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