Chapter 6

2 Maccabees 6:

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 intolerable evil.

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 Greeks.



5) so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws.


COMMENTARY:  (The 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 city wall.

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 of self-defense.



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.



14) Thus, 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 fullness.

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 own people.

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, uninterrupted.

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.



18) 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 centuries.



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 old age.

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 Almighty.

COMMENTARY:  This opens up, theologically, the possibility of post-death punishment, something more than extinguishment.



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.”

He spoke 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 detestable.

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.


COMMENTARY:  And that’s the bottom line for this tale within a tale:  What example do we set for others by our choices?

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