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
piņatas 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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.