For book club, we are reading 1 & 2 Maccabees. We’ll discuss the books this Sunday after church. The Maccabees books were written between the time when the Old Testament prophets stopped giving messages from the Lord and before John the Baptist arrived. Because they were written at a time without prophetic activity, Jews and Protestants do not recognize these books as Scripture. They do give important insight into Jewish history. In the 2nd century BC, Alexander the Great conquered much of the ancient world. After his death, Antiochus Epiphanes inherited rule of the Jews and began to persecute them violently. Without prophets, without a son of David on the throne, how would God’s people respond?
Mattathias, a priest who left Jerusalem, led a revolt, hearkening back to his ancient forebearer, Phinehas (Numbers 25). Phinehas was commended for his zeal, executing a public sinner in the presence of all Israel. The “zeal of Phinehas,” a version of which is celebrated in Maccabees, is very different from the zeal of Old Testament Daniel. In 1 Maccabees 2, Mattathias murders a man who would offer an apostate sacrifice. Then, the rebels flee to the wilderness. Because the pursuing troops follow them on the Sabbath, the fleeing Jews “did not answer them or hurl a stone at them or block up their hiding places, for they said, ‘Let us die in our innocence.’” After 1000 Jews are slaughtered “innocently,” Mattathias concludes that to adequately fight, they will have to set aside the Sabbath law through the battles. They were fighting to be able to keep the Jewish laws; then they give up those laws so that they can be the killers instead of the killed.
Later, Mattathias says, “Daniel, because of his innocence, was delivered from the mouth of the lion.” Then were the slaughtered thousand innocent or not? Is there a place in Mattathias’ understanding for the righteous—let alone the Lord—to be a suffering servant (Isaiah 53)? Mattathias gives examples of triumphant Jews (2:52-60). Each example gets to see the enemies of God die. “And so observe, from generation to generation, that none who hope in him will lack strength.” How hard, then, to see Christ pass the cross to Simon of Cyrene.
It’s striking how intertwined in Maccabees are the theology of glory and the unwillingness to see hope all the way through to martyrdom. How different is Hebrews 11:13-16! When the Christian writer of Hebrews describes the faith of Jewish heroes, he sees sacrifice and exile and persecution.
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
How do Christians today face similar temptations to the Maccabean Jews? How does the New Testament change the way we answer those temptations? Do you think the Maccabean Jews could have seen in the Old Testament the answers the Christians found?