Chapter 14

2 Maccabees 14:

1) Three years later, Judas and his companions learned that Demetrius, son of Seleucus, had sailed into the port of Tripolis with a powerful army and a fleet, 2) and that he had occupied the country, after doing away with Antiochus and his guardian Lysias.

COMMENTARY:  Actually, Demetrius landed in 151 of the Seleucid Era, which wasn’t three years later, but cycles of three have a certain resonance to them in many cultures—beginning, middle, and end.  Precise details of times and numbers were not considered as important to histories then as they are today.  The ancients would think us peculiar for considering measurements more important than telling a rousing, inspiring story.  Many a student nodding off in history class would agree!

You will recall from our studies of 1 Maccabees that Demetrius was the hostage heir kept by the Romans from his inheritance of the Seleucid Empire until he escaped.



3) A certain Alcimus, a former high priest, who had willfully incurred defilement before the time of the revolt, realized that there was no way for him to be safe and regain access to the holy altar.

COMMENTARY:  I uncover conflicting information about Alcimus, probably because nobody knows for sure.  One source says that Antiochus Eupater “apparently” appointed him as the official high priest after executing Menelaus, which presumably means that he would now find himself on shaky ground with the new king.  Another source says he wasn’t high priest till Demetrius appointed him, in this chapter.  Some say he was of the priestly line, but others say that, like the Maccabees, he was a descendant of Aaron but not of the high priestly line.  I suppose it depends on who you talked to and what that person wanted to believe.

At any rate, he was Hellenized.  He pursued the post for power rather than a desire to practice traditional Judaism.



4) So he went to King Demetrius around the one hundred and fifty-first year and presented him with a gold crown and a palm branch, as well as some of the customary olive branches from the temple. On that day he kept quiet.

COMMENTARY:  The gold crown meant hailing Demetrius as the rightful king of the Seleucids.  The palm, as we’ve discussed in 1 Maccabees, meant surrender and submission.

The olive branch had become such a pervasive symbol of peace that by this time Greeks had adopted it among themselves as well as the Jews who already used it to signal peaceful intentions.  This dates back to the story of Noah.

The Bible says that Noah knew that the flood was over and dry land had appeared when a dove that he’d sent out from the ark returned with an olive twig in her mouth.  This thus signaled the end of the war of God against humanity.

Olives in themselves had important symbolism, and that extended to any part of the tree.  Olive oil made everything smoother in the ancient world.  Not only did it lubricate cooking, buffering between the food and the pan, but it also lubricated every gear, hinge, and other moving part in the ancient world.  One also washed by rubbing olive oil over one’s skin and scraping it off again.  One anointed kings and sacrifices with olive oil.  It acted as a carrier for perfumes and for seasonings.  It enabled and accommodated.

Olive branches from the temple grounds would signify making peace with and possibly making a deal with the Jewish God.  Even today this is a big deal.  Last February (2019) two American congressmen were briefly detained because one had picked up an olive branch on the Temple Mound and showed it to the other, before putting it back.  The Israeli police wanted to make sure that they hadn’t pocketed any part of it.


Alcimus didn’t talk at this time, letting his symbols talk for him, as an important discretion, showing submission, humility and patience.  It would intrigue Demetrius and offer him the opportunity to open up conversation later himself.



5) But he found an opportunity to further his mad scheme when he was invited to the council by Demetrius and questioned about the dispositions and intentions of the Jews. He replied:

COMMENTARY:  He got that invitation by playing coy earlier, while favorably disposing Demetrius to a Jew willing to offer him fealty on multiple levels.



6) “Those Jews called Hasideans, led by Judas Maccabeus, are warmongers, who stir up sedition and keep the kingdom from enjoying peace.

COMMENTARY:  The Hasideans were only one small faction under Judas.  They supported him as a general, but turned on him when he made his brother High Priest, though of the wrong family.  Alcimus might distrust them if his own credentials weren’t sterling either.  Yet by some accounts the Hasideans came to his support until he turned out to be something of a maniac.  I’m not really sure what was going on, here.



7) For this reason, now that I am deprived of my ancestral dignity, that is to say, the high priesthood, I have come here,

COMMENTARY:  Is he lying, here, or telling the truth?  I honestly don’t know.



8) first, out of my genuine concern for the king’s interests, and second, out of consideration for my own compatriots, since our entire nation is suffering no little affliction from the rash conduct of the people just mentioned.

COMMENTARY:  Diplomatic, to say he put the king’s interests first.  Everybody says that to kings, and nobody ever means it.  The real message here, is “Look, Demmie—you and I have some mutual interests in common.”

As for “our entire nation”, some people do tend to see their own circle as “everyone”.  It’s what has always driven me crazy about the pronunciations of Robert Johnson  who, it seemed, could hardly say anything without tagging it somewhere with a declaration that it’s a pity that nobody believes or practices or takes seriously something believed, practiced or taken seriously by millions of people all over the world.  (Pet peeve digression.)



9) When you have informed yourself in detail on these matters, O king, provide for our country and its hard-pressed people with the same gracious consideration that you show toward all.

COMMENTARY:  It’s so much more diplomatic to say “When you have informed yourself” than “When you have listened to me and believed whatever I tell you,” but that’s what Alcimus means.



10) As long as Judas is around, it is impossible for the government to enjoy peace.”

COMMENTARY:  It would certainly be impossible for Alcimus to enjoy peace, watching the Maccabees take over the office that he wants.  But to manipulate a king, you tell him, “Getting what you want depends on giving me what I want.”



11) When he had said this, the other Friends who were hostile to Judas quickly added fuel to Demetrius’ indignation.

COMMENTARY:  He’d been in Rome all this time and hadn’t witnessed firsthand his uncle’s struggles with Judea.  Now every general with an old axe to grind can’t wait to fill him in, with embellishments.



12) The king immediately chose Nicanor, who had been in command of the elephants, and appointed him governor of Judea. He sent him off 13) with orders to put Judas to death, to disperse his followers, and to set up Alcimus as high priest of the great temple.

COMMENTARY:  1 Maccabees had Gorgias appointed, not Nicanor.  2 Maccabees will differ quite a bit on Nicanor.



14) The Gentiles from Judea, who had fled before Judas, flocked to Nicanor, thinking that the misfortunes and calamities of the Jews would mean prosperity for themselves.

COMMENTARY:  1 Maccabees mentioned them bringing shackles, hoping for a slave auction of POWs.



15)  When the Jews heard of Nicanor’s coming, and that the Gentiles were rallying to him, they sprinkled themselves with earth and prayed to him who established his people forever, and who always comes to the aid of his heritage by manifesting himself.

COMMENTARY:  2 Maccabees often repeats this theme of people humbling themselves before God and praying for aid, as a way of instructing the Egyptian Jews on how to face their own trials, and to reassure them that, with right living, God will protect them.



16) At their leader’s command, they set out at once from there and came upon the enemy at the village of Adasa.

COMMENTARY:  Action goes hand in hand with prayer.  One doesn’t choose one or the other, but should do both for best results.



17) Judas’ brother Simon had engaged Nicanor, but he suffered a slight setback because of the sudden appearance of the enemy.

COMMENTARY:  1 Maccabees doesn’t mention this setback, its primary concern being the glorification of the Maccabees against all critics.



18) However, when Nicanor heard of the valor of Judas and his companions, and the great courage with which they fought for their country, he shrank from deciding the issue by bloodshed.

COMMENTARY:  Here we have a much more positive view of Nicanor than in the other book.  Which ultimately makes the whole story more poignant.  Rather than a cardboard figure to throw darts at, he comes across as a real man with complex feelings.



19) So he sent Posidonius, Theodotus and Mattathias to exchange pledges of friendship. 20) After a long discussion of the terms, each leader communicated them to his troops; and when general agreement was expressed, they assented to the treaty.

COMMENTARY:  This would be a very delicate matter.  Nicanor’s going against his orders.  Yet people in the field had a lot more leeway then, of necessity, for without mass communication and swift intelligence, kings didn’t know everything going on beyond the capitol and couldn’t always make informed decisions.  They had to delegate authority to those they trusted.  In order to maintain that trust, Nicanor had to bend over backwards to make sure that the terms of the treaty would sound reasonable to his king and yet acceptable to his enemy.



21) A day was set on which the leaders would meet by themselves. From each side a chariot came forward, and thrones were set in place.

COMMENTARY:  This would have happened in an open field or plain, beyond archery range but in view of both sides, to make betrayal difficult.



22) Judas had posted armed men in readiness at strategic points for fear that the enemy might suddenly commit some treachery. But the conference was held in the proper way.

COMMENTARY:  Because he’d been burned before.  The writer mentions this both to show that Judas was no starry-eyed fool, and to depict Nicanor as a man of honor.



23) Nicanor stayed on in Jerusalem, where he did nothing out of place. He disbanded the throngs of people who gathered around him;

COMMENTARY:  Those would be the Hellenized Jews who wanted to benefit from Judas’s downfall.



24) and he always kept Judas in his company, for he felt affection for the man.

COMMENTARY:  So they became friends. Which made the eventual outcome all the more poignant.



25) He urged him to marry and have children; so Judas married and settled into an ordinary life.

COMMENTARY:  A detail that shows the intimacy of their friendship. It also shows Nicanor reassuring Judas that the war is over.



26) When Alcimus saw their mutual goodwill, he took the treaty that had been made, went to Demetrius, and said that Nicanor was plotting against the government, for he had appointed Judas, that conspirator against the kingdom, as his successor.

COMMENTARY:  Some people just can’t let peace be.  In a recent discussion, a friend asked how one could make peace when compromise means both sides getting half a loaf, and yet they each want the whole loaf.  The problem is, war doesn’t actually give you a whole loaf.  You can win a war-torn land, much reduced from what it could have been, but you will always have to stay on guard against the next guy who wants a whole loaf, and each time more of the loaf gets trampled and nobody ever has a chance to enjoy it properly.  Alcimus wants the high priest office and doesn’t seem to get it that by the time he fought his way to his desire, he’d win a ruined mess.



27) Stirred up by the villain’s slander, the king became enraged. He wrote to Nicanor, stating that he was displeased with the treaty, and ordering him to send Maccabeus at once as a prisoner to Antioch.

COMMENTARY:  So ends the bromance.



28) When this message reached Nicanor he was dismayed and troubled at the thought of annulling his agreement with a man who had done no wrong. 29) However, there was no way of opposing the king, so he watched for an opportunity to carry out this order by a stratagem.

COMMENTARY:  The greatest of tragedies is the trap of a moral dilemma.  From a twenty-first century perspective, one can say, “Of course your conscience has to override authority if they come in conflict!”  But we have the perspective of the Holocaust, the horror of men and women doing hideous things and then saying, “I was only following orders”. 


In Biblical times the moral teachings against disobedience held a much stronger sway.  Nicanor could previously disobey an order on the assumption that the King would have decided the same way, had he been present, but he couldn’t ignore a second order after the king said that he’d been apprised of the situation, even if Nicanor disagreed with the appraisal.



30) But Maccabeus, noticing that Nicanor was more harsh in his dealings with him, and acting with unaccustomed rudeness when they met, concluded that this harshness was not a good sign. So he gathered together not a few of his men, and went into hiding from Nicanor.

COMMENTARY:  Nicanor’s trying to psyche himself into the role assigned to him.  And perhaps he’s also wondering if he has a spy in his midst—perhaps whoever delivered a copy of the treaty to Alcimus in the first place.  Maybe unconsciously he also tried to warn Judas away.  If so, it worked.



31) When Nicanor realized that he had been cleverly outwitted by the man, he went to the great and holy temple, at a time when the priests were offering the customary sacrifices, and ordered them to surrender Judas.

COMMENTARY:  Sadly, the order-following conscious part of Nicanor’s mind couldn’t accept getting what perhaps he wanted.  It could, however, tap into memories of friendship enough to know exactly where to apply the worst pressure.



32) As they declared under oath that they did not know where the man they sought was,

COMMENTARY:  A Jew wouldn’t dare utter a false oath in the Temple.  They believed that God would punish such oathbreaking even against an enemy.



33) he stretched out his right arm toward the temple and swore this oath: “If you do not hand Judas over to me as prisoner, I will level this shrine of God to the ground; I will tear down the altar, and erect here a splendid temple to Dionysus.”

COMMENTARY:  He knew what would hurt the worst!  He’s not even trying for the usual deity-congruity that Greeks favored, but threatening them with the Greek god of debauchery.  Granted, by this time the rites had quieted down some: the drink and drug crazed women tearing apart live animal or human sacrifices with their bare hands had evolved into a more dignified catharsis through theater.  Nevertheless, drunken orgies still sometimes followed.  People don’t those up quite so easily as they would forgo seeing Mom staggering home with bloody teeth and hands.



34) With these words he went away. The priests stretched out their hands toward heaven, calling upon the unfailing defender of our nation in these words: 35) “Lord of all, though you are in need of nothing, you were pleased to have a temple for your dwelling place among us. 36) Therefore, Holy One, Lord of all holiness, preserve forever undefiled this house, which has been so recently purified.”

COMMENTARY:  Had they believed the Temple to have only human defenders, they probably would have given Judas up.  Instead they turned to prayer.



37) A certain Razis, one of the elders of Jerusalem, was denounced to Nicanor as a patriot. A man highly regarded, he was called a father of the Jews because of his goodwill toward them.

COMMENTARY:  The last sentence made me wonder briefly if Razis was Jewish or simply a lover of the Jewish people, but only Jews could be called elders of Jerusalem.



38) In the days before the revolt, he had been convicted of being a Jew, and had risked body and soul in his ardent zeal for Judaism.

COMMENTARY:  So this is nothing new for him.  On the other hand, surely he must’ve thought, “Oh no—not again!”



39) Nicanor, to show his disdain for the Jews, sent more than five hundred soldiers to arrest him.

COMMENTARY:  I don’t know if that shows disdain or a certain left-handed respect.  If somebody sent more than five hundred people to arrest me, I’d feel at least as flattered as I’d feel doomed.  At the very least it meant that Nicanor knew this man’s reputation enough to expect some push-back from the community.



40) He thought that by arresting that man he would deal the Jews a hard blow.

COMMENTARY:  And so, by arresting one, he’d hoped to achieve a psychological warfare coup that perhaps, in his mind, might save lives down the road.



41) But when the troops, on the point of capturing the tower, were forcing the outer gate and calling for fire to set the door ablaze, Razis, now caught on all sides, turned his sword against himself,

COMMENTARY:  Officially, Judaism forbids suicide, at least since the Middle Ages and probably before, considering it a theft of God’s property (oneself) and a violation of God’s will, as well as violating the supreme Jewish directive to preserve life.  Their law, however, allows more exceptions than not.  Even in the case of someone who qualifies for none of the exceptions, although you omit mourning rituals for the deceased. you do go through the funerary service itself, praying for the dead.  As the Shulhan Arukh says, “We do not mourn for him, or eulogize for him, or tear our clothing for him, or remove shoes for him. We only stand for him on a line and say the blessing of mourners for him, and any other thing that is respectful for the living.” 


But to be judged a suicide by Jewish law you have to 1) do it on purpose, with deliberate intent, 2) be in your right mind (which eliminates most cases right there) and 3) can’t have been coerced into it to escape being forced to commit “The three cardinal sins” (in Jewish reckoning, differing from the Catholic cardinal sins) namely idolatry, murder or sexual immorality.  One should also show mercy and perform all rites for someone who (according to a medieval scholar who might or might not have been Rabbenu Asher) who might have been driven to it by “a multiplicity of troubles, worries, pain, or utter poverty” as these might have driven the sufferer mad.  Jewish law does not, however, condone direct or assisted suicide for people with terminal illnesses, although it does allow refusing extraordinary medical preservation.

Who’d be left?  Those who kill themselves out of pride, vanity, spite, a desire to manipulate, or similar base emotions.  But since only God reads hearts, in most cases one can’t be sure unless the suicide stated very obvious intentions.



42) preferring to die nobly rather than fall into the hands of vile men and suffer outrages unworthy of his noble birth.

COMMENTARY:  This most likely meant being tortured into idolatry, although it might have meant rape.  Captives of both sexes would sometimes suffer this in a bid to break their spirits.  However, this most often happened to women and boys, not elders.

Whether he feared being forced into idolatry, unchastity, or both, this qualified, in the eyes of the writer, as a permissible exception to the taboo against suicide.  He also mentions, below, that Razis did this with faith in the resurrection of the dead.  Indeed, the early Christians considered this faith in resurrection a justification for suicide until several centuries later, when suicide out of disdain for this world became a fad that threatened the foundations of society.

Yes, Christians believe that a better, realer world awaits after this life, but that doesn’t negate the importance of this life in the greater plan.  Imagine a child who refuses to play.  She knows that her toys are mere imitations of something greater and realer, so she disdains them and keeps her eyes only on adulthood.  Imagine if she also refused to go to school, because that was only a scholarly depiction of the realer wonders of adulthood to come.  She would not only show herself to be an ungrateful child, for scorning everything that her loving parent offered for her benefit, but she would also reach adulthood unfit for it, being emotionally and intellectually stunted for having neglected the beauty, joy, power and importance of play and study.  No gift that we receive deserves our disdain: we don’t receive inferior and superior gifts, but only wonderful and still more wonderful, each at exactly the right time for our stage of development.



43) In the excitement of the struggle he failed to strike exactly. So while the troops rushed in through the doors, he gallantly ran up to the top of the wall and courageously threw himself down into the crowd. 44) But as they quickly drew back and left an opening, he fell into the middle of the empty space. 45) Still breathing, and inflamed with anger, he got up and ran through the crowd, with blood gushing from his frightful wounds. Then, standing on a steep rock, 46) as he lost the last of his blood, he tore out his entrails and flung them with both hands into the crowd, calling upon the Lord of life and of spirit to give these back to him again. Such was the manner of his death.


COMMENTARY:  Honestly, this is so ludicrous as to almost be grotesquely funny!  Bible scholars consider this “martyrology literature” which is to say that it probably didn’t happen but was fabricated to inspire people, but I find it quite believable if only because it’s so incompetent.  If I was going to make up something to inspire people, I’d have written something tidy, masterful and dignified.

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