A little light reading from 1 and 2 Maccabees

A few weeks ago, I purchased a remarkable set of books from the Jewish Publication Society called Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, and I must say, even to receive these 3 volumes in the mail is an experience. They came in one heavy medium size box. These are three serious volumes of writing! I had no idea that there was so much Jewish literary activity following the closing of the book of the Tanakh and up until the beginning of the Rabbinic period. Part of the reason that I chose to get these was because of the work of one of the editors, James L. Kugel, who wrote a book called In Potiphar’s House, which traces back motifs in the rabbinic midrash back to the literature from this intertestamental time period. This book turned me on to the entire period of time and its literature. Professor Kugel is also a mensch. I know this because when I wrote him an email looking for a version of a particular text, he took the time to personally write back, which I really appreciated. He also told me to look forward to this set coming out in the not too distant future.

So for this Hanukkah, I decided to dive into this book and do some reading about the books of the Maccabees, and to select some key passages that I think are the most interesting as they relate to the modern festival of Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew. These selections are by no means exhaustive, and only reflect my reading of 1 Maccabees and part of 2 Maccabees. I have not delved into 3 or 4 Maccabees yet, but they are also enticing. The books give glimpses (biased as they are) into what happens when super-power nations collide with smaller nations, how people in the ancient near east did diplomacy, warfare, sought revenge, dealt with the questions of accommodation when it comes to culture clashes, economic, political, and religious issues. It also shed some light on behaviors during times of war that today seem barbaric, but are described unapologetically in 1 Maccabees.

These selections give some insight into what led to the Maccabean Revolt against the decrees of Antiochus, which do not seem to have come from a place of evil, just a place of desire for control. The reason for the decrees was a civil war between two groups of Jews: Hellenizers and those who were faithful to the law. It is also interesting to note that the battle for Jerusalem takes place in the first year of the three-year war between the Assyrian Greek forces and the Maccabees. It took three more years to end the conflict and then long to establish an independent kingdom under Maccabean rule, which later on has its own problems.

The selections that depict Hanukkah should also grab out attention, since the depict a festival that both feels familiar and foreign all at the same time. The well known “cruse of oil” story is well known, although appears on the Jewish scene centuries later, and in contrast, the Maccabees first Hanukkah mentions the menorah, but only in the context of the overall Temple, with a particular focus on the altar. My favorite selection come from 2 Maccabees, which is in the form of a letter written to the Jews of the Diaspora, encouraging them to celebrate Hanukkah, which has three reasons to celebrate. First, the well-known dedication of the altar. Second, the delayed festival of Sukkot, which is why Hanukkah lasts eight day. But the third reason is for a legend about the Festival of the Fire, which is based on events set in the days of the Second Temple’s establishment. It appears in the book as a way to demonstrate the continuity of the fire on the altar going back as far as the Mishkan’s dedication in the wilderness waaaay back in the day. However, I think that a case can be made that this is also the basis for the rabbinic oil story, since it has some of the same motifs (return to the Temple, purification, looking for a missing element, a miraculous fire, and priestly involvement).

I hope that these selections whet your appetite for more!

Happy Hanukkah!

1. A Movement Begins (1 Maccabees 11-15); (2 Maccabees 4:7-10)

In those days, lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us. This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.


When Seleucus died and Antiochus, who was called Epiphanies, succeeded to the kingdom, Jason the brother of Onias [the current high priest] obtained the high priesthood by corruption…In addition to this, he promised to pay hundred and fifty more [talents of silver] if permission were given to establish by his authority a gymnasium and a body of youth for it, and to enroll the men of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch. When the king assented and Jason came to office, he at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life.

2. The Reason for the Antiochan Decrees (2 Mac 5:11, 6:1)

[Insert horrifying and bloody Jewish civil war here.] When news of what had happened reached the king, he took it to mean that Judea was in revolt. So, raging inwardly, [Antiochus] left Egypt and took the city [of Jerusalem] by storm…Not long after this [and other horrible events], the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God…

3. The Antiochan Decrees (1 Maccabees 1:41-50)

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all ordinances. “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

4. The Twenty-Fifth of Kislev (1 Maccabees 1:58)

[After putting up idols in the Temple and establishing altars all around Judea] And on the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar which was upon the altar of burnt offering.

5. Beginnings of a Counter-Movement (2 Maccabees 2:19-24; 27)

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.…” When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar…Then Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying, “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”

6. A Change in the Law (1 Maccabees 2:39-41)

When Mattathias and his friends learned of [the Sabbath massacre], they mourned for them deeply. And each said to his neighbor: “If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.”

7. The First Hanukkah (1 Maccabees 4:36-56)

Then said Judas and his brothers, “Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. And they saw the sanctuary desolate…Then they rent their clothes, and mourned with great lamentation, and sprinkled themselves with ashes…[Judah] chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place….Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lamp stand, the altar of incense, and the table into the Temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lamp stand, and these gave light in the Temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they had finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev…they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals….So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise.

8. Another Reason for the Season (2 Maccabees 1:18-22; 31-35)

Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the Temple, we though it necessary to notify you, in order that you may also celebrate the Feast of the Booths, and the Feast of the Fire when Nehemiah, who built the Temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.

For when our fathers were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone. But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, send the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it.

And when they reported to us that they had not found fire, but a thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it. And when the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkled the liquid on the wood and what was laid upon it. When this was done and some time had passed and the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled…

And when the materials of the sacrifice were consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured upon large stones. When this was done, a flame blazed up; but when the light from the altar shone back, it went out…Nehemia and his associates called this “nephthar,” which means purification, but by most people it is called naphtha.

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