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