Chapter 12

2 Maccabees 12:

1)  After these agreements were made, Lysias returned to the king, and the Jews went about their farming.

COMMENTARY:  The image most often used to illustrate “Shalom” (often translated as “Peace” but closer to “Contentment”) is “Every man shall sit under his own fig tree and vine.”  The good life, then, is seen as a farm where you have everything you need, you have no desire for anything that is not yours, you eat the sweet fruit of your own labor, and you have enough time left between labors to sit in the shade.

So farming becomes a symbol for peace.  Nobody gets much farming done in a wartorn country.  Not only are the men away fighting the invader, but as I’ve mentioned before, cleared fields make ideal battlegrounds.  Famines often followed wars.

Ironically, soon after the events in the books of Maccabees, Judea will come under the thumb of an empire that has no such context.  Far from equating farming with peace, the Romans turned their agricultural deity into a war-god.  Mars began as a nature god of the wild, and then of the living things of the farm as well, then wholly agricultural, then the defender of the fields, then the defender of the people, then a deity of conquest.  By then it had become fashionable to declare every Roman deity to be equivalent to a Greek deity, and so Mars became conflated with Ares, but they really had nothing much in common aside from weaponry. 

By the time of Jesus, Romans grew very little of their own food, being an urban people; food came from other countries.  Ceres replaced Mars in agriculture, on a much lower rung in the patriarchy.  (And no, I’m not being politically modern, here—Romans literally made patriarchy the model for all human institutions.)  So to them anybody sitting under his own fig tree and grapevine, not wanting anybody else’s figs or grapes, had failed to expand his nation’s territory, power, and slaves, and so deserved to be conquered.



2) But some of the local governors, Timothy and Apollonius, son of Gennaeus, as also Hieronymus and Demophon, to say nothing of Nicanor, the commander of the Cyprians, would not allow them to live in peace and quiet.

COMMENTARY:  Calling Apollonius the son of Gennaeus makes clear that he’s not the same Apollonius sired by Menestheus, mentioned elsewhere.  Also, this Nicanor is probably not the same as Nicanor to be mentioned in chapter 14, though I don’t know why the scholars came to that conclusion.



3) Some people of Joppa also committed this outrage: they invited the Jews who lived among them, together with their wives and children, to embark on boats which they had provided. There was no hint of enmity toward them. 4) This was done by public vote of the city. When the Jews, wishing to live on friendly terms and not suspecting anything, accepted the invitation, the people of Joppa took them out to sea and drowned at least two hundred of them.

COMMENTARY:  So now we have another reason to wage war on Joppa, aside from its strategical advantage of being a port.  Regarding the vote, only landed citizens could have participated; Jews, as immigrants, would not have known what the vote actually concerned.  They probably heard, in the invitation, “Your nation has shown itself powerful and we want to be friends”, when the actual thought might have been, “Your nation has shown itself powerful so now we’re afraid of you.”



5) As soon as Judas heard of the barbarous deed perpetrated against his compatriots, he summoned his men; 6) and after calling upon God, the just judge, he marched against the murderers of his kindred. In a night attack he set the harbor on fire, burned the boats, and put to the sword those who had taken refuge there. 7) Because the gates of the town were shut, he withdrew, intending to come back later and wipe out the entire population of Joppa.

COMMENTARY:  Matching genocide for genocide would make sense under the rule of eye for an eye justice, a rule better than what went before, as it assured that people, in their rage at wrongs done against them, didn’t escalate vengeance past the initial offense with every exchange. I know that if somebody gouged out my eye, I’d want to murder him!

However, in this case we see why this rule ultimately fails to bring true justice.  The Joppans killed not just the male Jews of fighting age, but also harmless women and children.  So eye-for-an-eye would call for killing not only those who voted for this massacre, but also the Joppan women and children who had no vote.  We know today just how wrong that is.



8) On hearing that the people of Jamnia planned in the same way to wipe out the Jews who lived among them, 9) he attacked the Jamnians by night, setting fire to the harbor and the fleet, so that the glow of the flames was visible as far as Jerusalem, thirty miles away.

COMMENTARY:  He set fire to the fleets here and in Joppa to allow no avenue of escape.  One way to break the cycle of reprisals is to make sure that nobody survives capable of vengeance.  Which is why we ultimately need to find some alternative to vengeance.



10) When the Jews had gone about a mile from there in the march against Timothy, they were attacked by Arabians numbering at least five thousand foot soldiers and five hundred cavalry.

COMMENTARY:  The writer is vague about where “there” is.  Certainly not Joppa or Jamnia.



11) After a hard fight, Judas and his companions, with God’s help, were victorious. The defeated nomads begged Judas to give pledges of friendship, and they promised to supply the Jews with livestock and to be of service to them in any other way.

COMMENTARY:  Livestock was the chief stock in trade of nomads, and usually what prompted the nomadic lifestyle in the first place, traveling to different grazing grounds.  Indeed, the Israelites began as a nomadic people, themselves, a wandering nation of shepherds, before settling down in Israel.



12) Realizing that they could indeed be useful in many respects, Judas agreed to make peace with them. After the pledges of friendship had been exchanged, the Arabians withdrew to their tents.

COMMENTARY:  Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its stomach.”  Supplying the Maccabean forces with fresh meat would be a great boon!  Especially since the nomadic Arabs could send live animals wherever the army went.  Sure beats dried and over-salted fare that could still go off in the desert sun when you least expected it.

But the alliance had still more to offer than that.  Leather, for one thing, held together the armor of that era.  It suffered considerable damage on the road and in battle and needed constantly replaced.  Leather came from herders.

Leather shoes also mattered a great deal, because soldiers spent most of their lives on the march.  The Romans used to dock a soldier’s wages if he neglected his footwear with resulting damage to his feet and impaired worth in combat.  Even as late as the 20th century Che Guevara made the recruitment of cobblers a priority in the Cuban revolution, and he had much softer ground to deal with.


And then there was wool.  We who can go into a store in any town and buy clothing can take it for granted, but when you’re on the march, sleeping often on the ground, frequently engaging in combat, and generally exposing your clothing to a lot of wear and tear, while your chief source of clothing repair or replacement—your wife—is miles away, you come to appreciate any assistance you can get in that regard.  Arab women had perfected the art of making the spinning of wool and the weaving of fabric portable.


Most important of all, however, was the usefulness of Arab spies.  Their mobility recommended them, and they were less likely to meet spears, when stumbling across Greek forces, than an army in open opposition.  Simple information like numbers and locations of forces—the sort of thing that shepherds could easily observe—could turn the tide in a time of zero mass media.



13) He also attacked a certain city called Caspin, fortified with earthworks and walls and inhabited by a mixed population of Gentiles.

COMMENTARY:  I couldn’t find out anything about Caspin, aside that it had many, many variations on its name, and several possibilities as to where it might have stood.  I have no idea what strategic value, if any, it might have had.  Maybe its mixed population made Judas fear where its loyalties might lie.



14) Relying on the strength of their walls and their supply of provisions, the besieged treated Judas and his men with contempt, insulting them and even uttering blasphemies and profanity.

COMMENTARY:  It shouldn’t surprise the author too much if some people in a diverse city with many non-Jews would blaspheme against a religion they don’t personally believe, in the heat of battle.  We will, however, see that the Ephronites resisted the urge to do so and fought with more dignity.

Why do we get such pleasure out of trash-talking our enemies?  It doesn’t weaken them any.  Quite the reverse; it motivates them to deal more brutally with us, and boosts their morale to think of wiping that smug expression off our faces, preferably with a sword.  Or if one’s objective is not battle at all, but winning an argument, it hardens the opposition against listening to anything we have to say.

Really, where does this instinct come from?  I think we’ve all done it as children, though some of us mature out of it sooner than others.  Usually when I see a maladaptive behavior, I can find some instinctive purpose behind it, even if warped from that original intent.  Vengeance, for instance, is a maladaption of the desire to make sure that somebody else never hurts one again.  Surely something as widespread as trash-talking must have some lost, primordial purpose from which it has warped.  But I can’t figure out what.  It doesn’t seem to accomplish any desired end.



15) But Judas and his men invoked the aid of the great Sovereign of the world, who, in the days of Joshua, overthrew Jericho without battering rams or siege engines; then they furiously stormed the walls.

COMMENTARY:  Invoking Jericho gave the soldiers confidence in the face of an imposing barrier to overcome.  The writer intends this, in turn, to similarly inspire the Egyptian Jews.

A city identified as Jericho by 19th century archaeologist Charles Warren later turned out to not have been occupied at the alleged time of the Battle of Jericho, and apparently its collapsed walls fell to a much later Egyptian assault with siege engines.  This has led many to disregard the story of Jericho as a fiction. 

I’m open to its historicity, however.  Warren could have misidentified the site.  Biblical dates frequently hold more symbolic than historic significance.  We have hardly scratched the surface of excavatable tells and ruins in the Middle East.  And the region is certainly fraught with enough earthquake faults to make a city’s wall collapsing in time for a battle plausible. 

And yes, it would still count as a miracle if an earthquake hit Jericho—a miracle of timing.  Besides, the Creator of the Earth knows all about geology and how best to use it.



16) Capturing the city by the will of God, they inflicted such indescribable slaughter on it that the adjacent pool, which was about a quarter of a mile wide, seemed to be filled with the blood that flowed into it.

COMMENTARY:  I wouldn’t consider this something to brag about.  But the writer’s purpose is to say, “We are mighty!” not “We are gentle,” when speaking to a frightened community on the verge of facing a genocidal massacre, as the Egyptian Jewish community did at that time.



17) When they had gone on some ninety miles, they reached Charax, where there were certain Jews known as Toubians.

COMMENTARY:  As mentioned before in 1 Maccabees, they lived in the land of Tob.  I can’t help but wonder if they have any connection to Tobit or Tobias.



18) But they did not find Timothy in that region, for he had already departed from there without having done anything except to leave behind in one place a very strong garrison.

COMMENTARY:  Finding out your enemy’s location took a whole lot more trouble in the ancient world.



19) But Dositheus and Sosipater, two of Maccabeus’ captains, marched out and destroyed the force of more than ten thousand men that Timothy had left in the stronghold.

COMMENTARY:  Presumably Dositheus and Solsipater had a force of their own.  (And yes, further reading does show this.)



20) Meanwhile, Maccabeus divided his army into cohorts, with a commander over each cohort, and went in pursuit of Timothy, who had a force of a hundred and twenty thousand foot soldiers and twenty-five hundred cavalry.

COMMENTARY:  These divided cohorts would have more flexibility than Timothy’s larger but more unwieldy force.



21) When Timothy learned of the approach of Judas, he sent on ahead of him the women and children, as well as the baggage, to a place called Karnion, which was hard to besiege and even hard to reach because of the difficult terrain of that region.

COMMENTARY:  These would be the camp followers, essential to armies before the World Wars developed the ability to mobilize support personnel.  They were generally women with nowhere else to go; often war refugees, themselves, or captives, or the daughters of camp-followers, but also women of ruined reputation who couldn’t get a husband, prostitutes without a pimp, or orphans without income.  Divorced women whose families wouldn’t take them back could also wind up as camp-followers.  They often would attach themselves to specific soldiers as de facto camp-wives and bear their lover’s children on the march.


They provided sewing, laundry, cooking, sex, and especially nursing; without them many a soldier would never have made it home to his official wife and children.  They were brave and tough and they and their offspring led a hard life.   I am glad to hear that Timothy, for all his faults, took care for their safety.



22) But when Judas’ first cohort appeared, the enemy was overwhelmed with fear and terror at the manifestation of the all-seeing One. Scattering in every direction, they rushed away in such headlong flight that in many cases they wounded one another, pierced by the points of their own swords.  23) Judas pressed the pursuit vigorously, putting the sinners to the sword and destroying as many as thirty thousand men.

COMMENTARY:  Panic in the enemy’s forces gives more advantage than the most impressive weapons.  Indeed, the only point of impressive weapons is to frighten the enemy into surrendering.  But if one can achieve the same end without, all the better.  In this case the author ascribes the panic to the work of God.



24) Timothy himself fell into the hands of those under Dositheus and Sosipater; but with great cunning, he begged them to spare his life and let him go, because he had in his power the parents and relatives of many of them, and would show them no consideration.  25) When he had fully confirmed his solemn pledge to restore them unharmed, they let him go for the sake of saving their relatives.

COMMENTARY:  This is a terrible and unethical advantage to press, but very effective.  This was the reason that Tokyo Rose was ultimately pardoned for her treason against the United States, when it came out that the Japanese government had held her mother and sister as hostages and would torture them should she fail to comply with the broadcasts that they wanted her to make.  Even so, she managed to smuggle messages into the broadcasts that the U.S. government later revealed had given them advantage.

Axis Annie had no such luck.  She had fallen in love with a Nazi.  She tried to argue that this was excuse enough for her misdeeds, but nobody bought it.



26) Judas then marched to Karnion and the shrine of Atargatis, where he killed twenty-five thousand people.

COMMENTARY:  Atargatis was a Syrian goddess, whom the Greeks identified as equivalent to both their own Artemis and the Canaanite Astarte, on account of all three being associated with the moon.  (How they reconciled virginal Artemis and promiscuous Astarte, I can hardly imagine!)  Although long considered a mermaid, archaeologists have since determined that ancient sculptures thought to depict her as fish-bodied in fact had somebody else in mind, and that the Syrians traditionally depicted Atargatis in humanoid form.



27) After the defeat and destruction of these, he moved his army to Ephron, a fortified city inhabited by Lysias and people of many nationalities. Robust young men took up their posts in defense of the walls, from which they fought valiantly; inside were large supplies of war machines and missiles.  28) But the Jews, invoking the Sovereign who powerfully shatters the might of enemies, got possession of the city and slaughtered twenty-five thousand of the people in it.

COMMENTARY:  The people of Ephron get respect, unlike the Caspinites.  Perhaps the lack of trash-talk factored in.  I also notice that not all of the people were slain, the number 25,000 being subtracted from “the people in it.”  Presumably only the combatants met their end.



29) Then they set out from there and hastened on to Scythopolis, seventy-five miles from Jerusalem.

COMMENTARY:  The Greeks gave the name Scythopolis to the Jewish city of Beth-shan.  I would presume it had a lot of Scythians in it.  Judas is targeting the multicultural cities.



30) But when the Jews who lived there testified to the goodwill shown by the Scythopolitans and to their kind treatment even in times of adversity, 31) Judas and his men thanked them and exhorted them to be well disposed to their nation in the future also. Finally they arrived in Jerusalem, shortly before the feast of Weeks.

COMMENTARY:  So the enemy here is not cultural diversity, but cultural hostility.  Where other cultures can live in harmony with their Jewish neighbors, Judas has no justification for attack and so refrains.

This is what a lot of people don’t get about the Koran.  When it promotes violence against non-Muslims, it’s only talking about doing so when members of those other religions menace them.  That’s why ISIL had to put a lot of effort and a whole lot of spin into trying to convince Muslims that they were indeed menaced with bodily harm by non-Muslims.  Trash-talking on our part (speaking personally as a Christian, myself) gave them a lot of material to warp to their purposes, unfortunately.



32) After this feast, also called Pentecost, they lost no time in marching against Gorgias, governor of Idumea, 33) who opposed them with three thousand foot soldiers and four hundred cavalry.

COMMENTARY:  As we’ve discussed before, this feast simultaneously celebrated the material harvest of the fields that fed people’s bodies, and the feast for the soul of receiving the long-awaited law.

In this case Judas would have seen his recent victories as a harvest, and the closing of a cycle.  Now he’s about to start a new cycle against the crafty and unscrupulous Gorgias.



34) In the ensuing battle, a few of the Jews were slain.

COMMENTARY:  Of course this happened in every battle unless it specifically mentions a miraculous sparing of all.  But there’s a reason to specify it here, as you will see.



35) A man called Dositheus, a powerful horseman and one of Bacenor’s men, caught hold of Gorgias, grasped his military cloak and dragged him along by brute strength, intending to capture the vile wretch alive, when a Thracian horseman attacked Dositheus and cut off his arm at the shoulder. Then Gorgias fled to Marisa.

COMMENTARY:  Some ancient manuscripts say, “one of the Toubians” instead of “one of Bacenor’s men”.  Was Bacenor a Toubian?  Were there political reasons to emphasize Tob at one time and later political reasons to downplay it?  I may never know.

Putting this immediately after the mention of fatalities leads me to speculate that Dositheus didn’t survive his amputation.  Few did in the days before aseptic medical practices.  Even without sepsis, he stood pretty good odds of bleeding out.



36) After Esdris and his men had been fighting for a long time and were weary, Judas called upon the Lord to show himself their ally and leader in the battle.

COMMENTARY:  A prolonged battle means bleeding more morale the longer it lasts, till victory eventually falls to the most recently refreshed or the most dogged—a crucial time to pray for aid!



37) Then, raising a battle cry in his ancestral language, and with hymns, he charged Gorgias’ men when they were not expecting it and put them to flight.

COMMENTARY:  They didn’t expect it because the Jewish forces had seemed so exhausted.



38) Judas rallied his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the seventh day was approaching, they purified themselves according to custom and kept the sabbath there.

COMMENTARY:  They would have to purify themselves of the bloodshed.  And they couldn’t bury the dead on the Sabbath.



39) On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs.

COMMENTARY:  Especially urgent in summer!  Well not in summer as we officially know it today, being before the actual solstice, but in desert countries in that latitude it starts to get hot around February and by late May or early June (depending when Pentecost lands that year) it could boil your brains if you stood uncovered in the sun too long.



40) But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen.

COMMENTARY:  This would be a warning to the Egyptian Jews, who had assimilating tendencies.  You can’t just hedge your bets and ask for protection from both rival sides.



41) They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden.

COMMENTARY:  Another cautionary tale about trying to hide what one does.  However, praising God for revealing what is hidden didn’t mean that they didn’t also mourn, as we shall see.



42) Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. 43) He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind;

COMMENTARY:  This is the first mention of praying and offering sacrifices for the expiation of the dead, and very important to Catholics.  Whether one accepts the Books of Maccabees as canonical or not, it does show a tradition of belief in prayers for the dead that predates Catholicism.  But there’s more to it than that, as you will see.



44) for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45) But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. 46) Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.


COMMENTARY:  This act of praying for the dead became the foundation for a doctrine of resurrection that set the stage for Christianity.  While not universal in the days of Jesus, it had spread far enough that His disciples could figure out what had happened at the empty tomb, and see Jesus as the first of many to rise, giving Christianity its essential character.

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