[Please be sure to read the reflection, Renegades and the one religion, at the end of this article.]
1 Maccabees covers the time period between 175-134 B.C.
1 Mc 1:1-19
Alexander the Great, son of Philip of Macedonia, conquered the known world circa 330 B.C. when he defeated King Darius’ Persian empire at the age of 26. Alexander died a few years later at the age of 33, leaving his kingdom to be divided among his officers.
Judea came under the control of the Egyptian Ptolemies (300-198 B.C.), and later, at the time of the Maccabees, the region was ruled by their Syrian adversaries, the Seleucids (198-174 B.C.). The author describes this period of time under the rulership of the Greeks as a time of “many evils” (1 Mc 1:9).
Some Jews, who the author refers to as “renegades,” wanted to assimilate into Greek society to make their lives easier, so they built gymnasiums, reversed their circumcisions (through a procedure called epispasm), and welcomed pagan worship in the Jewish temple.1
In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil. (1 Mc 1:11-15)
The leader of the Seleucids was Antiochus IV Epiphanes.2 When he returned from conquering the Ptolemies in Egypt, he led a large military force against Jerusalem and looted the temple.
He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures that he found. Taking them all, he went into his own land. He shed much blood, and spoke with great arrogance. (1 Mc 1:21-24)
1 Mc 1:20-40
Later on, Antiochus returned to Jerusalem and, with the help of the “renegades,” he killed many people, burned the city and made it into a Seleucid military stronghold.
[T]hey stored up arms and food, and collecting the spoils of Jerusalem they stored them there, and became a great menace, for the citadel became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel at all times. On every side of the sanctuary they shed innocent blood; they even defiled the sanctuary. Because of them the residents of Jerusalem fled; she became a dwelling of strangers; she became strange to her offspring, and her children forsook her. Her sanctuary became desolate like a desert; her feasts were turned into mourning, her sabbaths into a reproach, her honor into contempt. Her dishonor now grew as great as her glory; her exaltation was turned into mourning. (1 Mc 1:35-40)
1 Mc 1:41:64
Antiochus then forced everyone, Gentile and Jew, to give up their customs and adopt his religion.3
And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. (1 Mc 1:44-49)
Of all the sufferings the Jewish people endured, this was the worst. To enforce his edict, Antiochus appointed “inspectors” over the people. The penalty for disobedience was death.
Antiochus loyalists then “erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering” (1 Mc 1:54) and burned the Hebrew scriptures. Then, on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev,4 Antiochus loyalists offered a sacrifice on the altar on top of the altar of burnt offering.
Atrocities continued against the devout, but many remained steadfast in their faith.
According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers' necks. But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Very great wrath came upon Israel. (1 Mc 1:60-64)
Reflection: Renegades and the one religion
There are certain truths of the human story which repeat throughout history.
There are the true devotees of the faith of peoples and nations, and then there are the cowards and traitors who collaborate with enemies, especially during times of trouble. Like the the Nazi collaborators of the past century, 2,000 years earlier “renegades” collaborated with Antiochus, even acting as his “inspectors” to monitor and report on their neighbors’ non-compliance with the king’s edicts.
We shouldn’t condemn our neighbors, but we must realize that some of them, including people in our own families, will side with enemies when difficult times arrive. Jesus told us this would happen (Lk 21:16). Whether the renegade’s motivation is fear, greed, power or simple hatred, history remembers all ages have their own renegades.
Another interesting human truth of this first chapter is Antiochus’ deceit against the people (1 Mc 1:30) and his imposition of one religion upon them under the threat of death (1 Mc 1:41-42). The author says this was done to make the Jewish people “forget” the law, their most precious gift from God (1 Mc 1:49).
Like Antiochus, tyrants of the recent past, and the present, gain control over and manipulate people through lies and the destruction of their identity by erasing or rewriting their language, customs, history and culture. This is done so the people “forget” who they are and more easily align under the tyrant’s new order. Nonconformists are always persecuted and eventually eliminated.
Whether the tyrant takes up the banner of a particular political philosophy, like communism, or assembles under the tenets of a popular religion, in the end, his goal is always to impose an all encompassing system of strict control over the population so that rather than living free under God’s law, the people are enslaved under the unjust laws of men who, knowingly or unknowingly, do the work of their true lord, the great deceiver and destroyer, Satan.
Attridge, Harold W. ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible, Including Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Harrelson, Walter J., ed. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
Aniochus IV Epiphanes by watchjerusalem dot co dot il
Reversing circumcisions was done because the people engaged in various activities in public places like the baths and the gymnasiums in the nude.
Epiphanes means “illustrious, [god] manifest.”
The cult of Ba’al Shamen (“Lord of the Heavens). Temple worship, celebration of the sabbath and holy days, circumcision and observance of the Torah were all banned.
December, 167 B.C.