The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

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.