Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 15–16
Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus, secures the peace of Judea, and we discuss the meaning(s) of history as the narrative comes to a close.
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What People Say Happened
First Maccabees is a historical book. A lot of people naively think that means it’s a book that describes what happened. But that’s not the case. History is not what happened; it’s what people say happened.
Some of those statements are more reliable than others. But they’re all partial because they rely on a person (or persons) sifting through the available data and interpretations and making interpretations of their own for the purpose of presenting a certain picture. That’s even true to some degree for Holy Scripture since God is using human storytellers who are working with human memory, human archives, and the rest.
In the case of 1 Maccabees, the author is working from oral stories and temple archives. We’ll return to this at the end of today’s episode, but the narrator actually mentions he’s working from temple archives: “The rest of the acts of John . . . are written in the annals of his high-priesthood.” Beyond a statement about his sources, this is an indication that the narrator is writing at the end of John Hyrcanus’s reign or shortly thereafter.
The language reflects a literary formula we find elsewhere in the Bible when scribes are working from written records. The narrator also makes use of that same formula when summing up Judas’s reign, though he modifies the line to account for the disruption of the archives in Judas’s day. “Now the rest of the acts of Judas, and his wars and the brave deeds that he did, and his greatness, have not been recorded, but they were very many.” By invoking this formula, even altered, the narrator maintains the thematic tie to Israel and Judah’s kings.
Second Maccabees mentions that Nehemiah established an archive and that Judas Maccabeus restored this library after its destruction by Antiochus IV. Given that records are not present for the period of Judas’ struggle, the narrator is evidently working with oral stories circulating about Judas. It’s also possible that the reconstructed nature of the archive explains some of the reconstructed documents featured in the book. Some scholars say that this or that letter in the book seems fabricated. It seems just as possible to imagine they’re attempts at restoring from memory what a document thought to be in the archive might have been or said.
The book is replete with written documents. Letters and inscriptions. Plus all the records not specifically cited that the writer is using. The narrator uses these to stitch together a dynastic story of the Maccabean family—who would later be called the Hasmoneans—supporting their claims to rule in Judea.
Much of that work was complete by the end of 1 Maccabees 14, but there are still a couple of chapters to go.
Final Chapters of the Story
How best to close 1 Maccabees but with yet another Antiochus? Demetrius II is now out of the picture, but his brother, Antiochus VII, is eager to regain the family throne.
He sends a letter “from the islands of the sea” addressed to Simon, who is identified as “the high priest and ethnarch and to the nation of the Jews.” It reads,
Whereas certain scoundrels have gained control of the kingdom of our ancestors, and I intend to lay claim to the kingdom so that I may restore it as it formerly was, and have recruited a host of mercenary troops and have equipped warships, and intend to make a landing in the country so that I may proceed against those who have destroyed our country and those who have devastated many cities in my kingdom, now therefore I confirm to you all the tax remissions that the kings before me have granted you, and a release from all the other payments from which they have released you.
He goes on, talking about other benefits, including the right to mint money, maintain the temple and their fortresses, and have debts forgiven “for all time.” The right to mint their own coins is big: Judea is thereby recognized as an independent kingdom.
Antiochus VII continues, “When we gain control of our kingdom, we will bestow great honour on you and your nation and the temple, so that your glory will become manifest in all the earth.” Basically, Antiochus has his eye on the prize—regaining the Seleucid throne—and he wants Simon on his side.
Antiochus VII wastes no time in making his move. The bad news for Trypho, who had schemed the throne away from the upstart’s brother, is this: The army likes the idea of serving under Antiochus more than him. They switch sides, leaving Trypho with just a handful of soldiers and a distinct chance of losing his head.
Desiring to retain possession of his head, Trypho beats a quick retreat to the city of Dor, which backs up to the sea. Antiochus surrounds him there, pressing in with troops from the land and ships from the sea. The old schemer is trapped.
Meanwhile, Simon’s envoy to Rome has returned with good news. The consul of the Romans, Lucius, sent messages to the kings surrounding Judea. The narrator presents the one sent to King Ptolemy in Egypt. Lucius says,
We . . . have decided to write to the kings and countries that they should not seek their harm or make war against them and their cities and their country, or make alliance with those who war against them.
Simon, it’s worth mentioning, sent a gold shield along with the envoy to Rome as a gift. This thing weighed 1000 minas. The letter mentions that it “seemed good . . . to accept the shield from them.”
“Therefore,” Lucius continues, “if any scoundrels have fled to you from their country, hand them over to the high priest Simon, so that he may punish them according to their law.”
In other words, Simon is the rightful ruler of Judea, as recognized by Rome. And Rome is putting everyone else on notice that they don’t want any funny business. The narrator says the same letter was sent to kings all over the region. The Navarre Bible comments, “The letter is addressed to the states and cities that were nominally independent but under Roman suzerainty. . . . The Jews are regarded as having the status of any other country. . . .”
Apparently Antiochus didn’t get the message. He’s not mentioned in the list of rulers who received the letter, and his subsequent actions bear that out.
Antiochus’s efforts to oust Trypho from Dor continue. He besieges the city a second time, and Simon sends a couple thousand choice soldiers to help with the siege. But Antiochus refuses to receive them! Worse, the narrator says, “he broke all the agreements he formerly had made with Simon, and became estranged from him.”
What’s going on here? Here’s the Navarre Bible with an answer: “As was to be expected, now that Antiochus is in Palestine and perhaps sees that Trypho will not cause him any trouble, he retracts the concessions he made to Simon; and he rejects Simon’s offer of help. However, Antiochus does treat Simon as an invader and not as a rebellious subject (vv. 28–29).”
So we quickly turn from helpful ally to invader? Obviously, Antiochus no longer feels he needs Simon in his camp. Still, isn’t “invader” a little much? It turns out Antiochus didn’t like that the Maccabees had taken the city of Joppa. He sent Athenobius with demands: Either hand over the Joppa and the other cities Simon and his brothers have seized, or pay up.
Athenobius brings the message to Simon. While there in Simon’s palace, he’s blown away by the gold and silver he sees on display. And suffice it to say he was more impressed by Simon’s wealth than Simon was with his message, especially when Simon low-balls the counteroffer.
Simon says he’s only taken back ancestral lands and cities their enemies have stolen. As for Joppa and Gazara, which weren’t originally ancestral lands, he offers to pay Antiochus—but only one fifth what he demanded. Athenobius leaves in a huff and reports back to Antiochus—with a special note about how much wealth he’d seen on display.
John Takes Over
While all this was going on, Trypho finagles his escape. Antiochus decides to go after Trypho and gives one of his commanders, Cendebeus, the job of putting Simon in his place. He sends him to invade Judea. Says the narrator,
Cendebeus came to Jamnia and began to provoke the people and invade Judea and take the people captive and kill them. He built up Kedron and stationed horsemen and troops there, so that they might go out and make raids along the highways of Judea, as the king had ordered him.
Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus, informs his father about what’s happening. After hearing the report, Simon says he’s too old to fight anymore. But no worries: He’s got every confidence John can handle it. “Take my place and my brother’s, and go out and fight for our nation,” he says, “and may the help that comes from Heaven be with you.” If that was a prayer, God heard and answered.
John mustered a force of 20,000 footmen and cavalry. They marched to Modein, which is fitting since the first real confrontation in the book begins there. It’s also where the family tomb and monuments are located.
We’ve talked before about how cinematic this book is. Here’s another one of those made-for-Hollywood moments. The army marches into the plain, where a stream divides the two forces. John’s men seem afraid to cross. The narrator takes it as a chance to highlight John’s bravery. He communicates everything you need to know about the next generation of Maccabean courage and leadership in one sentence: “He saw that the soldiers were afraid to cross the stream, so he crossed over first; and when his troops saw him, they crossed over after him.” Between the battleground in the family backyard and John’s familial bravery, the narrator is raising thematic ties that validate John and the Hasmonean dynasty.
The battle itself is anticlimactic, which is to be expected. We’re past the climax of the story now. We’re in the resolution. This moment is relayed principally to show that the nation is in good hands. John’s men blow their trumpets and then the enemy tucks tail and runs. John pursues and slays many of the enemy. While Cendebeus hides out in his fortress, John heads home victorious.
John’s seems to be at his base in Gazara as the next episode unfolds.
The Muder of Simon
Simon’s son in law Ptolemy decides he wants to seize control of the country. The narrator says, “His heart was lifted up,” a line that’s a direct callback to Alexander the Great, about whom the narrator says the same thing in chapter 1. The same prideful, arrogant and destructive spirit is not gone. It’s on the loose.
Ptolemy throws a party for his father and two of his brothers in law, Mattathias and Judas. While everyone is feasting and Simon and his sons are in their cups, Ptolemy and his men attack and kill them. “So,” says the narrator, “he committed an act of great treachery and returned evil for good.”
We’ve already talked about some rifts in the country. Hellenizing Jews weren’t fans of the Maccabees. These “Tories” disliked the “Patriots” and all they stood for—and especially how they were treated by the “Patriots.” Next, by alienating the family who had previously held the high priesthood, there was bad blood bubbling even among some Jews who might have otherwise been on their side. Ptolemy seems to have been trying to use these rifts to place himself in power.
Curiously, the narrator reports this crime matter of factly. It warrants little indignation. The reason is that we’re at the end of the story and the action has shifted to the new ruler, John.
The narrator need not dwell on the claims of dissenters because in a real sense he already has. The author of 1 Maccabees has been making an argument since the beginning of the book: The Maccabean family are the legitimate rulers of Judah, of Israel. He’s writing during or just after John’s reign. In a sense the book isn’t about Judas Maccabeus, or Jonathan, or Simon. It’s about their heirs’ right to rule based on the dedication and sacrifice of those men. The story ended when the Seleucid citadel was destroyed and worship was finally and totally restored. The rest is just mop up.
Ptolemy doesn’t plan on stopping with Simon. He sends men to kill John, but news outruns the assassins. John, shocked by the death of his father and brothers, meets the killers and beats them to the punch.
Between John’s handy defeat of Cendebeus and his scheming brother in law, the narrator is saying all is returned to normal—such as it is—and John is now in charge. He concludes the narrative by saying, simply:
The rest of the acts of John and his wars, and the brave deeds that he did, and the building of the walls that he completed, and his achievements, are written in the annals of his high-priesthood, from the time that he became high priest after his father.”
This closing line is revealing in a couple of ways. First, the style is taken directly from the summary statements of rulers in the books of Kings and Chronicles, as we mentioned up top. Second, it’s slightly different. These are not palace archives; they’re temple archives. Power has shifted to the Temple, especially given the close connection made by the Maccabean rulers.
Hereafter we call them the Hasmonean dynasty. John Hyrcanus will eventually side with the priestly Sadducees against the up-and-coming Pharisees. This explains in part later rabbinic disfavor of the book of 1 Maccabees. Their forebears, the Pharisees, had a beef with its principal family, their heirs, and their rule. But of course, all that’s fodder for another podcast. Because the book of 1 Maccabees is now closed.
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