1) Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator
to force the Jews to abandon the laws of their ancestors and live no longer by
the laws of God,
COMMENTARY: “Athenian senator” could
also be translated as “Senator, the Athenian”, since Greeks did occasionally
name their sons “Senator” (“Geron”, to be precise.) In the days when American Black men were
never called men, but only boys for their whole lives, or by their first names
and never “Mister” anything, mothers would sometimes name their sons lofty things
like Judge, Dred, Regal, Rex, or Zealous, so that even when called by their
first names they would get at least a token of respect. So if this really was Geron the Athenian, I
can’t help but wonder if he was someone of less than noble birth whose mother
wanted more for him.
2) also to profane the temple in
Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus, and the one on Mount Gerizim to Zeus the Host to
Strangers, as the local inhabitants were wont to be.
COMMENTARY: Greeks held to a doctrine
that all religions around the world simply gave different names to the same
gods, and so it didn’t seem at all strange to them to say, “Oh, that
unpronounceable JVHV guy is another face of Zeus!” They didn’t so much think of themselves as
supplanting one god with another, as Hellenizing the worship of what they saw
as the same god. For that matter, they
also identified this as consecrating the temple to the Syrian Baal Shamen,
which means “Lord of Heaven” (many of the soldiers in the Seleucid army were
technically Syrian.) The Jews tauntingly
changed this to Shiqqus Shomen, which means “Desolating Abomination”.
3) This was a harsh and utterly
COMMENTARY: Believing the Jews to be in
rebellion, the Seleucids attributed this to nationalism, identifying as
something other than a good citizen of a quasi-Greek empire. (Eventually, of course, punishing them for a
nonexistent rebellion made the rebellion real.
What did the Jews have to lose?)
It seemed logical to the Greeks to push the assimilation, which had
already begun spontaneously, by adding royal decrees backed by bloody reprisals
for the noncompliant.
However, when people voluntarily assimilated, it merely caused embarrassment
and shaking heads among those who didn’t.
With the complete defection of several high priests in a row, the
distinctive Jewish religion could well have faded to nothing in a few
generations, with perhaps a few hold-outs in the hills, helpless and harmless
in their isolation. But when you
actively, overtly seek to destroy something, by law and by brute force, those
to whom that something belongs suddenly remember why they valued it, and leap
to its defense.
4) The Gentiles filled the temple with
debauchery and revelry; they amused themselves with prostitutes and had
intercourse with women even in the sacred courts. They also brought forbidden
things into the temple,
COMMENTARY: Temple prostitutes, in the
Canaanite tradition, exchanged sexual favors for donations to the temple
coffers, performed religious dances, and conducted sexual rituals. The words for temple prostitutes (Kedesha for
a women, Kadesh for a man) literally meant “holy woman” or “holy man” and was
not the same as “Zonah” a word applied equally to a woman who had sex for money
or who was simply promiscuous, equivalent to our word, “whore”. I don’t know which word is used here.
Though accepted in Canaanite tradition,
the Bible forbade such prostitutes in the Jewish Temple, in Deuteronomy 23:17:
“None of the daughters of Israel shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a kadesh.” (Since later translators
used the word “sodomite” for “kadesh”, some scholars have suggested that this
was where the ban on homosexuality originated.)
Despite this Biblical ban, sacred prostitutes did at some point enter into the
Temple of Jerusalem during the years when Israelite Kings encouraged mixing
Judaism with Canaanite deities and practices.
The law for a time had been “lost”.
Under King Josiah, however, the High Priest Hilkiah discovered a book of
the law forgotten in the Temple and instituted reforms accordingly,
specifically listing an end to temple prostitution among them.
The ancient Greeks had hetairas or hierodoulos, which
most likely referred to slave women freed in order to serve as Temple
prostitutes to Aphrodite, if one could call that freedom. So they would have seen nothing wrong with
this, but they probably didn’t come up with the idea of instituting this in
Jerusalem all by themselves, since the hetairas didn’t work in Zeus’s
temple. They did, however, serve in
Baal’s. So ironically, this supposed contribution
to Hellenization probably came from those Syrian soldiers working for the
5) so that the altar was covered with
abominable offerings prohibited by the laws.
previous verse prefaces this with “They also brought forbidden things into the
temple,”) Other sources mention the
sacrifice of a pig on the altar. Jews
aren’t even supposed to touch pigs. So
they mean non-kosher sacrifices.
6) No one could keep the sabbath or
celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit to being a Jew.
COMMENTARY: One thing colonizers never
fail to attack, in forcing the assimilation of a people, is to demand that they
work on days when work is forbidden, to make the material demands of the
conqueror more important than what is sacred.
Sanctity is a big pain to bosses!
They want to be the only gods that those who work for them must obey.
(Yaquis have difficulty with this to this day, in trying to get time off work
to perform sacred duties in the Lenten/Easter Ceremonies. Some employers will give them “cultural
leave” but others will penalize them.)
To better understand why the concept of Sabbaths matters, despite the demands
of the material world, consider that Judaism’s earliest roots go back to the
Neolithic Revolution, preserved by word of mouth before the invention of
writing. The shift from hunter/gatherers
to farmers/herders came with appalling changes recorded in the skeletons that
people left behind, when overwork-related early arthritis and repetitive motion
injuries become the norm. The elegantly
carved Paleolithic stone mortars, for
grinding grain seasonally (left in grass-fields to return to at harvest-time in
the migration circuit) degenerated with the coming of civilization to mere
holes in rocks, and art and beauty for a time all but disappeared. It took punishing labor every day to feed
armies on the march and slaves in the fields year-round, in settlements where
you couldn’t simply change foraging-grounds when winter came. To this day we refer to the “daily grind” and
don’t realize that this is an ancient relic from the grueling work of beginning
each morning by arduously turning seeds into flour.
Then, only a little bit past the edge of historic times, Moses declared to his
band of escaped slaves that their God would require them to rest every seventh
day! What a lifesaver that must have
been! By socking away a little extra
flour six days a week, one could get a break and still feed the family. This ultimately made for a stronger,
healthier population—and one with time for spiritual scholarship to spread
beyond the elite. Studying and
discussing theology became the favorite Sabbath occupation.
(It’s worth noting that eventually the assimilation went the other way. The Romans, in time, came to declare that
everybody, not just Jews, should get one day a week off from work, and the
people enthusiastically concurred.)
We need some time set aside as sacred.
If you cede this to anyone who thinks that making you do their work
should count for more than anything you hold holy, they will stop at nothing to
exploit you and your life will become a soul-crushing grind.
7) Moreover, at the monthly celebration
of the king’s birthday the Jews, from bitter necessity, had to partake of the
sacrifices, and when the festival of Dionysus was celebrated, they were compelled to march in his
procession, wearing wreaths of ivy.
COMMENTARY: Greeks used ivy as a symbol
of Dionysus. When you have no other
clues, you can tell which Greek god a sculpture depicts by the wreath on his
head: ivy for Dionysus, oak for Zeus, laurel for Apollo, etc.
Earlier we mentioned athletic young assimilados
wearing Mercury’s hat voluntarily. Given
a few generations left as is, you probably would have had Hebrews marching in
ivy for Dionysus all by themselves.
Forcing them at sword-point, however, made them feel the sacrilege
acutely—weren’t they supposed to be a people consecrated to a jealous God?
8) Following upon a vote of the citizens
of Ptolemais, a decree was issued ordering the neighboring Greek cities to
adopt the same measures, obliging the Jews to partake of the sacrifices
COMMENTARY: “Citizens” in those days
meant only an elite. If you came from an
aristocratic bloodline, you were in. If
you were a slave, even a freed slave, you were not, but your children might be,
if you could buy them land. If you were
of a subject people, you could buy your way in to citizenship, but not cheaply
or easily. Thus few if any of the Jews
in Ptolemais could vote on this.
In the New Testament, St. Paul had obtained a Roman citizenship. When apprehended for blasphemy in Jerusalem
(allegedly for bringing a non-Jew with him into the Temple) he played the
citizenship card and had his trial moved to Rome where he hoped to get a fair
hearing. After two years in prison he
spent two years under house arrest, still teaching, and still not tried. Martyrology says that he died by decapitation—a
citizen’s right and a much quicker execution than crucifixion or other means
popular at the time. Citizenship brought
a lot of advantages if you could get it!
9) and putting to death those who would
not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks. It was obvious, therefore, that
disaster had come upon them.
COMMENTARY: An interesting choice of
words, “obvious”. One feels tempted to
say, “Well, obviously!” But the
implication here is that they’d been in a state of disaster for some time, but
only violence and oppression made it recognizable.
10) Thus, two women who were arrested for
having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with
their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the
COMMENTARY: 1 Maccabees also mentioned
this, but more ambiguously saying just “women” instead of “two women”, which
made it sound like lots and lots of unfortunate mothers. Even so, two women is two too many.
11) Others, who had assembled in nearby
caves to observe the seventh day in secret, were betrayed to Philip and all
burned to death. In their respect for the holiness of that day, they refrained
from defending themselves.
COMMENTARY: I used to think it odd, at a
Yaqui mission church, that the older women sat in the front of the church while
their husbands sat near the door. Then I
found out that on several occasions Yaquis and allies had been trapped inside
churches burned down around them, so I could see where the custom came from!
You will recall, from our study of 1 Maccabees that at this point the Maccabee
brothers decided that they would make an exception to the Sabbath rule in cases
12) Now I urge those who read this book not to be
disheartened by these misfortunes, but to consider that these punishments were
meant not for the ruin but for the correction of our nation.
COMMENTARY: Remember, the author’s
writing to Egyptian Jews who are starting to face oppression that until
recently they’d escaped. His original
purpose is to assure them of divine protection for those who please God.
13) It is, in fact, a sign of great
kindness to punish the impious promptly instead of letting them go for long.
COMMENTARY: “Punish” in the sense of not
bailing people out of the consequences of their bad choices. The enabled can get themselves in far worse
trouble if they don’t suffer early on.
in dealing with other nations, the Sovereign Lord patiently waits until they
reach the full measure of their sins before punishing them; but with us he has
decided to deal differently, 15) in
order that he may not have to punish us later, when our sins have reached their
COMMENTARY: The ultimate punishment—or bad
consequence, depending upon how you look at it—was annihilation. To have no afterlife, or no progeny, or no
memorial, or no identity.
And the Jews of this generation faced precisely that
danger. Had they not faced persecution
for their faith, it could well have disintegrated from their own neglect. When I read 1 Maccabees, I thought of the
Hellenized Greeks as merely exercising a different preference; I hadn’t known,
then, that the High Priests themselves were actively undermining the
religion. Without a powerful wake-up
call, how could Judaism have survived the scandal?
(Scandal, by the Catholic definition, does not mean titillatingly naughty
celebrity behavior. It means behavior
that leads others astray besides oneself.
Ordering your child to steal for you, spiking the drink of someone who
wants to stay sober, egging someone on in beating up the unpopular, or teaching
racism are all scandals. Jason and the
other fallen priests set out deliberately to dismantle the religion and culture
that they were entrusted to teach and protect.)
16) Therefore he never withdraws his mercy
from us. Although he disciplines us with misfortunes, he does not abandon his
COMMENTARY: Where are the cultures now
that threatened Judea or Israel? All
that we know of them comes from archaeology and history books. Who has passed on a living culture from
mother to child for generations? Some do
indeed revive some of the aspects of their ancient ways, from fragments, but as
a replica, with different meanings, purged of the destructive parts. They have not grown organically from the
original roots. They are clones, with
different, newer histories.
And where are the Jews today? Still
teaching, in the original language, in synagogues and shuls, through generations
of continuity, despite the most horrific genocidal attacks in history. The religion and the culture has changed and
adapted, yet still springs from the same root that it has always had,
And yes, I am aware that Christians have by no means been least in persecuting
Jews. I say that with trembling in my
heart. Ironically, we might be spared
annihilation only because of the kinship between us with those we have
attacked, but we must expect consequences.
Some have already come down.
17) Let these words suffice for recalling this truth.
Without further ado we must go on with our story.
COMMENTARY: The author does not digress
as often as I do, so I can’t fault him or her for it.
Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble
appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.
COMMENTARY: And what, specifically, is a
“noble appearance”? Whatever you want to
imagine. The point is to visualize
Eleazar as somebody you would admire.
Thus begins one of the earliest martyrologies in the Judaeo-Christian
heritage. As such it must be considered
as an art form, part fact and part fiction, like a docudrama, illustrating real
people and real situations in a way more concerned with capturing the attention
and inspiring the soul than in meeting a bar of precision not to be raised for
19) But preferring a glorious death to a
life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of
torture, 20) spitting out the meat as they should do who have the
courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.
COMMENTARY: It may seem strange to us to
prefer torture to breaking a food taboo, when later the Maccabees would break
seemingly much more serious laws on a regular basis. But the key here is the words “life of
defilement”. From the perspective of the
original audience, one must sometimes, of necessity, touch unclean things, but
then one washes one’s hands, and if it’s unclean on a spiritual level, perform
the necessary ritual ablutions. But if
one eats something forbidden, it’s part of your body. Part of you is now pig.
In the Catholic perspective, this was answered by Jesus
saying that it is not what goes into one’s mouth that makes one unclean, but
what comes out of it. On top of that St.
Peter had a vision where God showed him all manner of ritually unclean
creatures and said that nothing He created was truly unclean (symbolically paving
the way to accept non-Jewish converts far more than spreading the news that ham
was now on the menu.) However, the story
still mattered tremendously to the early Church, as it underlined, to them, the
importance of obeying even seemingly small religious rules.
21) Those in charge of that unlawful
sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and
privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat,
and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king.
COMMENTARY: Interesting—so this was the
meat of a sacrifice! That puts what the
unclean things offered on the altar were, beyond any doubt.
22) Thus he would escape death, and be
treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.
COMMENTARY: It’s touching to me that,
initially at least, the rank and file could bend over backwards for the sake of
a sweet old man, and were not as doctrinaire as their leaders.
23) But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of
his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray
hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to
the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!”
COMMENTARY: I can see both sides of
this. I can appreciate Eleazar needing
to follow his conscience. I can also
feel the growing frustration of the soldiers who were really trying to accommodate
him, or at least believed they were.
24) “At our age it would be unbecoming to
make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar
had gone over to an alien religion. 25)
If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they
would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my
COMMENTARY: And here is why I see
Eleazar’s side. He might be clean of the
impurity of eating pork, but he would be stained by scandal, contaminated by
the misguided deeds of everyone who followed his seeming example. The helpful soldiers were, in fact, trying to
offer him a painless way to become a part of their government’s propaganda
machine. And that wasn’t good enough.
26) Even if, for the time being, I avoid
human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the
COMMENTARY: This opens up,
theologically, the possibility of post-death punishment, something more than
27) Therefore, by bravely giving up life
now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
COMMENTARY: He makes the argument that
he will not live long in any case, so it would be particularly cowardly to fear
martyrdom when one will soon die no matter what one chooses.
28) and I will leave to the young a noble example of how
to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.”
thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture.
COMMENTARY: The elders have a duty not
only to teach the young the fruit of their experience by words, but also by example—something
far more meaningful.
29) Those who shortly before had been
kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed
to them utter madness.
COMMENTARY: And that is so human! I sympathize, I really do! I’ve been there. So often, when we try to do something for
somebody else, and they will have none of it, we fly into a rage! We call them ingrates, we tell them all the
trouble we went through and they’re just throwing it away and we feel so unappreciated.
But were we really out to help them, or help our own egos? How often we expect gratitude for what nobody
asked of us! And how often we try to
perform “good deeds” without the goal actually being the welfare of the other
person, but rather to seem generous to ourselves and anyone else who gets a
chance to witness. Because if we really
had the well-being of the other person as the first priority, we’d be content
with them not wanting what we offered.
And what of those times, whether in arrogance or in truth, when we believe that
we know what’s best for the other person if only we can force them to accept
our help? Even if that were absolutely
true (and it often isn’t) we would accomplish nothing by forcing unwanted help
except to taint the most prudent course with a loss of freedom, making prudence
The soldiers wanted, with all their hearts, to believe that they were being
kind, and so do we, so many times we do!
But if we lash out at the “ingrate” if refused, that shows us how fake
our “kindness” really was.
30) When he was about to die under the
blows, he groaned, saying: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well
that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain
in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul
because of my devotion to him.”
COMMENTARY: Nobody in the intended
audience would actually believe that the old man could make speeches while
being tortured to death, anymore than they would believe that lovers in a
ballad spontaneously addressed each other in rhyme. They accepted this as a literary convention,
continued long after in the martyrologies of Catholicism. It’s a way to convey the thoughts that could
get a person to endure torture and death for a worthy cause, which is the whole
point of telling the story.
31) This is how he died, leaving in his
death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for
the young but for the whole nation.
And that’s the bottom line for this tale within a tale: What example do we set for others by our