it. And upon the elephants were wooden towers, strong and covered; they were fastened upon each beast by special harness, and upon each were four armed men who fought from there, and also its Indian driver.
1 Maccabees 6:34-37

How to kill such a beast? A martyrdom operation: stab the elephant in the heart!

He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and there he died.
1 Maccabees 6:46

The Holy Spirit provides many roads to the Gospels, and these books are aimed at the same population as its literary twin, the Song of Songs. The post-apocalyptic Book of Baruch is morose.  Maccabees references this spirit, but what’s coming up is closer to Mad Max.

Because of them the residents of Jerusalem fled;
she became a dwelling of strangers;
she became strange to her offspring,
and her children forsook her.
1 Maccabees 1:38

The Greeks have stupid sports, and they use them to corrupt even the holy ones

When the king assented and Jason came to office, he at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life. He set aside the existing royal concessions to the Jews, secured through John the father of Eupolemus, who went on the mission to establish friendship and alliance with the Romans; and he destroyed the lawful ways of living and introduced new customs contrary to the law. For with alacrity he founded a gymnasium right under the citadel, and he induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat. There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and no high priest, that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, they hastened to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the call to the discus, disdaining the honors prized by their fathers and putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige. For this reason heavy disaster overtook them, and those whose ways of living they admired and wished to imitate completely became their enemies and punished them. For it is no light thing to show irreverence to the divine laws—a fact which later events will make clear.
2 Maccabees 4:10-17

The Greeks attack the people

So they attacked them on the sabbath, and they died, with their wives and children and cattle, to the number of a thousand persons.
1 Maccabees 2:38

They are desecrating the temples

Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God, and also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and call it the temple of Olympian Zeus, and to call the one in Geri’zim the temple of Zeus the Friend of Strangers, as did the people who dwelt in that place.
2 Maccabees 6:1-2

And their will is law

And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. And he appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the cities of Judah to offer sacrifice, city by city. Many of the people, every one who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; 53 they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.
1 Maccabees 1:50-53

The war is exciting. For instance, a once cruel king now lies dying, and comes to God…

Then it was that, broken in spirit, he began to lose much of his arrogance and to come to his senses under the scourge of God, for he was tortured with pain every moment. And when he could not endure his own stench, he uttered these words: “It is right to be subject to God, and no mortal should think that he is equal to God.”
2 Maccabees 9:11-12

But he’s style a king, and his letter is dark comedy:

But when his sufferings did not in any way abate, for the judgment of God had justly come upon him, he gave up all hope for himself and wrote to the Jews the following letter, in the form of a supplication. This was its content:

“To his worthy Jewish citizens, Antiochus their king and general sends hearty greetings and good wishes for their health and prosperity. If you and your children are well and your affairs are as you wish, I am glad. As my hope is in heaven, I remember with affection your esteem and good will. On my way back from the region of Persia I suffered an annoying illness, and I have deemed it necessary to take thought for the general security of all
2 Maccabees 9:18-21

And even fake news from a foreign power, designed to swing Jewish opinion

This is a copy of the letter which they sent to Onias: “Arius, king of the Spartans, to Onias the high priest, greeting. It has been found in writing concerning the Spartans and the Jews that they are brethren and are of the family of Abraham.
1 Maccabees 12:19-21

Though maybe there is more to this than it seems, that Greek and Jew might somehow be one…

The two books of Maccabees relate the Revolt against the Greeks from different perspectives. The First Book focuses on the heroism and zealotry of Judas Maccabeus and clan. His father saw the evils of the king in Jerusalem, gave a beautiful speech, and left to the countryside. The Maccabees burned with devotion to the law, and in a scene out of 300, begin their revolt after an emissary of the distant king journeys to their village

Then the king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the city of Mode-in to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this city, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the men of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Mode-in, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar.
1 Maccabees 2:15-24

But the Second Book focuses on the lived atrocities of the Greeks. It was not — or perhaps not entirely — Judas’s poetic father who left Jerusalem in high mind protest, but Judas and his brothers who fled the murderous Hellenes

When this man arrived in Jerusalem, he pretended to be peaceably disposed and waited until the holy sabbath day; then, finding the Jews not at work, he ordered his men to parade under arms. He put to the sword all those who came out to see them, then rushed into the city with his armed men and killed great numbers of people.

But Judas Maccabeus, with about nine others, got away to the wilderness, and kept himself and his companions alive in the mountains as wild animals do; they continued to live on what grew wild, so that they might not share in the defilement.
2 Maccabees 5:25-27

In both cases the Maccabees led the revolt. The Jews were to be saved, and the gentiles terrorized

Then Judas and his brothers began to be feared, and terror fell upon the Gentiles round about them.
1 Maccabees 3:25

So now, O Sovereign of the heavens, send a good angel to carry terror and trembling before us.
2 Maccabees 15:23

Much has been written of the three Divinely-ordained offices of King, Priest, and Prophet. We know three figures in the Hebrew Bible who legitimately held two of these titles simultaneously: Melchizedek (King & Priest), Saul (King & Prophet), and Ezekiel (Prophet & Priest).

The Maccabees were definitely priests, from the tribe of Levi

In the one hundred and seventieth year the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, “In the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews.”
1 Maccabees 13:41-42

Yet they were careful to show they did not claim the titles, or even divination ability, of prophets,

And they thought it best to tear it down, lest it bring reproach upon them, for the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.
1 Maccabees 4:45-46

And likewise, the title “King” is notably missing from the Maccabees’ executive roles

Thus the [gentile] king honored him and enrolled him among his chief friends, and made him general and governor of the province.
1 Maccabees 10:65

The Maccabees are High Priests, albeit priests that have come not to bring peace, but a sword.

 

The Books of the Maccabees provide continuity between the world of the Torah and those of the Epistles. Sometimes this is explicit, like the parallelism in all three, Abraham’s tested faith in God was credited to him as righteousness

But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”

And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.
Genesis 15:2-6

Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?
1 Maccabees 2:52

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Romans 4:3-5

Yet reading these books, of the brutal gentile persecution of the Jews and the equally ferocious response, we see a glimmer of something else. Between the clear love of the Maccabees

But they said to one another, “Let us repair the destruction of our people, and fight for our people and the sanctuary.”
1 Maccabees 3:43

and the humiliating ways they left their dead enemies outside Jerusalem

Then the Jews seized the spoils and the plunder, and they cut off Nicanor’s head and the right hand which he had so arrogantly stretched out, and brought them and displayed them just outside Jerusalem.
1 Maccabees 7:47

There is a sense something is missing. The Protestant Reformers who edited down the Bible, and excluded the Books of Maccabees, would answer that the errors demonstrate the Maccabees were not rightly guided, and these books are not Holy books.

How can circumcising the gentiles be righteous?

They forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel.
1 Maccabees 2:46

There is no historical doubt the Book of Deuteronomy was widely circulated at this time.  They seem to have missed some words

The Lord delighted only in your fathers, to love them; and He chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as it is this day. Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him, and to Him you shall hold fast, and take oaths in His name. He is your praise, and He is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things which your eyes have seen.
Deuteronomy 10:15-21

These priests spilled blood by the lakeful.

They took the city by the will of God, and slaughtered untold numbers, so that the adjoining lake, a quarter of a mile wide, appeared to be running over with blood.
2 Maccabees 12:16

But we remember the evils of the gentiles, even against innocent families

The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and cauldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’”
2 Maccabees 7:3-6

The gentiles are evil.  Perhaps it might take even more than a lake worth of blood to save them.

One could almost make a rosary out of the Books of the Maccabees. So much is here, but incomplete, or in the wrong order

The Savior of Israel, Blessed

When he saw that the army was strong, he prayed, saying, “Blessed art thou, O Savior of Israel, who didst crush the attack of the mighty warrior by the hand of thy servant David, and didst give the camp of the Philistines into the hands of Jonathan, the son of Saul, and of the man who carried his armor.
1 Maccabees 4:30

In the Wilderness, in the Wilderness

But Judas Maccabeus, with about nine others, got away to the wilderness, and kept himself and his companions alive in the mountains as wild animals do; they continued to live on what grew wild, so that they might not share in the defilement.
2 Maccabees 5:26-27

The Jews, before the Romans

Yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride, 15 but they have built for themselves a senate chamber, and every day three hundred and twenty senators constantly deliberate concerning the people, to govern them well. They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among them.
1 Maccabees 8:14-16

Tortured by the Gentiles

When he had said this, he went at once to the rack. And those who a little before had acted toward him with good will now changed to ill will, because the words he had uttered were in their opinion sheer madness. When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said: “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.”

So in this way he died, leaving in his death an example of nobility and a memorial of courage, not only to the young but to the great body of his nation.
2 Maccabees 6:24-31

The Death of the Savior

“How is the mighty fallen,
the savior of Israel!”
1 Maccabees 9:19-21

The visit to Emmaus

And he said to those who were building houses, or were betrothed, or were planting vineyards, or were fainthearted, that each should return to his home, according to the law.

Then the army marched out and encamped to the south of Emmaus.
1 Maccabees 3:56-57

The Hastening after Pentecost

After the feast called Pentecost, they hastened against Gorgias, the governor of Idumea.
2 Maccabees 12:32

The Journey to Rome

They went to Rome, a very long journey; and they entered the senate chamber and spoke as follows: “Judas, who is also called Maccabeus, and his brothers and the people of the Jews have sent us to you to establish alliance and peace with you, that we may be enrolled as your allies and friends.”
1 Maccabees 8:19-20

But before we get carried away, we remember other things common in the Hebrew Bible, like the joy of weddings, and wedding parties

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
Isaiah 61:10

and the Gospels

And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Matthew 9:15

and see them go tragically wrong here

They raised their eyes and looked, and saw a tumultuous procession with much baggage; and the bridegroom came out with his friends and his brothers to meet them with tambourines and musicians and many weapons. Then they rushed upon them from the ambush and began killing them. Many were wounded and fell, and the rest fled to the mountain; and they took all their goods.
1 Maccabees 9:39-40

Theologically, the Books of the Maccabees are cited as precedent for prayers for the dead. Whatever the faults of the Maccabees clan, they agreed with a later High Priest that God is the God of the living, even those living in Sheol

On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchers of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead
2 Maccabees 12:39-44

Those dead would be joined by others. The Maccabees rule lasted for a little over the century. The last High Priest of the line, Aristobolus III, would be killed as a youth.

Contemporary law would view the crime of drowning High Priest Aristobolus as a child-killing.  He was 17 when he was murdered.

This would have been news to another man, who may well have been the same age as Aristobolus.  If so Joseph of Nazareth would have heard this news before his future Mary was born.  And in the decades to come, at the birth of his foster-son, Joseph certainly remembered the murder of the last Maccabbee, the High Priest Aristobolus, and the man who killed him.

Herod.