Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 5–6

Antiochus the Madman dies, the Seleucids loosen their grip, and the Jews take another step toward freedom.

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The Rise and Fall of the Seleucid Empire

History can feel, as the old saying goes, like one darn thing after another. But the story of 1 Maccabees is going someplace. To get a sense of the trajectory, let’s jump back to the beginning of the Seleucid Empire. 

We talked about Alexander the Great in our first episode. 1 Maccabees opens with his conquering spree and a handful of generals who divided his kingdom after his death. The general with whom most people have at least passing familiarity is Ptolemy I, though maybe only indirectly. He took over Alexander’s Egyptian territory, built the city of Alexandria and the library of Alexandria, and provided the little eddy in the gene pool from which the mysterious Cleopatra would eventually spring.

If Alexander’s generals were trading cards, everyone would have Ptolemy I. Seleucus I Nicator has, on the other hand, fewer reasons for lasting fame. Seleucus had been given the control over Babylonia early on, but another one of Alexander’s generals pushed him out. Then, Ptolemy loaned him some soldiers, and he took back Babylonia in 312 BC and began the empire that carries his name.

Over the next three decades he gobbled up as much territory as he could. He pushed east toward the Indus River, and west into Syria and Anatolia, modern day Turkey. But you can’t take it with you. And Seleucus left the picture in 281 when he was assassinated—by Ptolemy’s son, as it happened. Keep it in the family!

After his death, a parade of patronymic Antiochuses and Seleucuses entered the picture, each trailing their equally forgettable number: I, II, III, IV. At its height, the empire stretched about 3000 miles across, all the way from Sardis in the West to Bactria in the East. Governing that amount of territory was challenging. The Seleucids did it by exerting minimal control beyond encouraging Hellenistic culture, regulating trade, and imposing taxes. It was still too much. 

The parade of patronyms starting losing ground within a few generations of their forebear’s demise. Local populations gained independence and outsiders reduced their borders. The Romans, for instance, defeated Seleucid forces in 190 BC, and the Seleucids surrendered control of Turkey. It was pretty much downhill after that. 

This is more or less the situation when Antiochus IV edged his rump onto the throne—like the heir of sad, shrinking, family business with little hope for a comeback. He tried to get things moving in his favor by invading Egypt. But he was strapped for cash in part because his empire was in disarray and shrinking. His policy of enforced Hellenism seems like a last-ditch effort designed to shore up the citizenry and prevent more independence movements. Oops. It backfired—as our story shows. And it only got worse from there.

The Romans came back for more in 64 BC, a century after Antiochus IV’s death. The leftover Seleucids still had some territory, but that was pretty much the end of the empire. It’s a reminder of something biblical writers make clear over and over: Hegemony is temporary. Empires do not last.

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.

Fighting on All Sides

1 Maccabees 4 ends with the Seleucids withdrawing forces from Judea and the Jews regaining access to the Temple. They cleanse and rededicate the Temple exactly three years after it was desecrated. But, as Bruce Metzger says, “peace did not last long.”

The Maccabees’ neighbors became, as the narrator says, “very angry.” Whether eager to keep Judas in his place, or wanting to help the Seleucids enforce their like-it-or-lump-it Hellenism, Gentiles around Judea begin persecuting their local Jewish populations. Judas and his army swing into action. They head south and squash several threats. Then Judas hears from Jews under attack in Galilee to the West and Gilead in the East. 

The narrator uses this moment to display Judas’s leadership. When notice of the persecutions in Galilee and Gilead come, Judas calls an assembly to “to determine what they should do for their brothers who were in distress and were being attacked by enemies.” 

“The Maccabees are constantly portrayed as consulting the people (2:41; 4:44),” says The New Interpreter’s Bible. This contrasts with Seleucid rulers who act when the impulse strikes. Judas is no autocrat. To lead well, he knows he needs the insight and buy-in of his people. They decide that Judas and Jonathan will go east to Gilead, and Simon will go to Galilee. Two lieutenants, Joseph and Azariah, will stay back to defend Judea.

Judas, Jonathan, and Simon win their battles. But the land is too dangerous to leave the people where they found them. The armies bring the refugees back to Judea. By now Judas had a large band of soldiers plus families and hangers-on traveling en masse. One town, Ephron, refuses passage. Roads connected towns; they went through—not around—them. Judas told the people of Ephron they were coming peacefully, but the town wouldn’t budge. Ephron blocking their path endangered the whole company. Judas answers the threat with force.

“He destroyed,” says the narrator—shockingly—“every male by the edge of the sword, and razed and plundered the town. Then he passed through the town over the bodies of the dead.” This isn’t the only episode in just a few verses where horrific destruction befalls Judas’s enemies. 

According to a note in The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition With Notes, “A way in ancient times to weaken and defeat an enemy. Women and children might be sold into slavery, and without males there would be no enemy capable of resisting.” It might not blunt the sting, but we’re talking about people facing an existential threat; brutal as it was, they are responding in kind.

From a military standpoint, one of the great successes here is that they capture the “engines of war.” This is advanced war equipment for the time—we’re talking about catapults, siege towers, battering rams, and the like. Artillery and armaments like these made it possible to attack fortified cities and towns. These “engines of war” will make an appearance later in the story.

It’s a long, hard march back to Judea, but the narrator says, “Judas kept rallying the laggards and encouraging the people all the way until he came to the land of Judah. So they went up to Mount Zion with joy and gladness, and offered burnt offerings because they had returned in safety. . . .” Careful readers of the Old Testament may see hints of the promised return to Jerusalem found in Jeremiah 31, especially verses 6 through 13.

A Minor Setback and More Success

While Judas, Jonathan, and Simon garner fame for their deeds, their lieutenants, Joseph and Azariah, want some glory for themselves. The narrator quotes them as saying, “Let us also make a name for ourselves; let us go and make war on the Gentiles around us.” But it doesn’t go well. Gorgias—remember that snake?—defeats them, and two thousand Israelites die in the process. The narrator notes, “They were not the ones chosen by God to deliver Israel: they did not belong to the Maccabee family.” 

Outside of that minor setback, however, things generally move the right direction for Judas and his doughty resistors at this point. The narrator says that he and his brothers are honored in Israel and even among Gentiles. They’ve got the name—the reputation—that Joseph and Azariah craved for themselves. Even the Gentiles are taking note. Judas and Co. are loved by the locals and feared by the neighbors.

After some final mop up, Judas has subdued their enemies. “From this account,” says a note in The Navarre Bible, “we can see that God reserves victory for Judas and his brothers, and that they are the vehicle of liberation not only for Judea but also for Jews living in the surrounding territories. This is very much in line with the writer’s aim—to explain the origin of and to justify the Hasmonean dynasty.”

Despite the inconveniences of forced relocation and the setbacks of Joseph and Azariah, the picture presented in chapter 5 is success. Things are going well—unless your name is Antiochus.

The King Dies but the Parade Keeps Rolling

When we last left the madman, Antiochus was off scouring his lands for temples to rob because his treasury was drained. Temples, as we’ve pointed out before, are sites of riches where valuable gifts and trophies were deposited and displayed.

If we keep in mind the long decline and shrinking rim of the Seleucid empire, what happens next is no surprise. Antiochus identifies a juicy temple to rob but is rebuffed by the locals, forcing him to flee back to Babylon. While there, news arrived that the Jews defeated Lysias and retook the temple. Could it get any worse? Antiochus, frustrated heir of a failing enterprise, climbs into bed and dies of grief.

Everyone had an opinion about what caused his demise. The Greek historian Polybius says many thought Antiochus was punished by the gods with madness and death for going after the temple of Artemis at Elymais. Josephus, the Jewish historian, picks up this line of thinking, too, and pins the death of Antiochus on the desolation of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Later Christian commentators like Hippolytus and Jerome, writing about the Book of Daniel, go so far as to see Antiochus as a kind of antichrist figure. It just doesn’t get worse than this guy; he puts himself in the place of God, and then is taken out by God. 

Before he kicks the can, Antiochus admits his errors and appoints his friend Philip to rule in his stead until his son—Antiochus V, another one in the parade—can take over, giving Philip his ring, crown, robe, everything. But there was a power struggle brewing from the outset. Back in Antioch, Lysias heard that Antiochus died and set up the king’s young son to reign, giving him the honorific name Eupator, meaning “from a good or noble father.” Spoiler alert: the kid’s only going to be king for a short time—and really in name only. This poses a problem for Lysias since he made himself the kid’s guardian.

And things are heating up in Judea, too.

The Big Battle—and Drunken Elephants!

The Akra, or citadel, opposite the Temple remained a thorn in the Jews’ side. Forces stationed there, says the narrator, “were trying in every way to harm them. . . .” Judas decided to devote all his energies to toppling this fortress. No more campaigns against nearby towns. They had to go all-in. Judas gathered his forces and set up their siege engines. Unfortunately, men escaped from the citadel and ran back to Antioch with some Hellenistic Jews in tow.

They alerted Lysias and the king and pleaded with them to intervene. Says the narrator,

The king was enraged when he heard this. He assembled all his Friends, the commanders of his forces and those in authority. Mercenary forces also came to him from other kingdoms and from islands of the seas. The number of his forces was one hundred thousand foot-soldiers, twenty thousand horsemen, and thirty-two elephants accustomed to war.

Before the battle, the Seleucids gave the elephants wine to intoxicate them for the fight. 

The Jews found the sight of the army arrayed against them—elephants, cavalry, phalanxes—overwhelming. This was the biggest, baddest army they’d ever faced. “When the sun shone on the shields of gold and brass,” the narrator says, “the hills were ablaze with them and gleamed like flaming torches. . . . All who heard the noise made by their multitude, by the marching of the multitude and the clanking of their arms, trembled, for the army was very large and strong.”

Judas and his men advanced but were no match. After an initial sortie, they turned back and retreated to Jerusalem. One particular soldier made a valiant effort before the retreat. Eleazar spotted the biggest elephant of the bunch. Assuming that was the king’s, he ran right through the enemy, slashing left and right, until he reached the beast. He stabbed it from beneath and killed it but was crushed when the animal collapsed on him.

What should we make of Eleazar’s bravery? When we covered Tobit, we referenced many church fathers who saw spiritual application in the book—same as they usually do throughout Scripture. We haven’t done much of that yet with 1 Maccabees, but here’s one from St. Gregory the Great. And it presents us a cautionary note:

Eleazar fatally wounded the elephant during the battle, but died himself, crushed by the weight of what he had killed. Who does this man, who was vanquished by his own victory, represent, if not those who having overcome their vice become proud and fall under those very things they have conquered? He who took pride in the mortal blow he struck was brought to ruin by his dead enemy. We must keep a careful watch so that we do not fail to see that all good things are of no worth unless they protect us from the evils that can advance on us unnoticed. All good deeds perish unless they are closely guarded with humility.

The situation is beyond desperate now. Judas and his men are holed up in the Jerusalem Temple and the enemy has them surrounded. Amplifying the problem, the Jews have nowhere near enough food to withstand a siege. It’s the sabbatical year when they didn’t plant and harvest (see Exodus 23.10–11 and Leviticus 25.2ff), and the earlier battles had probably disrupted their supply. Men begin peeling away.

But just as things look their worst, Philip finds his way back from Persia to Antioch and tries to take the throne Antiochus had given him.

Lysias gets that bum news around the same time his own men start running out of food. There’s no way they can win in Judea at this point, and if they don’t run back to Antioch they’re going to lose everything to Philip. Lysias and the king decide to sue for peace with Judas and agree to let the Jews follow the Torah again. Then they hightail it back to Antioch and fight Philip, retaking the city.

Meanwhile, the Judas and his followers get a breather. The foe has departed. Things aren’t over yet, they haven’t fully vanquished the foe, but it is clear that ground has been gained, and the people believe in the divine appointment of Judas Maccabeus and his family.

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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).
H.A. Fischel, The First Book of Maccabees (Schocken Books, 1948)
Daniel J. Harrington, First and Second Maccabees (Liturgical Press, 2012).
Daniel J. Harrington, Invitation to the Apocrypha (Eerdmans, 1999).
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).