1 MACCABEES 9:
1) When Demetrius heard that Nicanor and his army had
fallen in battle, he again sent Bacchides and Alcimus into the land of Judah,
along with the right wing of his army.
COMMENTARY: Normally we call it madness
to do the same thing and expect different results. Yet has something changed this time?
2) They took the road to Galilee, and
camping opposite the ascent at Arbela, they captured it and killed many people.
COMMENTARY: Translators admit to playing
around with this passage. They could
have more precisely translated it as “They took the road to Gilgal and, camping
opposite Mesaloth at Arbela, they captured it.”
But Arbela (nowadays known as Khirbet Irbid) sits on a high hill in
Galilee overlooking the western shore, whereas you’ll find Gilgal in the Jordan
Valley near Jericho. They have
speculated that “Mesaloth” is a corruption of a Hebrew word meaning steps or
ascent. All of these terms, however, might refer to places in the Judean
And all of this geographical nitpicking overlooks the most important thing
about this verse: that lots and lots of people died.
3) In the first month of the one hundred
and fifty-second year, they
encamped against Jerusalem.
COMMENTARY: April/May 160, by the Temple
4) Then they set out for Berea with
twenty thousand men and two thousand cavalry. 5)
Judas, with three thousand picked men, had camped at
Elasa. 6) When they saw the great number of the troops, they
were very much afraid, and many slipped away from the camp, until only eight
hundred of them remained.
COMMENTARY: Judas has beaten worse odds
than this before, if you can believe this chronicler. And these are his “picked men”, his choicest
troops, not callow recruits, easily spooked.
So how did morale sink so low that being outnumbered would turn them
into cowards, when they had successfully fought that way before?
I would suggest that his treaty with the Romans convinced his men that his
faith had faltered, that he no longer believed in the righteousness of his
cause and had to look for human allies on poor terms for fear that God no
longer had his back. What is the chronicler
not telling us? Could it be that Alcimus
had more of a claim than he let on?
Could Judas feel guilt and the withdrawal of blessing?
7) When Judas saw that his army was
melting away just as the battle was imminent, he was brokenhearted, because he
had no time to gather them together.
COMMENTARY: A Greek writer on the other
side might have captured this in a not unsympathetic tragedy: After the peak of apotheosis comes hubris,
and hubris inevitably ends in nemesis.
8) In spite of his discouragement he said
to those who remained: “Let us go forward to meet our enemies; perhaps we can
put up a good fight against them.”
COMMENTARY: Judas gives them no more
heroic tales out of Jewish history to hearten his men with the promise of God
coming to the rescue. Just, “Perhaps we
can put up a good fight against them.”
Hardly a convincing way to rally the troops!
9) They tried to dissuade him, saying:
“We certainly cannot. Let us save our own lives now, and come back with our
kindred, and then fight against them. Now we are too few.”
COMMENTARY: Sensible strategic
advice! True, losing Jerusalem would be
a blow, but with greater forces they could gain it back.
10) But Judas said: “Far be it from me to do such a thing
as to flee from them! If our time has come, let us die bravely for our kindred
and not leave a stain upon our honor!”
COMMENTARY: Yet he would cling to
hubris, ultimately to the death. Or is
there more to it than that? Demetrius is
not Antiochus; he would know by now the folly of re-desecrating the temple and
riling up the countryside. Is that what
Judas fears? If Demetrius proves more
reasonable, that undermines Judas’s power base: the idea that he alone stands
between the Jewish people and annihilation of their religion—the justification
for his heavy-handed methods.
11) Then the army of Bacchides moved out
of camp and took its position for combat. The cavalry were divided into two
squadrons, and the slingers and the archers came on ahead of the army, and in
the front line were all the best warriors. Bacchides was on the right wing.
COMMENTARY: He’s imitating Alexander the
Great’s winning strategy. The slingers
and archers would first soften up the enemy troop without having to engage yet
in close quarters. Then the right wing
would fold in like a thumb onto fingers, forcing the enemy into the deathtrap
of the strong front line.
12) Flanked by the two squadrons, the
phalanx attacked as they blew their trumpets. Those who were on Judas’ side
also blew their trumpets.
COMMENTARY: We have grown inured to far
more noise today than they conceived of then.
It used to be proverbial that nothing was noisier than a freight train;
now one can pass right by us and it no longer seems like so much. And of course before the freight train things
were even quieter still. Back in
Biblical times a trumpet, with the smithy’s clangor in second place, was the limit
to how loud anything human-made ever got, in nature surpassed only by very
close thunder or a volcanic eruption. It
would have been terrifying! Exactly as
13) The earth shook with the noise of the armies, and the
battle raged from morning until evening.
COMMENTARY: I used to think this was
hyperbole. But cavalry charges really do
make the earth shake. And though it’s
more a function of so many hooves pounding the earth at once than the noise
itself, someone in the midst of the battle, unused to loud noise, would hardly
make the distinction.
Battle raging from morning till evening was a big deal—especially if you had to
wear armor. And especially with this
being in spring with each day longer than the last.
14) When Judas saw that Bacchides was on
the right, with the main force of his army, all the most stouthearted rallied
to him, 15) and the right wing
was crushed; Judas pursued them as far as the mountain slopes.
COMMENTARY: A crucial strategic
victory! He cut off the thumb of the
fist trying to squeeze him.
As for pursuing them as far as the mountain slopes, that’s translator speculation. The Greek text says “as far as Mt. Azotus”,
which is ridiculously far away. However,
he could have mistaken the Hebrew word, “ashdot”, meaning “slopes” for “Azotus”.
16) But when those on the left wing saw
that the right wing was crushed, they closed in behind Judas and those with
COMMENTARY: Judas, being short on
soldiers, overextended himself and didn’t have enough rearguard. So he wound up encircled anyway.
17) The battle became intense, and many on
both sides fell wounded.
COMMENTARY: Without knowledge of sepsis,
“wounded” meant “dying” much more often than in today’s battle, even with our
greater ability to inflict worse wounds.
18) Then Judas fell, and the rest fled.
COMMENTARY: As mentioned before, the
concept of a chain of command had not yet been invented. When your leader fell, chaos and disaster
19) Jonathan and Simon took their brother
Judas and buried him in the tomb of their ancestors at Modein.
COMMENTARY: One grace of ancient battle
was having the decency to allow a defeated enemy to collect and bury their
20) All Israel wept for him with great
lamentation. They mourned for him many days, and they said, 21“How the mighty one has fallen, the savior of Israel!”
COMMENTARY: “How the mighty have fallen”
echoes David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan.
He had a complicated relationship with King Saul, while being best
friends with Saul’s son Jonathan. Sometimes
he’d be the favorite, the only one who could soothe Saul’s fits of madness with
his harp-playing; sometimes Saul would declare him his enemy and drive him
violently out of the country in a rage of paranoia. Perhaps the Israelites regarded Judas in the
same way, as a mighty king with a tragic flaw.
22) The other acts of Judas, his battles, the brave deeds
he performed, and his greatness have not been recorded; but they were very
COMMENTARY: The New Testament echoes
this line, in saying that they could not record all of the wonders that Jesus
wrought. For the life of me, though, I
can’t recall the wording closely enough to find out which of the evangelists
23) After the death of Judas, the lawless
raised their heads in every part of Israel, and all kinds of evildoers
COMMENTARY: By “lawless” they mean those
who didn’t strictly follow Jewish ritual law, as the Maccabees interpreted it.
24) In those days there was a very great
famine, and the country deserted to them.
COMMENTARY: Famines, plagues, and other
natural disasters were often seen as God’s judgment, and people would flee whoever
seemed abandoned by God and change sides.
More and more this looks like a common view that the Maccabees had
fallen from grace. There’s no reason for
the desertion unless the Lawless either somehow have demonstrably more food (no
indication of that here) or people assume that they might gain more favor with
God, giving them more hope of obtaining food in the long run.
This belief in disasters as punishment had a great deal of impact on the
formation of early Christianity, because an unusual number of plagues did sweep
Rome as Christianity emerged. On the one
hand, the Pagans thought that the Christians, seeming as they did to worship an
upstart human son of Zeus bent on supplanting the elder gods, had incurred the
wrath of the Olympians; they saw no way to quiet the plagues down except to
sacrifice the offending worshipers in large numbers. On the other hand, the Christians retaliated
by blaming the plagues on God’s wrathful vengeance for the persecution that
they suffered, thereby frightening many into conversion. In reality what caused the plagues was simply
that the Roman roads had opened up interactions between far-flung peoples like
never before in history, and such expanded interactions invariably carry germs
to new hosts without immunity to them.
25) Bacchides chose renegades and made
them masters of the country.
COMMENTARY: “Renegades” here meaning
anybody not on the side of the Maccabees.
Maybe they really were enemies of Judaism. Maybe they were assimilados. Maybe they were people tired of religion by
force. Maybe they were people who wanted
an Aaronic high priest and a Davidic King.
I don’t know.
26) These sought out and hunted down the
friends of Judas and brought them to Bacchides, who punished and derided them.
COMMENTARY: The writer doesn’t get
specific as to what the punishments were.
I get the impression, though, that if these had been terrible he would
have gone into gory detail. He certainly
didn’t hold back in describing dead babies hung from their mother’s necks
27) There was great tribulation in Israel, the like of
which had not been since the time prophets ceased to appear among them.
COMMENTARY: According to Jewish tradition,
prophecy ceased with Malachi (right before the rise of Alexander the Great and
Greek control of the Middle East) not to resume until the Messianic era. Interesting—this then shows how the presence
of John the Baptist would really stir things up in Jesus’s day!
28) Then all the friends of Judas came
together and said to Jonathan: 29)
“Ever since your brother Judas died, there has been no
one like him to lead us against our enemies, both Bacchides and those of our
nation who are hostile to us. 30)
Now therefore we have chosen you today to be our ruler
and leader in his place, to fight our battle.” 31) From
that moment Jonathan accepted the leadership, and took the place of Judas his
COMMENTARY: So the Maccabees aren’t done
yet after all. People have called for a
succession. As an American I would like
to see this as an election, but “all the friends of Judas” doesn’t mean “the
majority of the Israelites”. Rather it
would be as if all the members of the party of a deceased president asked
someone else of the same party to lead the nation. The members of the other party might have
some objections! And of course they do.
32) When Bacchides learned of it, he
sought to kill him.
COMMENTARY: Not surprising.
33) But Jonathan and his brother Simon and
all who were with him discovered this, and they fled to the wilderness of Tekoa* and
camped by the waters of the pool of Asphar.
COMMENTARY: The prophet Amos, a
shepherd, once lived in the wilderness of Tekoa.
COMMENTARY: Translators removed verse 34
because it just repeats verse 43.
35) Jonathan sent his brother as leader of the convoy to implore his friends, the
Nabateans, to let them deposit with them their great quantity
COMMENTARY: The brother in question
would be John Gaddi. As merchant nomads,
the Nabateans would have the capacity to carry large amounts of stuff from one
place to another, which meant that the Maccabee faction could leave supplies
with them, take advantage of the mobility of being lightly equipped, and then
get resupplied at an agreed-upon drop-off point. A neat plan!
36) But the tribe of Jambri from Medaba made a raid and seized and carried off John and
everything he had.
COMMENTARY: Medaba is northeast of the
Dead Sea. I don’t know whether Jambri
did so in the service of Demetrius or on their own initiative as bandits.
37) After this, word was brought to
Jonathan and his brother Simon: “The tribe of Jambri are celebrating a great
wedding, and with a large escort they are bringing the bride, the daughter of
one of the great princes of Canaan, from Nadabath.”
COMMENTARY: So we can gather from this
that the Jambrites were breaking Jewish law by intermarrying with Canaanites, for
political advantage. This would tip the
balance towards guessing that they acted on behalf of their Greek overlords in
raiding John’s caravan.
38) Remembering the blood of John their
brother, they went up and hid themselves under cover of the mountain.
COMMENTARY: I guess this means that John
died in the raid, he wasn’t just taken prisoner.
39) As they watched there appeared a noisy
throng with much baggage; then the bridegroom and his friends and kinsmen had
come out to meet them with tambourines and musicians with their instruments. 40) Jonathan and his party rose up against
them from their ambush and killed them. Many fell wounded; the rest fled toward
the mountain; all their spoils were taken. 41)
Thus the wedding was turned into mourning, and the
sound of their music into lamentation. 42) Having
taken their revenge for the blood of their brother, they returned to the
marshes of the Jordan.
COMMENTARY: I am not okay with
this. John was a warrior, and accepted
the risks of his profession the moment he took up arms. A wedding-party would mean lots of
non-combatants who did not make the same agreement: women and children and old
people. The fact that the bride was a
Canaanite was supposed to make the reader accept this, but...no. I think this sets a dangerous precedent, that
it’s acceptable to deliberately slaughter non-soldiers in a conflict—a stance
which the Catholic Church today says is sinful.
43) When Bacchides heard of it, he came on
the sabbath to the banks of the Jordan with a large force.
COMMENTARY: Hoping, perhaps to
demoralize them by choosing a taboo day for the confrontation.
44) Then Jonathan said to his companions,
“Let us rise up now and fight for our lives, for today is not like yesterday
and the day before.
COMMENTARY: In the past they could
retreat in hopes of fielding a larger force later. Today however...
45) The battle is before us, behind us are
the waters of the Jordan, on either side of us, marsh and thickets; there is no
way of escape.
COMMENTARY: Scholars speculate that they
must have gotten trapped in one of the oxbows of the river Jordan. (An oxbow, for those of you in the Southwest
where rivers with actual water in them are a rarity, is what happens when a
river flows around an island, but the flow on one side gets silted over,
creating a C-shape in the flow, with a little blip of land surrounded by water
or marsh on most sides, with only one way out.)
46) Cry out now to Heaven so that you may
be delivered from the hand of our enemies.”
COMMENTARY: The Romans won’t get him out
of this bind. Once again he turns his
hope to God. I don’t think that this
rewards his massacre of the wedding-party, but (in my personal opinion) I think
this shows God’s mercy.
47) When they joined battle, Jonathan
raised his hand to strike Bacchides, but Bacchides backed away from him.
COMMENTARY: Thereby inexplicably losing
48) Jonathan and those with him jumped
into the Jordan and swam across to the other side, but the enemy did not pursue
them across the Jordan.
COMMENTARY: Also strategically
puzzling. Jonathan’s army would have
been sitting ducks, bogged down in the water and less maneuverable, not to
mention the fact that they would have had to jettison their armor to swim
out. The weaker swimmers would have had
to jettison even their swords. The
bowmen would have had wet bowstrings to contend with. One could argue that God clouded the enemy’s
mind to let such a strategic advantage pass.
49) About a thousand men on Bacchides’ side fell that day.
COMMENTARY: Again, the ones with swords
would have slain men for the swordless to plunder. This was doable, considering how Bacchides
apparently momentarily lost his mind.
50) On returning to Jerusalem, Bacchides
built strongholds in Judea: the Jericho fortress, as well as Emmaus,
Beth-horon, Bethel, Timnath, Pharathon, and Tephon, with high walls and gates
COMMENTARY: Add these together and you’ve
got a ring around Judea.
51) In each he put a garrison to harass
Israel. 52) He fortified the
city of Beth-zur, Gazara and the citadel, and put troops in them and stores of
COMMENTARY: All quite practical. He seems to have come to his senses again.
53) He took as hostages the sons of the
leading people of the country and put them in custody in the citadel at
COMMENTARY: Governments often used
hostage-taking as a safeguard for enforcing treaties. It’s hard to make war on a citadel that holds
54) In the one hundred and fifty-third
year, in the second month, Alcimus
ordered the wall of the inner court of the sanctuary to be torn down, thus
destroying the work of the prophets. But he only began to tear it down.
COMMENTARY: That would be May, 159
BC. The prophets in question most likely
would have been Haggai and Zechariah, who played a role in rebuilding the
temple after the Babylonian Exile. I’m
puzzled as to why Alcimus would do this, if he wanted to make a claim as the
legitimate High Priest. Did he, in his
vainglory, decide to remodel the temple to his own liking, as a lasting
monument to himself? Whatever the case,
the faction opposed to him would suspect the worst, that he was naught but a
Greek agent out to destroy Judaism.
55) Just at that time Alcimus was
stricken, and his work was interrupted; his mouth was closed and he was
paralyzed, so that he could no longer utter a word or give orders concerning
his household. 56) Alcimus died in
great agony at that time.
COMMENTARY: My first thought was that he’d
had a stroke. But stroke victims don’t
usually die in great agony; they just fade away. If one takes “his mouth was closed”
literally, as in lockjaw, he could have incurred tetanus during the demolition,
where opportunities abounded to get a cut and then get dirt in it. That would fit the bill.
Whatever the case, it does indeed look like a punishment for the temerity of
messing with the Inner Sanctum. He might
have done what he wanted with the outer court, where his own quarters would be,
but he messed with what would be considered God’s express territory. (Not that anything isn’t God’s territory, but this would sort of be the equivalent of
violating the Master’s bedroom.)
57) Seeing that Alcimus was dead, Bacchides returned to
the king, and the land of Judah was at rest for two years.
COMMENTARY: From the viewpoint of
Demetrius, the whole point of the exercise was to place Alcimus in power. Without the puppet, what’s the point of the
Notice that this particular victory did not require one warlike act or one drop
of innocent blood. The message I get
from this is that God can take care of business on His own terms, anytime He
58) Then all the lawless took counsel and
said: “Jonathan and those with him are living in peace and security. Now then,
let us have Bacchides return, and he will capture all of them in a single
night.” 59) So they went and took counsel with him.
COMMENTARY: That makes strategic sense, to wait till they’re off guard. Demetrius might have let sleeping dogs lie,
but it would appeal to him to have a chance to remove this ally of Rome from
60) When Bacchides was setting out with a
large force, he sent letters secretly to all his allies in Judea, telling them
to seize Jonathan and his companions. They were not able to do this, however,
because their plan became known.
COMMENTARY: I’d hazard a guess that once
again universal Jewish literacy saved the day.
The Greeks would have been used to only the elite knowing how to read,
and so security measures about transporting the letters might not even have
occurred to them.
61) In fact, Jonathan’s men seized about fifty of the men
of the country who were leaders in the conspiracy and put them to death.
COMMENTARY: And he would know now who
they were because they would all have had letters addressed to them from
62) Then Jonathan and those with him,
along with Simon, withdrew to Bethbasi
in the wilderness; he rebuilt its ruins and fortified it.
COMMENTARY: Bethbasi is two miles east
of Bethlehem and six miles north of Tekoa.
63) When Bacchides learned of this, he
gathered together his whole force and sent word to those who were in Judea. 64) He came and camped before Bethbasi, and constructing
siege engines, he fought against it for many days.
COMMENTARY: So now we have Bacchides
tied down in a siege. He might think it
worth it to also tie Jonathan down to one spot.
65) Leaving his brother Simon in the city,
Jonathan, accompanied by a small group of men, went out into the countryside.
COMMENTARY: A small group of men can
sneak out of a siege where an army cannot.
And that’s all that a guerilla force needs.
66) He struck down Odomera and his kindred
and the tribe of Phasiron in their encampment; these men had begun to attack
and they were going up with their forces.
COMMENTARY: This would leave the
Odomerites and Phasiron sandwiched between two opposing forces.
67) Simon and those with him then sallied
forth from the city and set fire to the siege engines.
COMMENTARY: Which they could do thanks
to Jonathan’s distraction.
68) They fought against Bacchides, and he
was crushed. They caused him great distress, because the enterprise he had
planned was in vain. 69)
He was enraged with the lawless
men who had advised him to invade the province. He killed many of them and
resolved to return to his own country.
COMMENTARY: It sounds like the “lawless
men” had left crucial strategic information out of their report. At which point Bacchides would have every
reason to ask, “Why am I even fighting your war for you?”
70) Jonathan learned of this and sent
ambassadors to agree on peace with him and to obtain the release of the
COMMENTARY: So Jonathan understands
statescraft as well as strategy, seeing the ripe time to cut a deal and make
71) He agreed to do as Jonathan asked. He
swore an oath to him that he would never try to do him any harm for the rest of
his life; 72) and he released to
him the prisoners he had previously taken from the land of Judah. Thereupon he
returned to his own land and never came into their territory again.
COMMENTARY: And so diplomacy saved the
day. Granted, Jonathan had to prove his
military prowess first to make it worthwhile, but relying on the sword alone
can only win a breathing space for a little while.
73) Then the sword ceased from Israel.
Jonathan settled in Michmash; he
began to judge the people and he eliminated the renegades from Israel.
“Judging the people” means acting as king.