Chapter 12

1 Maccabees 12

1)  When Jonathan saw that the time was right, he chose men and sent them to Rome to confirm and renew the friendship with the Romans.

COMMENTARY:  Thereby assuring that future generations would curse his name alongside his brother Judas.



2) He also sent letters to the Spartans and other places to the same effect.

COMMENTARY:  Apparently this had a precedent from long before the Maccabees rose up to extirpate Greek influence.  Sparta was the capital of Laconia, but everybody called the whole batch Spartans more often than Laconians.  We have since turned “Spartan” into an adjective for harshly minimalist conditions, because they were a harsh and minimalist people, dedicated to the survival of the community rather than individual fulfillment, strict in their discipline and contemptuous of luxury as too softening. They excelled in producing warriors.  Not so much artists, philosophers, or innovators.  But I’ll give them this much, they treated women a whole lot better than most Greek societies!


Anyway, right now Jonathan needs warriors.  He and his brothers never did get along with Greek philosophers.



3)  After reaching Rome, the men entered the senate chamber and said, “The high priest Jonathan and the Jewish people have sent us to renew the friendship and alliance of earlier times with them.”

COMMENTARY:  In other words, Jonathan wants them to know that he will abide by the same agreement that the last administration made.



4)  The Romans gave them letters addressed to authorities in various places, with the request to provide them with safe conduct to the land of Judah.

COMMENTARY:  I have to wonder if the envoys had trouble on the way to Rome, and these letters would make the return trip much safer.  Certainly easier.



5) This is a copy of the letter that Jonathan wrote to the Spartans: 6) “Jonathan the high priest, the senate of the nation, the priests, and the rest of the Jewish people send greetings to their brothers the Spartans.

COMMENTARY:  The “senate of the nation” here refers to the Gerousia, which the Ptolemies first instituted in Israel before the Seleucid takeover and the Maccabean revolt.  It consisted of elders and other leaders in the community.  Eventually it evolved into the Sanhedrin, frequently mentioned in the New Testament.



7) Long ago a letter was sent to the high priest Onias from Arius, who then reigned over you, stating that you are our brothers, as the attached copy shows.

COMMENTARY:  The letter went out a century and a half before, from King Arius I of Sparta (309 to 265 BC) to High Priest Onias I in Jerusalem (323 to roughly 300-290 BC.)



8)  Onias welcomed the envoy with honor and received the letter, which spoke clearly of alliance and friendship.

COMMENTARY:  Change always becomes more acceptable if you can find a precedent.  The envoy, according to Josephus, had been named Demoteles.



9)  Though we have no need of these things, since we have for our encouragement the holy books that are in our possession,

COMMENTARY:  Basically what we now consider the Old Testament.  When people challenge the historicity of Bible references as being “only one source”, they forget that it in fact consists of many separate “books” later put together into a single work for convenience.  In fact books as we know them, pages bound together at one edge, were a Christian invention, something more convenient to leaf through than lots of separate scrolls.  One could make one enormous book out of may prior works by multiple writers.

Jonathan does several things here in this phrase.  First off, he asserts his faith in order to establish that his alliance with Greeks has nothing to do with embracing their Paganism or customs, unlike the Hellenized Jews that he and his brothers have fought for all these years.  Second, he asserts mystical resources in order to bolster the fear that some might have against double-crossing Jewish warriors.  Third, Greeks respect learning and he wants to remind them that Jews do likewise.  Fourth, he doesn’t want to come across as a helpless beggar, but as somebody worth allying with.



10)  we have ventured to send word to you for the renewal of brotherhood and friendship, lest we become strangers to you; a long time has passed since you sent your message to us.

COMMENTARY:  “Aw, we’re just doing it for old time’s sake!  Call us sentimental.”



11)  We, on our part, have unceasingly remembered you in the sacrifices and prayers that we offer on our feasts and other appropriate days, as it is right and proper to remember brothers.

COMMENTARY:  Several times, now, I Maccabees has mentioned praying for the well-being of Pagans without any condition that they first must convert, or any reference to the prayers being for their conversion.



12)  We likewise rejoice in your renown.

COMMENTARY:  A compliment, a statement of non-rivalry and, in the context of the preceding sentence, a hint that Jewish prayers might have had something to do with that “renown” (actually “kabodh” which combined the idea of fame with wealth.)



13)  But many tribulations and many wars have beset us, and the kings around us have attacked us. 14) We did not wish to be troublesome to you and to the rest of our allies and friends in these wars.

COMMENTARY:  The real reason behind the renewal of contact, guised as an explanation for why they fell out of touch.



15)  For we have the help of Heaven for our support, and we have been saved from our enemies, and our enemies have been humbled.

COMMENTARY:  “But we’re not weak!  Honest!”  And again, an assertion of faith and access to divine intervention.



16) So we have chosen Numenius, son of Antiochus, and Antipater, son of Jason, and we have sent them to the Romans to renew with them the friendship and alliance of earlier times.

COMMENTARY:  Interesting—Jews with Greek names, descended of Jews with Greek names.  He’s sending Hellenized Jews to meet with a Hellenic nation.  So Jonathan might extend an olive branch here to more than just the Spartans.  Such men would be as fluent in Greek as in Hebrew, for one thing.  For another, some have speculated that Jason, mentioned above as Antipater’s father, might have been that same Jason earlier mentioned as the son of Eleazar.



17)  We have also ordered them to come to you and greet you, and to deliver to you our letter concerning the renewal of our brotherhood. 18) Therefore kindly send us an answer on this matter.”

COMMENTARY:  Basic generic conclusion.



19) This is a copy of the letter that they sent to Onias:

COMMENTARY:  Verification of the precedent.



20) “Arius, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias the high priest. 21)  A document has been found stating that the Spartans and the Jews are brothers and that they are of the family of Abraham.

COMMENTARY:  Say WHAT?  I tried to find out more about this curious allegation but at first I could only find a statement that nobody knows what document he’s talking about.  But this would make a major political difference in the “Greeks are evil” climate if, a century and a half later, Jonathan could argue that Spartans, at least, aren’t really Greeks.

Later, I did find the information that the Spartans, for quite some time, did everything they could to stir up the Asiatic nations against their Seleucid rivals whenever they saw an opportunity.  How do you do that with “a people set apart”?  Claim to be long-lost family, of course!  Which could seem plausible to those who had permanently misplaced entire tribes after a disastrous diaspora.  Ancient spies apparently did their homework.



22)  Now that we have learned this, kindly write to us about your welfare.

COMMENTARY:  Literally, he inquired about their peace.  But the word in Greek, much like the same word in Hebrew, also meant well-being and prosperity, and possibly contentment.  So when Jesus said “Peace be with you,”  he meant more than just, “May you not be in any conflict.”



23) We, for our part, declare to you that your animals and your possessions are ours, and ours are yours. We have, therefore, given orders that you should be told of this.”

COMMENTARY:  Um...that would not make me feel at peace.  But the Spartans held all things in common, so it’s not as sinister as it sounds.



24)  Then Jonathan heard that the officers of Demetrius had returned to attack him with a stronger army than before.

COMMENTARY:  Perhaps all of this ally-gathering might have made Demetrius feel that something needed done before his enemies grew too united against him.



25) So he set out from Jerusalem and met them in the territory of Hamath, giving them no opportunity to enter his province.

COMMENTARY:  Seleucid territory granted to Jonathan back when they had an alliance, now serving as a buffer-state.  Upper Syria.



26)  The spies he had sent into their camp came back and reported to him that the enemy were preparing to attack them that night.

COMMENTARY:  The most likely spies would be camp-followers, most likely women.  The noncombatants upon which armies depended until modern times, who nursed wounds, cooked meals, tended beasts, cleaned and repaired clothes, and sometimes acted as temporary wives, up to and including bearing children on the march and raising them in a war zone.  Some would have been true wives of soldiers indeed, following their men for the sake of love, or for fear of having no livelihood if their men had to stay away for too long.  Others would be women who, for whatever reason, had nowhere else to go.  Exceptionally tough women; the weak ones died along the way.

The spies would have posed as the latter sort, women who had run out of other options.  The soldiers would look down on them, see them as little more than domesticated beasts, and so the spies would quickly become invisible so long as they kept up with their chores.  Real spies are more often such anonymous background figures than glamorous James Bond types in flashy tuxedos.



27)  Therefore, when the sun set, Jonathan ordered his men to keep watch, with their weapons at the ready for battle, throughout the night; and he set outposts around the camp.

COMMENTARY:  The most sensible course, but not one taken lightly, as it could leave the troops exhausted.



28)  When the enemy heard that Jonathan and his men were ready for battle, their hearts sank with fear and dread. They lighted fires in their camp and then withdrew. 29)  But because Jonathan and his men were watching the campfires burning, they did not know until the morning what had happened.

COMMENTARY:  The writer would prefer the explanation that they did this out of fear and dread.  The whole thing might have been staged to weaken the Jewish army. 


In any case I’d call it a shrewd move.  In addition to the fires creating an illusion of an occupied camp, focusing on a light source in an otherwise dark night blinds you to anything else going on outside of that light.  That’s why I prefer to walk at night without a flashlight, whenever possible; using a flashlight adjusts your eyes to the small circle of light before you and makes everything else impenetrable.



30) Then Jonathan pursued them, but he could not overtake them, for they had crossed the river Eleutherus.

COMMENTARY:  This river marks the border of Hamath.  If Jonathan struck the first blow outside of his own territory, he’d come off as the aggressor and his allies might turn against him.



31) So Jonathan turned aside against the Arabians who are called Zabadeans, and he struck them down and plundered them.

COMMENTARY:  Huh?  He couldn’t go after his intended target so he beat up somebody else who came handy?  Maybe he had some legitimate grievance against them, and took care of it while he was in the neighborhood and had an army with him.  Or maybe he just needed to replenish his supplies and had counted too much on plundering the Seleucids to do it.  The text does not clarify.



32Then he broke camp, marched on toward Damascus and traveled through the whole region.

COMMENTARY:  The Zabadeans might have been those Arabs whose descendants now live in Zebdini, on the way to Damascus.  Anyway, Jonathan had to make this journey to see what other incursions might have happened, especially if the Seleucids looped around and came back elsewhere.  And he had to do it with the army in tow, to fix anything wrong he found as quickly as possible.



33)  Simon also set out and traveled as far as Askalon and its neighboring strongholds. He then turned to Joppa and took it by surprise,

COMMENTARY:  One of the advantages of having a brother is that, between you, you could be in two places at once.  Simon took the coastal patrol.  Somebody had to, since the Greeks had quite a reputation as a seafaring people.



34)  for he heard that its people intended to hand over the stronghold to the supporters of Demetrius. He left a garrison there to guard it.

COMMENTARY:  One would have expected Jonathan to have left one already, but the one he’d left might have switched sides.  During peacetime, after all, he probably garrisoned it with locals.



35)  When Jonathan returned, he assembled the elders of the people, and with them he made plans for building strongholds in Judea,

COMMENTARY:  If Joppa is any indicator, a lot of precautions had slipped during peacetime.  Now they had to fix this oversight in a hurry.



36)  for making the walls of Jerusalem still higher, and for erecting a high barrier between the citadel and the city, to separate it from the city and isolate it, so that its garrison could neither buy nor sell.

COMMENTARY:  In other words, to starve them out.  Apparently the Greek garrison had been coming out for shopping trips in town just like the locals.



37)  The people therefore gathered together to build up the city, for part of the wall of the eastern valley had collapsed. And Jonathan repaired the quarter called Chaphenatha.

COMMENTARY:  One source says that the wall collapsed from putting too much weight on it, the workers trying to build it up in a hurry without widening and strengthening the base.  That says volumes about the sense of urgency about these preparations—and also something about the ultimate delays that haste can cause.



38)  Simon likewise built up Adida in the Shephelah, and fortified it by installing gates and bars.

COMMENTARY:  Adida’s high position, overlooking the plain, made it strategically important.  And why didn’t it have gates and bars already?  What’s the good of a wall around a city if it has a gaping, unpluggable hole in it?  But perhaps in times of peace they built the wall more to keep out sheep than soldiers.



39)  Then Trypho sought to become king of Asia, assume the diadem, and do violence to King Antiochus.

COMMENTARY:  The same King Antiochus that he made his puppet monarch in childhood.  Has the boy grown up enough to have a mind of his own?  Coins minted at the time in fact already showed Trypho wearing the diadem.  Antiochus might have objected.



40)  But he was afraid that Jonathan would not permit him, but would fight against him. Looking for a way to seize and kill him, he set out and came to Beth-shan.

COMMENTARY:  Considering that, technically, Jonathan had made his oath of mutual protection to Antiochus rather than to Trypho, I’d call that a reasonable fear.



 41)  Jonathan marched out to meet him with forty thousand picked fighting men and came to Beth-shan.

COMMENTARY:  With Demetrius testing the borders, Jonathan might have assumed that Trypho wanted him to show up battle-ready.



42)  But when Trypho saw that Jonathan had arrived with a large army he was afraid to do him violence.

COMMENTARY:  Apparently Trypho had intelligence that Jonathan did not, that King Arsaces IV of Parthia had taken Demetrius II prisoner in his retreat.  Which also must have influenced Trypho’s power-move.  He might have expected to find Jonathan off-guard with the most obvious enemy taken out of the equation.  But Jonathan still anticipated Demetrius making another try.



43)  Instead, he received him with honor, introduced him to all his friends, and gave him presents. He also ordered his friends and soldiers to obey him as they would himself.

COMMENTARY:  Nothing like gifts and flattery to set someone up for betrayal.



44)  Then he said to Jonathan: “Why have you put all these people to so much trouble when we are not at war?

COMMENTARY:  Trypho might have told him, at this point, that Demetrius wouldn’t come back to bother them any time soon, which would make roaming about with an army seem now unnecessary.



45)  Now pick out a few men to stay with you, send the rest to their homes, and then come with me to Ptolemais. I will hand it over to you together with other strongholds and the remaining troops, as well as all the officials; then I will turn back and go home. That is why I came here.”

COMMENTARY:  Such sweet bait!  Demetrius I had offered him Ptolemais, and he’d wanted it ever since.  It would have provided Galilee with a port to the larger ocean.



46)  Jonathan trusted him and did as he said. He dismissed his troops, and they returned to the land of Judah.

COMMENTARY:  Why shouldn’t Jonathan believe an ally who had stayed true so far?



47)  But he kept with him three thousand men, of whom he left two thousand in Galilee while one thousand accompanied him.

COMMENTARY:  This would be more of an honor-guard than anything.



48)  Then as soon as Jonathan entered Ptolemais, the people of Ptolemais closed the gates and seized him; all who had entered with him, they killed with the sword.

COMMENTARY:  And the trap springs.  A thousand men inside a city would quickly find themselves maneuvered into narrow streets and alleys where they couldn’t make use of their numbers.  And they were probably outnumbered anyway.  And many of those outnumbering them probably had positions high on the city walls shooting arrows down on the trapped men. 

Why mention killing them with the sword, then?  A well-placed arrow-shot could kill, but a wholesale barrage more often wounded, and the weakened or crippled survivors would then have to be dispatched at swordpoint.



49)  Then Trypho sent soldiers and cavalry to Galilee and the Great Plain to destroy all Jonathan’s men.

COMMENTARY:  The Great Plain would be Beth-Shan, a fine place to surround outnumbered troops.



50)  These, upon learning that Jonathan had been captured and killed along with his companions, encouraged one another and went out in close formation, ready to fight. 51)  As their pursuers saw that they were ready to fight for their lives, they turned back.

COMMENTARY:  Close formation means that the Jewish army marched close enough together that their upraised shields formed a solid wall, with their spears braced on top, making them about as attractive a target as a porcupine.  Rows behind the front row would have spears ready to go over the shoulders of those ahead of them.  One could overcome such a defensive position only after your own first ranks died to win you an opening.

But it meant more than that.  Closed ranks is a difficult maneuver to coordinate.  A general would not expect leaderless men to manage this by themselves—especially not with the hierarchical thinking of the day.  Trypho might have assumed that Simon had joined the fight, bringing reinforcements.

In fact Simon had had no such opportunity, and probably didn’t even know yet that his brother had died—but his actions in Joppa did place him somewhere on the coast.  Trypho would have known no more than that.  He would have had to assume that Simon had turned up closer than he’d originally thought.  He had no idea, now, what odds he faced, and didn’t want to find out the hard way that they didn’t favor him.

As I’ve said before, it’s all about which side seizes the morale.  If you had assumed that your enemy would have already lost their morale with their leader (as commonly happened in those days) and you expected an easy fight, the sight of them standing pat could suffice to rob you of your own morale instead.



52)  Thus all Jonathan’s men came safely into the land of Judah. They mourned Jonathan and those who were with him. They were in great fear, and all Israel fell into deep mourning.

COMMENTARY:  Because losing a leader in the middle of an unexpected attack really was a big deal, however brave a face they tried to put on it.



53)  All the nations round about sought to crush them. They said, “Now that they have no leader or helper, let us make war on them and wipe out their memory from the earth.”


COMMENTARY:  The smell of blood is on the wind.  Especially since both rival powers that Jonathan had been playing off one another now oppose Israel simultaneously.  And Sparta and Rome lay very far away.

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