Chapter 14

1 Maccabees 14

1) In the one hundred and seventy-second year, King Demetrius assembled his army and marched into Media to obtain help so that he could fight Trypho.

COMMENTARY:  That would be 141-140 BC, most likely beginning in spring.  Which places it out of order for a linear telling of the tale.  But this chapter acts as a summary of how the Jews finally found a period of least in the lifetime of its author. 


And why did Demetrius go into Media to obtain help?  It’s not from the Median government!  Media, at that time, belonged to the Parthians, along with Persia and Babylon, all of which the Seleucids had previously laid claim to.  Many Greeks and Macedonians still dwelt there, and had been appealing to Demetrius to liberate them.  He aimed, ostensibly, to recruit among these loyal erstwhile subjects, but the obvious payback implied would be “If you help me get rid of Trypho, I’ll be free to help you get rid of King Arsaces!”



2)  When Arsaces, king of Persia and Media, heard that Demetrius had entered his territory, he sent one of his generals to take him alive.

COMMENTARY:  King Arsaces VI of Parthia was also known as Mithridates I.  All Parthian Kings were officially named Arsaces, after their founder.


Naturally he was not fond of leaving a rival king running around loose in disputed territory.  On the other hand, one could enrich the royal treasury nicely by holding such an important personage for ransom—a time-honored use for other people’s monarchs—so it seemed better to capture him than kill him.  Or he could release him, after some “persuasion” to make him submit to a Parthian agenda, at whatever time seemed convenient to stir up another conflict with Trypho in Syria, should the need arise.



3) The general went forth and attacked the army of Demetrius; he captured him and brought him to Arsaces, who put him under guard.

COMMENTARY:  Thus began the ten-year captivity that opened the door for Trypho, several chapters back, to persuade the Maccabees to side with him.  The author includes it here to set the context of the Seleucid empire falling apart.


Other sources say that the general didn’t attack the army after all, but used treachery to kidnap the king and left the army to go home leaderless.  One source simply says, “He lost all his army,” which might mean a rebellion in the ranks.  The Seleucids did seem to have problems with morale.


Poetry now follows, and with it some measure of poetic license. 



4) The land was at rest all the days of Simon,

who sought the good of his nation.

His rule delighted his people

and his glory all his days.

COMMENTARY:  Being much more peaceable than his brothers would do that.  But also all of the would-be conquerors had their hands full fighting each other and trying to shore up their own collapsing empires.  This peace lasted from the capture of Acra in 142 BC till Cendebacus evaded in 138-7 BC.  So it lasted for a few years, at least, worthy of nostalgia for a weary nation.


The rise of Judea at this time, however brief, gives hope today, when we hear warnings of factors that could bring civil collapse.  When one empire falls another one rises.  One nation’s disaster brings relief to another.

I once read a book review that I have tried in vain to find again, because I would really like to read that book!  Its author, an archaeologist, studied a major indigenous American empire, within the modern boundaries of the USA, that collapsed from a devastating drought.  Smaller surrounding tribes, however, adapted and did just fine, contradicting our assumption that the greater the civilization, the better it can protect its citizens.  The fault, he found, was that the leaders of the empire had become so mired in competing factions that they couldn’t unite before a common threat and rise to the challenge.

In my admittedly spotty study of history, it looks to me as if this has happened repeatedly, all over the world.  It marks the times when one civilization falls and others take over.  And it doesn’t usually happen in some great, sudden cataclysm, with everybody screaming and running from the fall of an instant dark age.  Civilizations just crumble, bit by bit, while something else gradually takes over.  It can take years, decades, even centuries.

We like to think of decadence as one big, overindulgent party full of sex and drugs and chocolate, doing everything that we were ever told not to do but wanted to anyway, while wearing fabulously lascivious costumes that would be miserably uncomfortable if actually worn, but soon doffed in the general orgy anyway, so no problem.  In fact decadence is prosaic, frustrating, and empty: a broken tangle of overgrown bureaucracy, traditions, contradictions and unrealistic expectations, recognizable by intractable factions increasingly out of touch with reality, which finally makes a way of life unviable.  I believe that we’re in such a period now.


But here’s the hope.  Every fall composts the rise of something else.  Dying dinosaurs give way to smaller, adaptable mammals.  When you see all of the dinosaur institutions falling around you, be the mammal.  You could enter the peace of Simon.


(For the record, Simon did have a brief war, towards the end of his reign, with Antiochus Sidetes, so it wasn’t all milk and honey, but after all that Judea had gone through, it seemed like a golden age of peace and plenty.)



5) As his crowning glory he took Joppa for a port

and made it a gateway to the isles of the sea.

COMMENTARY:  As you’ll recall, he mainly did it to keep it from becoming a staging-ground for Demetrius, but adding a port—especially one as prosperous as Joppa!—to Judea did make a nice bonus.



6) He enlarged the borders of his nation

and gained control of the country.

COMMENTARY:  Nope.  That would be his brother, Jonathan, who did that.  Poetic license.



7) He took many prisoners of war

and made himself master of Gazara, Beth-zur, and the citadel.

He cleansed the citadel of its impurities;

there was no one to withstand him.

COMMENTARY:  Nobody had invented POW camps in those days; prisoners became slaves.  In ancient times leaders tried to take as many prisoners of war as possible, and would even come into criticism if they hadn’t captured enough slaves to keep their economies going; every nation took this institution for granted back then.  Sadly, it was not peculiar.

Some commentators have tried to pretty this up and say that in fact the writer meant liberating Jews in those lands.  But even they admit that the wording seems odd for that purpose.



8) The people cultivated their land in peace;

the land yielded its produce,

the trees of the field their fruit.

COMMENTARY:  An important consideration.  Every day a man spent fighting a war meant a day not tending his farm. 


Furthermore, cleared farmland often became battlefields and wound up trampled and burnt.  Notice how we say battlefields, not battlewoods or battlewilds.  Generals preferred a cleared field where their men were less likely to trip on something; that might sound slapstick, but tripping in battle could get you killed, and part of swordfighting training involved sweeping the ground carefully with your feet whenever you moved from place to place, while your upper body wielded your weapon.  Invading armies could send loot or their pay home to enable their families to import food, but being invaded often led to famine.

“Trees of the field” means orchards and vineyards, as opposed to wild trees. People no longer had to scavenge for wild foods or hope in the poor yield of untended orchards.



9) Old men sat in the squares,

all talking about the good times,

while the young men put on the glorious raiment of war.

COMMENTARY:  I suppose the raiment of war looks glorious when one parades around without actually having to go into battle.  Even in times of peace a state surrounded by enemies has to keep up potential recruitment with the concept of glory in battle, just in case they get invaded again.  Which they did.



10) He supplied the cities with food

and equipped them with means of defense,

till his glorious name reached the ends of the earth.

COMMENTARY:  This does not mean a welfare state; he didn’t literally feed everybody else from his own farm.  His administration, by equipping them with the means of defense, protected the people’s ability to grow their own food



11) He brought peace to the land,

and Israel was filled with great joy.

COMMENTARY:  For a little while.



12)  Every one sat under his vine and fig tree,

with no one to disturb them.

COMMENTARY:  A figure of speech popular at the time to denote peace.  It does conjure up a lovely image, sitting in the shade after a day’s work, contentedly regarding the prosperity of one’s land.  (For the record, “shalom”, often translated as “peace” also means contentment, prosperity, and everything going satisfyingly smoothly.)



13)  No attacker was left in the land;

the kings in those days were crushed.

COMMENTARY:  “Kings” meaning Demetrius, Trypho, Pharaoh, and any other would-be invaders, much too entangled in their own conflicts to trouble Judea any longer.



14)  He strengthened all the lowly among his people

and was zealous for the law;

he destroyed the lawless and the wicked.

COMMENTARY:  “Lowly” here means those who were persecuted, in his youth, for piety.  “Destroyed” here means “toppled from power”.  And of course Simon had help from his brothers in that.  He gets credit here as the last Maccabee standing.



15) The sanctuary he made splendid

and multiplied its furnishings.

COMMENTARY:  He made it splendid by the restoration of ritual.  Multiplying its furnishings (a necessity after the Greeks had plundered it) is a separate “and also” statement. 

End of poetry.



16)  When people in Rome and even in Sparta heard that Jonathan had died, they were deeply grieved. 17) But when they heard that his brother Simon had become high priest in his place and was master of the territory and its cities, 18) they sent him inscribed tablets of bronze to renew with him the friendship and alliance that they had established with his brothers Judas and Jonathan.

COMMENTARY:  This already happened earlier, as you will recall.  Strictly speaking, Simon made the first move to Rome, sending a shield of gold, and Rome replied with the bronze tablets.  Rome considered it beneath their dignity to initiate such exchanges, though they followed up quite willingly.



19)These were read before the assembly in Jerusalem.


20) This is a copy of the letter that the Spartans sent: “The rulers and the city of the Spartans send greetings to Simon the high priest, the elders, the priests, and the rest of the Jewish people, our brothers.

COMMENTARY:  This would be a Greek copy of a Hebrew translation of a letter in Greek.  The “rulers” of Sparta, by this time, were the Ephors: five Spartan citizens elected annually, who could not then be re-elected, ostensibly to balance the rule of the two kings, who often did not get along with each other.  Originally the Ephors only had authority while the kings traveled abroad in battle, but by this time the kings had devolved into little more than hereditary generals.


(If this sounds like democracy, it was not.  Most of those living in Sparta were not legal citizens; helots outnumbered citizens seven to one.  Helots were peasants without rights, one step above slaves.  Every year the new Ephors would go through the formality of declaring war on the helots, so that any citizen could legally kill one with impunity if so inclined.)



21) The ambassadors sent to our people have informed us of your glory and renown, and we rejoiced at their coming. 22) In accordance with what they said we have recorded the following in the public decrees: Numenius, son of Antiochus, and Antipater, son of Jason, ambassadors of the Jews, have come to us to renew their friendship with us. 23) The people have resolved to receive these men with honor, and to deposit a copy of their words in the public archives, so that the people of Sparta may have a record of them. A copy of this decree has been made for Simon the high priest.”

COMMENTARY:  And now the writer has backed this up by making a copy for the book of I Maccabees.



24) After this, Simon sent Numenius to Rome with a large gold shield weighing a thousand minas, to confirm the alliance with the Romans.

COMMENTARY:  It’s saving face to say that he sent the shield afterwards.  In fact he sent it before, cap in hand, so to speak.  Sending gold shields to renew an alliance was standard in the ancient world, symbolically saying, A) “I’ve got your back if you’ve got mine,” and B) “I’m rich enough to matter.”

Some historians believe that “a thousand minas” was the value of the shield, because if that had been the actual weight it would have been next to impossible to transport all the way to Rome.  Or the whole thing might have been poetic license.



25) When the people heard of these things, they said, “How shall we thank Simon and his sons? 26) He and his brothers and his father’s house have stood firm and repulsed Israel’s enemies, and so have established its freedom.” So they made an inscription on bronze tablets, which they affixed to pillars on Mount Zion.

COMMENTARY:  The pillars were steles: flat-sided, tall, skinny stone structures erected expressly for the purpose of holding public inscriptions.  The Washington Monument is modeled after ancient steles.


Mount Zion is a hill just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem.  Then it became synonymous with Jerusalem itself.  Then it became another name for the Temple Mount.  Sometimes it’s used to symbolize the entire nation of Israel.  These days it usuallyrefers to Jerusalem’s Western Hill, which is not quite the same as the original Mount Zion.



27) The following is a copy of the inscription: “On the eighteenth day of Elul, in the one hundred and seventy-second year, that is, the third year under Simon the great high priest in Asaramel,

COMMENTARY:  The date would be September 13, 140 BC, in our reckoning.  To consider these events in relation to the birth of Christ implied in the “BC” designation, 140 years before today (writing this in 2018) would be 1878 (if I did that right.)  There are buildings downtown in regular use older than that.


Asaramel might mean “Court of the People of God,” but scholars aren’t sure.  Another possible translation might be, “Simon the great high priest, the Saramel” which might mean “priest of the people of God.”  Somewhere along the line some very similar Hebrew letters might have gotten mixed up.  The translator from Hebrew into Greek apparently left the word untranslated because he wasn’t quite sure what it was, either.



28) in a great assembly of priests, people, rulers of the nation, and elders of the region, the following proclamation was made to us:


COMMENTARY:  A comprehensive way of saying, “everyone.”



29) “‘Since there have often been wars in our country, Simon, son of the priest Mattathias, descendant of Joarib, and his brothers have put themselves in danger and resisted the enemies of their nation, so that their sanctuary and law might be maintained, and they have thus brought great glory to their nation.

COMMENTARY:  And so begins the praise of Simon.  His brothers have been reduced to sidekicks.



30) Jonathan rallied the nation, became their high priest, and was gathered to his people.

COMMENTARY:  Notice the complete absence of any mention of Judas Maccabee, the one for whom this book was originally named.  He did get the revolution started, after all.  But by this time it seems that the Jewish community has come to regret some of his more heavy-handed methods and decided to downplay his importance clean off the stage of history, at least here.  I feel vindicated in my earlier criticism of him.



31) When their enemies sought to invade and ravage their country and to violate their sanctuary, 32) Simon rose up and fought for his nation, spending large sums of his own money to equip his nation’s forces and give them their pay.

COMMENTARY:  This made a considerable sacrifice, and often the Maccabees could not equip their men as well as they wanted.  I would point out that Simon didn’t do this all by himself, but it still added up to a major expenditure.

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America acted similarly, and some who began rich wound up impoverished by the end of the war.  I wonder how many of the disciples of Ayn Rand, who believe this country founded on “benign selfishness” and see the pursuit of profit as the way to an ideal society, would do the same today?



33) He fortified the cities of Judea, especially the border city of Beth-zur, formerly the site of the enemy’s weaponry, and he stationed there a garrison of Jewish soldiers. 34) He also fortified Joppa by the sea and Gazara on the border of Azotus, a place previously occupied by the enemy; these cities he settled with Jews and furnished them with all that was necessary for their restoration.

COMMENTARY:  One has to really stretch the map to put Gazara on the border of Azotus, but it’s just marginally possible if one includes land tilled or grazed by farmers selling to Gazara being nearish to land tilled or grazed by farmers selling to Azotus.



35) When the people saw Simon’s fidelity and the glory he planned to bring to his nation, they made him their leader and high priest because of all he had accomplished and the justice and fidelity he had shown his nation. In every way he sought to exalt his people.

COMMENTARY:  This ignores the dissident contingent who maintained that Simon had neither the pedigree for high priesthood nor for kingship. 

The translator says “...all he had accomplished and the justice and fidelity he had shown his nation” in order to encompass a single word which some prior translators had put down as “faith” and others as “acts”.  This gives a new spin to St. James later saying, in the New Testament, “Faith without works is dead.”  Of course.  In his native tongue they are the same thing. 


This also has considerable impact on the debate raised by Martin Luther as to whether we are saved by faith or by works.  In his German language they are two distinct concepts.



36) “‘In his time and under his guidance they succeeded in driving the Gentiles out of their country and those in the City of David in Jerusalem, who had built for themselves a citadel from which they used to sally forth to defile the environs of the sanctuary and inflict grave injury on its purity. 37) In this citadel he stationed Jewish soldiers, and he strengthened its fortifications for the security of the land and the city, while he also built up the wall of Jerusalem to a greater height.

COMMENTARY:  Again, this makes it sound like his brothers had nothing to do with it.  One could see a parable here, about how the first brother tried with brute force, the second tried with sly politics, and the third succeeded with wisdom.



38) Consequently, King Demetrius confirmed him in the high priesthood, 39) made him one of his Friends, and conferred great honor on him.

COMMENTARY:  So long as they were allies, at least.  But Simon has to legitimize his position any way he can.



40) This was because he had heard that the Romans had addressed the Jews as friends, allies, and brothers, that they had received Simon’s envoys with honor,

COMMENTARY:  The protection of Rome could be a real gamechanger...until it backfired.



41) and that the Jewish people and their priests had decided the following: Simon shall be their leader and high priest forever until a trustworthy prophet arises.

COMMENTARY:  Not that Simon would live forever, but that his descendants would henceforth be high priests, bypassing the prior claimant families.  The “trustworthy prophet” created a nice figleaf—an event that nobody anticipated actually happening until the arrival of the Messiah, so indefinitely somewhere or other in the future as to vanish in the distance.  If any prophets did happen to pop up in the interim, one could always call them untrustworthy.  However, early Christians, and hence the Catholic Church, took this prophet to be St. John the Baptist.



42) He shall act as governor over them, and shall have charge of the sanctuary, to make regulations concerning its functions and concerning the country, its weapons and strongholds.

COMMENTARY:  A delineation of his responsibilities, which here include both the duties of a priest and of a general.  But it doesn’t stop here.



43) He shall be obeyed by all. All contracts in the country shall be written in his name, and he shall be clothed in purple and gold.

COMMENTARY:  Now it gets egregiously vague, but such were the norms of the day for monarchs.  People at the time would marvel at us for having no one that we obey so unquestioningly, without legal restrictions.

The gold cloth involved gold threads, not gold as a color.  One beats the gold as flat as possible, shaves it into fibers, and then spins them.  As for the purple cloth, twelve thousand murex snails could produce a little more than a gram of dye, enough to dye the trim on one garment; it might have been even more expensive than the gold.  Unlike other sources of purple, though, this one was color-fast.



44) It shall not be lawful for any of the people or priests to nullify any of these decisions, or to contradict the orders given by him, or to convene an assembly in the country without his consent, to be clothed in purple or wear a gold buckle. 45) Whoever acts otherwise or violates any of these prescriptions shall be liable to punishment.

COMMENTARY:  Absolute power, plus a sumptuary law to make sure that he always stood out in the crowd.  You would always know who to obey—the guy in purple and gold.



46“‘Thus all the people approved of granting Simon the right to act in accord with these decisions,

COMMENTARY:  It was not actually unanimous.  There were still plenty of people miffed that the Maccabees bypassed the biblically-commanded chain of command, and even some surviving Hellenized Jews.



47) and Simon accepted and agreed to be high priest, governor, and ethnarch of the Jewish people and priests, and to have authority over all.’”

COMMENTARY:  Okay, not quite absolute power after all, but absolutish.  An ethnarch ruled over an ethnic group under the greater authority of a king or emperor.  In this case the official greater authority, King Demetrius, was conveniently either in prison or tied up in distant wars, depending on which year of Simon’s reign we’re talking about.  So, for all practical purposes absolute power.  For now.



48) It was decreed that this inscription should be engraved on bronze tablets, to be set up in a conspicuous place in the precincts of the sanctuary, 49) and that copies of it should be deposited in the treasury, where they would be available to Simon and his sons.


COMMENTARY:  Plus a copy in every copy of 1 Maccabees.

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