A megalomaniac Idumean sitting on the throne of Israel, killing babies. Parents running away as refugees to Egypt. What happened to angels singing sweetly, cattle lowing, and a contented baby boy? It is hard for us to remember warrior angels frightening the shepherds, a village overcrowded for the census, and dirty diapers. But this? This is a massacre.
How did we ever come to this?
To find an answer, we must begin as the First Book of Maccabees begins. We must go back to Alexander the Great. This is how First Maccabees describes the upheaval of civilization which was Alexander:
Alexander of Macedon, the son of Philip, marched from the land of Kittim, defeated Darius, king of Persia and Media, and siezed his throne, being already king of Greece. In the course of many campaigns he captured fortified towns, slaughtered kings, traversed the earth to its remotest bounds, and plundered innumerable nations.
The time came when he fell ill, and, knowing that he was dying, he summoned his generals … and divided his empire among them. … On his death they were all crowned as kings, and their descendants succeeded them for many years. They brought untold miseries upon the world.1 Maccabees 1: 1-3, 5-9 NEB
Among these generals, Seleucus took over Babylon and later claimed Syria, Armenia, Persia, Palestine. Farther west, Ptolemy became the king of Egypt. All this happened more than 300 years before Jesus' birth.
About 175 years before the birth of Jesus, the throne of Syria was seized by a Seleucid descendant who was named Antiochus Epiphanes. The nickname "Epiphanes" refers to him showing forth divinity. Among his ancestors were Antiochus "the God" and Antiochus "Savior". You would not find any of these honorifics to be appropriate, but Antiochus did. Having god-like power over other people, Antiochus demanded worship and sacrifices from all the people in his empire.
Antiochus Epiphanes also invaded Egypt, conquering all of it except the city of Alexandria and capturing Egypt's current king, Ptolemy VI. Although the book of Maccabees doesn't describe this war in detail, it seems that Ptolemy had made an alliance with Rome; the Romans opposed Antiochus Epiphanes taking over Egypt – and they had enough clout to make him withdraw.
So Antiochus withdrew from Egypt back into Judea,
where he made a terrible nuisance of himself trying
to take the place of God. Antiochus forbade worship
of all local gods, decreeing that worship should be
given to himself. Children who were circumcized as
required by Jewish Law were killed; the parents who
had had them circumcised were killed; anyone who kept
a copy of the Bible was killed.
Israel lived under
a reign of terror.
There was a man named Mattathias, a priest of God and resident of Modin, a village to the west of Jerusalem. Mattathias was fervently religious, zealous about the customary observances of God's Law, and bitterly judgemental toward anyone who submitted to Antiochus' decree. It happened one day that the king's officers came to this village. Looking for peaceful submission, they approached the priest Mattathias and asked him to lead the sacrifice.
Mattathias would not do it, nor would he be quiet
We will not obey the king, he said,
nor will we deviate one step from our form of
worship. Someone else stepped forward instead,
which only enraged Mattathias more. He rushed to the
altar and killed both the apostate and the officer.
Then he called to the townspeople to follow him into
Thus Mattathias showed his fervent zeal
for the Law, though whether his zeal encompassed
the most important parts of the Law I leave for you
to think about.
Mattathias with his sons and followers were not the
only people running to the hills in order to escape
the state terror of Antiochus. Another group was
pursued into the arid region by Antiochus' soldiers.
The soldiers caught up with them on the Sabbath. For
the religious Jews, work and travel were forbidden
on a Sabbath and pagan offerings were forbidden at
any time. They would not come out; they would not
worship Antiochus or his gods; they would not fight.
Let us all meet death with a clear conscience,
they decided. And so they were slaughtered.
For Mattathias and his sons, the clear conscience
was not worth the possibility of destruction. There
was no concept of non-violent resistance with them.
If we refuse to fight the Gentiles for our lives
as well as for our laws and customs, then they will
soon wipe us off the face of the earth.
Thus began the revolt of the Maccabees. For nearly
a decade, Mattathias led a guerrilla movement with
a certain amount of success. They destroyed pagan
altars, harassed foreign troops, and provided some
protection for those who were resisting. Mattathias
then died, leaving the struggle to his sons. In the
story, Mattathias admonishes the younger men how to
carry on the struggle, saying,
Gather to your side all who observe the law, and
avenge your people's wrongs. Repay the Gentiles in
their own coin.
The son who took primary leadership of the movement was Judas. His nickname, Maccabaeus, is the source for the name given to the movement and to the books written about them. Under Judas, the Maccabeans had significant military success. He was able to conquer Jersalem and to set up a government which minted coins and treated with foreign powers.
The First Book of Maccabees is written to be a history of the triumph of the Maccabean revolt and the beginning of the Hasmonean dynasty. The book is unabashedly laudatory of the accomplishments of Judas and his family; like most history, it was written by the victors and takes their perspective. Despite that, each time I read the book I am more dismayed by what they did. We've already mentioned how Mattathias was swept up in anger and revenge. His sons (it seems to me) were more calculating and efficient.
Judas roused much of Judea to oppose the impositions of Antiochus and his successors. He led armies of Jews against the battle-tested Syrian forces and often defeated them. He also attacked Jewish cities which he thought were aiding the oppressors. He drove Jewish citizens from their homes and looted the abandoned cities to enrich himself and his army. This was the practice of the time; it was the custom of the Seleucids, of the Ptolemies, of the Romans, and of the Maccabees.
Now Judas had heard about the Romans. … He was told about the wars they had fought, … their conquest of the Gauls, … of their successes in Spain – distant as it was from their own land …
Those whom they wished … to become kings, became kings, and those they wished to depose, they deposed …1 Maccabees 8: 1-3, 13
Judas, therefore, sent ambassadors to Rome and initiated an alliance with them, just as the Egyptian Ptolemies had done in years past.
Judas Maccabaeus was a canny general and skilled at
arousing his soldiers to rise to the situation.
Before one battle, Judas is recorded speaking to
his troops, inspiring them to rush headlong into the
teeth of a superior force. Then he says,
cry now to heaven to favor our cause, to remember
the covenant made with our fathers, and to crush
this army before us today. Judas had adopted the
strategies and practices of Antiochus, Ptolemy, and
all of their henchmen and successors. Here he also
adopted the pagan practice of trying to manipulate
God to become an ally in the battle he was going to
At another battle, Judas defeated and then killed
the Syrian general Apollonius. The story tells us,
Judas took the sword of Apollonius and used it in
his campaigns for the rest of his life. That was
meant, I'm sure, as a simple statement of fact. For
me, it also bears an allegorical truth: Judas took
the manner and practices of the empires around him,
even though he clothed them in the style of Jewish
religion. The sword of Apollonius became the legacy
which Judas left to his brothers and to the whole of
the Jewish people.
Eventually, Judas Maccabaeus died fighting when his
army of 3,000
melted away in the face of
22,000 seasoned opponents.
After Judas' death, his brother Jonathan rose to command. During his time in leadership, there was much rebuilding, especially of Jerusalem.
There was also continued conflict. It could hardly be otherwise. In the first place, the Maccabean conquest was far from complete. Judas had taken the city of Jerusalem and Jonathan was rebuilding it, but a Syrian garrison remained in the fortress in the center of the city. There were fortresses and outposts in other Judean cities and villages, as well, all of them challenging the political and military ascendence of the Maccabean leadership.
In the second place, the surrounding empire was in the throes of perpetual upheaval. Since the death of Antiochus Epiphanes there had been no clear succession to the throne of Asia. At the time when Jonathan took command in Judea, there were two kings of the eastern empire, Alexander and Demetrius, contending against each other and against Egyptian and Roman aspirations.
These contending kings did not want to spend their resources dealing with an upstart province of Judea. Instead, they attempted to neutralize the problem. Demetrius declared Jonathan to be an ally and gave him permission to raise an army (presumably the one he had already raised). Alexander countered by appointing Jonathan to be High Priest and enrolling him as one of the King's Friends. Demetrius remitted certain taxes, including the tax on salt, and he incorporated the Jewish army into the imperial forces. Demetrius also appointed Jonathan as High Priest. After Alexander was killed, one of his followers continued the fight in the name of Alexander's young son Antiochus; he, too, promised tax relief and named Jonathan as High Priest. All of them sent Jonathan purple robes and golden crowns. In return, these kings and claimants required that Jonathan's soldiers fight for them in the wars.
Jonathan and his brother Simon continued the policy of imposing their authority with slaughter, pillage, and hostages. Jonathan also resumed the policy of an alliance with Rome.
Eventually, all this duplicity caught Jonathan in its net. He accepted an invitation to take over yet another city, only to be captured and himself held as a hostage.
With Jonathan captured, Simon put himself forward
as leader in his brothers' place. The assembly in
Jerusalem said to him,
Fight our battles, and we
will do whatever you tell us. In this way,
made himself master of the whole land.
The Syrian general holding Jonathan pretended that
the dispute was about a financial debt. He said,
Send one hundred talents of silver and two of
his sons as hostages, and we will let him go.
The book says that Simon knew this was a trick,
but he sent the money and the boys anyway. Simon,
the book says, was afraid of popular opinion if
he did not do everything possible to save Jonathan.
Besides battling the foreign powers, who were still
battling each other, and making himself as rich as
Solomon, Simon had pyramids built as memorials for
his father and mother and his four brothers,
an odd thing, I would think, for a man defending the
traditions of the Jewish people. He also continued
to accept appointments to office from the competing
kings of Asia.
The partisan history of the Maccabean revolt gushes
with praise for Simon. Echoing the prophet Micah, the
book tells us that peace had come to Judea:
man sat under his own vine and fig-tree, and they had
no one to fear. Lawlessness was forced from the
land and justice reigned, with Simon the protector of
the poor. Or so it says.
As part of this peace, Simon's army went off to aid the newest King Antiochus, but he was rebuffed. Simon's son John set out to battle the army of the other current claimant; John had some success in forcing back the adversary and in burning a few cities. Meanwhile, Rome was invited to be the protector of Simon, although the Romans bided their time.
Finally, about 130 years before the birth of Jesus,
Simon fell to internal intrigue within the nation.
One of his own generals
He murdered Simon and two of his sons at a remote
fort near Jericho and attempted to take over the
government. Another son, John, learned of the putsch
and was able to thwart it.
So ends the First Book of the Maccabees. The dynasty continued for another 3 generations as vassals to the Seleucid kings, though not without considerable bickering among themselves. In the year 63 BC, the Roman Pompey took possession of the kingdom of Asia and all its dependencies.
The legacy of the Maccabees was this:
Many others were active in Judea before the coming of Jesus, and all of them left a legacy to those who followed. The Maccabees can not be blamed for the Slaughter of the Innocents; that sin is laid at the feet of Herod. But the story of Mattathias and his sons can help us to understand how Herod the Idumeon came to sit on the throne of Judea – and why King Herod was so frightened about the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.
Fortunately, the bad news of massacre is only the very beginning of the story. Stay with us; there is Good News coming.