Chapter 9

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 hills.

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 calendar.



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 intended.



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 him.

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 followed.



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 dead.



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 many.

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 said that.



23) After the death of Judas, the lawless raised their heads in every part of Israel, and all kinds of evildoers appeared.

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 earlier.



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 brother.

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 of baggage.

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,  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 his advantage.



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 and bars.

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 provisions.

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 Jerusalem.

COMMENTARY:  Governments often used hostage-taking as a safeguard for enforcing treaties.  It’s hard to make war on a citadel that holds you children.



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 puppet-show?

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 wants.



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 his flank.



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 Bacchides.



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.  However...



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?”


Jonathan learned of this and sent ambassadors to agree on peace with him and to obtain the release of the prisoners.

COMMENTARY:  So Jonathan understands statescraft as well as strategy, seeing the ripe time to cut a deal and make peace.



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.


Then the sword ceased from Israel. Jonathan settled in Michmash; he began to judge the people and he eliminated the renegades from Israel.

COMMENTARY:  “Judging the people” means acting as king.

Back Index Forward