October 28, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The Books of Maccabees

John F. FinkExcerpts from the Books of Maccabees are read during the Office of Readings next week, the 31st week in Ordinary Time. These books describe the revolt of the Jews against the Seleucid Empire beginning in 167 B.C.

The First and Second Books of Maccabees are not a continuous narrative as are the two books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. They tell part of the same story from different perspectives—the first from the Sadducees’ and the second from the Pharisees’.

The word “Maccabee” comes from the Hebrew word for hammer, and was the nickname for Judas Maccabeus, the son of the priest, Mattathias, who began the revolt and the leader of the Jewish forces. He and his brothers John, Simon, Eleazar and Jonathan, were called the Maccabees.

After the revolt, the Maccabees and their descendants ruled an independent Judah from 135 B.C. to 67 B.C., when Pompey conquered Palestine for Rome.

The 16 chapters in First Maccabees take the story up to 134 B.C., but the readings in the Office of Readings go only as far as Chapter 9, the death of Judas Maccabeus in 160 B.C. After his death, the leadership passed on to his brother, Jonathan.

First Maccabees begins with the history of the Middle East after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. until the reign of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 175 B.C. He issued edicts that prohibited the practice of Judaism, and demanded that the Jews offer sacrifice to the pagan gods Zeus and Baal-Shamem.

Mattathias refused and, like Phinehas (Nm 25:6-15), began a purification of the people by punishing them for worshiping false gods. Then, like David (1 Sm 22:1-2), he escaped to the desert and assembled a force that would conquer Jerusalem.

Mattathias died a year after the revolt and Judas, his third son, succeeded him. Like Joshua before him, he carried on a holy war, and his violence recalls Joshua’s campaigns.

Judas fought for six years, successfully conquering Jerusalem and cleansing the Temple of the “horrible abomination”—the god Zeus—that had been erected on the altar of holocausts. The Jews commemorate the rededication of the Temple with the feast of Hanukkah.

Only one Scripture passage from Second Maccabees is included in the Office of Readings, but it is an important one (2 Mc 12:32-46). It tells how, after a battle, Judas and his men went to bury their dead. He also took up a collection that he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice.

“In doing this,” the passage says, “he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death” (2 Mc 12:43-44). Apparently, they believed in what we Catholics know as purgatory and the ability of the living to pray for the dead.

There was no mention of this episode in First Maccabees because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. †

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