Chapter 7

2 Maccabees 7:

2 Maccabees 7:

1) It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.

COMMENTARY:  These couldn’t have been Jews in Judea, because the king wasn’t there.  But by this point in history people had established much better roads than in the centuries before, built either by the Romans or in response to them.  Because of the advantage in being able to get your army faster somewhere than your enemy could reckon on, Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa had gotten swept up in a kind of logistical arms race as to who could build the best roads to the most places within their kingdoms and beyond.  As a bonus, the travel of merchants and tradesmen became much more fluid than formerly, so you could now find people of many ethnicities far from their nations of origin, including Jews.  The world had changed much since Tobit’s day, when going to a different city in the same country would make your mother weep, wondering if she would ever see you again.


It angers me that we human beings, throughout history, feel so much hatred for those who do things differently from us in harmless ways.  How did it hurt King Antiochus if people of a certain nation ate no pork?  What do we care if a woman of a different religion covers her head in fabric?  If it matters a great deal to the ones who do these things or abstain from them, let them do or not do what makes no impact on the rest of us.


It doesn’t even require a difference of religion to stir up hostility.  When I was young, in the sixties, teen boys would get beaten up by grown men, who should have known better, for wearing long hair.  Someone I know was even raped at the age of twelve as punishment for his shoulder-length locks.  (The sailors who accosted him told him, “You look like a girl—we’re going to show you what happens to girls!”)  There are so many societally harmful things that we could put more energy into stopping, if we didn’t waste energy on beating, torturing, raping and murdering each other over what affects nobody but the people doing it themselves.

Sure, the King made the argument that Jewish nonassimilation made them dangerous—the same argument Hitler made to justify murdering millions.  But the argument didn’t end with the Third Reich, more’s the pity, nor is it confined to Jews.  Allegations of refusal to assimilate have been aimed against every immigration wave to ever crash on the shores of the USA, including the current Hispanic migrations.  Newsflash: No White, Black, or Asian people in my childhood neighborhood ever died because their Hispanic neighbors spoke Spanish to each other, had pi´┐Żatas at birthday parties or served tostadas for lunch.


For the record, the difference between a whip and a scourge is that a scourge has multiple lashes attached to a wooden handle, whereas a whip is just one long lash.  The writer was not being repetitive.



2) One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

COMMENTARY:  So the scourging was part of an interrogation, apparently, if it involved questions.  King Antiochus seems to have assumed that anyone who abstains from pork would be informed of plots against him.



3) At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated. 4) These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on.

COMMENTARY:  Of all the abuses of the great human gift of imagination, the worst is our creativity in finding horrible new ways to torment each other.  Is this the best we can do with the privilege of having been created in the image of a Creator?



5) When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, with these words: 6) “The Lord God is looking on and truly has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song, when he openly bore witness, saying, ‘And God will have compassion on his servants.’”

COMMENTARY:  This can only make sense if one believes in an afterlife.  I have had some people challenge me for bracing for various worst-case scenarios instead of acting like God’s going to fix everything up nice and cozy for me, no matter what, and they will ask me, “Where’s your faith?”  But my faith sure isn’t in this world!  In this existence bad things happen to good people all the time.  It is the only way that we can develop the rare beauty of courage.  I believe that we spend time in this suffering life to learn courage and other beautiful traits that couldn’t possibly develop in a perfect world.  Heaven is nice, but incomplete without the breathtaking beauty of courage; it’s our job to finish Heaven by bringing such hard-won lessons with us.

Each brother teaches a lesson for the Egyptian Jews in theological developments that have taken place since their separation.  The first lesson is that God has compassion beyond the grave.



7) After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, “Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?” 8) Answering in the language of his ancestors, he said, “Never!” So he in turn suffered the same tortures as the first.

COMMENTARY:  When will bullies learn that the more you torment people, the less they want to do anything that pleases you?  Refusing to speak Greek and answering instead in Hebrew added another level of defiance.

Keep in mind that many of the Egyptian Jews had forgotten the Hebrew language (hence writing to them in Greek.)  Many Jews to this day believe that every translation of scripture loses important nuances.



9) With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”

COMMENTARY:  This verse played a crucial role in developing the Catholic Church’s doctrine of the resurrection of the body.  One could also interpret it as a belief in endless reincarnation as a reward for a well-lived life, which some Jews believe, differing from the Buddhist belief in reincarnation as a karmic punishment.  But whether a profession of resurrection or reincarnation, the concept remains, “With God on my side, you can’t really kill me!”  War is all about morale.  No matter what advantages you have on your side, you cannot permanently defeat those who believe themselves immortal.


The lesson of the second brother, therefore, is that those who please God, even if they die, will have eternal life.



10) After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands, 11) as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.”

COMMENTARY:  Never mind trying to figure out how this fellow could make such a speech while sticking out his tongue to be cut off.  The point is to the third brother’s message:  That everything we own, even our bodies, comes from God, may be required back at any time, and may be restored if God wills.



12) Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.  13) After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.

COMMENTARY:  It’s not enough to feel deeply moved by another, if those emotions don’t change your behavior.



14) When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

COMMENTARY:  Because even when they admired the brother, they didn’t stop repeating the same old insanity.  The lesson of the fourth brother is that your own choices determine whether you receive eternal life or destruction.



15) They next brought forward the fifth brother and maltreated him. 16) Looking at the king, he said: “Mortal though you are, you have power over human beings, so you do what you please. But do not think that our nation is forsaken by God. 17) Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.”


COMMENTARY:  The fifth brother’s lesson is that God is above kings and other powerful human beings.  Which ought to go without saying but never does.



18) After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such shocking things have happened. 19) Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.”

COMMENTARY:   Again, the punishment was not an active smiting but a tough-love withdrawal of protection, so that Judea might understand the consequences of her own choices.  The lesson of the sixth brother is that consequences for sin do not mean abandonment by God.



20) Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord.

COMMENTARY:  This gets into the debate about the parental instinct to preserve one’s child.  This mother is not shrugging off a desire for her children to survive, but “because of her hope in the Lord” she’s fighting for her children’s spiritual survival in the afterlife.  It is madness to those who don’t believe in an afterlife, or who don’t believe that pork would damn you, but it mattered to her.


Belief in this scripture shaped the life of many people around the world in recent times.  Once upon a time, early in the 20th century, there lived a mother, a convert to Catholicism, who contracted diabetes at a time when she was also impoverished by widowhood, in an era where there were not many opportunities for a single mother.  Her wealthy family offered to support her if only she would convert back to Protestantism.  She refused.  One of the first things converts to Catholicism do is read the Deuterocanonical books, curious to see what they might have missed.  She read about a mother going to extremes to maintain religious integrity, for the sake of her children’s souls, and she strove to emulate this example.


In the days before insulin injections, a diabetic faced a shortened life, but she could extend it by years if she derived her calories only from protein and fat.  She might at least have lived long enough to see her son reach his teens, maybe even adulthood.  Wealthy people in those days served meat or eggs and butter at every meal.  Poor people lived mainly on bread and beans—too carbohydrate-rich a diet for a diabetic to digest, and in fact it would poison her.  Diabetics without access to a diet based on animal products would quickly become emaciated, covered with unhealing, infected sores, go blind, and often lose extremities, before dying.


Her son watched it all, before becoming an orphan, shuffled from house to house in a family that despised his religion, before finally clearing the legal hurdles that enabled him to be raised by the priest his mother had wanted to take charge of him.  He had a miserable childhood.  Some might say that his mother failed him.


But then he grew up to be a writer.  He wrote about courage and sacrifice for purposes beyond the obvious utilitarian value of survival.  He inspired people all over the world, because his mother inspired him.  There were some things worth dying for.  Without the example of his mother, JRR Tolkien might have written very different books, with a much weaker message.



21) Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words:

COMMENTARY:  That’s right, Middle Eastern gender stereotypes are often opposite to those of Western culture.  Reason is there considered effeminate, while emotion explodes with machismo.  This has caused no end of cross-cultural misunderstandings, some of them fatal, illustrating yet another reason why we need to take anthropology more seriously than we do.


Regarding the last part, “the language of their ancestors” is of course Hebrew.  The writer now demonstrates, to these Greek-speaking Egyptians, that not only is it good culturally for Jews to learn Hebrew, but also it enables them to keep secrets from those who threaten them.



22) “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of.

COMMENTARY:  Its a surprise to many to discover that knowledge of the particulars about how conception takes place is only a few centuries old.  By the time of this book’s writing they did know that the process involved sex, and probably semen, and usually required a womb as a place to develop, but that was about it.  They didn’t, for instance, know about ovum.

Yet this is about more than the mechanics of pregnancy.  This is about its unconscious, organic nature.  Even today no woman sets about pregnancy as a task in construction.  At most she might be careful about what she eats.  But she doesn’t think, “Now I will fashion a left and a right foot, now I will fashion the eyes.”


So who does?  Her answer is God.  Even today, the science-trusting believer, who knows about DNA, would say that God created DNA and had some say as to which combination came to pass in a conception.



23)Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”

COMMENTARY:  If God made life before, God can make it again.  Once more, these words fit equally well with physical resurrection or reincarnation.



24) Antiochus, suspecting insult in her words, thought he was being ridiculed. As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.

COMMENTARY:  That’s the down side of speaking a language that others around you don’t know—they leap to conclusions, often nasty ones.

Antiochus thinks that offering a bribe as a counterpoint to the threat will make a difference.  In some cases it would.  But when you’ve just tortured to death a boy’s six brothers right in front of him he won’t be in the mood.  What a witless thing to say, that he could make the lad “happy”, while his family’s blood still sizzles in the pan!



25) When the youth paid no attention to him at all, the king appealed to the mother, urging her to advise her boy to save his life.

COMMENTARY:  I’m getting the impression that Antiochus is having a harder time torturing a child than he did young men and teenagers.  And he’s hoping that the mother shares his instincts.  But she shares a different version.



26) After he had urged her for a long time, she agreed to persuade her son.

COMMENTARY:  That long time does indeed indicate to me reluctance, maybe even remorse.  But he has set a pattern and he can’t see himself breaking it without losing face.  That is the trap so many of us fall into!  We hate so much to admit that we were wrong.



27) She leaned over close to him and, in derision of the cruel tyrant, said in their native language: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.

COMMENTARY:  In parody she opens with what probably was the script that her tormentor suggested.



28) I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence.

COMMENTARY:  This is the basis for the Catholic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—the belief that God created without prior raw materials.  The doctrinal implication is that we owe everything to God.


Does that include evil?  No.  As the devil is not a creator and has severed all connection with the Creator, he cannot create—he can only twist, mutilate and destroy what God has created.  Bad things are perversions of good things.



29) Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”

COMMENTARY:  A reunion in the afterlife, whatever form it might take, by Jewish belief could only take place if all parties were on the same page of righteousness.



30) She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses.

COMMENTARY:  Here begins a very long speech for a young boy, the gist of which he sums up here at the beginning.  The rest involves the “why” behind his decision.  The writer has no doubt elaborated on the boy’s last words for our edification, so the point is to focus on the intended edifying rather than the improbability of such a speech.



31) But you, who have contrived every kind of evil for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God. 32) We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins. 33) Though for a little while our living Lord has been angry, correcting and chastising us, he will again be reconciled with his servants. 34) But you, wretch, most vile of mortals, do not, in your insolence, buoy yourself up with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of heaven. 35) You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty and all-seeing God.

COMMENTARY:  Here he invokes prophecy, from Jeremiah and others, that even if God allows a nation to crush the Israelites as a punishment, He will then punish them for doing the crushing.


Is this fair?  You might well ask.  It is if God didn’t goad anybody into doing wrong, but simply stepped out of their way for a time, then stepped back in the way.



36) Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance.

COMMENTARY:  A precursor to Christ’s metaphor of the Living Water.



37) Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God. 38) Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

COMMENTARY:  The prophet Isaiah introduced the concept of people offering up their own suffering to remove the guilt of others.  And this is the lesson of the seventh brother.  Jesus took this as meaning that His own crucifixion would remove the guilt of the world, and this has become the core of Christianity.



39) At that, the king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt.

COMMENTARY:  He would have told himself, “I tried—Zeus knows I tried!” and so he would salve his conscience.  But it is no real mercy if we hate those who refuse our offers of help.  I see this today, every time somebody offers me the latest crackpot cure for fibromyalgia, whenever I politely decline after doing research into it, or even a good treatment if it involves something I’m allergic to or otherwise cannot use.  I see this in the rage directed at the mentally ill who “refuse to take their meds” without consideration of the terrible and dehumanizing side effects that many of those medications carry, and how it’s a really difficult decision as to whether or not the cure is worse than the disease for any given individual.  I see this anger at the addict who is not yet in the necessary frame of mind to take on the challenging steps towards sobriety, as well as anger at the battered wife too crushed to leave her man.  Anger great enough to deny food to a diabetic who refuses to change her religion to what her family thinks is best to her, anger enough to kill.

If you feel angry at those who don’t take your advice, you’re not giving it out of love.  You’re giving it out of pride in being the adviser.



40) Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord.

COMMENTARY:  One could have said, “Thus he too died horribly” and it would be just as true.  But the relevant truth is that he died as the person he wanted to be: the boy who trusted in God rather than in kings.



41) Last of all, after her sons, the mother was put to death.

COMMENTARY:  At this point what else would they do?



42) Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties.


COMMENTARY:  I heartily agree!  Except that I have to say one last thing.  “Sacrificial meals” could also mean “burnt offerings”—gruesomely true in this case of skinned human beings cooked in skillets.  Another word for this is Holocaust.

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