Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 13–14
The primary drama comes to a close as Simon ascends the throne, expels the enemy, and wins freedom for the Jews.
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Recapping the Action so Far
We’re nearing the end of 1 Maccabees. So far the book has presented a relentless parade of actors and activity. Given that, a recap is probably in order.
We started off with a crisis. The Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV tries to strengthen his troubled kingdom by insisting everyone under his reign embrace Greek ideas and practices—including worship. That means Jews would have to trade their cultural identity for peace.
In an article for The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, the scholar Doron Mendels talks about three main social groups in the Seleucid world.
Greeks, like Antiochus, who dominated the Middle East following Alexander’s conquest;
native populations, like the Jews of Judea, who found themselves under Greek rule; and
Hellenists, who tried to synthesize the two worlds: their local beliefs and practices, and the Greek culture pushed by their Seleucid rulers.
The primary drama of 1 Maccabees is all about the way these three groups get along—or, more accurately, don’t. The story is told from the perspective of locals, faithful to their traditional beliefs. The challenges primarily involve their Greek overlords, the Seleucids. The Hellenizing Jews also play a role, mostly as spoilers complicating life for the faithful Jews.
Most of 1 Maccabees involves direct confrontation with the Seleucids. But the book eventually shifts away from open confrontation toward a more complex arrangement that features political deals with various factions of the fracturing Seleucid empire. Whether through confrontation or triangulation, however, the endgame all along was to secure enough freedom to worship God in the Jerusalem Temple as the faithful Jews felt bound to do.
The crisis begins when Antiochus tries enforcing his program, and Mattathias of Modein refuses. Instead he leads a group of rebels, including his sons, to oppose the Seleucids. Those sons are:
Judas Maccabeus, whose sobriquet ends up providing the title for this and other Maccabean books;
Jonathan, who takes over after Judas is killed; and finally
Simon, who takes over when Jonathan is feared dead.
Each successive ruler gets the Jews closer to their goal of religious freedom. Judas is presented primarily as a warrior and military leader.
He leads his people against impossible odds time and again, ultimately reclaiming the Temple after Antiochus had defiled it and inaugurating the holiday of rededication we know as Hanukkah.
Jonathan adds diplomacy and political gamesmanship to the mix. Daniel Harrington in his summary of the book says this: “His political skill gave new life and direction to the Maccabean movement.” When he takes over, Jonathan starts playing one Seleucid ruler off another. He ends up earning special status in the Seleucid council (he becomes a “friend” of the king). He also seeks and secures alliances with Rome and Sparta.
Jonathan’s no slouch on the battlefield either. But his most important move was becoming high priest—which was also the result of effective politicking. The former high priest Alcimus was one of the Hellenizers and wanted to accommodate pagan Gentiles in the temple. He died suddenly after ordering removal of the inner wall of the Temple sanctuary. Alcimus’ death leaves a vacancy, and Jonthan fills it, thanks to the appointment of Alexander Balas, leader of one of the Seleucid factions.
Jonathan’s father Mattathias was a priest, so even though he wasn’t part of the line that held the high priesthood, his appointment wasn’t a stretch. This, however, became a major sticking point for some traditional Jews—who eventually broke with the Maccabean rulers and formed a passive resistance movement by the Dead Sea. They were the community that wrote the scrolls preserved until their discovery in the middle of the last century.
But politics ultimately becomes Jonathan’s undoing. The leader of one Seleucid faction, Trypho, tricks him into reducing his armed guard and following him to Ptolemais—on the pretense of giving him the city. Instead, he traps him and murders his guard.
And that brings us to Simon, whose story we pick up today. He turns out to be every bit the politician his brother Jonathan was. Ultimately, he was more effective.
Simon Takes the Helm
After Jonathan’s capture, everyone back home assumes he’s dead. The narrator says that his people mourned for him, and that the surrounding Gentiles saw an opportunity: “Now that they have no leader or helper, let us make war on them and wipe out their memory from the earth.”
Time after time, the faithful Jews in 1 Maccabees have faced existential disaster. And here we are again. Not surprisingly, the first Gentile aggressor to make a move is Trypho.
Simon hears that Trypho has assembled an army to invade Judah. And it’s not just Simon. Everybody has heard the news, and the people are afraid. Simon speaks to allay their fears.
You yourselves know what great things my brothers and I and the house of my father have done for the laws in the sanctuary; you know also the wars in the difficulties that my brothers and I have seen. By reason of this all my brothers have perished for the sake of Israel, and I alone am left. And now, far be it from me to spare my life in any time of distress, for I am not better than my brothers. But I will avenge my nation in the sanctuary and your wives and children, for all the nations have gathered together out of hatred to destroy us.
The speech moves the people. They declare Simon their leader. “Fight our battles,” they say, “and all that you say to us we will do.”
Sure enough Trypho arrives with his army. But he hears that Simon is ready for him. So instead of an attack, Trypho starts by making demands. He claims Jonathan owes money to the Seleucid treasury; basically, it’s pay-to-play for the offices they have. Trypho says he’s holding Jonathan captive until he forks over the money.
It’s great news that Jonathan’s still alive, but Simon knows Trypho’s spiel is a ruse. This is the least trustworthy guy around. But Simon raises the money anyway. Unsurprisingly, Trypho fails to release Jonathan. Simon responds by marching his men to oppose Trypho wherever they went. And Trypho marches his army from camp to camp, avoiding encounters with Simon and his army.
Meanwhile, the Greeks back in the Akra are getting hungry. They ask Trypho to send food, but Trypho and his men get bogged down in a snowstorm. Finally, the game is over. Trypho kills Jonathan and retreats. Simon gathers his brother’s body and buries him in a monumental grave in Modein, their family’s hometown.
Trypho’s scheming continues, naturally. He kills young Antiochus VI and places himself on the throne. Simon responds by fortifying Judah against subsequent attacks. Significantly, he also reaches out to King Demetrius.
Independence at Last
You’ll recall that Trypho ran Demetrius off. Since then, Demetrius maintained rule over a rump state with hopes of regaining his entire kingdom. But a rump state was still something—and it was something Simon could use to triangulate against Trypho. It’s win-win. Demetrius is happy for the ally; he writes Simon:
We are ready to make a general peace with you and to write to our officials to grant you release from tribute. All the grants that we have made to you remain valid, and let the strongholds that you have built be your possession. . . . Let there be peace between us.
This was a big deal. Says the Narrator: “In the one hundred and seventieth year the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, ‘In the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews.’”
In modern dating, this was the year 142 BC. For a sense of the time scale of the book here, Antiochus plundered the temple in 169 BC and built the Citadel the year after. We’re talking almost three decades of war and struggle. But it was worth it because the Jews had finally won their freedom. A note in the Navarre Bible sums it up this way: Demetrius “exempts him from all tribute, which is equivalent to granting Judea full political independence—freeing her from the Gentile yoke….”
Simon achieves three important victories, one right off the bat. First, he sends an army to take the city of Joppa. Then he goes after Gazara. Recall Bacchides from chapter 9: He built fortresses and fortified towns throughout Judea. One of those was Gazara.
Simon decides it’s time to take back the city. He builds a siege engine and batters his way into one of the towers. This siege engine is a mobile tower in which a large force could breach enemy defenses and invade the fort. As his army storms the city, the townspeople surrender. They plead for mercy, and Simon lets them all live if they leave the city. He then cleanses the place and resettled faithful Jews there. He also builds a house for himself in the city. And he’s not done.
Simon next tackles the Citadel, the Akra, which has stood as an offense from nearly the beginning of the story. And this is, in many ways, the final climax of the book. It’s easier to manage than Gazara. Jonathan’s ongoing strategy to block the Citadel from resupply worked. The people inside eventually succumb to starvation; you can only last so long when you can’t get groceries. Those still living realize the end is upon them and sue for peace.
Simon accepts their offer and expels them from the citadel. Next he has the place cleansed, same as Gazara. Then they threw a massive party to celebrate their victory. And Simon repeats his homebuilding campaign in the former Citadel as well. It’s a tremendous picture of final victory—he takes up residence in the palace of his oppressors.
Meanwhile, Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus has come of age. While Simon settles into his rule, he appoints John commander of the army and sends him to live in Gazara.
The narrator then presents what appears to be a sidenote on Demetrius: The down-and-out ruler goes looking for help in his war with Trypho and ends up getting captured by the king of Persia. But this is more than a sidenote: Demetrius’s bad luck plays a thematic role in Judah’s final victory.
As a note in the Navarre Bible says, “With Trypho taken up with affairs at court, and Demetrius the prisoner of the Persians, the Jews at last have peace—all thanks to Simon, whom the author of 1 Maccabees proceeds to eulogize.”
A Eulogy and Constitution
The eulogy is twelve verses long. The first part praises Simon’s exploits, including capturing Gazara and the Akra. “The land was at rest all the days of Simon,” it says. “His rule delighted his people and his glory all his days.”
As Daniel Harrington points out, the second half echoes the first but with language taken from other biblical books, continuing the borrowing we’ve seen throughout the book. The narrator is very consciously working within the biblical narrative tradition. He’s self consciously inserting his heroes into the history of Israel’s kings, and painting them as inheritors of their legacy. Says the narrator of Simon: “He strengthened all the lowly . . . and was zealous for the law. . . .”
The eulogy concludes with a line that echoes King Solomon as well as validates Simon’s own role as high priest, a role his brother Jonathan had attained: “The sanctuary he made splendid and multiplied its furnishings.”
After this, the narrator has two lengthy passages we can summarize pretty quickly. The first is renewed relations with Sparta and Rome. “When there was a change in leadership,” says Harrington, “it was customary to renew the alliances made in the past.” Both kingdoms send letters. Sparta’s features in this chapter; it’s a formal acknowledgement of Simon’s rule and his high priesthood. Rome’s letter comes into play in the next chapter, which we’ll cover next week.
The second passage to summarize is Judah’s own acknowledgement of Simon and his line, especially John Hyrcanus. According to the narrator, the people say,
How shall we thank Simon and his sons? For he and his brothers and the house of his father have stood firm; they have fought and repulsed Israel’s enemies and established its freedom.
The answer: They inscribe bronze tablets to commemorate the actions of the Maccabees and place them on pillars on Mount Zion. The tablets recount some of the same deeds of the eulogy, but in prose rather than poetry. “Everything is geared to enhancing the reputation of the Hasmonean dynasty, which begins really with Simon and his son John Hycanus,” says the Navarre Bible; “the inscription on the tablets is a sort of constitutional charter of the dynasty.”
Importantly, that included political, military, and high priestly rule. Some key snippets:
“Simon son of Mattathias, a priest of the sons of Joarib, and his brothers, exposed themselves to danger and resisted the enemies of their nation, in order that their sanctuary and the law might be preserved; and they brought great glory to their nation.”
“The people saw Simon's faithfulness and the glory that he had resolved to win for his nation, and they made him their leader and high priest, because he had done all these things and because of the justice and loyalty that he had maintained towards his nation.”
“In view of these things King Demetrius confirmed him in the high-priesthood, made him one of his Friends, and paid him high honours.”
“The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise. . . .”
This last bit is important. The way the Maccabees—and thus the later Hasmonean dynasty—came to power was out of the norm. Normally, a prophet would have appointed a king. This left open the possibility that such a prophet would arise and properly confer kingship at a later date. Christians naturally read that and see the fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the ultimate liberator of God’s people and the entire world.
“So Simon accepted and agreed to be high priest,” says the narrator, “to be commander and ethnarch of the Jews and priests, and to be protector of them all.” There are some final details to address, but the primary action of the book is now over.
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