Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 10
Jonathan plays Syrian politics and wins big. Plus: We take a deep dive into Jewish festivals.
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Jewish Holy Days
In the last episode we mentioned that the Seleucid general Nicanor was killed. “The people rejoiced greatly and celebrated that day as a day of great gladness,” the narrator says. “They decreed that this day should be celebrated each year on the thirteenth day of Adar.”
This new holiday is emphasized in 2 Maccabees, which provides a bit more detail. “And they all decree by public vote never to let this day go unobserved, but to celebrate the thirteenth of the twelfth month—which is called Adar in the Aramaic language—the day before Mordecai’s day” (15.36).
Before we get back to this holiday, it’s worth recalling that this is now the second holiday to come out of 1 Maccabees: first, Hanukkah, and now Yom Nicanor—or Nicanor’s Day. Given their conspicuous presence in the narrative here, we thought it might be good to reflect a bit on festivals and holy days more generally.
There are three main Jewish Holidays and several smaller ones. The big three are called High Holy Days. Those are:
Rosh Hashanah, which kicks off the Israelite new year. It falls in September or October.
Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement comes next. This also falls between September and October, just a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah. Originally, it was a day of fasting and sacrifice, when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies.
Then there’s Passover. This is probably best known of the holidays because it’s central to the Exodus story, which is one of the best known stories in the Hebrew Bible.
Holidays are commemorative. They are designed to bring our minds back to either initiating or ongoing events so that we don’t lose touch with their significance in our lives. The Bible shows us several more beyond these three, some of which are established by God, others by his people.
Pentecost or Shavuot is related to Passover—it comes fifty days later, hence the name. It celebrates the wheat harvest.
Booths or Sukkot. This holiday is about celebrating the harvest and commemorates the Israelite wanderings. It’s celebrated in October and marks the end of a trio of holidays: Rosh Hashanah leads into Yom Kippur, which leads into Booths. And there are two other holidays attached to Booths: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The first marks eight days from Booths, and the second celebrates God’s gift of the Torah.
Hanukkah. We’ve already covered the place of Hanukkah in 1 Maccabees a few episodes ago. 2 Maccabees makes several additional references that help us understand it a bit further. 2 Maccabees 1.9 refers to the holiday as “the festival of booths in the month of Chislev.” What’s the Hanukkah connection to Booths? Chislev is between November and December. The Festival of Booths falls two months earlier. But, according to 2 Maccabees 10.6–8, there’s still a tie: “They celebrated [Hanukkah] . . . in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. . . . They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.” So Hanukkah actually begins as a belated celebration of Booths. And there’s another wrinkle with the rededication of the temple that Hanukkah commemorates; the original dedication of the temple happened during Booths (1 Kings 8.1–2)! Further, there’s also the coincidence of days. Hanukkah has eight days; so does Booths if you count Shemini Atzeret.
Purim. This feast goes back to the Book of Esther and celebrates God’s deliverance of his people living in the Persian empire. If you know that story, Haman had plans to wipe out the Jews and he threw lots to decide on when to take action. Purim means “lots.” Instead, God uses Queen Esther to undermine Haman’s plot and save his people.
And this takes us back to Nicanor Day. Why don’t Jews celebrate Nicanor Day like it says they should in 1 and 2 Maccabees? For the writer of 2 Maccabees, Purim is called Mordicai’s day—Mordecai is Esther’s uncle.
Nicanor Day was celebrated the day before Purim. But while the days nearly overlapped, the people celebrating did not. Purim was a celebration that began with the exilic community in Persia. So celebrating it in Jerusalem wasn’t automatic. Besides, the people in Jerusalem already had their own day that celebrated almost the same thing—God’s deliverance of his people.
This is ultimately tied to why the book of 1 Maccabees fell out of favor with the Jews. The book of 1 Maccabees and Nicanor Day both were overwhelmingly seen as Hasmonean. The rabbis who ended up becoming the spiritual authorities of the Jewish community were not fans of the Hasmoneans—in part for reasons we’ll see in today’s episode. The rabbis ultimately edged 1 Maccabees out of any official recognition. And the rabbi’s favored holiday, Purim, edged Nicanor Day out of the calendar.
In the ‘Bad’ Books and Beyond
Many of these holidays are mentioned in the so-called Apocryphal books. Hanukkah is of course mentioned in the Maccabean books, which are the primary historical sources for the holiday.
Yom Kippur is mentioned in Jubilees 5.17–18: “Regarding the children of Israel it is written and ordained: ‘If they turn to him in righteousness, he will forgive all their iniquity and pardon all their sins.’ It is written and ordained that he will show mercy to all who turn from their guilt once a year.”
Baruch 1.14 refers to Yom Kippur as well. “And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you [i.e., the book of Baruch], to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons.” After this verse follows a confession of sin.
Booths is mentioned in 1 Esdras 5.51: “They kept the festival of booths, as it is commanded in the law, and offered the proper sacrifices every day.”
Passover is mentioned in Wisdom 18.9 and 1 Esdras 1.1–24, 7.10–15 And don’t forget Pentecost. It’s mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12.31 and—our old friend!—Tobit 2.1. It’s during Pentecost that Tobit loses his eyesight.
Of course, several of these holidays are also mentioned in the New Testament, as well. Jesus was noted for his observance of these Jewish festivals and holy days—some of which he transformed by his ministry. The two most prominent examples are Passover (Pascha) and Pentecost.
Another example is Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—when the priest enters the Holy of Holies. That’s what the author of the Hebrews says Jesus did “once for all” (9.12). A note in the Jewish Annotated New Testament says,
Hebrews is interpreting Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in terms of their salvific efficacy. His death is analogous to the Yom Kippur sacrifice, and his resurrection and ascension to the heavenly realm are analogous to the high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies.
From the Christian perspective these holidays are fulfilled in Christ and transfigured by him. But as far as 1 Maccabees is concerned, that’s still in the future. And takes us back to our primary focus today: 1 Maccabees 10.
The Rise of Alexander Epiphanes
1 Maccabees possesses many lessons for the attentive reader. We mentioned one a couple episodes back: Empires don’t last. One reason is that the same arrogance that drives empire building drives the competition that destabilizes empires. We saw that with the way Alexander’s empire was both forged and then later fragmented. We saw that with all the power plays after Antiochus IV’s death: Philip, and Lysias, Antiochus V, Demetrius.
And now another! Alexander Epiphanes, the namesake of both the man who started the whole ball rolling and the madman who kept it going. He’s supposedly another one of Antiochus IV’s kids. And, given what happened to No. 5, it’s probably lucky he had a different name.
When Alexander rears his head, setting up shop in the coastal town of Ptolemais, Demetrius needs to act ASAP. He figures he better patch up relations with Jonathan, brother of Judas Maccabeus and leader of what we call the Hasmonean dynasty. “Let us act first to make peace with him before he makes peace with Alexander against us,” says Demetrius, “for he will remember all the wrongs that we did to him and to his brothers and his nation.” No fooling?
Demetrius is still technically in charge of Judea—that is, Judea is part of the Seleucid Empire, regardless of how troubled and tenuous its grip now is. In his role as sovereign, he sends Jonathan a letter granting him permission to raise an army and be enlisted as an ally. He also agrees to free the hostages we mentioned last time. These people are currently stashed in the Akra, in the citadel.
Jonathan reads the letter to the people in Jerusalem and within earshot of the citadel. The people are unnerved when they hear that Demetrius wants them to arm themselves. What’s going on? But the anxiety is calmed a bit when the citadel doors open and the captives come streaming out.
Now back in Seleucid good graces—better to say good politics—Jonathan moves his base from Michmash back to Jerusalem. He starts fortifying the town. And Seleucid forces hightail it from the line of forts that Bacchides had erected. Many of the assimilationist Jews ran to Beth-zur, which stood as a safe zone, a “place of refuge,” as the narrator says. Given the Mosaic callback, it’s worth remembering that implies these folks weren’t all that safe outside Beth-zur.
Alexander Makes a Move
In earlier episodes we talked about the fame of the Maccabean boys, how even their pagan neighbors were impressed by their spunk and tenacity—and, of course, violent stabbing, slashing, and beheading. By charm or harm, they garnered respect. One of the pagans who heard these guys were all that and a bag of Seleucid heads was none other than Alexander.
Demetrius is right to be worried. Alexander hears about Demetrius’s offer and extends one of his own. The narrator includes his message:
King Alexander to his brother Jonathan, greetings. We have heard about you, that you are a mighty warrior and worthy to be our friend. And so we have appointed you today to be the high priest of your nation; you are to be called the king’s Friend and you are to take our side and keep friendship with us.
The reference to being the king’s friend means inclusion in the Seleucid ruling class. The narrator adds another detail: “He also sent him a purple robe and a golden crown.”
The Seleucids had appointed chief priests in the past, and Jonathan took the job and donned the “sacred vestments.” Significantly—especially given our discussion of holy days—he did this during the festival of booths. He also began rebuilding his army.
Jonathan’s acceptance of the high priesthood rubs some the wrong way. The role had been empty since Alcimus died. “What Jonathan’s appointment in fact involved was taking the high priesthood away from the family on Onias, its traditional holders (cf. 12:7-8, 19-20; 1 Mac 3:1-5; 4:7),” says a note in the Navarre Bible. “We know that Onias IV, the son of Onias III, to whom this office belonged, left for Egypt and there built a replica of the temple of Jerusalem (cf. Flavius Josephus, Antiquitates Judaicae, 12, 387; 13, 62-73). It is generally thought that Jonathan is the personage described as the ‘impious priest’ by those who withdrew to Qumran with the ‘Master of Righteousness.’”
Demetrius Tries Again and Fails
Demetrius catches wind of these developments and freaks. He had tried preempting Alexander but didn’t sweeten the deal like Alexander had. So now Demetrius sends another letter, and this time he lays it on thick. “Keep faith with us,” says the king, “and we will . . . grant you many immunities and give you gifts.” This letter rolls on for verse after verse—nineteen in all. Here’s a summary:
He cancels their taxes—including annual fees paid by the temple—in perpetuity, and says tax fugitives are forgiven and they can reclaim their property.
He gives them land—“three districts . . . from Samaria and Galilee”—and puts them under the control of Jerusalem and the high priest, that is, Jonathan.
He offers to hand over the citadel so the Jews can use it for their own defenses.
He releases any Jews held captive in his kingdom and eliminates any tax burdens they have.
He says he’ll free the Jews throughout the empire to observe their holy days. “No one shall have authority to . . . annoy any of them about any matter.”
He offers Jewish soldiers a place in his army and allows them to serve in high positions.
He gives them an annual allowance of fifteen thousand shekels.
And he agrees to foot the bill for rebuilding and restoring the temple and the walls of Jerusalem—in fact all the walls in Judea.
What’s the Jews response to this letter? Nope! They turn Demetrius down cold. “When Jonathan and the people heard these words,” says the narrator, “they did not believe or accept them, because they remembered the great wrongs that Demetrius had done in Israel and how much he had oppressed them.”
Instead, they back Alexander. And that proves a good move. While all these negotiations are underway, Alexander pulls together an army and defeats Demetrius in battle. Alexander becomes the next head of the Seleucid empire.
Jonathan’s Next Big Test
Alexander makes a quick alliance with the current Ptolemy in Egypt. The two agree to a marriage. Alexander gets Ptolemy’s daughter, Cleopatra (not that Cleopatra), and they “celebrated her wedding in Ptolemais with great pomp, as kings do,” quoting the narrator.
Alexander hasn’t forgotten his alliance with Jonathan and Judea. He invites him to come to Ptolemais and be honored. He has him clothed in purple and sits him at his side. What’s more he officially appoints him governor of Judea—so Jonathan is now both high priest and governor.
Some of Jonathan’s critics assemble to accuse him, but Alexander pays them no mind. “Go out with him into the middle of the city,” he says, “and proclaim that no one is to bring charges against him [Jonathan] about any matter, and let no one annoy him for any reason.” The critics flee and Jonathan return home triumphant.
As we’ve seeen, ll these leaders have kids named after themselves. Demetrius was no different. And just like that, we have another power struggle: Demetrius’s son Demetrius hits the scene. Alexander catches wind of this development and heads to Antioch to get ready for the fight.
Meanwhile, Demetrius appoints Apollonius as governor of Coelesyria (Lebanon and Palestine). Apollonius assembles an army, camps at Jamnia, and sends Jonathan a challenge oozing with bravado:
If you now have confidence in your forces, come down to the plain to meet us, and let us match strength with each other there, for I have with me the power of the cities. Ask and learn who I am and who the others are that are helping us. People will tell you that you cannot stand before us, for your ancestors were twice put to flight in their own land. And now you will not be able to withstand my cavalry and such an army in the plain, where there is no stone or pebble, or place to flee.
But before Apollonius can make a move, Jonathan calls his own troops and they attack one of Apollonius’s garrisons in Joppa.
Apollonius is hacked. He mobilizes his army and cavalry and they fight with Jonathan at Azotus (ancient Ashdod, Philistine territory). They almost get the better of them, at one point surrounding Jonathan’s men and pinning them down with volley after volley of arrows. But Apollonius can’t keep up the fight. Despite all his bragging, his cavalry flags. The horses tire and scatter. And suddenly Apollonius finds himself on the run.
The army darts back into Azotus, men hiding within the temple of Dagon. Jonathan’s men overrun the city and torch it. He then marches against another Philistine city, Askalon. But instead of resisting, the inhabitants rush out and welcome him. Battle averted!
So Jonathan is victorious. He rides back to Jerusalem loaded with the spoils of war. Alexander hears he’s bested Apollonius and rewards him with a golden buckle, “such as it is the custom to give to the King’s Kinsmen,” says the narrator. And he throws more real estate into the mix, giving the city of Ekron and its environs to Jonathan.
Quite the reversal of fortunes. In a matter of a few chapters, Judea goes from being under the thumb of the Seleucids to serving as their allies and regaining their autonomy.
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