Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 7–9
Alcimus, a compromising priest, takes the stage; Judas gets the band back together; and Israel allies with Rome. Plus: How the heck did everyone get around back then?
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So far our story has featured a lot of mobility. Rulers and their armies are coming and going, this way and that—North, South, East, West. We talked last time about the extent of the Seleucid Empire, stretching nearly 3000 miles from Sardis in the West to Bactria in the East.
What’s more, Rome comes into play in our current episode, and the narrator notes the western power has dealings in Spain! So the geographical consciousness in this book encompassess 4000 miles. Which points to an unavoidable question: How the heck are these people getting around? We’re long before planes, trains, and automobiles here.
Empires depend on roads to mobilize men and supplies. Rome is famous for its network of roads. And they weren’t alone. The Persians had, for instance, the Royal Road—an extensive network of roads that snaked thousands of kilometers from Greece to Afghanistan. It had mile markers installed in places and was even subject to regular maintenance.
Traveling such distances on foot could take months, but expert horsemen could travel immense distances in only days. Herodotus describes the Persian postal system in terms that sound remarkably like the American Pony Express:
Now there is nothing mortal that accomplishes a course more swiftly than do these messengers, by the Persians' skillful contrivance. It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day's journey. These are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed. The first rider delivers his charge to the second, the second to the third, and thence it passes on from hand to hand. . . .
The Persians needed these roads to exert their dominance over the vast territory they ruled. But it was, as it were, a two-way street. Those roads were exactly how Alexander the Great was able to sprint across the full reach of the Persian Empire with his army.
So what about Alexander’s successor kingdom, the Seleucids, the Hellenistic kingdom bedeviling the Jewish people in 1 Maccabees? After all, they had the same basic problem. The Seleucids basically took over where the Persians left off, and their empire was massive.
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 deserve a little more love. “Bad” Books of the Bible introduces these books, discusses their content and history, and explains their value to contemporary readers.
They used the roads and highly orchestrated royal travel to assert control over their far flung lands. In his book, The Land of the Elephant Kings, Paul Kosmin discusses the challenge posed by the need to create unity across a landmass of wild diversity. Travel was the key. Kosmin talks about “Seleucid monarchs restlessly crisscrossing their empire” to establish and reinforce their territorial authority.
The hard thing was that when the king moved on, the impression of his authority waned. So the king was always on the go, with an essentially mobile court. He needed to make the circuit to remind everyone who was in charge. “One way to conceive of the Seleucid kingdom,” says Kosmin, “is not as a static geography of regional core and increasingly graduated periphery but as a system of imperial structures that could manifest centrality around the moving monarch.”
Making and maintaining roads was a sign of kingly authority. Antiochus IV—the bad guy in our story—was actually famous for beating back highway robbers to make trade routes through the Taurus mountains safe. He was a hero for merchants and others who used the roads.
It’s amazing to consider today, but these ancient peoples were traveling thousands of miles on the regular. And they built and maintained the infrastructure necessary to facilitate their imperial ambitions.
New King, New Threat
We ended the last episode with a power struggle for the Seleucid throne following the death of Antiochus IV. That struggle continues in this episode with the appearance of Demetrius, son of Seleucus IV, who had a rightful claim to power. Formerly diplomatic hostage in Rome—just as Antiochus IV had been—Demetrius escaped and made his way to Antioch, whereupon he had Lysias and Antiochus V killed. Out with the old, in with the new.
Now, despite what we might have picked up from the story so far, Israel is deeply divided. There are still plenty of people who oppose Judas and the anti-Hellenistic party. It reminds us of the American Revolution—Patriots vs. Tories. It’s a bit overly simplistic, but the situation is a bit like that, the Hasmonean party vs. the Hellenist party. So far the Hellenist have been a force in the story, though not really characters. That changes when Alcimus steps out of the shadows.
Alcimus had been bounced from his role as high priest (see 2 Maccabees 14.3–4). With Demetrius now in charge, Alcimus sees a chance to restore his fortunes. Alcimus and the Hellenizers appeal to Demetrius for a new governor. Look at the mess Judas has made, they say in so many words. You’d better send someone who can clean this place up. So the king sends one of his friends, Bacchides, to govern Judea. And, seeing Alcimus as someone he can trust to back Seleucid power, Demetrius reappoints him as high priest.
Bacchides and Alcimus arrive in Judea with a large army and words of peace. Judas and his brothers, as the narrator says, “paid no attention to their words, for they saw that they had come with a large force.” But others, tired of the war, were ready to try peace. The scribes joined with Alcimus. Same with the Hasideans. Alcimus deals ruthlessly, and that’s a good sign for Bacchides. He figures Alcimus has it all under control; he heads back to Antioch, leaving Alcimus in charge.
In response to Alcimus’ treacherous and violent control, Judas gets the band back together and starts opposing him. That’s more than Alcimus can manage, so he runs back to Antioch asking for help. Demetrius sends it in the shape of Nicanor, one of his commanders, who saw action earlier in 1 Maccabees (see chapters 3 and 4).
One Answer to Two Prayers
Nicanor arrives in Judea. There’s some faint possibility, communicated in 2 Maccabees 7.26–38, that what happens next isn’t inevitable. But the story in 1 Maccabees runs straight to the showdown. Nicanor fails to get what he wants from the Jews and makes the cardinal mistake—he threatens the Temple. (Yes, again. It’s like he hasn’t been paying attention all this time.)
What happens next hinges on two prayers. First, the priests:
You chose this house to be called by your name, and to be for your people a house of prayer and supplication. Take vengeance on this man and on his army, and let them fall by the sword; remember their blasphemies, and let them live no longer.
Then, the armies square off and Judas prays, recalling a prior historic victory:
When the messengers from the king spoke blasphemy, your angel went out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand of the Assyrians. So also crush this army before us today; let the rest learn that Nicanor has spoken wickedly against the sanctuary, and judge him according to this wickedness.
God answers the prayer. The armies meet in battle, and Nicanor falls first. His side is routed. The narrator uses their retreat to show the Hasmonean cause was the people’s cause:
People came out of all the surrounding villages of Judea, and they outflanked the enemy and drove them back to their pursuers, so that they all fell by the sword; not even one of them was left. Then the Jews seized the spoils and the plunder; they cut off Nicanor's head and the right hand that he had so arrogantly stretched out, and brought them and displayed them just outside Jerusalem.
With the callback to Tories and Patriots earlier, we’re reminded of the redcoat retreat back to Boston after the failed skirmishes of Lexington and Concord. Colonials lined the roadway and sniped and harried the redcoats back to the safety of town. The death of Nicanor, incidentally, was so significant its observance became a regular holiday (see 2 Maccabees 15.25–36).
All Roads Lead to Rome
Despite the victory, Judas knows what’s coming next if he doesn’t make preparations. Demetrius will send another army, and another, and another. At some point, Judas either won’t have any more fight or any more men. He needs some backup. “For,” the narrator explains, “they saw that the kingdom of the Greeks was enslaving Israel completely.”
This was, however, before NATO or the UN. So where does someone get help battling a bullying empire? You court another bullying empire. And that’s what Judas does. While it might seem like a strange choice in retrospect, from Judas’s point of view the later crimes of Rome were unimaginable. Instead, Rome looks like an ideal ally. Besides, they’d already tangled with the Seleucids and won.
So Judas dispatches two of his men, Eupolemus and Jason. “They went to Rome,” says the narrator, “a very long journey. . . .” When they arrive, the pair saunters into the Senate chamber and ask to ally themselves with Rome. The discussion goes well, and alliance with the Jews would serve the Romans well in their rivalry with the Seleucids. Here are the terms of the deal they strike, included by the narrator as the following letter:
May all go well with the Romans and with the nation of the Jews at sea and on land for ever, and may sword and enemy be far from them. If war comes first to Rome or to any of their allies in all their dominion, the nation of the Jews shall act as their allies wholeheartedly, as the occasion may indicate to them. To the enemy that makes war they shall not give or supply grain, arms, money, or ships, just as Rome has decided; and they shall keep their obligations without receiving any return. In the same way, if war comes first to the nation of the Jews, the Romans shall willingly act as their allies, as the occasion may indicate to them. And to their enemies there shall not be given grain, arms, money, or ships, just as Rome has decided; and they shall keep these obligations and do so without deceit. Thus on these terms the Romans make a treaty with the Jewish people. If after these terms are in effect both parties shall determine to add or delete anything, they shall do so at their discretion, and any addition or deletion that they may make shall be valid.
Concerning the wrongs that King Demetrius is doing to them, we have written to him as follows, “Why have you made your yoke heavy on our friends and allies the Jews? If now they appeal again for help against you, we will defend their rights and fight you on sea and on land.”
This is a foretaste of more politicking to come. The short-term gains are good, but as with any politicking, there are tradeoffs and second- and third-order costs not always fully visible upfront. Says a note in the Navarre Bible, “This will ultimately lead to complications and disaster, but for the time being it opens the door to independence from Syria.” Going back to our American Revolution example earlier, this what George Washington would later call an “entangling alliance.”
Bacchides Returns, Judas Falls
While Judas’s envoys are traveling to Rome, news of Nicanor’s defeat is getting back to Demetrius. Just as Judas figured, the king decides to send another army!
No figures are mentioned, but the Seleucid army is huge. Judas has just 3000 men and they’re frightened. In fact, they start peeling off. When it’s time to fight, only 800 men remain—and their leader isn’t doing too well. Judas is faint, it says, because he doesn’t have time to rally more men. There’s a note of resignation here. “Let us get up and go against our enemies,” he says. “We may have the strength to fight them” (emphasis added). You can tell his energy and confidence have waned.
His men try to dissuade him. But Judas shoots back, rising to the occasion but resigned to his fate: “Far be it from us to do such a thing as to flee from them. If our time has come, let us die bravely for our kindred, and leave no cause to question our honour.” Unlike prior battles, Judas does not pray for God’s help this time. He puts up a valiant fight, despite the odds. The narrator says, “The battle raged from morning until evening.” But Judas ultimately falls and what’s left of his men retreat.
“Then Jonathan and Simon took their brother Judas and buried him in the tomb of their ancestors at Modein, and wept for him,” says the narrator. “All Israel made great lamentation for him; they mourned for many days and said, ‘How is the mighty fallen, the saviour of Israel!’”
The statement echoes David’s words over Saul and Jonathan. And there’s another callback to Judah’s kings in this closing chapter of Judas’ life as well. The narrator refers to “the rest of the acts of Judas, and his wars and the brave deeds that he did, and his greatness.” Unlike those other kings whose chroniclers mention their deeds were recorded, Judas’s “have not been recorded,” the narrator says, “but they were very many.” At some level, the lack of recording isn’t surprising. The scribes were in the pocket of the Hellenizers.
The Rise of Jonathan and Death of Alcimus
This moment in the story it starts to feel like the good guys are lost. The Hellenizers come back. In fact, the narrator says, “all the wrongdoers reappeared.” Bacchides is flexing after his victory, and anyone allied to Judas is now targeted. The Jews need a new leader, and they appoint Judas’s brother, Jonathan.
It’s touch and go at the beginning. Jonathan has few men and few resources. They also have a few skirmishes and are eventually trapped by Bacchides with their backs to the Jordan. After killing a thousand of Bacchides’s men, Jonathan narrowly escapes by swimming the river to safety.
With troublemakers on the loose, Bacchides builds up his defenses around Jerusalem, equipping the surrounding cities and forts to fend off the persistent Maccabeans and garrisoning soldiers to harass the people. What’s more, Bacchides seized the sons of prominent families to keep them as hostages.
While Bacchides is busy building up walls, however, Alcimus is trying to tear one down. The wall of separation in the Temple kept Jews apart from Gentiles. This division would eventually be swept away by Christ, but Alcimus is acting on his own initiative here and for less than praiseworthy purposes. God takes notice and strikes him with paralysis and ultimately death.
When Bacchides saw that Alcimus was struck down, he decides Judea isn’t worth the headache. He heads back to Antioch, and leaves the place in peace. That is, until some Hellenizing Jews lured him back two years later.
One Last Try
Bacchides gathers an army and sends letters to Seleucid allies in Judea to seize Jonathan and his supporters if they can. But Jonathan catches wind of the plot and kills several of the schemers.
By then Bacchides is back with his army, but after some swift countermeasures by Jonathan, the Maccabean forces triumph. Bacchides, irked that he ever listens to the people who counseled him to come back, rounds them up and kills as many as he can before deciding to leave for good.
Meanwhile, Jonathan negotiates peace and the release of Bacchides’s hostages. “Thus,” says the narrator, “the sword ceased from Israel.” Next, because Seleucid forces still occupy Jerusalem, Jonathan sets up shop seven and half miles up the road in Michmash.
A note from the Navarre Bible sets the stage for what’s to come. “With Jonathan as their leader the Jews won not only religious autonomy but political sovereignty; however”—you knew this was coming, right?—“they became enmeshed in Syrian politics. Jonathan’s remarkable switching of allegiance shows his realism and political astuteness. God uses him to guide his people’s fortunes.”
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