Chapter 5

2 Maccabees 5:

1) About this time Antiochus sent his second expedition into Egypt.

COMMENTARY:  There’s some debate here as to whether the author has simply skipped the first invasion, or accounted the invasion of Palestine as the first one (since Palestine was then Egyptian property.)  Whatever the case, he seems to have combined two pillages of Jerusalem, two years apart, into one.  Not without justification, as the second was kind of a continuation of the first.



2) It then happened that all over the city, for nearly forty days, there appeared horsemen, clothed in garments of a golden weave, charging in midair—companies fully armed with lances and drawn swords; 3) squadrons of cavalry in battle array, charges and countercharges on this side and that, with brandished shields and bristling spears, flights of arrows and flashes of gold ornaments, together with armor of every sort.

COMMENTARY:  “Forty” in Biblical writings simply means “Lots and lots.”  I would extrapolate, then, that “nearly forty days” could mean, “Maybe not so much, but plenty enough to get our attention.”

Visions of armies in the sky have happened in other times and places, intriguingly also often wearing golden armor.  The earliest I could track down was a vision of the prophet Elisha, and the latest the Miracles of Mons in WWI.  So far all examples I’ve seen extend from the Middle East westward all the way to America, with the most examples in Europe, but lack of mention in Africa or far Asia might simply reflect my own lack of access to information about these regions.  Sometimes such battles prophecy earthly battles to come, or battles between good and evil, but they can also indicate heavenly protection.



4) Therefore all prayed that this vision might be a good omen.

COMMENTARY:  They’re hoping for the heavenly defenders explanation, or at least a battle between good and evil in which good triumphs.  Sadly, it turned out to be the one option they didn’t want.



5) But when a false rumor circulated that Antiochus was dead, Jason gathered at least a thousand men and suddenly attacked the city. As the defenders on the walls were forced back and the city was finally being taken, Menelaus took refuge in the citadel.

COMMENTARY:  This was that same Jason who stole the High Priesthood from his brother Onias, who then lost it to his brother Menelaus.  Priests behaving badly.



6) For his part, Jason continued the merciless slaughter of his fellow citizens, not realizing that triumph over one’s own kindred is the greatest calamity; he thought he was winning a victory over his enemies, not over his own people.

COMMENTARY:  People in power in all ages and places should take this to heart.



7) Even so, he did not gain control of the government, but in the end received only disgrace for his treachery, and once again took refuge in the country of the Ammonites.

COMMENTARY:  Even in the days of autocrats it has always been hard to rule without at least some degree of consent from the people.  Conquerors usually bring consent with them in the form of armies and colonists, but even they have to persuade at least some citizens that they’d be better off with the conquerors than without.  It’s like playing “Survivor”—you can make it to the final council and still not win, if you haven’t played a good social game.



8) At length he met a miserable end. Called to account before Aretas, ruler of the Arabians, he fled from city to city, hunted by all, hated as an apostate from the laws, abhorred as the executioner of his country and his compatriots. Driven into Egypt,

COMMENTARY:  King Aretas I of the Nabateans.  It wasn’t that he had any particular commitment to Jewish law himself, but if somebody would betray his own God, his own family, and his own people for the sake of ambition, no king would want him anywhere near the throne.



9) he set out by sea for the Lacedaemonians, among whom he hoped to find protection because of his relations with them. He who had exiled so many from their country perished in exile;

COMMENTARY:  AKA the Spartans.  He wanted to be Greek, so he got his wish.  Except that the only place he found welcome was in the harshest culture of the entire ancient world.



10) and he who had cast out so many to lie unburied went unmourned and without a funeral of any kind, nor any place in the tomb of his ancestors.


COMMENTARY:  This would seem an especially fearful end to a Jew.  While Jews have deliberately understated funerary arrangements (only recently, for instance, accepting unadorned coffins to supplement the shroud, and only if it is made of wood and has holes in the bottom to hasten returning to the Earth) the mourning and prayers for the dead are elaborate and important, to help support the soul’s transition, whatever form it might take.  Depending on which version of an afterlife the person subscribes to, failure could mean either annihilation or being stuck in a kind of nowhere, but either way one never gets to join one’s ancestors.



11) When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm.

COMMENTARY:  Very different from the 1 Maccabees account, which gives no reason for the crackdown, making it look like Antioch was just antisemitic.  He still behaved egregiously, but the institution of absolute monarchy requires a swift and heavy-handed response to rebellion—too swift, sometimes, to wait for the facts.  Which does not excuse Antiochus.  No mere mortal deserves such absolute power, especially not at such a price.



12) He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. 13) There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of young women and infants. 14) In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.

COMMENTARY:  He would order this to not only crush rebellion, but to scare any other parts of his empire from getting ideas.  The problem is, once the facts caught up him, it would come out that he slaughtered innocent people with no rebellious intent, and the attack would backfire.  People believed that the gods upheld just monarchs, but not those who spilled innocent blood.  Antiochus would have to deal with increased rebellions throughout his realm for the rest of his life.


And his attack became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The Jews didn’t have any particular impetus to rebel before this.  Now they did.



15) Not satisfied with this, the king dared to enter the holiest temple in the world; Menelaus, that traitor both to the laws and to his country, served as guide.

COMMENTARY:  Menelaus’s modus operandi has always been to steal the wherewithal to finance bribery, to permit greater thefts to finance greater bribery.  Naturally, when faced with a king on a killing rampage, his first impulse would be to calm him with loot.



16) He laid his impure hands on the sacred vessels and swept up with profane hands the votive offerings made by other kings for the advancement, the glory, and the honor of the place. 17) Antiochus became puffed up in spirit, not realizing that it was because of the sins of the city’s inhabitants that the Sovereign Lord was angry for a little while: hence the disregard of the place.  18) If they had not become entangled in so many sins, this man, like that Heliodorus sent by King Seleucus to inspect the treasury, would have been flogged and turned back from his presumptuous act as soon as he approached.

COMMENTARY:  Normally a Greek would hesitate to loot anybody’s temple, whether of his own religion or not.  But Antiochus’s surprising success in “putting down a rebellion” (abetted by the fact that nobody had raised arms against him and were still reeling from Jason’s attack) plus the obvious disregard that Menelaus had for the sacred objects, would convince him that this deity had no real power, and the beating of Heliodorus must have been some trick.  Perhaps the deity Himself had been a charlatan’s invention.  High Priest Menelaus certainly seemed to think so.



19) The Lord, however, had not chosen the nation for the sake of the place, but the place for the sake of the nation.

COMMENTARY:  This invokes the immigrant nature of the Israelites, but it also introduces an important concept: that the God of Israel is portable.  Defeat of a location does not defeat this God.  This will matter later in the formation of Christianity.  The word “Catholic” means “universal” and the idea behind it was that people of any ethnicity could become Christians.

As the following verse shows, “chosen for” also has the connotation of an arranged marriage.  Marriage metaphors abound in the Bible. 



20) Therefore, the place itself, having shared in the nation’s misfortunes, afterward participated in their good fortune; and what the Almighty had forsaken in wrath was restored in all its glory, once the great Sovereign Lord became reconciled.

COMMENTARY:  The land, animistically, can participate in good fortune or bad, even as a bride suffers or benefits from the bad or good choices of her spouse.



21) Antiochus carried off eighteen hundred talents from the temple and hurried back to Antioch, thinking in his arrogance that he could make the land navigable and the sea passable on foot, so carried away was he with pride.

COMMENTARY:  I have to say, that’s a nice piece of sarcasm!



22) He left governors to harass the nation: at Jerusalem, Philip, a Phrygian by birth, and in character more barbarous than the man who appointed him;

COMMENTARY:  The Phrygian Philip was probably not the same Philip mentioned later as becoming the regent.  Antiochus exiled 2,000 Jewish families to Phrygia, so the Judeans did not think kindly of it.



23) at Mount Gerizim, Andronicus; and besides these, Menelaus, who lorded it over his fellow citizens more than the others. Out of hatred for the Jewish citizens, 24) the king sent Apollonius, commander of the Mysians, at the head of an army of twenty-two thousand, with orders to kill all the grown men and sell the women and children into slavery.

COMMENTARY:  Mt. Gerizim was the mountain held sacred by the Samaritans.  So both Old Israel and Judea faced increased oppression.  You might recall Apollonius from 1 Maccabees, who sweet-talked his way into Jerusalem with words of peace, and then ravaged it.



25) When this man arrived in Jerusalem, he pretended to be peacefully disposed and waited until the holy day of the sabbath; then, finding the Jews refraining from work, he ordered his men to parade fully armed. 26) All those who came out to watch, he massacred, and running through the city with armed men, he cut down a large number of people.

COMMENTARY:  Here we get more detail than in 1 Maccabees, that he waited for the day when he could get the maximum crowd of spectators to massacre, when everybody was off work and free to hang out at a parade.



27) But Judas Maccabeus and about nine others withdrew to the wilderness to avoid sharing in defilement; there he and his companions lived like the animals in the hills, eating what grew wild.


COMMENTARY:  And now we finally get to the title figures of the book!

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