the holy city lived in perfect peace and the laws were strictly observed
because of the piety of the high priest Onias and his hatred of evil,
COMMENTARY: We begin with an idyllic
time before, as the author saw it, sin lost Israel its protection. Onias, who acted as High Priest from 196 to
175 BC and died in 171 BC, was the son of Simon who was praised in the Book of
Sirach (another Deuterocanonical book) as greatest in the priestly line,
probably because he was priest at the time the book was written. But he
did repair and renovate the Temple, as well as contributed to the fortification
of Jerusalem against outlaw bands.
2) the kings themselves honored the place
and glorified the temple with the most magnificent gifts.
COMMENTARY: From Cyrus on it had become
customary for whichever monarch owned Jerusalem at the time to send gifts to
the Temple in return for prayers for the king and the empire du jour. However, Seleucus mentioned in the next verse
outdid the previous kings in his generosity, thus fulfilling a prophecy in
Daniel 11:20. Details follow.
3) Thus Seleucus, king of Asia, defrayed from his own revenues all the
expenses necessary for the liturgy of sacrifice.
COMMENTARY: That would be Seleucus IV
Philopator (“Philopator” means he loved his father) the second son of the
benevolent Antiochus the Great who lowered taxes on the Jews, not to be
confused with the later Antiochus (IV) who caused them so much grief. The first son, Antiochus with no numbers after
his name, was supposed to be the next king and in fact co-reigned with his
father as soon as he came of age, died before his father, leaving Seleucus as
heir. Seleucus treated the Jews well in
his brief reign before his assassination, even reducing their taxes.
4) But a certain Simon, of the priestly
clan of Bilgah, who had been
appointed superintendent of the temple, had a quarrel with the high priest
about the administration of the city market.
COMMENTARY: Bilgah is a priestly family,
but not of the High Priest lineage.
You’ll hear more about this dispute in chapter 4.
5) Since he could not prevail against
Onias, he went to Apollonius of Tarsus, who at that time was governor of
Coelesyria and Phoenicia, 6) and reported to him
that the treasury in Jerusalem was full of such untold riches that the sum
total of the assets was past counting and that since they did not belong to the
account of the sacrifices, it would be possible for them to fall under the
authority of the king.
COMMENTARY: Notice that he’s offering a
figleaf of legality, implying that this alleged treasure had mysteriously not
made its way into providing for sacrifices.
7) When Apollonius had an audience with
the king, he informed him about the riches that had been reported to him. The
king chose his chief minister Heliodorus and sent him with instructions to
seize those riches. 8)
So Heliodorus immediately set out
on his journey, ostensibly to visit the cities of Coelesyria and Phoenicia, but
in reality to carry out the king’s purpose.
COMMENTARY: They’re not quite so sure of
their legal rights that they would come to Jerusalem openly with the intent of
collecting. Or perhaps they’re afraid
that if word got out the treasure would go into hiding.
9) When he arrived in Jerusalem and had
been graciously received by the high priest of the city, he told him about the
information that had been given, and explained the reason for his presence, and
he inquired if these things were really true.
COMMENTARY: Nice of him to ask, at
10) The high priest explained that there
were deposits for widows and orphans,
COMMENTARY: As required in Deuteronomy,
11) and some was the property of Hyrcanus,
son of Tobias, a man who occupied
a very high position. Contrary to the misrepresentations of the impious Simon,
the total amounted only to four hundred talents of silver and two hundred of
COMMENTARY: Hyrcanus is part of the Tobiad
family of the Transjordan. He’s
mentioned in Nehemiah, and not in a good light, because he apparently got in the
way of Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the temple. But he had powerful connections through
marriage, and his mother was the sister of the High Priest Onias II. The High Priest Eliashab had set aside a room
in the temple for Hyrcanus to store his stuff (hence his stake in preventing
the Temple repairs) and one of the reforms of Nehemiah was to throw all of this
12) It was utterly unthinkable to defraud those who had
placed their trust in the sanctity of the place and in the sacred inviolability
of a temple venerated all over the world.
COMMENTARY: Unless you were doing so in
the name of reform, I gather. Or perhaps
the author of this book was at odds with Nehemiah on that count?
13) But Heliodorus, because of the orders he had from the
king, said that in any case this money must be confiscated for the royal
COMMENTARY: Much grief in the world
comes of people on the top giving orders without full knowledge or care about
the details, while middlemen do anything whatsoever to fulfill those orders
without checking with their superiors to see if they would still back those
orders if they knew the full situation.
Then both deny guilt if bad things result, placing full responsibility
on the other.
14) So on the day he had set he went in to
take an inventory of the funds. There was no little anguish throughout the
city. 15) Priests prostrated
themselves before the altar in their priestly robes, and called toward heaven
for the one who had given the law about deposits to keep the deposits safe for
those who had made them.
COMMENTARY: This law (Exodus 22:6) doesn’t speak of the Temple per se, but about
anyone who holds anything in safekeeping for anyone else. If you hold something for another person and
a thief takes it, the thief pays for it with interest if caught, and if not
caught, the person charged with protecting it pays for it. So even though Hyrcanus is himself
overreaching his rights by using part of the temple for secular use, if he gets
robbed along with the rest of the Temple, the priests, after losing everything,
would have to go into debt to pay him off.
In the case of a rich man’s goods, after losing their own property as
well, the debt would be so steep that they would probably have to become slaves
to pay it off.
16) Whoever saw the appearance of the high
priest was pierced to the heart, for the changed complexion of his face
revealed his mental anguish.
17) The terror and bodily trembling that
had come over the man clearly showed those who saw him the pain that lodged in
COMMENTARY: He was an old man at this
time. Slavery would have been especially
horrible for him. Not to mention he
wouldn’t get much on the market at his age, and so other members of his family
would have to also go into slavery to fill the bill.
18) People rushed out of their houses and
crowded together making common supplication, because the place was in danger of
COMMENTARY: So it’s not just concern for
a beloved old priest, but also for the Temple itself. Once kings—or their representatives—start
illegally grabbing treasure from temples, they generally don’t stop till they’ve
got the whole kit and caboodle. And the
various tools of sacrifice and worship were gold or gold-plated.
19) Women, girded with sackcloth below
their breasts, filled the streets. Young women secluded indoors all ran, some
to the gates, some to the walls, others peered through the windows— 20) all of them with hands raised toward
heaven, making supplication.
COMMENTARY: I’m not sure whether this
means they were barebreasted, or wearing symbolic sackcloth sashes, or wearing
sackcloth below the breasts but less harsh fabric over the sensitive
parts. Furthermore, I have no idea where
I could look this up.
As for the “young women secluded indoors” these were girls past puberty’s onset
but not yet married, kept under strict supervision until safely married off,
lest they lose their virginity prematurely.
This was not a long period of time, however, as most girls of the
ancient world married before they would be considered legally adult in the USA. Also, “indoors” included open-air courtyards
and gardens, so they did get sun and fresh air.
21) It was pitiful to see the populace
prostrate everywhere and the high priest full of dread and anguish.
COMMENTARY: The author means this to
contrast with later impieties of the people.
22) While they were imploring the almighty
Lord to keep the deposits safe and secure for those who had placed them in
trust, 23) Heliodorus went on with his plan.
COMMENTARY: Heartlessly following
orders, which so often has been considered the right and proper thing to do,
and so often isn’t.
24) But just as Heliodorus was arriving at the treasury
with his bodyguards, the Lord of spirits and all authority produced an
apparition so great that those who had been bold enough to accompany Heliodorus
were panic-stricken at God’s power and fainted away in terror.
COMMENTARY: This one is a little more
muscular than most apparitions, as you will see, being far more than a
25) There appeared to them a richly
caparisoned horse, mounted by a fearsome rider. Charging furiously, the horse
attacked Heliodorus with its front hooves. The rider was seen wearing golden
armor. 26) Then two other
young men, remarkably strong, strikingly handsome, and splendidly attired,
appeared before him. Standing on each side of him, they flogged him
unceasingly, inflicting innumerable blows.
COMMENTARY: Presumably these would be
angels, though I also notice that the writer takes care not to say so
specifically, which does make me wonder.
Kings and their deputies cannot punish angels for doing what is
forbidden to mortals, especially since they vanish when finished.
27) Suddenly he fell to the ground,
enveloped in great darkness. His men picked him up and laid him on a stretcher.
COMMENTARY: “Enveloped in great darkness”
possibly means knocked unconscious.
28) They carried away helpless the man who a moment before
had entered that treasury under arms with a great retinue and his whole
bodyguard. They clearly recognized the sovereign power of God.
COMMENTARY: The retinue and bodyguard
makes it more plausible that these were angels and not simply men in gold who
melted away while their victim lay unconscious.
Three ordinary men would have had to fight past this small army to
attack Heliodorus, and these witnesses would not have seen anything
particularly terrifying about them.
29) As Heliodorus lay speechless because
of God’s action and deprived of any hope of recovery,
COMMENTARY: In a coma or stupor, I
30) the people praised the Lord who had
marvelously glorified his own place; and the temple, charged so shortly before
with fear and commotion, was filled with joy and gladness, now that the
almighty Lord had appeared.
COMMENTARY: You can see why this book
would be dear to the heart of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, when
kings were increasing in power and occasionally did make stabs at seizing
church wealth, and also when Vikings were regularly looting monasteries. Having 2 Maccabees in the Bible kept the
kings at bay, though the Vikings held that they’d all get a thrashing at
Ragnarok anyway, so they weren’t impressed.
(I assume that those raided by Vikings would not likely see the same
Vikings again later, and so could assume that they died soon after.)
Notably, that first King of England who seized most of the Church’s property in his
country and turned it over to his friends. suffered from a horse falling on him in a
joust, nearly killing him, and from that day on his personality changed
drastically and his health took a dive.
Presumably he had an untreated brain injury, because he suddenly became
prone to murderous rages and became tyrannical where he had previously been
moderate and open to negotiation, and his kingdom suffered accordingly. He commanded increasingly unreasonable
executions and tortures and he also became insanely paranoid and jealous. His appetite also went abruptly out of
control (the amount that he would eat on a single day would fill a shopping
cart) and he went from being dashing and fit to morbidly obese.
31) Quickly some of the companions of
Heliodorus begged Onias to call upon the Most High to spare the life of one who
was about to breathe his last.
COMMENTARY: Greek mythology is full of tales
of people coming to harm from offending this or that deity, so they knew the
drill. Even so, one can only hope to
move said deity to mercy; it was by no means guaranteed, in their lore or
32) The high priest, suspecting that the
king might think that Heliodorus had suffered some foul play at the hands of
the Jews, offered a sacrifice for the man’s recovery.
COMMENTARY: Kings are, of necessity,
more cynical than their soldiers. “Oh,
you say he got beaten to death by apparitions?
Realllly.” After all, he wasn’t
there and hadn’t seen with his own eyes.
So of course the priest would worry.
33) While the high priest was offering the
sacrifice of atonement, the same young men dressed in the same clothing again
appeared and stood before Heliodorus. “Be very grateful to the high priest
Onias,” they told him. “It is for his sake that the Lord has spared your life. 34) Since you have been scourged by Heaven, proclaim to
all God’s great power.” When they had said this, they disappeared.
COMMENTARY: Nice of them to show up
again and explain themselves to Heliodorus, so that there can be no confusion
as to his report to the crown.
Especially since they sealed their credentials by vanishing.
35) After Heliodorus had offered a
sacrifice to the Lord and made most solemn vows to the one who had spared his
life, he bade Onias farewell, and returned with his soldiers to the king.
COMMENTARY: Onias would have been the
one to make the actual sacrifice, of course, but Heliodorus must have bought
the animals used in it, above and beyond what Onias had offered previously, to
seal the deal. And this is where Daniel’s
prophecy came true, because an angel told him that Seleucus would come into
power and send a tax-collector to give wealth to the Temple.
36) Before all he gave witness to the
deeds of the most high God that he had seen with his own eyes.
COMMENTARY: An excellent reason to let
37) When the king asked Heliodorus what
sort of person would be suitable to be sent to Jerusalem next, he answered: 38) “If you have an enemy or one who is
plotting against the government, send him there, and you will get him back with
a flogging, if indeed he survives at all; for there is certainly some divine
power about the place. 39)
The one whose dwelling is in heaven watches over that
place and protects it, and strikes down and destroys those who come to harm
COMMENTARY: Who says the Bible doesn’t
have a sense of humor?
40) This was how the matter concerning
Heliodorus and the preservation of the treasury turned out.
COMMENTARY: This writer considered it
important to establish, to the Egyptian Jews, that God does protect those
behaving correctly, before going into the tale of the temple’s desecration
after Judeans hadn’t been behaving correctly.