Chapter 7

1 Maccabees 7



1) In the one hundred and fifty-first year, Demetrius, son of Seleucus, set out from Rome, arrived with a few men at a coastal city, and began to rule there.

COMMENTARY:  That would be in the spring of 161 BC.  Demetrius was supposed to be the heir to the Seleucid Empire, but at the age of nine Rome took him as a hostage and placed his uncle, Antiochus IV Epiphanes on the throne in his place—which might actually have been reasonable had he acted as a regent only, and ceded the throne upon Demetrius’s adulthood.  But now Demetrius is 25, has heard that Antiochus IV is dead, has escaped his handlers, and has made his way home to claim his kingdom, to complicate this page of history even further than it has already been.



2) As he was entering the royal palace of his ancestors, the soldiers seized Antiochus and Lysias to bring them to him.

COMMENTARY:  It didn’t take them long to figure out which side they’d support.  Maybe they’re tired of kings who want to “restore the glory of the Seleucids” without resolving how to pay the soldiers to do it.



3) When he was informed of this, he said, “Do not show me their faces.”

COMMENTARY:  Because if he sees the boy it would be too hard to give the order that would consolidate his power.



4) So the soldiers killed them, and Demetrius assumed the royal throne.

COMMENTARY:  Which is worse, somebody who could coldly look on at the execution of a child, or somebody who averts his face when he orders the deed, so that he can sort of pretend to himself that he didn’t gain his position by murdering a little boy?  What good is having a conscience if you blindfold it?



5) Then all the lawless men and renegades of Israel came to him. They were led by Alcimus, who desired to be high priest.

COMMENTARY:  The writer doesn’t mention till later that Alcimus is actually of a lineage qualified to be high priest according to the scriptural rules.  And while the Maccabees are Levites, they are not of the high priestly line.



6) They made this accusation to the king against the people: “Judas and his brothers have destroyed all your friends and have driven us out of our land.

COMMENTARY:  True so far.  Of course Judas had his reasons, like the slaughter of circumcised babies hung around their mother’s necks.  On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder how much gray area have these accounts left out?  How many Jews back then practiced a not-so legalistic version of Judaism and wound up counted with those who had converted to Paganism?  Were there any who personally practiced Judaism but didn’t feel alarmed if their neighbors didn’t?  How many, in short, were like so many tolerant Jews today?



7) So now, send a man whom you trust to go and see all the destruction Judas has wrought on us and on the king’s territory, and let him punish them and all their supporters.”

COMMENTARY:  The smart thing would have been for Demetrius to smooth things over and confirm the treaty of Antiochus V.  But now that these guys have made this request, he doesn’t really have much choice except to sent an observer, at least.



8) So the king chose Bacchides, one of the King’s Friends, who ruled the province of West-of-Euphrates, a great man in the kingdom, and faithful to the king. 9) He sent him and the renegade Alcimus, to whom he granted the high priesthood, with orders to take revenge on the Israelites.

COMMENTARY:  A controversial word, “revenge”.  I wonder what the original Greek said?  Kings usually call it “punishment” or “discipline” or “enforcing the law”.



10) They set out and, on arriving in the land of Judah with a great army, sent messengers who spoke deceitfully to Judas and his brothers in peaceful terms. 11) But these paid no attention to their words, seeing that they had come with a great army.

COMMENTARY:  The situation sounds delicate.  Considering the level of violence that has gone on before, I would not necessarily want to discuss terms with the Maccabees without an army behind me.  On the other hand, if I were Judas, I couldn’t possibly feel comfortable negotiating with an army.



12) A group of scribes, however, gathered about Alcimus and Bacchides to ask for a just agreement. 13) The Hasideans were the first among the Israelites to seek peace with them, 14) for they said, “A priest of the line of Aaron has come with the army, and he will not do us any wrong.”

COMMENTARY:  And so the hypocrisy of the Maccabees has come back to haunt them, their legalism except when it suits them.

So this brings up an important point:  What qualifies as scripture?  1 Maccabees is certainly a flawed book, setting up a man of dubious practices as a hero, without addressing his sins for what they are.  And yet the information contained in 1 Maccabees seems too important to toss out despite the author idolizing a man not worth it.

If you argue that everything in the Bible must be unbiased and accurate,  or must set a good example, you have to toss out a whole lot more than the Deuterocanonical Books.  But if your criteria is what clarifies the Christian Story of Salvation, step by step, then you’re going to include even the wrong turns that set the stage for understanding the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.



15) He spoke with them peacefully and swore to them, “We will not seek to injure you or your friends.” 16) So they trusted him. But he arrested sixty of them and killed them in one day, according to the words that he wrote:

17) “The flesh of your faithful,

and their blood they have spilled all around about Jerusalem,

and no one was left to bury them.”

COMMENTARY:  It sounds like one heck of a misunderstanding, and maybe not an innocent one.  Did Alcimus offer immunity, or merely peace for any found to be innocent bystanders in the revolt?  I can see how he could rationalize it as the latter, but if he’d hoped to lead people to believe it was the former, that still qualifies as a lie. 

The biblical scholars on the website where I get these books admit to having no certainty as to who “he” is in the phrase, “according to the words that he wrote”.  Verse 17 does come from the Psalms (Ps 79:2-3 in the Catholic reckoning) so it could be David.  But it might be Judas.  Those who suggest that it could have been Alcimus have failed to convince me of any motive as to why he would cast himself in a bad light.



18) Then fear and dread of them came upon all the people, who said: “There is no truth or justice among them; they violated the agreement and the oath that they swore.”

COMMENTARY:  That’s the trick with oath-breaking.  You can only get away with it once.  After that even your truths will come into doubt.



19) Bacchides withdrew from Jerusalem and camped in Beth-zaith. He had many of the men who deserted to him arrested and some of the people. He killed them and threw them into a great cistern.

COMMENTARY:  Beth-zaith is roughly three miles north of Beth-Zur and twelve miles south of Jerusalem.  I’m not sure why anyone should act surprised at the deserters’ fate.  If you change sides, you agree to abide by the rules of your new allegiance.  And if they say that their rules apply retroactively, and you’ve previously been a rebel, well, you’re done for.



20) He handed the province over to Alcimus, leaving troops to help him, while he himself returned to the king.

COMMENTARY:  High priesthood usually doesn’t involve administrative duties.  This should be interesting.



21) Alcimus struggled to maintain his high priesthood,

COMMENTARY:  Well, that answers that question.  It’s one thing to have the bloodline, another entirely to have the skills.



22) and all those who were troubling the people gathered about him. They took possession of the land of Judah and caused great distress in Israel.

COMMENTARY:  Unlike prior passages, the writer does not give any details as to the nature of this great distress, aside from the initial move of executing people whom he judged.  But that in itself could be enough.  We Christians think of the Old Testament as harsh and full of death penalties, but that’s because we read it without the context of the Talmud, which abounds in mercy and cites many exceptions to those penalties, which are only supposed to come into play as last resorts.  It was a saying that, “A Sanhedrin that commands one execution in forty years is a murderous Sanhedrin.”  As harsh as Judas has been, has he found himself pitted against one even harsher and more legalistic than himself?



23) When Judas saw all the evils that Alcimus and those with him were bringing upon the Israelites, even more than the Gentiles had, 24) he went about all the borders of Judea and took revenge on the men who had deserted, preventing them from going out into the country.

COMMENTARY:  Those deserters just can’t get a break from either side!



25) But when Alcimus saw that Judas and his followers were gaining strength and realized that he could not resist them, he returned to the king and accused them of grave crimes.

COMMENTARY:  And no doubt in his mind they really were grave crimes.



26) Then the king sent Nicanor, one of his honored officers, who was a bitter enemy of Israel, with orders to destroy the people.

COMMENTARY:  Here 1 Maccabees conflicts with 2 Maccabees.  Far from portraying Nicanor as “a bitter enemy of Israel” the second book portrays him as an open-minded Greek, respecting and respected by Judas to the point of forging a strong friendship between them.  In that other account Alcimus complained to Demetrius that Nicanor was a traitor, tragically forcing Nicanor to turn on Judas on the orders of his angry king.



27) Nicanor came to Jerusalem with a large force and deceitfully sent to Judas and his brothers this peaceable message: 28) “Let there be no fight between me and you. I will come with a few men to meet you face to face in peace.”

COMMENTARY:  The other account only says that Nicanor sought to trap Judas “by a stratagem”.  This might have been that stratagem—to get him to expect business as usual, but to confront him with an army instead.



29) So he came to Judas, and they greeted one another peaceably. But Judas’ enemies were prepared to seize him. 30) When he became aware that Nicanor had come to him with deceit in mind, Judas was afraid of him and would not meet him again.

COMMENTARY:  The other account says that Nicanor behaved in an uncharacteristically rude and harsh fashion, which told Judas that something significant had changed.



31) When Nicanor saw that his plan had been discovered, he went out to fight Judas near Capharsalama.

COMMENTARY:  Archaeologists argue as to the precise location of Capharsalama, but all agree that it lay north of Jerusalem.



32) About five hundred men of Nicanor’s army fell; the rest fled to the City of David.

COMMENTARY:  “City of David” is another name for Jerusalem.  In this case they mean “The Citadel”, AKA the Greek garrison fortress.



33) After this, Nicanor went up to Mount Zion. Some of the priests from the sanctuary and some of the elders of the people came out to greet him peaceably and to show him the burnt offering that was being sacrificed for the king.

COMMENTARY:  Most likely these would be those who saw Alcimus as the legitimate high priest.  The message here is, “If you let us keep our religion, we will pray for the king and be good subjects.”



34) But he mocked and ridiculed them, defiled them, and spoke arrogantly.

COMMENTARY:  “Defiling” meant most likely spitting on them, which would make them ritually unclean, and forcing them to conduct purification rituals before they could resume their duty.  In general, minus the spitting, I’ve seen this kind of behavior before in people compelled by their higher-ups to take harsh measures when they would rather not.  They start to act rude and arrogant as if to convince themselves of the rightness of what they feel required to do.



35) In a rage he swore: “If Judas and his army are not delivered to me at once, when I return victorious I will burn this temple down.” He went away in great anger.

COMMENTARY:  Knowing Judas well, he knew exactly what threat would most likely get swift results.  Notice that this declaration implies that if they do turn Judas over they will get to keep their temple and hold onto their religion, turning the tables on Judas as the faith’s defender.  But it also implies that whether or not they get to stay Jews is at the King’s disposal.



36) The priests, however, went in and stood before the altar and the sanctuary. They wept and said: 37) “You have chosen this house to bear your name, to be a house of prayer and supplication for your people. 38) Take revenge on this man and his army, and let them fall by the sword. Remember their blasphemies, and do not let them continue.”

COMMENTARY:  However (perhaps because of turbulent emotions) Nicanor overplayed his hand.  He turned potential allies into hostiles.



39) Nicanor left Jerusalem and camped at Beth-horon, where the Syrian army joined him.

COMMENTARY:  As you will recall from chapter 3, Beth-horon is a strategic bottleneck.  Since the Greeks lost a major battle here before, Nicanor wants to secure it before the Maccabee forces can get to it.



40) But Judas camped in Adasa with three thousand men. Here Judas uttered this prayer:

COMMENTARY:  Adasa was a village in between Jerusalem and Beth-horon.



41h “When they who were sent by the king blasphemed, your angel went out and killed a hundred and eighty-five thousand of them. 42) In the same way, crush this army before us today, and let the rest know that Nicanor spoke wickedly against your sanctuary; judge him according to his wickedness.”


COMMENTARY:  The King, in this case, was the Assyrian King Sennacherib, whose emissaries blasphemed in his name.  As the Assyrian army camped before Jerusalem, a hundred and eighty-five thousand of their soldiers died in the night before the battle even begun, which the Jewish people ascribe to the actions of an angel. 

Sanitation has always been an issue in fielding large forces, and even as late as the civil war more soldiers died of disease than battle injuries, not to mention that even still later, WWI is believed to have incubated and spread the Great Influenza Pandemic.  Even so, this would still qualify as what I call a Miracle of Timing, not to mention one of degree.



43) The armies met in battle on the thirteenth day of the month Adar. Nicanor’s army was crushed, and he himself was the first to fall in the battle.

COMMENTARY:  This time they had no overt miracle to aid them, but they did have the victory, including the death of Nicanor.



44) When his army saw that Nicanor had fallen, they threw down their weapons and fled.

COMMENTARY:  In the days before military chain of command, if your leader fell, you officially lost the battle.  At which point you had better flee as fast as you could, or you’d either be killed or taken prisoner, which in those days meant becoming a slave.



45) The Jews pursued them a day’s journey from Adasa to near Gazara, blowing the trumpets behind them as signals.

COMMENTARY:  Using trumpets as signals in battle seems quaint today, but in those days complex signals, based on different sequences of a few notes, was a brand new innovation introduced by the Romans, and here embraced by Jewish warriors for the first time.  Which can only mean that Judas drilled his troops in advance on which sequence meant what.  Whatever his faults, he was still quite an advanced military leader for his time.



46) From all the surrounding villages of Judea people came out and outflanked them. They turned them back, and all the enemies fell by the sword; not a single one escaped.

COMMENTARY:  I would gather from this, in conjunction with the prior verse, that Judas had drilled more than just his standing army on what those shofar-blasts would mean.  Also that pretty much everyone in the vicinity had had some training in general as auxilliary soldiers, should the need arise.



47) Then the Jews collected the spoils and the plunder; they cut off Nicanor’s head and his right arm, which he had lifted up so arrogantly.  These they brought and displayed in the sight of Jerusalem.

COMMENTARY:  Body-part trophies may seem gruesome to us, but in a day without cameras it was an explicit way of documenting the death of an enemy commander or a crime lord.



48) The people rejoiced greatly, and observed that day as a day of much joy.

COMMENTARY:  That would be March 27, 160 BC.  “The Day of Nicanor”.



49) They decreed that it should be observed every year on the thirteenth of Adar.

COMMENTARY:  However, the Jewish community soon dropped this as a holiday, since the rule of the Maccabees didn’t last very long and was always fraught with controversy.



50) And so for a few days the land of Judah was at rest.


COMMENTARY:  Around a month, actually.  But when you long for peace it would only feel like a few days.

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