The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 February

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

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.