The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 February

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28 February. 2 Maccabees chapters 1-4

The books of Maccabees, set in the second century BCE, cover known historical events but from a biased pro-Jewish perspective. Whereas the first book follows a chronological sequence, the second one, as explained in the “editor’s preface” in chapter 2, seems more like an anthology of anecdotes.

Chapter 3 opens the book proper, with a tale of the appearance of three angelic figures, one of them on horseback, to smite Heliodorus, an envoy of the Greek king who had been sent to confiscate the contents of the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Confusingly the Simon referred to in this chapter is not the Simon Maccabee whose exploits ended the first book, but an earlier man of the same name.  Here we see quite clearly how corrupt Jewish society had become under Greek influence: although the Temple leaders and ordinary people are pictured praying to God for deliverance, what they are most concerned about is “calling on the Lord to preserve the deposits intact for the depositors in full security” (3:22).

Chapter 4 tells of how the high-priesthood also became increasingly corrupt in the time before the Maccabees came on the scene. Onias is presented in chapter 3 as a saintly high priest, but first his brother Jason, and them Menelaus, effectively buy the office from the absentee king Antiochus. Onias ends up being murdered in an act of treachery – effectively a hired killing set up by Menelaus – and Menelaus then buys his way out of court.  Such a corrupt use of wealth seems to have horrified even the leaders of what was clearly a wealth-obsessed society.

Although succeeding chapters relate how the Maccabees rose up against the Greek overlords, they were no better when it came to honest government.  In my comments on 1 Maccabees, I suggested that the Maccabees were trying to compare themselves to great kings of the past like David, but without the true faith in God that had inspired David, or like Victorian magnates who put on a show of piety while being more concerned about profits than natural justice.

No wonder Jesus, coming along a few generations later when the successors of the Maccabees, the Pharisees, were in power, warned so strongly that “one cannot serve both God and wealth” and of the “yeast of the Pharisees” that would corrupt the whole of society.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 27 February

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27 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 14-16

The record of the short-lived Maccabean dynasty ends with the death of Simon.  The “euology” to him in chapter 14 is almost unrelentingly secular: his magnificence, military conquests, bringing prosperity to the elders of the towns (though not the common folk), logistical expertise, and so on.  True, he achieved a short-lived peace in the sense of absence of military threat from outside, but again that was only because he had bloodily put them all down.   The eulogy ends with praise for Simon’s “striving to obey the Law” (apart, presumably, from the commandments not to kill or seek to amass wealth) and his furnishing the temple with new sacred vessels.  But there is no suggestion that he was a pious or humble man, or generous to the poor, or concerned for justice, or showed any of the other marks of holiness.  The euology is followed with the text of bronze tablets in his honour “on pillars on Mount Zion” (presumably outside the Temple) and “in the Temple precinct in a prominent place”.

The more I read this story, the more I am reminded of the English Victorian nobility and merchant class.  They too boasted of Britain’s overseas military might.  They too liked to be thought of as “obeying the Law” in the sense of seeming respectable in society, without paying much attention to personal morality in private. They too liked to talk of increasing prosperity for investors, while turning a blind eye to the working conditions of the common people.  They too loved putting up memorials to members of their own class in churches with fulsome praise for their perceived (or even imaginary) virtues.  I recently saw such a memorial to a major 19th century landowner, Member of Parliament and Justice of the Peace, which made much of his stand against corruption in public life.  But look up his Wikipedia entry and you find that he lost he seat in Parliament for being corrupt himself.

The Maccabees, then, may be thought of as like Victorians – bringing their country out of an age of isolation and engaging with the world around; bringing prosperity, at least to the upper classes; bringing peace at home by means of military force abroad; and all in the name, ostensibly, of religion, but in the words of Paul to Timothy, “keeping up the outward appearance of religion but rejecting the inner power of it” (2 Timothy 3:5). No wonder that this book is regarded as “outside the canon of Scripture” for although it tells of an important period in Jewish history, it does not present a model to follow.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 February

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26 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 11-13

Fighting continues between the several “kings” – Jonathan of Judea, Demetrius II of Syria, Ptolemy of Egypt, and a military commander Trypho who first arranges for Antiochus (son of Alexander) to become king of Antioch but later murders him and takes the throne himself.  As well as traditional battles between armies, there is also guerrilla fighting, minor skirmishes, looting and all the other horrors of war.

Then there is the plotting and betrayal, making and breaking of various treaties, promises of everlasting support quickly followed by treachery.  Sparta, as well as Rome and Egypt, is invoked as an ally.  Demetrius’ promise in 11:35 to relieve the Jews of any taxation appears to have been forgotten almost immediately.  Ptolemy, having once given his daughter Cleopatra to Jonathan in marriage, takes her back and gives her to Demetrius (presumably she had no say in the matter, being a mere chattel).

And just in case the relevance of all this to today is not clear, Jonathan builds a high wall between the two parts of Jerusalem “to prevent the occupants from buying or selling” (12:36) and eventually force them into submission and expulsion (13:50).  What could be closer to the Israelis’ erection in our own time of a “separation wall” to keep Palestinians out?  I expect this episode from their history was partly behind it.

There is nothing that I can see I these chapters covering about 6 years (166-172 in the Seleucid calendar, about 146-140 BCE) that refers to religion at all, apart from the passing recognition that the Spartans were also “of the race of Abraham” (12:21).   Although the Maccabees became Jewish heroes, there is nothing to suggest that Jonathan took his role of High Priest seriously as a religious duty, or that ordinary people were practising their religion.

A couple of chapters previously there was a telling phrase: “there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them” (9:27). As it says elsewhere, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).   And as the Greek Aeschylus had written four centuries previously, “The first casualty when war comes is truth”.  It is not only the physical infrastructure of society that has to be slowly rebuilt when peace eventually returns to a land, or even trust between neighbouring communities who have been at war with each other, exceedingly difficult though those are. It is faith – whether in God or in human nature – that perhaps takes longest to repair itself.  Yet it will.  It was to a community that still had folk memories of these days that John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth came, some 150 years later.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 February

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25 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 8-10

All that I wrote yesterday about warfare in the Bible lands still applies.  Judas and Demetrius senior die in battle in this period, as does the Syrian general Nicanor. But the struggle for religious and political control of Judea continues into the next generation.  With references to Alexander and Cleopatra (though these are neither Alexander the Great nor the Cleopatra of Shakespearean fame) we are reminded of the great influence of Greece and Egypt in this period.  The battles of these centuries before the Christian era were as much about the clash between faith in God and the Greek emphasis on human reason, as they were about political control and military might.

Chapter 8 also brings the Romans into the story, although they don’t seem to appear elsewhere: Rome at this time dominated Western Europe but Greece the East.  The treaty between Rome (a large empire) and Judea (a tiny country) seems very unequal, but might be compared to the NATO pact – dominated by the USA, if they withdrew from NATO it would become far weaker as a defensive alliance, but the principle of each member promising to support the others in time of war was the same.   The treaty also forbade either side from supporting the enemy of the other with money or weapons, again just as NATO does, which is why today’s war in Syria puts a strain on NATO as different members of that alliance seem to be arming different players in that conflict, and as Britain continues to arm Saudi Arabia in its repression of Yemen at the same time that other NATO countries call for an end to that brutal conflict.    History truly does repeat itself.

So where is the spiritual element among all this politics and war?  It is hard to see, but is in the background. Jonathan in particular sees himself as a successor to King David and other Jewish leaders of the past, defending not just a people but a religion against the threat of extermination.   David had been a rebel leader, later becoming king (and therefore a military commander) but also involved in Temple worship, famously composing many  Psalms. That explains what might seem to modern eyes a rather contradictory verse, “Jonathan put on the sacred vestments [i.e. became High Priest] in the seventh month of the year one hundred and sixty, on the feast of Tabernacles; he then set about raising troops and manufacturing arms in quantity” (10:21).  In those turbulent times, prayer and fighting were both necessary to save the life and faith of the Jewish people.  There are places in  the world today where it would be difficult to criticise a similar strategy.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 24 February

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24 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 5-7

Violence follows violence in this story, as the Holy Land is the scene of fighting between several groups: the Greek king’s forces under Lysias, Judas and his resistance army, the Hasmoneans (religious conservatives) , those Jews who had preferred peaceful collaboration with the Greeks to armed resistance, the army of Demetrius of Rome, and Alcimus the  pretender to the high priesthood.  I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the politics or military engagements of this period, but it does sound horribly like the situation in Syria today, where the tyrannical ruler backed by some foreign powers continues to oppress his own people, resisted by an unholy mixture of home-grown resistance forces, Islamist terrorists, and the influence of outside players such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.

We can see in our news the effects of this bloody and interminable conflict on civilians, millions of whom have either been killed or become internally displaced or refuges in other countries. Although there was perhaps not such a stark military/civilian distinction in Biblical times, I expect that a large proportion of the non-combatant population suffered in a similar way.  Certainly those living in besieged towns, without a say over who actually was in charge of them, faced being murdered (if male) raped (if female) or abducted as slaves (if young). That is, if they did not die of starvation, which seemed to have been a real threat as it was the “seventh year” (6:53 -the fallow year when the Jews were supposed to live off the stores of food from previous years).

One verse stand out for me in all this horror.  In the battle for Hebron we are told that “among the fallen were some priests who sought to prove their courage by joining in the battle, a foolhardy venture” (5:67).  It seems that priests, then as now, were exempt from military service, and even in violent times their role as men of peace was valued and should not be compromised.  The role of a priest, rabbi or similar representative of faith groups in an army is not to fight, but to pray and to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the armed forces.  Warfare tends to strip people of their natural human compassion, as “the other” becomes “the enemy”; it is the chaplain’s difficult role to try and restore their humanity.

Most of us in Britain, fortunately, will never have to engage in battle.  But we can pray for our armed forces on duty overseas, and for their chaplains of all faiths, that humanity may prevail.  We can also pray for places like Syria that when the fighting eventually ceases, humanity and civilisation, in the name of the merciful God of all, may take the place of hatred and violence.  It will take a long time – the Maccabean wars lasted for decades, and the Syrian war and its aftermath may last just as long.  But remember, with God a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 February

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23 February. 1 Maccabees chapters 1-4

The books of Maccabees, set in the second century BCE, cover known historical events but from a biased pro-Jewish perspective. After a first chapter referring to The Greek rulers Alexander and Antiochus Epiphanes (the latter of them desecrating Jerusalem c.169 BCE), chapter 2 tells us of Mattathias the priest,  who was the first Jewish leader of his time to stand up to the Greek imposition of pagan culture.

In chapters 3 and 4 we read of the exploits of the best known of the Maccabeans, Judas, made famous for English people by Handel’s oratorio. If the accounts here are to be believed, Judas was a skilled military commander and strategist who also knew how to stir up the courage of his men to fight against a much larger enemy force by promising that God would deliver them as he had delivered their forebears (3:18-23; 4:8-11; 4:30-32).  Having won several battles, he restored and rededicated the Jerusalem Temple in about 164 BCE. That was the basis of the later Jewish winter festival of Hanukkah.

It is well known, and attested by all parts of the Bible, that what we call the Holy Land – the area variously known as Israel, Judea, Samaria, Syria and other names at different times – has always been an unstable region. Being at the centre of overland trade routes for thousands of years, any emperor or king from Egypt to Rome to Persia has always wanted to control it.  The Jews have often been the innocent victims of such aggression, as is represented here, although at other times of course they have been the aggressors themselves, seeking to expand their own territory.  Nothing is black-and-white.  But what can we learn from these chapters?

The different reactions of Mattathias and his followers to persecution is interesting. Many of His followers were so devout that they offered no resistance when attacked on the Sabbath and so were slaughtered (2:38).  Mattathias, though zealous for God, was not quite so precious about obeying the Law to the point of martyrdom, and vowed to fight for his people even on the Sabbath.  That is an ethical dilemma – what should one do when one’s religion requires passive resistance which will clearly lead to death?  Is voluntary martyrdom the best course, morally?  Or is it better to fight to preserve not only one’s life but also one’s culture and tradition from being erased?  There is no easy answer.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 February

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22 February. Judith chapters 14-16

These final chapters following the murder of Holofernes recount how the Jews took their revenge on the Assyrians, and then celebrated their victory.  It is notable that Judith, clever strategist that she was, warned her own soldiers against engaging the enemy in combat, as she judged correctly that the panic ensuing from discovering their commander’s headless body would be enough to send them running.  So without any fighting, the Assyrians were defeated.

The victory song attributed to Judith, like several others in the Old Testament, combines celebration of human achievement with praise for God’s power and protection.  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it is that both faith in God, and willingness to take risks in his service, are needed to achieve great things.   If the Jews had trusted in conventional military power they would have been overwhelmed by the Assyrians.  If they had merely prayed to God in their distress at being besieged, but done nothing, would he have saved them by a miracle?   But the combination of the people’s faith in God, their willingness to listen to a woman with gifts of prophecy and leadership, and her boldness and cunning, was enough for the victory to be achieved.

As I wrote at the start, Judith is almost certainly a fictional character.   But her story can still inspire us to faith and action.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 21 February

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21 February. Judith chapters 11-13

The scene has been set, the characters introduced: now comes the climax.  Judith, as I noted in yesterday’s post, brought together various skills including those of orator and spy.  She uses both those skill sets as she weaves a just-about plausible tale to her antagonist Holofernes.  She acknowledges that, as their own prophet Achior had said, God would not let the Jews be defeated – unless they had sinned against him.   She then claims that in the dire straits of the siege they would seek permission from authorities in Jerusalem to eat non-kosher food and the firstfruits that had been dedicated to God; and that furthermore as a prophet she would know when sin had been committed, at which time she would guide his forces to their God-given victory.

Holofernes could have thought carefully and realised the trap – the story has holes in it for a start, such as how would the besieged people of Bethulia be able to get a message to Jerusalem?  And anyone coming from the enemy claiming to be a turncoat willing to help one’s own side should be regarded with great suspicion.  But he was besotted with Judith’s beauty and fell into a trap of his own making, perhaps believing that a beautiful woman could not be a danger to him.  As Shakespeare put it in one of his poems, “Is she kind as she is fair? For beauty lives with kindness”.

When Holofernes calls her to a banquet, she knows the time has come to put her plan into action.  Wisely having already said she could only eat her own food (presumably for religious reasons, but perhaps also to avoid the risk of being poisoned), she also (I presume) drinks in moderation while letting Holofernes get drunk.  As Shakespeare also wrote, wine “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”, and the lustful but drunken Holofernes  falls into a sleep.  Left alone with him, and perhaps inspired by the Old Testament character Jael who drove a tent-peg through the head of an enemy commander, Judith uses his own sword to bring about his destruction, then bringing home his head as a trophy and proof of her action.

Is Judith a true heroine or a flawed one, since she lied in order to gain a place in Holofernes’ affection?  Opinions may differ, and of course the story is probably not historical, but there may be times when “white lies” are the lesser of two evils, the greater evil in this case being the inevitable death of her people when their food and water ran out.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 February.

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20 February. Judith chapters 8-10

These chapters introduce the main protagonist in the story, and show us various different aspects of her complex character.  In chapter 8, Judith is shown as a widow who has been mourning her late husband for several years: a pitiable figure, though she had been left riches.  When the siege reaches crisis point, though, she comes out of her shell and takes part in the discussions.

In ‘democratic’ Britain it is only in the last few decades that we have had elected women leaders (though of course we have had a hereditary Queen for more than half of the last two hundred years). Before that, misogyny ruled. But the Bible, written so long ago, shows us that women can be born leaders.  Judith is not the only example – Miriam and Deborah (and as we shall see, also Jael) would have been her inspiration.  In the presence of the male elders, Judith comes across as a good orator and a courageous leader: the Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel of her day, if you like (without comment on their policies).  Except that unlike them, she was also beautiful, which was an extra string to her bow in what she was planning.

In chapter 9, Judith is seen as a holy woman, willing to cast aside any privilege and pride and humble herself before God.  Her prayer is in the Hebrew tradition of praising God for his mighty acts of the past, before petitioning him for present needs, although she starts with reference to some recent incident when the enemy’s use of rape as a tactic of war resulted in God (through the men of her tribe, presumably) taking vengeance on them.  At the core of her prayer is a statement of dependence on God which has echoes of Mary’s Magnificat: “Your strength does not lie in numbers, nor your might in violent men: since you are the God of the humble, the help of the oppressed, the support of the  weak, the refuge of the forsaken, the saviour of the despairing” (9:11).

Then in chapter 10, she becomes the Mata Hari figure, the glamorous double-agent who charms her way into the enemy camp as a friend while actually being a spy.  So this complex woman – widow, orator, politician, intercessor, beauty and spy – takes her place ready to let God work through her.

Each of us will have been given a different mix of gifts by God, but not all of them may seem to be used all the time. There might only be one time in our lives when all that we are will come together to achieve something for him that no-one else could.  But as Judith acknowledges in her prayer, all we can do is make ourselves available to be used.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 19 February

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19 February. Judith chapters 5-7

In these chapters we see different approaches to warfare.  Holofernes the Assyrian general believes in sheer weight of numbers: he trusts in his 120,000 men to overcome the Israelites in battle as he has the other subject peoples of the empire.  The Moabites however (relatively near neighbours of Israel, and their historic enemies) have a more practical suggestion which involved far fewer troops: lay siege to the hilltop towns by cutting off access to food and water.  It’s a strategy that many military commanders have used in the course of history, and Holofernes takes their advice.  By the end of chapter 7 things are looking desperate for the Israelites in Bethulia as their water has virtually run out.

There is another perspective, though: Achior, “leader of the Ammonites” (another ancient enemy of Israel) knows the history of Israel and how God has repeatedly delivered them.  He bravely tells Holofernes that not all the troops and horses in the world will help, unless God has chosen to let his people be defeated on this occasion.  Not surprisingly the pagan  Holofernes, who is willing to worship his own emperor as a god, rejects such advice.  But he gives Achior a chance by having him handed over to the Israelites, saying that he will meet his fate with them.  When he explains to the men of Bethulia what has happened, he is welcomed as an honoured guest.   Achior, then, represents the “god-fearers” who are found throughout Scripture, those who are not Jews by descent nor converts through circumcision, but who believe and trust in the one God.

These three approaches to human conflict are universal, and pretty much cover every situation: trust in human strength, or in human cunning, or in God’s will.  That’s not to say that strength and cunning never have their place, but unless they are offered as subservient to God’s will, they will not be enough on their own.