Chapter 3

2 Maccabees 3:

1) While 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 least.


10) The high priest explained that there were deposits for widows and orphans,

COMMENTARY:  As required in Deuteronomy, 14:29


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 gold.

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 out.


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 treasury.

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 his heart.

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 being profaned.

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 visual/audial phenomenon.


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 gather.


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 anybody else’s.


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 him live.


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 it.”

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.

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