Chapter 15

2 Maccabees 15:

1) When Nicanor learned that Judas and his companions were in the territory of Samaria, he decided he could attack them in complete safety on the day of rest.

COMMENTARY:  He knew Jewish culture enough to understand about the Sabbath work-ban. He didn’t know that the Maccabees had already declared a dispensation for acts of self-defense.



2) The Jews who were forced to accompany him pleaded, “Do not massacre them so savagely and barbarously, but show respect for the day which the All-seeing has exalted with holiness above all other days.”

COMMENTARY:  These would be draftees from the diaspora and living in Seleucid-controlled lands outside of Judea.  Some of them might also have been sent as soldiers to King Demetrius as part of a prior treaty, mentioned in 1 Maccabees, but obviously the king hasn’t kept up his end of the bargain.



3) At this the thrice-accursed wretch asked if there was a ruler in heaven who prescribed the keeping of the sabbath day. 4) They replied, “It is the living Lord, the ruler in heaven, who commands the observance of the sabbath day.” 5) Then he said, “I, the ruler on earth, command you to take up arms and carry out the king’s business.” Nevertheless he did not succeed in carrying out his cruel plan.

COMMENTARY:  This question comes up again and again, throughout history:  who has the higher authority—God or one’s human rulers?  You’d think it’d be a no-brainer: obviously there could be no higher authority than God.  And yet people continue to agonize over it, and leaders continue to believe that their commands take precedence over divine intentions.



6) In his utter boastfulness and arrogance Nicanor had determined to erect a public victory monument over Judas and his companions.

COMMENTARY:  That would be a rock-pile heaped with the arms and armor of the enemy.



7) But Maccabeus remained confident, fully convinced that he would receive help from the Lord. 8) He urged his men not to fear the attack of the Gentiles, but mindful of the help they had received in the past from Heaven, to expect now the victory that would be given them by the Almighty. 9) By encouraging them with words from the law and the prophets, and by reminding them of the battles they had already won, he filled them with fresh enthusiasm.

COMMENTARY:  Those books called “The Law” are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  “The Prophets” refers to the seventeen books of prophecy (one of which, Lamentations, is not prophetic, but consists of songs of mourning after the fall of Israel and Judea, included because a major prophet, Jeremiah, wrote them.)  These together count as one of three sections of traditional Jewish scripture, the remainder being the Wisdom Books (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) and the Historical Books (Kings, Chronicles, etc.)  Interesting, how Genesis and Exodus belong to law rather than history.  As mentioned before, there are also the Spoken traditions, (Talmud and Midrash) that were strictly oral until medieval times.  Nature itself was also considered an unwritten scripture, not deified but accepted as a witness testifying to her Creator.

As before, the writer intends to give the Egyptian Jews encouragement to protect themselves with reattachment to their culture, showing how scripture can inspire one to resist oppression.  (And the reason why the antebellum southern states of the USA wanted their slaves to become Christians but forbade them to actually read the Bible for themselves.)



10) Having stirred up their courage, he gave his orders and pointed out at the same time the perfidy of the Gentiles and their violation of oaths.

COMMENTARY:  Among other things, sending Jewish conscripts to fight alongside Demetrius was supposed to be contingent upon him not attacking Judea.



11) When he had armed each of them, not so much with the security of shield and spear as with the encouragement of noble words, he cheered them all by relating a dream, a kind of waking vision, worthy of belief.

COMMENTARY:  Notice that Judas specifies that his dream happened while awake.  This is because the Biblical writers had a single word for dreams and visions, and considered them pretty much the same thing.  We have no idea how many visions in the Bible are what we would call dreams, but some of them certainly are.


This matters because some Christians now teach that there’s something un-Christian about paying attention to dreams.  They will cite scriptures that in fact refer to the utterances of false prophets, who either interpreted their dreams and visions dishonestly or lied about them outright, so as to curry favor with their leaders.  These critics ignore the dreams of both Josephs in the Bible, and don’t know about the visions that are in fact dreams.  Whether a translation has come to us as “dream” or “vision” has largely depended on the preferences and prejudices of the translator.



12) What he saw was this: Onias, the former high priest, a noble and good man, modest in bearing, gentle in manner, distinguished in speech, and trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched arms for the whole Jewish community.

COMMENTARY:  Onias, as you will recall from our study of 1 Maccabees, was the last High Priest of the original line who actually considered himself Jewish and tried to practice his office accordingly.  The significance for Judas and his followers is that they’ve gotten a blessing for their deviance from the High Priest bloodline from its last true representative, and that his appearance indicates support for an afterlife.  The significance for Catholics is that the dead can pray for the living.



13) Then in the same way another man appeared, distinguished by his white hair and dignity, and with an air of wondrous and majestic authority. 14) Onias then said of him, “This is a man who loves his fellow Jews and fervently prays for the people and the holy city—the prophet of God, Jeremiah.”

COMMENTARY:  Jeremiah started singing prophesies in his youth about the pending fall of Judea to Babylon, if people didn’t get their act together, and continued prophesying into old age, sadly living long enough to see everything that he warned about happen.  Judea and the former Israel (become Samaria and other little countries) had been subject ever since up until a brief period under the Maccabees.  But he also prophesied after the exile about salvation to come.  And, as mentioned above, he also wrote “Lamentations”.


Again, the Catholic church sees this as evidence that holy people among the Dead can pray for us.



15) Stretching out his right hand, Jeremiah presented a gold sword to Judas. As he gave it to him he said, 16) “Accept this holy sword as a gift from God; with it you shall shatter your adversaries.”

COMMENTARY:  In the context of previous visions of angels guarding Judea with golden swords, this matters a lot.  In a sense the responsibility to defend Judea now falls to humankind—but God will give them what they need to accomplish this.  A Christian might also read into this a prophecy of God soon to become human.



17) Encouraged by Judas’ words, so noble and capable of instilling valor and stirring young hearts to courage, they determined not merely to march, but to charge gallantly and decide the issue by hand-to-hand combat with the utmost courage, since city, sanctuary and temple were in danger.

COMMENTARY:  As mentioned before, most battles of the time consisted of two sides testing each other’s wall of shields till one of these collapsed, then the victor pursuing for the kill.  In this case, however, the Judeans want to break the enemy’s shield wall by hurling themselves onto it bodily and wresting it away without regard for creating their own shield wall—a potentially effective strategy, if you can stand the high body-count, but one that most generals can count on their soldiers not to pursue with the necessary enthusiasm to make it work.



18) They were not so much concerned about wives and children, or family and relations; their first and foremost fear was for the consecrated sanctuary.

COMMENTARY:  Because wives, children, family and relations cannot thrive without sacredness in their midst.



19) Those who were left in the city suffered no less an agony, anxious as they were about the battle in the open country.

COMMENTARY:  Commonly forgotten in the old tales are the wives and children, elderly and disabled folk, waiting for the outcome.  Including them here humanizes the moment.



20) Everyone now awaited the decisive moment. The enemy were already drawing near with their troops drawn up in battle line, their beasts placed in strategic positions, and their cavalry stationed on the flanks.

COMMENTARY:  The Seleucids did have a pretty good grasp of how to plan an attack on an army doing the expected.  This wouldn’t work so well in the face of a crazy semisuicidal charge.



21) Maccabeus, surveying the hosts before him, the variety of weaponry, and the fierceness of their beasts, stretched out his hands toward heaven and called upon the Lord who works wonders; for he knew that it is not weapons but the Lord’s decision that brings victory to those who deserve it.

COMMENTARY:  While it never hurts to stack the deck as heavily in your favor as you can, so much can change in a battle, from factors uncontrollable by human beings, or even controllable factors easily overlooked by a troubled mind, that such preparation has its limits.  The downfall of Richard III from his horse losing a nail in one shoe has, for instance, become proverbial.



22Calling upon God, he spoke in this manner: “You, master, sent your angel in the days of King Hezekiah of Judea, and he slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand men of Sennacherib’s camp.

COMMENTARY:  We covered this in 1 Maccabees 7.



23) And now, Sovereign of the heavens, send a good angel to spread fear and trembling ahead of us.

COMMENTARY:  Even the Heavenly Hosts know that battle is all about seizing morale.



24) By the might of your arm may those be struck down who have blasphemously come against your holy people!” With these words he ended his prayer.

COMMENTARY:  Cursing your enemies in God’s name, long taboo, has in recent years come back into vogue in some Christian communities, based on the fact that people did it fairly often in the Old Testament.  This is wrong, however, for we are a people of a new covenant, and that new covenant says, “Love your enemy.  Bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you.”  That directive, however, had not yet come into being when Judas uttered this.



25) Nicanor and his troops advanced to the sound of trumpets and battle songs.

COMMENTARY:  Nicanor has his own ideas about how to boost his army’s morale while knocking it out of his enemy.  Music has charms not only to soothe the savage breast, but to savage the soothed breast.



26) But Judas and his troops met the enemy with supplication and prayers.

COMMENTARY:  Singing is all very fine, but getting a deity on your side trumps everything.



27) Fighting with their hands and praying to God with their hearts, they laid low at least thirty-five thousand, and rejoiced greatly over this manifestation of God’s power.

COMMENTARY:  Prayer always works best with accompanying action, and action always works best with accompanying prayer.  People say that “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t in the Bible, but in a sense it is, at least in the Catholic version.



28) When the battle was over and they were joyfully departing, they discovered Nicanor fallen there in all his armor;

COMMENTARY:  Nicanor’s fall doubtless provided the last straw to cause the enemy’s rout, not apparent to the Judeans in the poor visibility of the battlefield, but obvious to those around him.  And once they broke ranks and fled, everyone else would, too.



29) so they raised tumultuous shouts in their ancestral language in praise of the divine Sovereign.

COMMENTARY:  Emphasizing that they said it in Hebrew gave a little nudge to the Alexandrian Jews reading this to get back in touch with their ancient tongue.  The language that one speaks changes how one thinks.



30) Then Judas, that man who was ever in body and soul the chief defender of his fellow citizens, and had maintained from youth his affection for his compatriots, ordered Nicanor’s head and right arm up to the shoulder to be cut off and taken to Jerusalem.

COMMENTARY:  The head so that everyone can see who it is that Judas bested, and the right arm as a show of disarming his power.



31When he arrived there, he assembled his compatriots, stationed the priests before the altar, and sent for those in the citadel.

COMMENTARY:  The scholars on the online Bible site say that “those in the citadel” would be “presumably” Jewish soldiers, although in fact the Syrians under Seleucid command still held it.  But perhaps he did summon the Syrian garrison to witness the demise of their king.



32) He showed them the vile Nicanor’s head and the wretched blasphemer’s arm that had been boastfully stretched out against the holy dwelling of the Almighty.

COMMENTARY:  Impressive to friends and foes alike, whichever way you look at it.



33) He cut out the tongue of the godless Nicanor, saying he would feed it piecemeal to the birds and would hang up the other wages of his folly opposite the temple.

COMMENTARY:  This sounds to me like more than the triumph of a general, but rather the hurt and anger of a friend betrayed, venting himself on the tongue that had blasphemed what he had held dear.  The writer sympathized with Nicanor for receiving a heartbreaking command, but the sympathy ended with the gratuitous blasphemies exceeding his orders.

Why do we do that?  I’ve seen this many a time: someone pressured into opposing those he’d rather count as friends will often redirect his anger at those he didn’t want to fight in the first place, with more fury than a disinterested party.  Do we go overboard to flog not only the designated enemy, but the heart itself?  Don’t we then ultimately betray ourselves even worse when we do that?



34) At this, everyone looked toward heaven and praised the Lord who manifests himself: “Blessed be the one who has preserved undefiled his own place!”

COMMENTARY:  How often, when we get what we want, we forget to give thanks for the boon.  But a thankful life is one continually reinfused with wonder and joy.



35) Judas hung Nicanor’s head and arm on the wall of the citadel, a clear and evident sign to all of the Lord’s help.

COMMENTARY:  Common practice, throughout most of history, as long as there have been tall public walls.  When you don’t have mass media, a well-displayed corpse or bodily remains will have to do to get the message out that the people in charge have vanquished those who crossed them (to discourage anyone else trying the same thing) or else show publicly that whoever is in charge has changed.



36) By public vote it was unanimously decreed never to let this day pass unobserved, but to celebrate the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, called Adar in Aramaic, the eve of Mordecai’s Day.

COMMENTARY:  An after-the-fact explanation for why Jews celebrate Purim for two days.  A more practical reason is that it’s the most alcohol-soaked holiday in Jewish custom, and it helps to have a second day to recover.  I’ve heard a saying, “If you can hear, on Purim, the story of Esther and Mordecai, and can still tell Esther from Mordecai, you haven’t drunk enough.”  Some have attributed the statistically lower incidence of alcoholism among Jews to this practice of having designated times to go all-out and get it out of their systems, but recent evidence points to a protective genetic mutation.  Sacred binges are not for everyone.



37) Since Nicanor’s doings ended in this way, with the city remaining in the possession of the Hebrews from that time on, I will bring my story to an end here too.

COMMENTARY:  Thus he neatly omits the subsequent rises and falls of the other brothers.



38) If it is well written and to the point, that is what I wanted; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that is the best I could do.

COMMENTARY:  A nice, human touch!  It makes me want to hug the writer!



39) Just as it is unpleasant to drink wine by itself or just water, whereas wine mixed with water makes a delightful and pleasing drink, so a skillfully composed story delights the ears of those who read the work. Let this, then, be the end.


COMMENTARY:  Because, in those days, unmixed wine was too strong for everyday use, and unmixed water wasn’t always safe and often unappetizing, but water flavored and disinfected by a little wine struck a nice balance.

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