Chapter 3

1 Maccabees 3

1)Then his son Judas, who was called Maccabeus, took his place.


COMMENTARY:  The place of Mattathias, his father, who died in the last chapter.



2) All his brothers and all who had joined his father supported him, and they gladly carried on Israel’s war.


COMMENTARY:  Emphasizing the value of this specific family here, because eventually, they usurped the throne of David, possibly the most controversial aspect of Maccabees.



3)  He spread abroad the glory of his people,

and put on his breastplate like a giant.

He armed himself with weapons of war;

he fought battles and protected the camp with his sword.


COMMENTARY:  I have no idea why a giant would put a breastplate on differently from any other size of person, but the point is that the author of 1 Maccabees considers him a really big deal.



4)  In his deeds he was like a lion,

like a young lion roaring for prey.


COMMENTARY:  Adding the second line is a dig at the line of David, because of the reputation of young lions for overthrowing old has-been leaders of the pride.



5)  He pursued the lawless, hunting them out,

and those who troubled his people he destroyed by fire.


COMMENTARY:  This doesn’t mean literally that he burned people to death.  Rather, he had a style of fighting as swift, total and overwhelming as a fire sweeping through a city before the invention of firefighting beyond the limits of a bucket brigade. 

On a different level, fire also made a popular metaphor for utter transformation (as St. John the Baptist used it when referring to how the Messiah would baptize people in fire.)  Fire turned wood into ash, dough into bread, ore into metal, crumbly clay into stone-hard ceramic.  Everything it touches changes.  Judas Maccabee swept through the countryside transforming a people who had been beaten down for generations, accustomed by now to belonging to various empires, changing hands like loot stolen back and forth between several crews of pirates.  He reminded them that they had begun as an independent nation, and could be one again.



6)  The lawless were cowed by fear of him,

and all evildoers were dismayed.

By his hand deliverance was happily achieved,


COMMENTARY:  And he was well on his way to succeeding!  For the first time in living memory Israel saw a chance to become an independent nation once more!  And eventually (as you will later see) he did succeed.


This factored critically in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  Had Judea been the long-broken subject people that they had been for centuries, like pretty much the rest of the Asian nations that Rome conquered, they would have simply cooperated with the conqueror du jour in order to negotiate their freedom to follow their customs (and Rome was pretty clever in knowing how adamant Jews were about keeping the old ways; they exempted them from burning incense to the Emperor and similar requirements imposed on other nations, “because of their antiquity and scholarship” Rome said officially, but really because of their history.  Christians did not get the same exemption because they splintered off from the Jewish fold.)

Instead everybody in Judea and the Diaspora knew that, a mere century before, one revolutionary family had thrown off the yoke of a mighty empire.  What had happened before could happen again.  And so Judea seethed with Maccabee wannabes, violence broke out periodically, and the Romans had to regard Jesus not just as a religious leader but as a potential military threat, since in this country the two tended to go hand in hand.



7)  and he afflicted many kings.

He gave joy to Jacob by his deeds,

and his memory is blessed forever.


COMMENTARY:  “Many kings” would refer to all of the other subject nations obeying their Greek masters in trying to suppress these upstarts. 

“Joy to Jacob” refers to the ancestor of the Israelites, Jacob, who changed his name to Israel.  Some people get sloppy and call it “ancestor worship” every time a people consider the ancestors a real and present force in the life of the living, but the Jews practiced regard rather than worship: an awareness of the dead witnessing the actions of the living, having opinions on it, and occasionally giving advice through dreams and visions.  Necromancers like the Witch of Endor were not condemned for believing in the possibility, but for forcing it—a violation of the rights of the dead to not contact the living except when and how they decided and—most importantly—how God permitted.



8) He went about the cities of Judah

destroying the renegades there.

He turned away wrath from Israel,


COMMENTARY:  We’ve discussed how post-exilic theology taught that Israel lost its sovereignity due to departing from the exclusive worship of the God of Israel and the neglect of old customs.  Now Judas extrapolated from that that if you forced reforms, you could end the subjugation.  So restoring customs became not only a goal, but part of his plan for acquiring power.

This is not foreign to me.  The Yaqui people were promised by the Talking Tree (who warned them about the coming invader) that if they wanted to defeat the Spaniards in battle they would need to embrace the Spanish religion, on the grounds that the Spaniards were serving Jesus badly.  Serve Him better, the Tree said, and Jesus would switch sides!  And so it happened.



9) was renowned to the ends of the earth;

and gathered together those who were perishing.


COMMENTARY:  “Ends of the earth”  in the Bible generally means, “All the lands that we know about.”



10) Then Apollonius gathered together the Gentiles, along with a large army from Samaria, to fight against Israel.


COMMENTARY:  Apollonius is the Mysian general mentioned in the first chapter.

Samaria was, at this point, the last remnant of that portion of Israel that split off from then-Judah, and did things rather differently but still considered themselves Jews, though not quite considered so by the Jews of Judea.  They could be induced to march against Judea because they considered the Judeans every bit as heretical as the Judeans considered the Samaritans.

Samaritans still exist today, in dwindling numbers, though one tribe of them finally died out recently.  Mainstream Jews tend to regard them rather similarly to how mainstream Christians tend to regard Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses—disputing as to what extent they still qualify as being in the same category. 

The Samaritans believe that they alone practice the true Israelite religion from before the Babylonian Captivity, according to their scriptures, the Samaritan Pentateuch (which they consider the unchanged version; among other things, they consider Moses the only prophet.  They omit pretty much everything later than Joshua.)  Israel’s Rabbinic Council does recognize them as a branch of Judaism, but the Chief Rabbinate of Israel does not consider them Halakhic Jews (fully Jewish) and requires conversion.



11) When Judas learned of it, he went out to meet him and struck and killed him. Many fell wounded, and the rest fled. 12) They took their spoils, and Judas took the sword of Apollonius and fought with it the rest of his life.


COMMENTARY:  Taking the sword is a way of saying to his enemies, “I will turn against you everything that you think is yours.”



13) But Seron, commander of the Syrian army, heard that Judas had mustered an assembly of faithful men ready for war. 14) So he said, “I will make a name for myself and win honor in the kingdom. I will wage war against Judas and his followers, who have despised the king’s command.”


COMMENTARY:  People too often think that attack will automatically scare the other side into submitting.  But in fact the mightier the warrior, the more glory in taking him down.  The competitive instinct complicates everything.



15) And again a large company of renegades advanced with him to help him take revenge on the Israelites.


COMMENTARY:  These are not cravens who simply changed their beliefs in order to side with those in power.  They wanted to be who they became.  And Judas Maccabee has not exactly offered them gentle persuasions to win them over.  That’s another problem with conversions at swordpoint—you can shift people from merely disagreeing to having a grudge against you.



16) When he reached the ascent of Beth-horon, Judas went out to meet him with a few men.


COMMENTARY:  Decisions made at the highly strategic pass of Beth-horon have changed the tided of history before this, and will again after this.  Joshua won one of his most important victories there in establishing the Nation of Israel to begin with.  Years later revolutionaries would trap and massacre a Roman force in the same spot.



17) But when they saw the army coming against them, they said to Judas: “How can we, few as we are, fight such a strong host as this? Besides, we are weak since we have not eaten today.”


COMMENTARY:  If you looked at strength or numbers alone, they’d be right.  But Beth-horon’s bottleneck can become a great equalizer of armies, especially for whoever takes the high ground.


Food would matter more.  Fans of “Survivor” have some inkling of just how much poor nutrition can drain the strong and stupify the wise.  Napoleon was not wrong when he said that “an army marches on its stomach”.  A favorite strategy throughout history has been to cut supply-lines to an army, and so Americans won their revolution against a militarily superior force, through a series of calculated defeats that lured the British deeper and faster into enemy territory than their supplies could go.  The Viet Cong used similar tactics successfully against Americans in Viet Nam.



18) But Judas said: “Many are easily hemmed in by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few;


COMMENTARY:  In the first part of this sentence he reminds his army of the properties of the pass, but the rest is theological.



19) for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven.


COMMENTARY:  Jesus might have had this in mind when, shortly before His arrest, He told his apostles to obtain swords, but when they could get only four, said that it would be enough.  I suspect that by this means He left the door open to God giving Him the go-ahead to fight His way out of the coming crucifixion.

After all, at the very inception of Judaism, Abraham received a command to sacrifice his only legitimate son, Israel.  But when he got to the place of sacrifice, he received a last minute reprieve, finding a ram tangled in the thorns by his horns, to be sacrificed in Israel’s stead.  Couldn’t history repeat itself?

But no, as it turned out, the ram, not Israel, symbolized Jesus.  A long and terrible night of prayer—crying out loudly and desperately to God, sweating blood—convinced him that no reprieve awaited: He WAS the reprieve, for everybody else.  And so he ordered that the swords not see use, and rebuked Peter for attempting to come to His rescue by violence.



20) With great presumption and lawlessness they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; 21) but we are fighting for our lives and our laws.


COMMENTARY:  Reminding the troops what they fight for, as a general should.



22) He will crush them before us; so do not fear them.”


COMMENTARY:  Judas chooses to use pronouns, or sometimes euphemisms, for God rather than naming Him, as a devout Jew should. 



23) When he finished speaking, he rushed suddenly upon Seron and his army, who were crushed before him. 24) He pursued Seron down the descent of Beth-horon into the plain. About eight hundred of their men fell, and the rest fled to the land of the Philistines.


COMMENTARY:  “Eight hundred” is symbolic rather than literal.  If anybody who reads this knows Jewish numerical symbolism, please let me know.

As for the rest, pursuing Seron into the plain matters.  This shows that they did not win by the properties of the pass alone, but continued to succeed on level ground in a broad plain that would favor the larger army.  Big armies always want to fight on plains and small ones always prefer mountain passes.



25) Then Judas and his brothers began to be feared, and dread fell upon the Gentiles about them. 26)  His fame reached the king, and the Gentiles talked about the battles of Judas.


COMMENTARY:  So the Maccabees no longer have the advantage of underestimation.



27) When King Antiochus heard these reports, he was filled with rage; so he ordered that all the forces of his kingdom be gathered, a very strong army. 28) He opened his treasury, gave his soldiers a year’s pay, and commanded them to be prepared for anything.


COMMENTARY:  Few governments go all-out like this.  In the next verse you will see why.



29) But then he saw that this exhausted the money in his treasury; moreover the tribute from the province was small because of the dissension and distress he had brought upon the land by abolishing the laws which had been in effect from of old.


COMMENTARY:  Antiochus is less wise than the conquerors who came before him, not only in failing to consider whether he could actually afford what he wanted to do, but also because his bad policies cut into his revenue.  Alexander and the Ptolemies took care to leave as much political infrastructure intact in conquered nations as possible.  The Seleucids were not so wise.


Wanting too much to impose your own stamp causes unnecessary complications.  This matters whether you’re a king, a businessman, a realtor, an heir or a step-parent.  Don’t start from scratch if you don’t have to.



30) He feared that, as had happened once or twice, he would not have enough for his expenses and for the gifts that he was accustomed to give with a lavish hand—more so than all previous kings.


COMMENTARY:  This sounds frivolous, but it’s not.  Sagas abound praising the generosity of good leaders and the benefits of submitting to them.  “Compliance will be rewarded.”

People follow leaders to the extent that they can expect something in return for their loyalty.  I don’t intend cynicism; the payoff might be loyalty in return, love, self-respect, enlightenment, becoming part of something larger than oneself, all kinds of things.  But sheer material gain also matters because at the end of the day soldiers, subjects and politicians also have mouths to feed, especially if their leaders keep them too busy to till their own fields.



31) Greatly perplexed, he decided to go to Persia and levy tribute on those provinces, and so raise a large sum of money.


COMMENTARY:  Persia (modern day Iran) was a whole lot richer than Greece, having much more generous agriculture but also strategically situated for trade with the rest of Asia.  Greeks had to go through Persia to obtain silk, spices, and a variety of precious and semiprecious stones.



32) He left Lysias, a noble of royal descent, in charge of the king’s affairs from the Euphrates River to the frontier of Egypt, 33) and commissioned him to take care of his son Antiochus until his return.


COMMENTARY:  This must be quite some noble to be entrusted not only with the kingdom, but the royal heir!



34)  He entrusted to him half of his forces, and the elephants, and gave him instructions concerning everything he wanted done. As for the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem, 35) Lysias was to send an army against them to crush and destroy the power of Israel and the remnant of Jerusalem and efface their memory from the place.


COMMENTARY:  Greek imperialist policy was to show generosity to those who surrendered without a fight, fairness to those who surrendered after battle, and mercilessness to those who rebelled after surrender.



36) He was to settle foreigners in all their territory and distribute their land by lot.


COMMENTARY:  This would make a great motivator for Greeks, who built their military muscle on centuries of squabbling over tiny strips of arable land between rocks, mountains, and salty shores.



37) The king took the remaining half of the army and set out from Antioch, his capital, in the year one hundred and forty-seven; he crossed the Euphrates River and went through the provinces beyond.


COMMENTARY:  That would be the Spring of 165 BC.  Spoiler:  He doesn’t succeed.  But Lysias can only act on the assumption that King Antiochus will bring back funding.



38) Lysias chose Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes, and Nicanor and Gorgias, powerful men among the King’s Friends, 39) and with them he sent forty thousand foot soldiers and seven thousand cavalry to invade and ravage the land of Judah according to the king’s orders.


COMMENTARY:  Nicanor might be the same man who also led an attack against the Jews four years later.



40) Setting out with their whole force, they came and pitched their camp near Emmaus in the plain.


COMMENTARY:  This is probably not the same Emmaus mentioned in Luke, but a place twenty miles west of Jerusalem, on the edge of the hill country.  Yes, it is confusing to have several places with the same name in the same country.  And have you any idea how many towns are named Springfield in the United States of America?



41) When the merchants of the region heard of their prowess, they came to the camp, bringing a huge sum of silver and gold, along with fetters, to buy the Israelites as slaves. A force from Edom and from Philistia joined with them.


COMMENTARY:  Unfettered capitalism usually winds up with somebody in fetters, one way or another.  It’s like what they say about fire: “Good servant, bad master”.



42) Judas and his brothers saw that evils had multiplied and that armies were encamped within their territory. They learned of the orders which the king had given to destroy and utterly wipe out the people.


COMMENTARY:   See, that’s the problem with military solutions; they tend to escalate.  I’m not a pacifist; I do believe that some situations exist that one has no other way to deal with.  But (in my opinion) we should regard it as a last and dangerous resort.



43) So they said to one another, “Let us raise our people from their ruin and fight for them and for our sanctuary!”

44) The assembly gathered together to prepare for battle and to pray and ask for mercy and compassion.


COMMENTARY:  They’re backed in a corner now, no way out but through.



45) Jerusalem was uninhabited, like a wilderness;

not one of her children came in or went out.

The sanctuary was trampled on,

and foreigners were in the citadel;

it was a habitation for Gentiles.

Joy had disappeared from Jacob,

and the flute and the harp were silent.


COMMENTARY:  How easy it is to say, in the same breath, that a place is “uninhabited, like a wilderness” and “it was a habitation for Gentiles”.  It’s like the old classic, “Nobody goes to Atlantic City anymore; it’s too crowded.”  People who aren’t like us don’t count, in our own minds.  This attitude had to change in our spiritual evolution.



46) Thus they assembled and went to Mizpah near Jerusalem, because formerly at Mizpah there was a place of prayer for Israel.c


COMMENTARY:  Mizpah was where the Prophet Samuel used to lead and pass judgment, before the Temple existed.



47) That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their garments.


COMMENTARY:  They did penance for any faults that might otherwise alienate God from giving them aid.



48) They unrolled the scroll of the law, to learn about the things for which the Gentiles consulted the images of their idols.


COMMENTARY:  A deliberate jab at the Greeks, who prided themselves on their learning—at least among the upper classes.  But in fact all adult male Jews were literate and most Greeks were not.  The Greeks regularly resorted to augeries before battle, often engineered with predetermined results to impress the uneducated.



49) They brought with them the priestly garments, the first fruits, and the tithes; and they brought forward the nazirites who had completed the time of their vows.


COMMENTARY:  Nazirites belonged to a holy order dedicated to prayer, mysticism and study.  Male and female alike, they lived amid the rest of the community, but they kept certain taboos specific to them, such as abstaining from anything made from grapes or from cutting their hair.  They might be Nazirites for life, or take vows for a set period of time.  The latter would conclude their vows with sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem.



50) And they cried aloud to Heaven: “What shall we do with these, and where shall we take them? 51) For your sanctuary has been trampled on and profaned, and your priests are in mourning and humbled.


COMMENTARY:  Throughout the Bible you will often see a form of prayer not taught in Sunday School: the challenge.  They’re saying to God, “What do you mean to make a requirement of us, and then let it become impossible to do?  So what are you going to do to fix it, huh?”


People today too often fear prayers like this, the presumptiousness of it, the possible lack of faith.  Who is humankind to question God?  Yet paradoxically a challenge prayer shows a deeper level of faith: one dares to ask because one dares to hope that God has an answer.  Many people make the breakthrough from being a good little follower of rules to a devout and passionate believer in a personal relationship with God, because, in a crisis, they dared to challenge God—and listened for the answer.



52) Now the Gentiles are gathered together against us to destroy us. You know what they plot against us. 53) How shall we be able to resist them unless you help us?”


COMMENTARY:  However insolent it might seem to question God, they ultimately show their humility by acknowledging their utter dependence upon Him.



54) Then they blew the trumpets and cried out loudly.


COMMENTARY:  I’m not satisfied, in the context, that “trumpets” is a good translation.  I don’t doubt those who translated this from Greek, but maybe the unknown translator from the unproven and hypothetical Hebrew text got it wrong, having no proper Greek equivalent.  Because the Jews used the Shofar, a ritual instrument made from a ram’s horn, both for religious purposes and summoning to battle.



55) After this Judas appointed officers for the people, over thousands, over hundreds, over fifties, and over tens.


COMMENTARY:  Like every other major political leader in the Bible.  At this point that’s exactly what he becomes, and ceases to be a mere rebel general.  He’s exercising the authority of a king—and he’s not of the line of Jesse.  (A prophet could also wield this authority, but he hasn’t claimed to utter anything told to him by God.)


This sets up an interesting irony.  The defender of law and custom has, in his desire for power, broken a major law and custom. 

He could have set the rightful king upon the throne and waged war on his behalf; a prudent monarch would not have second-guessed the moves of so successful a general.  The Jews had kept meticulous records of all of David’s descendants, enough to be able to document Jesus’s descent a century later.  Men of the line of Jesse played a leadership role in every community; all he had to do was pick one and throw military backing behind him.  The other contenders, having no armies of their own, would have let him.


This matters because contention hounded the Maccabeean line for the rest of its short duration, due to the illegitimacy of its succession.  These divisions weakened Judea and made it easy for Rome to conquer later.  At the time of Christ people popularly believed that this hubris cost Judas Maccabee the favor of God.  They would agree that this let in the Roman conquest, but for the different reason of ritual incorrectness.


And so Jesus was not just any preacher, in the eyes of both the Jews and the Romans.  He was a direct descendant of King David—the long-lost King returning!  The one to finish what Judas Maccabee started, and this time do it right.  People believed that if He led an army, nothing could stop it.  But, as He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”



56) He proclaimed that those who were building houses, or were just married, or were planting vineyards, and those who were afraid, could each return home, according to the law.


COMMENTARY:  These rules come from Deuteronomy.  It’s interesting that one of the exemptions from the draft is being afraid.  We tend to think, brutally, today, “Well, of course, anyone in their right mind would be afraid of battle—whip the cowards into line and make them go anyway!”  But there is more than one kind of fear, natural self-preservation versus a certain psychological vulnerability that could cause one to break on the battlefield, not only endangering oneself but one’s comrades in arms.  People had the insight to do soul-searching and find out which kind they had.  Letting the fearful go safely home—no more judged than a newlywed or builder of a house—probably prevented a lot of PTSD and related complications.



57) Then the army moved off, and they camped to the south of Emmaus. 58) Judas said: “Arm yourselves and be brave; in the morning be ready to fight these Gentiles who have assembled against us to destroy us and our sanctuary. 59) It is better for us to die in battle than to witness the evils befalling our nation and our sanctuary. 60) Whatever is willed in heaven will be done.”

COMMENTARY:  If they were completely fearless, they would not need this pep-talk.  But they were brave, not insane.

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