2 Maccabees 8:
1) Judas Maccabeus and his companions entered the
villages secretly, summoned their kindred, and enlisted others who had remained
faithful to Judaism. Thus they assembled about six thousand men.
COMMENTARY: It’s a good strategy, to
start under the radar and recruit quietly, getting your numbers up before doing
anything rash. Right from the start they’re
2) They implored the Lord to look kindly
upon this people, who were being oppressed by all; to have pity on the
sanctuary, which was profaned by renegades;
COMMENTARY: Pity: To have compassion on an inferior, usually
assumed to suffer innocently, and to use one’s superiority in a way favorable
to this inferior. This establishes two
First, the sanctuary is God’s home base, not to be
mistaken, however holy, with God Himself.
It exists subordinate to God.
Second, the sanctuary, nevertheless, is a person,
innocent of the crimes committed within her, whose rights have been violated. One cannot have pity on something that has no
rights. One could have argued that the
writer uses “The Temple” as a symbol for the community, except that the very
next verse addresses the community separately.
Nor could it symbolize the priesthood, which earlier chapters have
established as totally corrupt. I can
only consider this another example of Biblical animism, for the first time (as
far as I know) applied to a manmade creation.
The concept of God’s superiority to the temple distinguishes this animism from
idolatry; it is the creation of a creation of a Creator, which it has pleased
God to invest in personhood, not a work of human hands treated like a god. As Tolkien said, we are made in the image of
a maker. We make, and we love what we
make. Art takes on a life of its own. And if we so love the work of our own hands, how
can God not love the work of His?
3) to have mercy on the city, which was
being destroyed and was about to be leveled to the ground; to listen to the
blood that cried out to him;
COMMENTARY: Mercy is distinct from
pity. Mercy means forgiveness for the
guilty, and deliverance from just punishment.
The city means both the people and the structures which they have built
for themselves, both that which is about to be leveled and that which
How can the structures
share in the sins of its people? Ancient
people didn’t have quite the same belief in absolute individualism that we do—While
they had some concept of personal responsibility, they mainly thought in collectives,
including the belief that the sins of the parents could and should be punished
in the child. Devout people built the
temple itself, but since then many wicked people had added onto, or torn down
and rebuilt, much of Jerusalem, adding in brothels, the controversial
gymnasium, shrines to competing deities and many other things not part of their
4) to remember the criminal slaughter of innocent
children and the blasphemies uttered against his name; and to manifest his
hatred of evil.
COMMENTARY: And here we have the first
buds of what would eventually evolve into our modern sense of individuality. Children, at least, could conceivably be
innocent of their parents’ faults.
This actually began centuries earlier, of course, but
such changes in consciousness take millenia to develop. The prophet Jeremiah set a precedent by
railing against the sacrifice of children to Moloch, and he prophesied that the
Babylonian captivity would result.
Historians have long wondered if such sacrifices were
slanderous inventions of enemies to Philistine culture. But that’s grounded in the error of thinking
that the ancients thought the way we do.
Recently archaeologists have found a mass graveyard of infants, on temple
grounds, burned and buried in a way consistent only with the rituals described.
If you think the way that most of the world thought at
that time, sacrificing your child to your deity made sense, as they were an
extension of yourself, and you yourself would only be one limb of your family,
and that family one finger of your community.
Self-sacrificing a part of yourself for the benefit of the whole would
seem like a noble and acceptable act.
But the Israelites have begun to explore the concept of individuality, that
babies are innocent and have an independent life of their own. That parents are guardians, not owners or
Others were slower on the uptake. Roman law, for instance, allowed the
patriarch of a familia (a unit that included both kin and subordinates) to kill
any other member of his own familia that he saw fit—be they pets, livestock,
slaves, servants, ex-slaves, employees, his own children, poor relations, the
children of his slaves or his wife.
There were two kinds of marriage: one in which a bride’s father ceded
this right to her husband, and one in which he kept the right to himself,
taking the groom into his own familia. The
very concept of “familia” meant “the people who belong to me”. And the Romans founded their entire society
on this concept—an individual patriarch headed a private familia, which
belonged to the larger familia of the city and its surrounding countryside, which
belonged to its country, which belonged to the empire. Everybody belonged to somebody.
Maccabeus got his men organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the
Lord’s wrath had now changed to mercy. 6) Coming
by surprise upon towns and villages, he set them on fire. He captured strategic
positions, and put to flight not a few of the enemy.
COMMENTARY: This might seem like a
pretty strange example of wrath changing to mercy! But the wrath of God here means turning His
back in disgust to let His people suffer the consequences of their own folly,
and his mercy means facing them again to fish them out.
7) He preferred the nights as being especially favorable
for such attacks. Soon talk of his valor spread everywhere.
COMMENTARY: So did Che Guevara, and he
recommended it in his guidebook on guerilla warfare. And that is exactly what kind of warfare
Judas engages in. Guevara was raised
Catholic; I wonder how much of his strategy he learned from the books of the
Maccabees? I see some interesting
8) When Philip saw that Judas was gaining ground little
by little and that his successful advances were becoming more frequent, he
wrote to Ptolemy, governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia, to come to the aid of
the king’s interests. 9) Ptolemy
promptly selected Nicanor, son of Patroclus, one of the Chief Friends, and sent
him at the head of at least twenty thousand armed men of various nations to
wipe out the entire Jewish nation. With him he associated Gorgias, a general,
experienced in the art of war.
COMMENTARY: All this we covered before
in 1 Maccabees.
10) Nicanor planned to raise the two
thousand talents of tribute owed by the king to the Romans by selling captured Jews into slavery.
COMMENTARY: King Antiochus owed this to
Rome due to the Treaty of Apamea, after losing the Battle of Thermopylae, the
Battle of Magnesia, and various naval battles.
As a result the Seleucid Empire had to quit all claims to Europe, and
all of Asia west of the Taurus Mountains.
Antiochus had to surrender all prisoners and deserters to Rome. Plus, he
could neither hire mercenaries from Roman territories nor harbor Roman
fugitives. He had to send twenty
hostages to Rome, selected not by him but by the Roman Consul, and 19 of them
would be changed for new hostages every three years (long enough to Romanize
them) the 20th being his son, who became their hostage for as long
as they saw fit. The treaty also banned
him from owning elephants. And he had to
surrender to Eumenes II, the King of Pergamom, whatever possessions he had left
that he had acquired by his agreement with Attalus I, Eumenes’ father.
And, relevant to this discussion, he had to pay back
to Rome the cost that they’d incurred in defeating him. He had to make a down-payment of 500 Euboic
Talents, 2,500 more with the ratification of the treaty, and 1,000 a year for
Hellenistic nations understood such treaties to be
binding for the lifetime of the king who made them. Heirs did not have to abide by treaties
signed by their predecessors, however.
This will matter later. There
will be elephants.
11) So he immediately sent word to the
coastal cities, inviting them to buy Jewish slaves and promising to deliver
ninety slaves for a talent—little
anticipating the punishment that was to fall upon him from the Almighty.
COMMENTARY: Ninety slaves for a talent
is a ridiculously low price by market values at the time, thereby undercutting
anybody else in the slave market.
Antiochus needed quick cash. It
also showed his contempt for Judea.
12) When Judas learned of Nicanor’s
advance and informed his companions about the approach of the army, 13) those who were fearful and those who
lacked faith in God’s justice deserted and got away.
COMMENTARY: The other version said that
Judas dismissed them. Maybe he dismissed
them after the fact, “making a virtue of necessity”, as my grandmother would
14) But the others sold everything they
had left, and at the same time entreated the Lord to deliver those whom the
ungodly Nicanor had sold before even capturing them.
COMMENTARY: They liquidated assets that
they were not going to be able to enjoy any time soon, and might never enjoy
again. Antiochus was not the only one in
need of quick cash. As for selling
pre-captured slaves, the futures-market has always been a risky business.
15) They entreated the Lord to do this, if
not for their sake, at least for the sake of the covenants made with their
ancestors, and because they themselves invoked his holy and glorious name.
COMMENTARY: As we will see later, not
all of the forces marching behind Judas followed the strict Jewish ban on
worshiping competing deities, and were in no position to ask God’s aid as a
reward for the purity of their devotion.
But they were turning to Him now, and hoped that this would be enough.
16) Maccabeus assembled his forces, six
thousand strong, and exhorted them not to be panic-stricken before the enemy,
nor to fear the very large number of Gentiles unjustly attacking them, but to
fight nobly. 17) They were to keep
before their eyes the lawless outrage perpetrated by the Gentiles against the
holy place and the affliction of the humiliated city, as well as the subversion
of their ancestral way of life.
COMMENTARY: If you can’t hearten your
followers by the strength of their position, you have to hearten them by the
rightness of their cause.
18) He said, “They trust in weapons and
acts of daring, but we trust in almighty God, who can by a mere nod destroy not
only those who attack us but even the whole world.”
COMMENTARY: It helps believers, in
desperate circumstances, to remember that God can do anything. This in turn can open up another can of worms—if
God is indeed all-powerful, why is there so much suffering? The answer commonly given is that God has
forbidden Himself to interfere with free will.
We, judgmental as we are, without the resources to judge fairly, like to assume
that this means anyone who suffers deserves it—that way we can convince
ourselves that if we do everything right, what has befallen our neighbor will
not befall us. That simply is not
true. A long history of martyrdom shows
that God doesn’t work that way, but we keep clinging to the idea that if we
could just manage to be perfect no bad thing would ever befall us. I’m sure those who jeered at Christ on the
cross thought so.
A better answer is Job’s: we don’t know God’s plan. We can’t.
The mind that could create the entire universe encompasses things that
we can’t begin to fathom.
One thing for sure, though, not every misfortune is a
punishment. Sometimes it involves other
people exercising their free will badly and we get caught in the mess that they
create. Why, for instance did the
Holocaust happen? Because in a world of
free will, sooner or later someone will do their worst. But we must not also ignore how many more
people, throughout history, have tried to see just how good they could be.
More often, it has been my experience that many seeming tragedies carry hidden blessings. My narcolepsy, for instance, has driven me
into dreamwork. I have fibromyalgia, and
it has pushed me deep into the mysteries of offering up my pain to pull pain
off of others.
Sometimes people suffer a little while so that they might be healed. Jesus spoke of this when healing the man
blind from birth—he wasn’t blind for any sin, either of his own or his parents,
but so that he could demonstrate God’s ability to heal.
Sometimes there is no answer in our grasp, easy or
hard. JRR Tolkien, that man of deep
faith, wrote of two kinds of hope. One
is the simple hope of getting a desire met:
“I hope that the doctor can cure my disease.” The other is a higher hope, a trust that God
knows what He’s doing, whether it works out the way we want or not. “I hope that whatever God intends to come of my
disease will unfold as it’s supposed to.”
Judas invokes this second kind of hope to encourage his warriors. Whatever might come to pass in the coming
battle, it will go as God wills. They
simply have to do their best to be a part of that.
19) He went on to tell them of the times
when help had been given their ancestors: both the time of Sennacherib, when a
hundred and eighty-five thousand of his men perished,
COMMENTARY: He’s referring to 2 Kings
19:35, when the Israelites found the camp of a seemingly unbeatable enemy
abandoned, full of 185,00 corpses, with the survivors in retreat. There could well be any number of natural
explanations, but one could also expect a Creator to prefer using His creation
to effect His will rather than going against it. We want God always to work in miracles for
the sake of our doubts, but why should He?
Part of our fall, I think, is that we dismiss too much as “only”
natural, ignoring where nature comes from.
And yes, I do believe in miracles. I have seen miracles. I just don’t consider them requisite for my
20) and the time of the battle in
Babylonia against the Galatians,* when
only eight thousand Jews fought along with four thousand Macedonians; yet when
the Macedonians were hard pressed, the eight thousand, by the help they
received from Heaven, destroyed one hundred and twenty thousand and took a
great quantity of spoils.
COMMENTARY: Historians only know about
this battle that the Galatians were apparently mercenaries, but haven’t placed
which battle they fought in. Since we
have no date, the Macedonians might have been Alexander’s forces defending the
eastern seat of their empire, and the Jews acting as part of that empire, or
they might have been mercenaries, themselves.
The thing is, not all histories mention which part of an army were mercenaries
and from where.
Whatever the case, the battle had a place in Jewish oral folklore, enough that
it meant something to the Judeans. The
tale probably did not survive among the Egyptian Jews, however, because the
writer goes into more detail about it than the prior example.
these words he encouraged them and made them ready to die for their laws and
Then Judas divided his
army into four,
COMMENTARY: Good battle strategy. A divided force under separate generals has
more flexibility on the battlefield than a great single force trying to follow
the orders of one man, with no better means of communication than distant horns
It’s a proverb among soldiers that “All battle plans
fall apart in the first four minutes of engagement.” Memorizing a single commander’s orders won’t
work. You start out with the best strategy
you can, and then improvise as you go when reality smashes it to bits. Hopefully, one of the contingency-plans you
made fits the new scenario. If not,
well, there’s a reason why poets had the best odds of survival in combat
situations during the Viet Nam war, when the U.S. military made a survey of
draftees and their survival-rates to see which background most suited a
22) placing his brothers, Simon, Joseph, and Jonathan, each over a division, assigning them fifteen hundred men apiece.
COMMENTARY: In 1 Maccabees “Joseph” was
called “John”. Maybe this writer wanted
to prevent the reader from confusing him with Jonathan and took a bit of a
23) There was also Eleazar. After reading to them from the holy book and giving
them the watchword, “The help of God,” Judas himself took charge of the first
division and joined in battle with Nicanor.
COMMENTARY: Eleazar, whose chief claim
to fame was slaying an elephant and dying in the same battle, was no doubt a
courageous warrior, but probably not as strategically minded as his brothers.
And why give command positions to his brothers rather than choosing someone by
his merits? Non-hereditary postings were
a rarity and hard for the ancient mind to wrap their heads around. At best a leader picked the likeliest
candidates in the designated family. In
fact merit-promotions with complete disregard for bloodline was the innovation
that made Ghengis Khan an unstoppable force, centuries later.
24) With the Almighty as their ally, they killed more than
nine thousand of the enemy, wounded and disabled the greater part of Nicanor’s
army, and put all of them to flight.
COMMENTARY: Wounding meant a lot more in
an age without any idea of where infections came from.
25) They also seized the money of those
who had come to buy them as slaves. When they had pursued the enemy for some
time, they were obliged to return by reason of the late hour.
COMMENTARY: So now Judas can buy arms
and armor for his men, and deprive Antiochus of much-needed funds besides.
26) It was the day before the sabbath, and
for that reason they could not continue the pursuit.
COMMENTARY: This was before they decided
that the Sabbath didn’t apply to warfare, apparently.
27) They collected the enemy’s weapons and
stripped them of their spoils, and then observed the sabbath with fervent
praise and thanks to the Lord who kept them safe for that day on which he
allotted them the beginning of his mercy.
COMMENTARY: Winning this battle would
mean a lot more to a people who had been subjugated for centuries.
28) After the sabbath, they gave a share
of the spoils to those who were tortured and to widows and orphans; the rest
they divided among themselves and their children.
COMMENTARY: This is the balance missing
in modern debates between socialism and capitalism. Taking care of your citizens in need is not
incompatible with a reasonable profit.
On the spiritual level, one could see care for unfortunates as an
investment, winning the good graces of the most important Patron of all.
For the record, care for
the poor, in the Mediterranean world at least, was a peculiarity of the Jews at
the time. In Greco-Roman culture
charitable works meant bankrolling public institutions, such as temples,
gymnasiums, theaters, racetracks or public baths. One might toss a little money individually to
a beggar as a means of establishing one’s superiority, but organized charities
for the unfortunate risked angering whichever deity beggars had offended that
brought their troubles upon them. (See
earlier comments on the human predilection for ascribing bad luck to bad
behavior.) This was why Christianity,
carrying the Jewish idea of charity with it, spread foremost among the poor in
its first rush outward.
29) When this was done, they made supplication in common,
imploring the merciful Lord to be completely reconciled with his servants.
smart enough to know that one battle doesn’t make them victors.
30) They also challenged the forces of
Timothy and Bacchides, killed more than twenty thousand of them, and captured
some very high fortresses. They divided the considerable plunder, allotting
half to themselves and the rest to victims of torture, orphans, widows, and the
COMMENTARY: Might doesn’t make
right. It’s what you do with might that
31) They collected the enemies’ weapons
and carefully stored them in strategic places; the rest of the spoils they
carried to Jerusalem.
COMMENTARY: Smart move. Those with the home advantage can pretty much
know where the major battles will be fought.
32) They also killed the commander of
Timothy’s forces, a most wicked man, who had done great harm to the Jews. 33) While celebrating the victory in their ancestral city,
they burned both those who had set fire to the sacred gates and Callisthenes,
who had taken refuge in a little house; so he received the reward his wicked
I’ve said before, I wouldn’t wish death by fire on anyone. But people like punishments to fit the crime—unless
they themselves feel a need for mercy.
People thirst for irony.
thrice-accursed Nicanor, who had brought the thousand slave dealers to buy the
Jews, 35) after being humbled through
the Lord’s help by those whom he had thought of no account, laid aside his fine
clothes and fled alone across country like a runaway slave, until he reached
Antioch. He was eminently successful in destroying his own army.
COMMENTARY: And here we have ample irony
to satisfy the aforementioned thirst.
36) So he who had promised to provide
tribute for the Romans by the capture of the people of Jerusalem proclaimed
that the Jews had a champion, and that because they followed the laws laid down
by him, they were unharmed.
So now Judas has made an irreversible choice not to fly under the radar