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 – 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 – 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.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 18 February

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18 February. Judith chapters 1-4

The first chapters of the story of Holofernes and Judith are scene-setting.  The context is of the approach of a vast army of Assyrians, who have already conquered all the territories north of Judea, and now threaten Judea itself.  In this, the 8th year (I think) of the war in Syria between the forces of Assad (supported by Russia) and those of Daesh and other groups, we know all too well what all-out war in the Near East looks like.  The weapons may have changed, but the attitudes of fighting men and terrified civilians have not.

Footnotes to the Jerusalem Bible that I am using make it clear that although Nebuchadnezzar is a real historical character, the story is wildly out with its timing and historical accuracy. Nebuchadnezzar was not “king of Assyria” but of Babylon; the 18th year of his reign, which in this story is dated as after the return of the Jews from exile, was in fact before the exile; and there is no evidence outside this apocryphal book of the Bible that he ever commanded people to worship him as a god (although other eastern rulers sometimes did).  So as with Tobit, this story should be regarded as a pseudo-historical novel.

The contrast is presented, then, between General Holofernes who will carry out his king’s orders to destroy whole cities, civilisations and religions without compassion, and the people of Judea who call on their God to save them from the enemy.  God had saved them from enemies before (but not always) – will he save them this time?

The Bible in a Year – 29 September

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29 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 15-18

These chapters tell of the reigns of two successive kings of Judah, Asa and Jehoshaphat.  They followed a similar pattern: initially they took the advice of prophets not to make war either against the rest of Israel or against other nations, and they worshipped God, and he granted them peace in the land.  But each in turn was tempted to abandon that peaceful option and turn to war in alliance with other kings.  Asa made an alliance with Aram (Syria) against the other tribes of Israel, whereas Jehoshaphat joined himself with Israel against Aram.  Ahab king of Israel ignored the advice of one true prophet and accepted that of four hundred false prophets, allying himself with Judah against Aram – and was killed in the battle, as Micaiah had prophesied.

The offence against God in both cases seems not to have been going to war, as such. Nor was it making war against a particular people, since in the one case the war was against the ten tribes of Israel, and latterly in alliance with them. The offence, rather, was making any alliance with a nation that was itself not under God’s direction and protection (the ten tribes ruled from Samaria being at this time seen by the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin as apostates who no longer worshipped the true God).

It may seem, to any of us who follow one of the monotheistic religions, that it is a good thing for an individual, group or nation to declare its faith in God.  But that has a dark side, as the stronger the commitment to follow God, the stronger the temptation to discriminate against, separate oneself from, attack or even kill those who do not.  There are two very chilling verses here in the account of Asa persuading his people to make a declaration of loyalty to God: “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and with all their soul. Whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman.” (15:12,13). That sounds as threatening as an Islamist ‘fatwa’, and no doubt at least some of them meant it deadly seriously.

What should the approach of a person of faith be in the modern world?  We want to exercise freedom of religion for ourselves, we (hopefully) want to live in peace with neighbours who may have different beliefs or none, while challenging aspects of their religion that we might think tend to disrupt a peaceful society.  We may listen to the “mainstream prophets” of our own religion without realising that when they are at their most triumphalist they may actually be going against the will of God, rather than hearing the solitary voices like those of Micaiah who counsel caution and what may appear to be appeasement.  How can those sometimes conflicting intentions and sources of advice be held together?