Chapter 4

1 Maccabees 4

1) Now Gorgias took five thousand infantry and a thousand picked cavalry, and this detachment set out at night 2) in order to fall upon the camp of the Jews in a surprise attack. Some from the citadel were his guides.


COMMENTARY:  “The Citadel”, as you will remember, is Jerusalem’s fortress, garrisoned and fortified as a military hub for Antiochus.  To the Jewish perspective, it was a bit like Minas Anor transformed into Minas Morgul.



3) Judas heard of it and himself set out with his soldiers to attack the king’s army at Emmaus 4) while these forces were still scattered away from the camp.


COMMENTARY:  So one side’s would-be surprise attack becomes the mask for the other side’s surprise attack!  And how did Judas hear of it in the first place, I wonder?  Could it be that not all of those in “The Citadel” were on the side of the Greeks?



5) During the night Gorgias came into the camp of Judas, and found no one there; so he sought them in the mountains, saying, “They are fleeing from us.”


COMMENTARY:  A nice, egotistical conclusion!  Which leads to wearing his men out clambering up and down slopes, in full armor, poking into every nook and cranny, all night long.



6) But at daybreak Judas appeared in the plain with three thousand men; furthermore they lacked the helmets and swords they wanted.


COMMENTARY:  This doesn’t say that they had no helmets or swords, but they didn’t have as many as they wanted.  In situations like this a guerilla  force hopes to arm itself off of the enemy (and in fact Che Guevara, in his book on guerilla warfare, details how those with few arms can win more weapons for their unarmed comrades with every kill, and they in turn can get more arms, etc.)  In any case, Judas isn’t where the enemy expected, he’s not surprised, and although ill-equipped, his men aren’t the ones exhausted.



7) They saw the army of the Gentiles, strong, breastplated, and flanked with cavalry, and made up of experienced soldiers.


COMMENTARY:  “Gentiles”, of course, is the polite word for non-Jews.  In any case, pointing out the breastplates means that Judas’s force probably didn’t have many of those, either.  This is one of those moments where the Jewish forces could’ve gotten demoralized quickly.  And once you’ve lost morale, weak or strong, you’ve lost the battle.  So Judas has to bolster them up in a hurry.  And as you will see, he delivers.



8) Judas said to the men with him: “Do not fear their numbers or dread their attack. 9) Remember how our ancestors were saved in the Red Sea, when Pharaoh pursued them with an army.


COMMENTARY:  For those of you not raised in the Abramic Traditions, this refers to a time when the Jews were fleeing slavery in Egypt.  The Pharaoh of the time sent an army to stop them.  Then Moses, their prophet-leader, called on God to save them and struck the sea with his snake-staff (a staff that could, at his will, become a snake.)  The waves parted and the people fled on land between two walls of water.  The chariots of Pharaoh followed, but as soon as the last Jew reached the other shore the waves closed again and drowned the pursuing army.

There has been some dispute as to where this happened, or whether it was actually the Red Sea or the Reed Sea (a marshy area elsewhere)  But there is a rock ridge in the Red Sea that powerful winds sometimes can bare.  Even if this was what happened, it would still be a miracle of timing; that the waves parted precisely when the Children of Israel were trapped on that beach, and that they closed again precisely when the army took off after them.  I have seen plenty enough miracles of timing to know that God likes to work this way.



 10) So now let us cry to Heaven in the hope that he will favor us, remember the covenant with our ancestors, and destroy this army before us today. 11) All the Gentiles shall know that there is One who redeems and delivers Israel.”


COMMENTARY:  Throughout the Bible one sees a recurring theme of God letting things get really nerve-wrackingly close to disaster before stepping in spectacularly at the last minute, so that everyone can see clearly Who’s responsible for the rescue.  And I’ve seen things work out that way time and again in everyday life.  On the one hand, I consider it one of God’s most annoying habits (I might as well say it; He knows what I’m thinking anyway.)  On the other hand, it does inspire me to hold on when no help seems forthcoming, out of long experience with God’s brinkmanship.  And people with hope can survive much more, much longer, than people without hope.



12) When the foreigners looked up and saw them marching toward them, 13) they came out of their camp for battle. The men with Judas blew the trumpet, and 14) joined the battle. They crushed the Gentiles, who fled toward the plain. 15) Their whole rear guard fell by the sword, and they were pursued as far as Gazara and the plains of Idumaea, to Azotus and Jamnia. About three thousand of their men fell.


COMMENTARY:  Gazara’s five miles northwest of Emmaus—not usually a big deal in terms of distance, but quite a jog if you’re fleeing for your life in a heavy breastplate after a night of clambering all over mountains looking for guerillas.  Azotus, AKA Ashdod, is in the southwest, Jamnia (Jabneel) is due west.  In other words, they broke ranks and scattered every which way but east where the Maccabees came from.



16) When Judas and the army returned from the pursuit, 17) he said to the people: “Do not be greedy for plunder; for there is a fight ahead of us, 18) and Gorgias and his army are near us on the mountain. But now stand firm against our enemies and fight them. Afterward you can freely take the plunder.”


COMMENTARY:  Presumably he’d allow them to grab swords and helmets, but nothing more than they need to finish the job, till they finish what they started.  Considering how heavy gold and silver can be, he advises them well.



19) As Judas was finishing this speech, a detachment appeared, looking down from the mountain.


COMMENTARY:  Detachment—a portion of an army separated off to do a specific task.  In this case these were probably the last of those looking for rebels in the mountains.  Remember, they had no means of communication with the rest of the army, and the mountains would have muffled the sound of battle.



20) They saw that their army had been put to flight and their camp was burning. The smoke they saw revealed what had happened.


COMMENTARY:  Surprise surprise!



21) When they realized this, they completely lost heart; and when they also saw the army of Judas in the plain ready to attack, 22) they all fled to the land of the foreigners.


COMMENTARY:  Once you lose morale, your strength doesn’t matter anymore.  “Land of the Foreigners” refers to Philistine territory.



23) Then Judas went back to plunder the camp, and they took much gold and silver, cloth dyed blue and marine purple, and great treasure.


COMMENTARY:  Royal blue and Royal Purple are called that because only kings could afford them (and eventually sumptuary laws codified into law for a time that only kings should afford them.)  It’s also called marine purple because it comes from the murex, an aquatic snail.  The process of extracting dye from snails was so carefully guarded a secret that people are still trying to discover the precise technique.



24) As they returned, they were singing hymns and glorifying Heaven, “who is good, whose mercy endures forever.” 25) Thus Israel experienced a great deliverance that day.


COMMENTARY:  After generations of subjugation, the old hymns about the mercy of God enduring forever are starting to have meaning to their ears again.



26 But those of the foreigners who had escaped went and told Lysias all that had occurred. 27) When he heard it he was disturbed and discouraged, because things had not turned out in Israel as he intended and as the king had ordered.


COMMENTARY:  The king’s gone off to try and get what he needs to pay off the royal debt that he’s incurred in this enterprise.  It would not do to have to tell him that Lysias wasted every dime of that debt on strategies that didn’t work.



28) So the following year he gathered together sixty thousand picked men and five thousand cavalry, to fight them.


COMMENTARY:  And the costs of the campaign continue to mount.



29They came into Idumea and camped at Beth-zur, and Judas met them with ten thousand men.


COMMENTARY:  Beth-zur is a strategic point on the border between Judea and Idumea.  The discrepancy in the sizes of their forces makes this all the more embarrassing.



30) Seeing that the army was strong, he prayed thus:

“Blessed are you, Savior of Israel, who crushed the attack of the mighty one by the hand of your servant David and delivered the foreign camp into the hand of Jonathan, the son of Saul, and his armor-bearer.


COMMENTARY:  In this case he’s referring to the aftermath of the famous battle between teenage David and the giant Goliath, where David struck Goliath down with a slingshot-strike to the head: a tale of the weak overcoming the strong now known to people beyond the Abramic religions, and just what his soldiers need reminded of, in this prayer doing double-duty as a pep-talk for the men.  You will see, over and over, that Judas has a story for every occasion; this reinforces the power of tradition, which is almost always supported by the power of Story.  This matters because 1 and 2 Maccabees is all about pitching those who keep their traditions against those who discard them.

(And what stories bolster your traditions?  Do you find strength in them?)

This also gives me a moment to digress for a mini-Deuterocanonical moment.  The original Catholic version of the David and Goliath story, based on the Septuagint manuscripts, described Goliath as standing four cubits and a span tall--the equivalent of 6’9” (2.06 meters for you folks in other countries.)  That’s impressive when the average height for men at the time was 5’5”, but by no means freakish.  I have friends taller than that (not many, but I do) and my Dad came close. 

Then Luther went with the older Masoretic Text, which put him at six cubits and a span.  That would put him at 9’4”, or 2.97 meters.  He reasoned that the text had been corrupted downward by skeptics, diminishing the impressiveness of David’s achievement and the wonders of the ancient world.

However, the Dead Sea Scrolls had an account still older than either of these, and in Hebrew, reconfirming the 6’9” height.  Apparently the corruption of time inclined people to exaggerate rather than to diminish Goliath.



31) Give this army into the hands of your people Israel; make them ashamed of their troops and their cavalry. 32) Strike them with cowardice, weaken the boldness of their strength, and let them tremble at their own destruction. 33) Strike them down by the sword of those who love you, that all who know your name may sing your praise.”


COMMENTARY:  Morale alone can turn the battle his way, so He asks God, who speaks to hearts, to take care of this for him.



34) Then they engaged in battle, and about five thousand of Lysias’ army fell in hand-to-hand fighting. 35) When Lysias saw the tide of the battle turning, and the increased boldness of Judas, whose men were ready either to live or to die nobly, he withdrew to Antioch and began to recruit mercenaries so as to return to Judea with greater numbers.


COMMENTARY:  And it’s a win!  Judas seized the morale for the day and Lysias had to withdraw.  2 Maccabees, at this point, says that peace negotiations took place between Lysias and Judas.  I can see how both might be true, if Lysias wanted to cover all of his bases—knowing that he didn’t really have the funds to pay off the mercenaries.  And it is unwise to fail to pay your mercenaries, because they’re fully equipped to pillage your town for what they’re owed.  If, on the other hand, Judas failed to keep up his side, it could help to have a back-up plan, and persuade the mercenaries to plunder Judea for their wages.



36) Then Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.”


COMMENTARY:  The moment they’ve been waiting for!  The Sanctuary would mean not just the Temple, but also the entire grounds around the Temple, and all of its courts, walls, and auxiliary buildings.  It’s like the difference between the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica within the Vatican.



37) So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion.


COMMENTARY:  Now that they’re in the neighborhood.  Hopefully they got some rest first, but maybe their longing couldn’t wait.



38) They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a thicket or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished.


COMMENTARY:  How heartbreaking this would be!  Think about the place that you consider most sacred, most precious, or most beloved in your entire life.  Think of finding it in a similar state, with the rudest misuse rendered to the very heart of it.  Sacrificing pigs on their altar, to a deity other than what they intended, would be like somebody carving obscenities all over whatever you find most holy, only even worse than that.  Not a sight for battle-weary men!



39) Then they tore their garments and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes 40) and prostrated themselves. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.


COMMENTARY:  They’re doing penance because they and their nation let this happen, by not resisting sooner the steps that led to this escalation.



41) Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary.


COMMENTARY:  I’d hate to be on the receiving end of that attack!  Not with soldiers half-blinded with tears of rage and grief and literally out for blood.  As for Judas purifying the sanctuary, he is a Levite and qualified.



42) He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law;


COMMENTARY:  You’d think that would go without saying.  But the Hasmonean priesthood, mixing politics with religion as it did (and, after the death of Judas Maccabee, frequently switching sides on which Seleucids they supported, once reconquered) stirred up a lot of controversy that needed answered.



43) these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the defilement to an unclean place.


COMMENTARY:  The stones of the defilement would be the altar built on top of the original Jewish altar, which had received sacrifices to foreign deities.  The Bible dictates that the altar in the temple must be made of undressed stone, so probably the conquerors used this natural core to bolster more Greek-looking cut and finished stones.

I can only speculate what the “unclean place” might be.  Maybe simply a more secular area.  Maybe somewhere ritually impure, like a graveyard or a pig sty.



44) They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar for burnt offerings that had been desecrated. 45) They decided it best to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. 46) They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple mount, until the coming of a prophet who could determine what to do with them.


COMMENTARY:  Apparently the thought that anyone would come in and actively desecrate their altar was so unthinkable that they had no provision for reconsecration.  Learning from their experience, the Catholic church has a ritual specifically for reconsecrating desecrated churches; sadly it has seen much use over the years.  Just in my own small people’s history I know of instances when Yaquis were trapped inside churches and murdered by the Mexican government.  It became such a thing that habitually, now, I’ve noticed that Yaqui men tend to sit near the church door while their wives and children sit up front—a holdover, no doubt, from the days when Mass needed guarded.


They can’t just chuck the stones out.  This had been their altar for nine centuries, and possibly much, much longer (the site might well have been sacred long before the official temple was built on it.)  History builds up in things and places in a way hard to describe.

I have to say that I’m curious and intrigued about those stone set aside, waiting for a prophet to say what to do with them!  I couldn’t find out anything more about them.  Where are they now?  Will a prophet show up and say what needs done?  And what a leap of faith to rest assured that this will happen!



47) Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one.


COMMENTARY:  I’m intrigued by that requirement for uncut stones—stones the way that God shaped them.  This shows a closeness to nature and a preference for God’s wild Creation over things tamed, polished and reshaped according to the whims of humankind.  People today too often think of nature as belonging to Paganism, but here the Pagans were the people whose altars favored artifice.  I would like to see uncut stone used in church today, but I won’t hold my breath.



48) They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and consecrated the courts. 49) They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50) Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. 51) They also put loaves on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.


COMMENTARY:  These are all necessary set-ups for the Temple, as described in Exodus.



52) They rose early on the morning of the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight,


COMMENTARY:  December 14, 164 BC.



53) and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar for burnt offerings that they had made. 


COMMENTARY:  What a tremendous relief that must have been for them, after all that they had been through!



54) On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had desecrated it, on that very day it was rededicated with songs, harps, lyres, and cymbals.


COMMENTARY:  God often speaks through the timing of when it becomes possible for things to happen.  I also like how the sacred power of music enters into the rededication.



55) All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.


COMMENTARY:  This is a moment well worth recording as scripture, regardless of the controversies.



56) For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. 57) They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers and furnished them with doors. 58) There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.


COMMENTARY:  This seems like an excellent place for a happy ending!  But we have twelve more chapters to go, and I really don’t know what to expect in the rest of them.  Like I said, I’m studying only one step ahead of every chapter.  The Catholic Church really should teach this stuff on the secular level.



59) Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary.


COMMENTARY:  And thus we have the institution of the eight days of Hanukkah, which 2 Maccabees will cover in more detail.  So yes, reading Maccabees matters—a crucial story in the history of the Jewish people, influencing political decisions to this very day, not to mention creating the environment into which Jesus was born.



60) At that time they built high walls and strong towers around Mount Zion, to prevent the Gentiles from coming and trampling it as they had done before. 61) Judas also placed a garrison there to protect it, and likewise fortified Beth-zur, that the people might have a stronghold facing Idumea.


COMMENTARY:  For generations now the Jewish people had, by degrees, come to accept conquering armies as the divine penalty for their infidelity.  Now they begin to shift away from that idea, since it’s hard to imagine a deity wanting to see His own temple desecrated and mocked.  Now they start to view conquerors as simply evildoers with their own agendas, who need resisted.  This shift led to the uneasy politics of Jesus’s day.

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