2 Maccabees: Judaism in readiness
As I mentioned previously, 2 Maccabees does not extend the history of Jewish resistance to Greek conquest recorded in 1 Maccabees. Instead, it focuses more tightly on one portion of that history. While the second book provides additional details, its chief merit is an exploration of the motives and goals of the resistance movement led by Judas Maccabeus.
This makes the book a very fitting conclusion to the Old Testament, because the virtues of Judas are the quintessential Jewish virtues fostered under the Law, the virtues enjoined upon the people by God throughout their long formation in salvation history. Moreover, the book reflects a maturation of Israel’s faith as the Revelation of God to the Jews had become clearer over the centuries.
At this time in history, the Greeks had taken control of Israel and were seeking to suppress Judaism and the entire culture it had shaped, sometimes with extraordinary brutality. But the purpose of the chronicler, who writes to report the great Maccabean victories to Jews living in Egypt, is to confirm Israel’s Divine election, and to show once again that fidelity to the Lord is always rewarded. Hence he sets the context:
Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. In fact, not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately, is a sign of great kindness. For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. [6:12-15]
Maccabean motivation and virtue
2 Maccabees includes several famous stories of heroism, including the martyrdom of Eleazar, an old man who would not pretend to eat unclean food in order to save his life, and the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons, each of whom she urged to remain steadfast as they were executed for refusing to renounce God. It was, of course, this sort of treatment which led the Maccabees to lead the rebellion. What was singular about their success is that it was based on strict fidelity to God and to the Law. Judas Maccabeus and his followers really did want to rescue their people, cleanse and restore the Temple, and revive the customs enjoined upon Israel by the Lord. Thus:
They begged the Lord to look upon the people who were oppressed by all, and to have pity on the temple which had been profaned by ungodly men, and to have mercy on the city which was being destroyed….and to heed the blood that cried out to him, and to remember also…the blasphemies committed against his name, and to show his hatred of evil. [8:2-4]
Early on the Maccabees had decided they must be willing to fight on the Sabbath if they were attacked on that day (the Jews learned this the hard way), but Judas would not pursue a defeated enemy on the Sabbath or when it was time to prepare for the Sabbath (8:25-26). Moreover, Judas always shared the spoils of victory with those who had suffered just as if they had fought with him. For example, when he defeated Nicanor, who brought slave merchants with his army so he could sell the Jews into slavery, this is how victory was handled:
And when they had collected the arms of the enemy and stripped them of their spoils, they kept the Sabbath, giving great praise and thanks to the Lord…. After the Sabbath they gave some of the spoils to those who had been tortured and to the widows and orphans…. When they had done this, they made common supplication and begged the merciful Lord to be wholly reconciled with his servants. In encounters with the forces of Timothy and Bacchides they…divided very much plunder, giving to those who had been tortured and to the orphans and widows, and also to the aged, shares equal to their own. [8:27-30]
A little later, Judas was strong enough to drive the enemy out of the Temple area and undertake the purification of the Temple, which had been desecrated. He also removed the profaned altar and constructed a new one (interestingly, he had the pieces of the old altar laid aside in a safe place until a prophet would arise to tell them what to do with them). When they had completed this work, “they fell prostrate and begged the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations” (10:4). They also established an eight day celebration of the purification to be observed every year going forward.
Still later, as recounted in chapter 12, Judas won a difficult battle in which 2,000 Jews had been killed. When tending to the dead, his men discovered that all of the slain had concealed idols under their tunics—and this is offered as an explanation for why they were permitted to die. But even this revealed Judas’ character, for he immediately took up a collection of 2,000 drachmas for a sin offering (12:43).
It is fitting to close this section by quoting the sacred author after Nicanor was finally killed: “So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low no less than thirty-five thousand men…” (15:27). War is a terrible thing, but such recollection in any sort of battle is a spiritual lesson for us all.
Maturation of Faith
We are now on the verge of the New Covenant, a time in which we must presume that the Jewish people had been brought by God to the fullest possible spiritual understanding before the coming of Christ. It is interesting, then, to see the evidence of such maturation of faith. Whereas earlier the future of Israel under God was mostly conceived in terms of the endurance and prosperity of the Jewish nation—with only mysterious hints and foreshadowings concerning individual souls—by the time of the books of Maccabees, there is a clear faith and trust in a personal afterlife with God.
For example, when she was told to convince her youngest to give up his faith to avoid execution, the mother of the seven sons exhorted him in this way:
I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers. [7:28-29]
Finally, to return to the sin offering Judas made for the idolatrous Jews who died in battle, the sacred writer remarks:
In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. [12:43-45]
Here, in a book written roughly one hundred years before the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, we find at last a clear statement about not only the future of individual souls but the efficacy of prayers for the dead—a proof, in fact, for purgatory. The long development of faith and trust in God under the Law appears to be complete. What more can we say?
Many Jews said this was the worst of times, though the chronicler of Maccabees was able to see it as the best of times. But I would put it another way: In these books, the Old Testament strives for completion. In Maccabees, the Old Covenant stretches toward the fullness of time.
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Go on to the New Testament Series: Starting the New Testament, with Matthew on the Messiah
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