Chapter 6

1 Maccabees 6

1) As King Antiochus passed through the eastern provinces, he heard that in Persia there was a city, Elam, famous for its wealth in silver and gold, 2) and that its temple was very rich, containing gold helmets, breastplates, and weapons left there by the first king of the Greeks, Alexander, son of Philip, king of Macedon.


COMMENTARY:  Remember King Antiochus?  He who started this whole mess, only to discover that he didn’t actually have the funds for such a large-scale war, and so went out to see who he could shake down to finance it, leaving the actual war in other hands.  Technically his empire includes Persia, and he heard that it would make a good cash-cow, so he’s gone to check it out, but he doesn’t actually know much about the place, travel and communication being such a challenge in those days even for kings.

And the writer knows even less.  Because Elam is a region in Persia (a mountainous area north of the Persian Gulf) not a city.  However, it does contain Persepolis, the former chief capitol of the Persian Empire, and then the capitol of Alexander the Great.


As for the gilded armory (not actually made of gold, which is ridiculously flimsy for purposes of war, but covered in gold leaf) Alexander did indeed leave such behind.  He had learned that one of the officials in the prior regime had looted the royal tombs and so (after executing said official) replaced the grave goods with value added, in order to cement relations not only with his new subjects but also with the dead.  Depending on who you talked to, Alexander was either mystically inclined, or superstitious.  What can you expect of a man with a maenad for a mother?


They mention the silver and gold, but Persia had another wealth of even greater strategic importance.  It was one of two places that had both copper and tin mines comfortably close together, and since the other was in Thailand, which these folks had never heard of, it was for all practical purposes the only one.  This meant that they could make bronze goods cheaply and quickly, whereas people farther west had to send all the way to Cornwall for the tin to mix with their copper, with a considerable mark-up in price for the rarity and the journey. 

And why does this matter strategically?  Because bronze made terrific armor and weaponry.  At this point the region did have iron and even steel, but the Egyptians had qualms against using it under certain circumstances, believing it to be the invention of the evil desert spirit, Seth, and this revulsion spread wherever their influence went (remember, until recently all of this land belonged to the Ptolemies.)  The last thing soldiers wanted was gear made from an ill-omened metal.  Not all soldiers considered iron bad luck, but enough did to make bronze still valuable.



3) He went therefore and tried to capture and loot the city. But he could not do so, because his plan became known to the people of the city 4) who rose up in battle against him. So he fled and in great dismay withdrew from there to return to Babylon.


COMMENTARY:  Obviously he’s demanding more than the usual taxes that a government can receive in return for services given.  Persia has no stake in his war against the Jews.  And they weren’t fond of people who loot tombs and temples, either.  The fact that mere knowledge of his coming got Persepolis up in arms shows that he didn’t really believe the legitimacy of his claims himself, and felt obliged to sneak in like a burglar rather than ride in like a monarch.

I’ve read up on him further, and learned that he was in quite a bind.  His father, another Antiochus, had expanded the Seleucid Empire to its maximum size.  But then, identifying strongly as a Greek, he had attempted to reconquer Greece, which by now belonged to Rome.  Rome not only pushed back but demanded bankrupting reparation-money in the terms of surrender.  The next man on the throne, Seleucus IV, spent his short reign desperately trying to pay off this debt, until his assassination by one of his ministers.  That’s when his little brother, our Antiochus, leaped into the power-gap and resolved to restore the glory of the Seleucids—and he made a good start at it by overthrowing the Ptolemies, but he was strapped for cash to begin with and the uprising on Judea only made it worse.



5) While he was in Persia, a messenger brought him news that the armies that had gone into the land of Judah had been routed;


COMMENTARY:  So he spent the last of his treasury for nothing.



6) that Lysias had gone at first with a strong army and been driven back; that the people of Judah had grown strong by reason of the arms, wealth, and abundant spoils taken from the armies they had cut down;


COMMENTARY:  Che Guevara would have been proud of them.  For all I know, the account of the Maccabee’s success in arming themselves off of their enemies might have inspired him to do likewise and lock it into policy in his Guerilla handbook, because however atheistic he wound up, he was raised a Catholic.  But here I merely speculate.



7) that they had pulled down the abomination which he had built upon the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded with high walls both the sanctuary, as it had been before, and his city of Beth-zur.


COMMENTARY:  It’s not just Catholic historians who believe that his decision to “aggressively Hellenize” Judea made the eventual fall of the Seleucids to Rome inevitable, because the progress of the Maccabean Revolt inspired plenty of rebellions elsewhere.  The Ptolemaic policy of simply inviting people to become more Greek had been working, but forcing the issue gave people a reason to fight.  Bullies throughout history never seem to get the message: egregious shows of force only intimidate people temporarily, even as they inspire far more lasting and more dedicated resistance than the brief gains are worth.

Had he, on the other hand, continued the lenient policy, not only would more Jews have become Hellenized, but Judaism Classic itself would not have become so legalistic in reaction to oppression, and Christianity might never have split with Judaism.  Additionally, without the initial Maccabean revolt to stir up insurrections throughout the empire, Antiochus might have stood a chance of at least holding his ground against Rome.

Had that happened, Jesus might have been born into a very different political climate.  There would be no fear that he would become another Judas Maccabee, and he would have simply have been another man of the line of David, respected as a local leader without military (much like many a hereditary chief among Native Americans today) in a status quo that had gone on for years.  No one would have had any motive to  execute him. 

If Jesus had led a long and happy life, dying a natural death, he would have made an interesting philosopher, studied by scholars, maybe influencing culture a bit, but little more.  Without the galvanizing trauma of crucifixion and the subsequent triumph of resurrection, without the whiff of death-defying rebellion against the status quo that inspired a huge and neglected demographic in the slaves and the poor of the Roman Empire, and without the Roman roads and the Latin Vulgate with which to spread their religion more quickly than had ever before been possible in history—Jesus and his followers would have become a footnote.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, this is why the Books of Maccabees matter.



8) When the king heard this news, he was astonished and very much shaken. Sick with grief because his designs had failed, he took to his bed.


COMMENTARY:  The ancients understood the connection between our state of mind and our health long before the discovery of scientific explanations for it.  And yet to this day mainstream people dismiss the healings wrought by medicine-people as “psychosomatic” at best and “fraudulent” at worst.  Of course it’s psychosomatic!  The psyche has real and measurable impact on the soma!



9) There he remained many days, assailed by waves of grief, for he thought he was going to die.


COMMENTARY:  He was not wrong.  Contrary to popular dismissal of its unimportance, psychosomatic ills can kill you.  A man I knew recently died days after his wife, and his doctor called it “a classic case of a broken heart.” 



10) So he called in all his Friends and said to them: “Sleep has departed from my eyes, and my heart sinks from anxiety.


COMMENTARY:  As mentioned before, Friends of the King was at this point an official political elite.



11) I said to myself: ‘Into what tribulation have I come, and in what floods of sorrow am I now! Yet I was kindly and beloved in my rule.’


COMMENTARY:  What tyrant does not believe this?  Once you get to the point where you dismiss all criticism as envy or ambition, you lose access to information necessary to correct your course and increasingly veer out of control, while still able to lie to yourself about your benevolence.



12) But I now recall the evils I did in Jerusalem, when I carried away all the vessels of silver and gold that were in it, and for no cause gave orders that the inhabitants of Judah be destroyed.


COMMENTARY:  “No cause” sounds like lines inserted by a later writer into the man’s dying words.  People always think they have a cause, even if it’s a bad one.

Some scholars speculate that the Maccabees began their fight before persecution, striking out against the Hellenized, and that the persecution was a punishment for that.  The jury’s still out on that, however.

And if it wasn’t that, Antiochus would not be the first and by no means the last person in power to think “My way is the best way” and impose his customs by force onto other people.  Especially if you want to loot a  temple, it helps if you can stamp out any reason to think of that temple as sacrosanct.



13) I know that this is why these evils have overtaken me; and now I am dying, in bitter grief, in a foreign land.”


COMMENTARY:  The flip side of the Divine Right of Kings doctrine is that bad rulers come to a bad end.



14) Then he summoned Philip, one of his Friends, and put him in charge of his whole kingdom. 15) He gave him his diadem, his robe, and his signet ring, so that he might guide the king’s son Antiochus and bring him up to be king.


COMMENTARY:  In other words, he made Philip his regent, until his son could grow up and become capable of holding the throne.  At least that was the plan.



16) So King Antiochus died there in the one hundred and forty-ninth year.


COMMENTARY:  That would be any time from September 22, 164 BC to October 9, 163 BC.  Babylonian records place his death somewhat more specifically in November or early December of 164 BC, which roughly corresponds to the timing of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.



17) When Lysias learned that the king was dead, he set up the king’s son Antiochus, whom he had reared as a child, to be king in his place; and he gave him the title Eupator.


COMMENTARY:  “Eupator”  means “of a good father.”   Lysias did not actually put Antiochus Junior in charge of anything (the boy was, after all, only nine years old) but waged war in his name and generally acted as regent in the absence of Philip, who had to manage getting the remnants of an army home, at least partially through hostile territory, and couldn’t travel as fast as a lone messenger.


And to be precise, Lysias didn’t even crown the boy.  The Romans did, and Lysias acted as the regent of a puppet.  The Seleucid debt to Rome had grown so great that for all practical purposes Rome owned it.  And they held the original heir to the throne hostage until the Seleucids could pay up.  While switching up the heirs gave the Seleucids less incentive to pay in any hurry, the Romans decided that they’d rather have a boy in charge than a man.


The reign of Antiochus Eupator didn’t last long.  Just as Senior Antiochus seized the throne of his fallen elder brother, so his younger brother, Demetrius, seized the throne two years later (after escaping his Roman captors) and put both boy-king and regent to death.



18) Those in the citadel were hemming Israel in around the sanctuary, continually trying to harm them and to strengthen the Gentiles.


COMMENTARY:  So those guys were still around.  That would make efforts to use the newly rededicated temple a little too exciting!



19) And so Judas planned to destroy them, and assembled the people to besiege them.


COMMENTARY:  Siege is a miserable process for both the besiegers and the besieged.  Sun Tzu, in the Art of War, advised to avoid it if at all possible.  But they don’t seem to have much choice at this point.



20) So in the one hundred and fiftieth year they assembled and besieged the citadel, for which purpose he constructed platforms and siege engines.


COMMENTARY:  The one hundred and fiftieth year, by their reckoning, would be sometime between October, 163 BC and September 162 BC by our reckoning.  So the Citadel had been bedeviling them for a year or two now, which says something about the army’s reluctance to engage in sieges.

Siege engines were marvels of engineering, variously designed to breech walls, catapult rocks or firebombs over walls, or transport troops to the tops of walls.  Who knows what marvels the ancients might have developed if they’d exercised half the brainpower in machines of peace as they’d dedicated to the machines of war?



21) But some of the besieged escaped, and some renegade Israelites joined them.


COMMENTARY:  So even at this point not everybody in Judea is jumping up and down for joy at the reign of the Maccabees.



22) They went to the king and said: “How long will you fail to do justice and to avenge our kindred? 23) We agreed to serve your father and to follow his orders and obey his edicts. 24) And for this our own people have become our enemies; they have put to death as many of us as they could find and have seized our inheritances. 25) They have acted aggressively not only against us, but throughout their whole territory.


COMMENTARY:  So now we get a glimpse of the other side of the argument.  How might things have been different if Judas had stopped the persecution of Judaism, but not then persecuted the Hellenized in his turn?  He could still have tried winning them back through, dare I say it, charm and reasoning?  Pretty much what Ptolemy had used to sway them the other way.



26) Look! Today they have besieged the citadel in Jerusalem in order to capture it, and they have fortified the sanctuary and Beth-zur. 27) Unless you act quickly to prevent them, they will do even worse things than these, and you will not be able to stop them.”


COMMENTARY:  And so they wrap up with the one thing that would catch a monarch’s attention:  “If you don’t nip this in the bud now, you will lose control!”



28) When the king heard this he was enraged, and he called together all his Friends, the officers of his army, and the commanders of the cavalry.


COMMENTARY:  He, or Lysias on his behalf.  But it’s easy to stir up rage in a ten year old boy.



29) Mercenary forces also came to him from other kingdoms and from the islands of the seas. 30) His army numbered a hundred thousand footsoldiers, twenty thousand cavalry, and thirty-two elephants trained for war.


COMMENTARY:  Which means that the Romans are only too happy to extend him more credit, thereby exerting still more control over the empire while at the same time dealing with a small but growing military threat.



31) They passed through Idumea and camped before Beth-zur. For many days they attacked it; they constructed siege engines, but the besieged made a sortie and burned these, and they fought bravely.


COMMENTARY:  A sortie is when soldiers temporarily leave a defensive position and attempt a military mission before darting back in again.  It’s a risky maneuver, but sometimes worth the gamble.



32Then Judas marched away from the citadel and moved his camp to Beth-zechariah, opposite the king’s camp.


COMMENTARY:  Beth-Zechariah is south of Jerusalem, and six miles north of Beth-Zur.



33) The king, rising before dawn, moved his force hastily along the road to Beth-zechariah; and the troops prepared for battle and sounded the trumpet.


COMMENTARY:  So the child is there on the spot, not just leaving it all to his generals.



34) They made the elephants drunk on the juice of grapes and mulberries to get them ready to fight.


COMMENTARY:  Oh my!  Not just elephants, but drunken elephants!  But after the terrible things that they do to a domesticated elephant in infancy to make it submissive to a tiny human being for the rest of its life, I suppose that they would have to take measures to temporarily lift the induced inhibitions in order to get an elephant to fight.



35) The beasts were distributed along the phalanxes, each elephant having assigned to it a thousand men in coats of mail, with bronze helmets on their heads, and five hundred picked cavalry.


COMMENTARY:  Rome had not yet seized the tin mines of England, and so those bronze helmets would have meant quite an investment.  For that matter, few soldiers ever had coats of mail, usually making do with leather hardened by boiling.


(As an interesting, almost-relevant digression, the great uncle of Jesus, St. Joseph of Arimathea was not only a member of the Sanhedrin, but also allegedly a tin merchant, which was how he could afford such a nice tomb.  Legend has it that he eventually moved to England, where he had business contacts, and spent his last years in Glastonbury.)



36) These accompanied the beast wherever it was; wherever it moved, they moved too and never left it.


COMMENTARY:  I would hate to try and keep up with a drunken elephant rampaging in the middle of a war!  But unlike siege machinery, you can kill an elephant, so each one had to have its protectors.



37) Each elephant was outfitted with a strong wooden tower, fastened to it by a harness; each tower held three soldiers who fought from it, besides the Indian driver.


COMMENTARY:  So they imported mahouts with the elephants all the way from India.  After the tortures and privations by which people break and train a baby elephant, the first person to give her water and food, tend her injuries, and then finally let her sleep in his arms, is the mahout who will ideally own her for the rest of her life, and to whom she feels intense, unquestioning loyalty, since he did not participate in the breaking itself, and since she will forever associate him with relief and comfort.  That is how you control a drunken elephant in the heat of battle.  (Sadly, modern domesticated elephants don’t even have the consolation of a consistent mahout, but change hands frequently and often wind up with people who continue to control them by abuse and fear.)


You will notice here a key strategic advantage of having elephants beyond the fact that they’re big and frightening.  High ground has always given an advantage in war, as it’s easier to fight someone below you than someone above you; elephants represented portable high ground.  (The ultimate high ground, in military terms, is now the airforce.)  “Take the high ground” was a military aphorism before it became a moral one.



38) The remaining cavalry were stationed on one or the other of the two flanks of the army, to harass the enemy and to be protected by the phalanxes.


COMMENTARY:  You put your cavalry on the flanks in order to fold in on the enemy.  The farthest-flung ends of your army must have the ability to move the swiftest.



39) When the sun shone on the gold and bronze shields, the mountains gleamed with their brightness and blazed like flaming torches.


COMMENTARY:  Gilding the shields has no practical purpose, but gave a psychological advantage.  It’s all about morale.



40) Part of the king’s army spread out along the heights, while some were on low ground, and they marched forward steadily in good order.


COMMENTARY:  The ones holding the heights would protect the ones below, who are basically there to stop up an escape route.



41) All who heard the noise of their numbers, the tramp of their marching, and the clanging of the arms, trembled; for the army was very great and strong.


COMMENTARY:  One of the reasons to train soldiers to march was to intimidate people with that drumlike rhythm.  Everyone setting foot down at the same time made a louder noise together than the same number of people randomly stepping.  To make it still more mythic and frightening, marching had not yet become universal to armies.  More psychological warfare.



42) Judas with his army advanced to fight, and six hundred men of the king’s army fell.


COMMENTARY:  We’re not hearing the thousands reported before.  This battle’s not going to be easy.



43Eleazar, called Avaran, saw one of the beasts covered with royal armor and bigger than any of the others, and so he thought the king was on it.


COMMENTARY:  No doubt a deliberate ruse—give the opposition a difficult but seemingly obvious target to distract them.  Sun Tzu says that most of successful warfare involves deception.



44) He gave up his life to save his people and win an everlasting name for himself. 45) He dashed courageously up to it in the middle of the phalanx, killing men right and left, so that they parted before him. 46) He ran under the elephant, stabbed it and killed it. The beast fell to the ground on top of him, and he died there.


COMMENTARY:  Heroic, but pointless, as it turns out.  The lesson I’m supposed to learn from this is, “Don’t be afraid to die to win an everlasting name for yourself.”  The lesson I get instead is, “Get your facts straight before doing anything foolhardy.”  If a member of some other family had made this mistake, the writer would have pointed it out as a sign of God’s disfavor.


As a Tolkien Geek, I can’t help but wonder if this passage inspired the Catholic writer, JRR Tolkien, in his account of of Pippin’s near-fatal battle with a troll.  Tolkien knew enough of the Bible for the Church to tap him as a translator for Job.



47) But when Judas’ troops saw the strength of the royal army and the ardor of its forces, they retreated from them.


COMMENTARY:  So when it comes down to it, Eleazar died for nothing.  Notice how the writer, being a big Maccabees fan, avoids actually saying that Judas gave the order to retreat, but the man probably did.  Also Judas had just lost his brother—a sobering experience for anyone.


But at least we’re getting a feel for the historical accuracy of this book, however biased.  A less honest account would omit this serious strategic defeat, or found a scapegoat for it.



48) Some of the king’s army went up to Jerusalem to attack them, and the king established camps in Judea and at Mount Zion.


COMMENTARY:  Because the defeat at Beth-zechariah left them wide open for this.



49) He made peace with the people of Beth-zur, and they evacuated the city, because they had no food there to enable them to withstand a siege, for that was a sabbath year in the land.


COMMENTARY:  Judaic law requires that people leave the land fallow one year out of every seven.  This makes long-term agricultural sense in giving the land a chance to replenish itself, but it also means a year of living off of stored-up and wild-gathered foods, which means you have just enough to get by on without any margin for emergencies like a siege.  So rather than undue messiness and misery for both sides, the people just prudently left.

I can’t help but wonder if this was why the Maccabees waited for this year to besiege the citadel.  Even if their enemies did not observe it, themselves, they would have to depend upon provisions from those who did.



50) The king took Beth-zur and stationed a garrison there to hold it. 51) For many days he besieged the sanctuary, setting up platforms and siege engines, fire-throwers, catapults and mechanical bows for shooting arrows and projectiles.   52)The defenders countered by setting up siege engines of their own, and kept up the fight a long time.


COMMENTARY:  In theory, at least, Jerusalem had more of a chance of withstanding a siege even in a sabbath year, because of the restoration of sacrifices at the temple.  Every Jew in the region would have been sending a tithe of the first fruits of their harvests ever since the restoration, and while there’d be no harvests this year, they would still have enough left from the year before.  However...



53) But there were no provisions in the storerooms, because it was the seventh year, and the reserves had been eaten up by those who had been rescued from the Gentiles and brought to Judea.


COMMENTARY:  The flaw in the theory is the added appetites of all of the refugees.  Repatriation had been a beautiful idea, but now it backfired, since Judas couldn’t send these people anywhere else but the most well-provisioned place in Judea.



54) Few men remained in the sanctuary because the famine was too much for them; the rest scattered, each to his own home.


COMMENTARY:  Out on the farm they could still eat feral vegetables that had spontaneously reseeded themselves, plus various foods that grew wild.  Not so much in the city.



55) Lysias heard that Philip, whom King Antiochus, before his death, had appointed to train his son Antiochus to be king, 56) had returned from Persia and Media with the army that accompanied the king, and that he was seeking to take over the government.


COMMENTARY:  One of those miracles of timing, right when things looked their darkest for Judas.  So apparently Lysias has decided that he likes being regent and isn’t about to politely hand over the position to Philip.  One of the best gifts that a general can have is a split in the enemy’s ranks.



57) So he hastily decided to withdraw. He said to the king, the leaders of the army, and the soldiers: “We are growing weaker every day, our provisions are scanty, the place we are besieging is strong, and it is our duty to take care of the affairs of the kingdom.


COMMENTARY:  How convenient that he suddenly comes to this conclusion—especially considering that the place he’s besieging is not strong at all, having even fewer provisions.  But the words save face nicely.



58) Therefore let us now come to terms with these people and make peace with them and all their nation. 59) Let us grant them freedom to live according to their own laws as formerly; it was on account of their laws, which we abolished, that they became enraged and did all these things.”


COMMENTARY:  He could have thought of this before and saved a lot of bloodshed.



60) The proposal pleased the king and the leaders; he sent peace terms to the Jews, and they accepted.


COMMENTARY:  If I was a young boy thrust into the middle of a war, I’d find the proposal pleasing, too!



61) So the king and the leaders swore an oath to them, and on these terms the Jews evacuated the fortification.


COMMENTARY:  Considering their empty larders, it doubtless sounded pleasing to them, as well.



62) But when the king entered Mount Zion and saw how the place was fortified, he broke the oath he had sworn and gave orders to tear down the encircling wall.


COMMENTARY:  How binding is an oath when made by people of two different religions?  What could they swear by that both would accept?  Judas being who he is, I can’t help but wonder if he insisted that the oath be made in the name of a God that the King didn’t believe in?

Also, did the King give this order, or Lysias?  I can see a ten-year-old not understanding that a non-aggression pact might include aggression against walls as well as people.



63)  Then he departed in haste and returned to Antioch, where he found Philip in control of the city. He fought against him and took the city by force.


COMMENTARY:  At first I thought that this must be Lysias manipulating Antioch, since no matter who wins, young Antiochus will still have a regent over him.  But that doesn’t factor in whatever bond has formed between Lysias and Antiochus on a long, hard road.

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