Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 3–4 

Judas Maccabeus takes charge, earns his nickname “The Hammer,” and rededicates the Temple. Plus, what do ugly Hanukkah sweaters have to do with repelling foreign invaders?

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Ugly Hanukkah Sweaters

Neither of us had much exposure to the Jewish world growing up. My (Jamey’s) earliest contact with Hanukkah was a dreidel given by my fifth-grade teacher, who was Mormon. And later, of course, there was Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song on SNL.

One of my (Joel’s) exposures goes back to a song as well—Tom Lehrer’s “Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” There’s a line there that makes the connection to today’s show: “Judas Maccabeus, boy, if he could only see us. . .”

A lot of people think of Hanukkah as Jewish Christmas, but it actually goes back to the events of 1 Maccabees 4—the rededication of the temple. So what’s the connection with Christmas?

Besides a curious coincidence of calendars, there is none. But that coincidence has forged an accidental link. Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday. That’s reserved for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, Christmas is a major holiday for pretty much any country with loads of Christians. That can be a bit alienating to people of other faiths, especially Jews. But there’s a certain if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em dynamic at work.

Even though they’re totally unrelated, because Hanukkah falls near Christmas on the calendar it’s taken on more cultural importance and even adopted some of Christmas’s features and traditions. For instance, I (Jamey) today live in South Florida, where the Jewish population is relatively high. You’re just as likely to see blue-and-white Hanukkah lights on houses as Christmas lights. Gift giving is another Christmas tradition that has been absorbed in many Hanukkah celebrations.

And don’t forget ugly holiday sweaters. Yes, indeed: “Oy to the World,” proclaim tacky knit letters, or “Come on Baby Light my Menorah,” “How I Roll” (picturing a dreidel), and “I Like Hanukkah a Latke!” To many Jews in North America today, Hanukkah is a way to reinforce Jewish identity in a culture that is otherwise occupied. But the reason for the season are the events described in 1 Maccabees.

The Bible is full of weird and wonderful books. Unfortunately, some of the most weird and wonderful—the so-called Apocrypha—get a bad rap today. First written then later rejected by Jews, preserved then abandoned by (at least some) Christians, the ‘bad’ books are the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bible: No respect. “Bad” Books of the Bible introduces these books, discusses their content and history, and explains their value to contemporary readers.

Introducing Judas Maccabeus

In our last episode, which covered chapter 2 of the book, Mattathias starts a revolt against the Seleucids and passes control of the army to his son Judas Maccabeus before dying. We’ll be covering two chapters today, chapters 3 and 4. 

Chapter 3 starts with Judas’s rise to power. In chapter 1 it refers to Jews who “gladly” went along with Greek customs and abandoned traditional observance. Here the faithful rally behind Judas and “gladly” fight for Israel.

The narrator then introduces Judas with a poem that connects him to Judah way back in Genesis. “He was like a lion in his deeds, like a lion’s cub roaring for prey.” (Compare Genesis 49.9.) There’s also a line that keeps up the comparison with Phinehas we mentioned last time. It says that “he turned away wrath from Israel,” which is a direct callback (Numbers 25.11).

And the narrator sketches an implicit contrast here to Alexander the Great. In Chapter 1 we see the Macedonian king conquer to the far ends of the earth, subjugating peoples. Judah is said to have been similarly “renowned to the ends of the earth,” but instead of subjugating people, the narrator says, “he gathered in those who were perishing.”

He also walloped the Seleucid occupiers of his homeland. Chapters 3 and 4 concern four campaigns which concern—in the words of the Eerdmans Bible Commentary— “increasingly important Syrian generals.”

He makes short work of the first, Apollonius, and not only seizes spoils from his army but takes his sword, which he uses the rest of his life. It’s a move that echoes David’s use of Goliath’s sword—an scene the narrator intentionally uses to link Judas to David and his memory.

Judas next tackles a commander named Seron. Seron’s army is packed with Syrians and apostate Jews. They gather at the mountain pass of Beth-Horon, which was favored as an ambush location according to Jewish historian Josephus. Seron assumes victory is a cinch. “I will make a name for myself and win honour in the kingdom,” he says. “I will make war on Judas and his companions, who scorn the king’s command.” But no. 

Judas’ army is heavily outnumbered. Yet remember: This is David and Goliath. And Judas tells his men in a speech that echoes one of David’s: “They come against us in great insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us; but we fight for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them.” (Compare 1 Samuel 17.45.) Sure enough, they charged the enemy and chased them down the mountainside, killing 800 before the rest got away.

If the sword, the speech, and the defeat of a greater foe weren’t enough for the Davidic comparison, the narrator paraphrases a line about David from 1 Chronicles. Here’s the original: “So David’s fame spread throughout every land, and the Lord made all the nations fear him.” Here’s how the narrator plays with it: “Then Judas and his brothers began to be feared, and terror fell on the Gentiles all around them.”

All around includes Antioch, Syria. Word gets back to Antiochus that something is mighty wrong in Israel.

Antiochus’s Response

Antiochus wants this rebellion squashed. He pays his soldiers a year’s pay in advance and tells them to be ready to move at any moment. But there’s an amusing side story here: He’s out of money. The narrator says that his policy of enforced cultural assimilation was so disruptive it basically dries up the taxes. So Antiochus packs it up for his lands in Persia to raise funds (and probably deal with other unrest in his empire). 

In his place, Antiochus leaves a man named Lysias in charge. He gives him half his army, a bunch of elephants, and tells him to take care of the rebellion in Judea. “He was to banish the memory of them from the place,” says the narrator of his task, “settle aliens in all their territory, and distribute their land by lot.” 

Lysias decides to delegate the job. He picks three commanders—Ptolemy (not the one in Egypt), Nicanor, and Gorgias—and equips them with 40,000 infantrymen and 7,000 cavalry. They arrive and encamp on the plain by the town of Emmaus while more forces, extras from Syria, even nearby Philistines, join in.

What about these Philistines? These guys have been causing problems in the region for a thousand years by now. They’re one of the sea peoples who contributed to the Bronze Age collapse, or at least took advantage of it. They’re also the origin of the term Palestine, given by the Romans later. Of course, they’re most famous in the Bible from King Saul and David’s many encounters—giving us yet another intentional echo of the David story.

So what are Judas and the rest of the doughty resistors to do? He rallies his people and they pray. “So the congregation assembled to be ready for battle,” says the narrator, “and to pray and ask for mercy and compassion.” They rend their clothes, cover their head in ashes, and read the law. “They cried aloud to Heaven, saying, ‘. . . Here the Gentiles are assembled against us to destroy us; you know what they plot against us. How will we be able to withstand them, if you do not help us?’”

“The author,” says David deSilva, 

crafts a picture of Judas as a thoroughly pious and Torah-observant individual. His army prays, fasts, and studies the Scriptures before battle (3:44–48); he gathers the offerings, tithes, and Nazirites (3:49–50), all needing to be consecrated in the temple, giving his crusade to retake Jerusalem all the coloration of a ‘holy war,’ an attempt to regain access to the sanctuary (having first to cleanse it of the defilements).

Having no prophets, Judas’ men consult the Torah to know what to do. But there’s probably more in that picture than merely discovering God’s will. There’s a rich scholarship explaining how the Torah echoes ancient suzerainty treaties—that is, the deal between a lord and his vassals. By reading the Torah before battle, Judas and his men are renewing their covenant relationship with God. It also helps explain why they’re totally unwilling to concede any ground to Antiochus and the Seleucid interlopers: They already have a deal with another lord, Yahweh. 

After praying, they geared up and Judas’ army moved south of Emmaus to meet the enemy. “Arm yourselves and be courageous,” says Judas. 

Be ready early in the morning to fight with these Gentiles who have assembled against us to destroy us and our sanctuary. It is better for us to die in battle than to see the misfortunes of our nation and of the sanctuary. But as his will in heaven may be, so shall he do.

Gorgias meanwhile makes a big mistake. While Judas and his men pray, Gorgias skulks toward their camp, attempting a surprise attack. The trip from Emmaus to Judas’s camp at Mizpah takes a bit. When they arrive, the camp is empty. But Gorgias misreads the situation. He assumes the empty Jewish camp means Judas is in retreat. But no. 

After praying, Judas and his men leave for Emmaus by another route. Gorgias finds an empty camp because Judas is making ready to attack the rest of the Seleucid force. The Jews are vastly outnumbered, but they win. “The Gentiles were crushed and fled into the plain, and all those in the rear fell by the sword,” says the narrator. Gorgias’ men are just catching up to the rest of the force at this time, but it’s too late. They see smoke coming from their camp and retreat. 

Israel is delivered! But, of course, another battle is brewing. 

With his generals defeated, Lysias now has to take care of matters on his own. He sends another army, this one even bigger with himself at the head. But he fares no better. Judas prays that God would fill their enemies with cowardice, and that’s what happens. Lysias quickly loses 5,000 men—a relatively small number compared to his total force—and figures he can’t win. So he beats a retreat for Syria and sues for peace. 

And now we come to Hanukkah. 

Rededicating the Temple

“Our enemies are crushed,” say Judas and his brothers; “let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” But what a mess! The Seleucids have desecrated the Temple. They sacrificed pigs on the altar and erected an idol of Zeus. How should the faithful restore their place of worship? Says a note in The Navarre Bible,

The cleansing is entrusted to the “blameless priests” as the Law laid down (cf. Lev 22:3–9). The stones of the altar that Ezra consecrated in his time (cf. Ezra 3:2–5) must be thrown into the Gehenna valley like those from the pagan altars; so they seek a temporary solution until such a time as a prophet should come. . . . The building of a new altar in line with what Exodus 20:25 laid down reminds us of the dedication of the temple by Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 8:1–66) and the dedication of the temple of Ezra-Nehemiah (cf. Ezra 5:1–6:22).

In lieu of consulting a prophet, as would have been done in former days, the people follow the law where clear and act provisionally where not. 

Once the work is complete, the Temple is rededicated for service to the Lord. Says the Eerdmans Study Bible, “The dedication of the new altar took place on 25 Chislev in year 148, that is, probably December 165 BC, appropriately on the third anniversary of the first pagan sacrifice on the old altar (1:59).” 

And this isn’t a one and done thing. Judas and his brothers decided to celebrate this dedication for eight days on an annual basis. Why eight days? Jewish tradition explains that God miraculously supplied enough oil for the lamps to burn that length of time.

It is this festival, by the way, that Jesus marks in John’s Gospel and where he says that he is the son of God (see 10.22–39). While it’s far less important than the controversy detailed in the chapter, it’s worth noting what some might never have considered—Jesus evidently celebrated Hanukkah. It’s easy to miss if 1 Maccabees isn’t part of your Bible, but impossible to miss if it is.

What about that spinning top with a message, the dreidel? The dreidel contains an acrostic that signifies: “A great miracle happened here.” So, says Bruce Metzger, “While playing with the dreidel, therefore, as well as in the lighting of the candles, it is possible to recount to the children the main elements of the history and legends associated with the pious and intrepid Maccabees.”

Of course, the story is not yet done. Our pious and intrepid Maccabees have more battles to fight. The enemy is not finished with Judea, though Antiochus’s days are numbered.

If you enjoy “Bad” Books of the Bible, share it! And if you’re not already subscribed, do it now. Next week, we’re covering more of Judas’ adventures and the end of Antiochus’ rule.

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John R. Bartlett, 1 Maccabees (Sheffield Academic, 1998). 
David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Baker Academic, 2018).
James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, eds., Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Eerdmans, 2003).
Daniel J. Harrington, First and Second Maccabees (Liturgical Press, 2012).
Leander E. Keck, ed., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Vol. 6 (Abingdon, 2015).
Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills, eds., The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Bruce Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 1977).
Navarre Bible: Chronicles–Maccabees (Scepter Publishers, 2003).