[Please read the reflection at the end]
Here we meet Mattathias, the patriarch of the Hasmonean family, and his five sons, including Simeon, his heir, and Judas Maccabeus who will become the military leader of the family.
Mattathias and his sons mourn greatly over the “ruin” of Jerusalem and the Hebrew people at the hands of the Seleucids (who were helped by the Jewish renegades and Gentiles loyal to Antiochus IV Epiphanes).
The family moves from Jerusalem to Modein, a town about 17 miles away. There, Antiochus’ men realize that Mattathias is a respected community leader, so they ask him to set an example for others by worshipping the king’s gods according to the royal edict.
“Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.” (1 Mc 2:18)
We see the Maccabees are part of a small group within the local community who have not yet demonstrated their loyalty to the king: the king’s men say, “all the Gentiles and the people of Judah left in Jerusalem” have already proved their loyalty to the king by worshipping his pagan gods.
Mattathias and his family are offered riches in exchange for their obedience, but Mattathias responds by proclaiming his loyalty to God and, burning with zeal for the law and venting his righteous anger, he slays a renegade Jew who was in the midst of offering sacrifice to the king’s gods and the king’s officers, and then he calls those who are loyal to God to follow him into the wilderness and they all become fugitives.
“But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: "Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king's words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.” … Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town.” (1 Mc 2:19-22, 26-28)
Adhering to the Mosaic law, at first the fugitives refuse to fight the king’s men on the sabbath and many of them die, but Mattathias realizes that observing the sabbath when they are being attacked is futile, so they mount a counter attack on the sabbath, defeat Antiochus’ soldiers and destroy the pagan altars.
“Then the enemy quickly attacked them. But they did not answer them or hurl a stone at them or block up their hiding places, for they said, “Let us all die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly.” So they attacked them on the sabbath, and they died, with their wives and children and livestock, to the number of a thousand persons. When Mattathias and his friends learned of it, they mourned for them deeply. And all said to their neighbors: “If we all do as our kindred have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: "Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding places.” (1 Mc 2:35-41)
Then there united with them a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, all who offered themselves willingly for the law. And all who became fugitives to escape their troubles joined them and reinforced them. They organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and renegades in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. And Mattathias and his friends went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. They hunted down the arrogant, and the work prospered in their hands. They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand. (1 Mc 2:42-48)
Before he dies, Mattathias recalls the mighty deeds of his ancestors. He tells his sons to remember the trust their heroes always had in God, not to fear sinners whose power is only fleeting, and to be courageous and strong in the law. Then he chooses Simeon to be his heir and Judas to lead the military and he blesses his sons.
Reflection: Fugitives who loved the law
Though going against God would have given the Hasmonean family status and wealth, Mattathias rejects the Seleucid’s offer. Being loyal to God is not easy. It often means being a traitor to the world for which there are real consequences. Sometimes the consequences are financial and sometimes they are even deadly.
Going against the prevailing Seleucid government meant living as fugitives, ostracized from the rest of the community. Community was especially important to the Jewish people, so being separated from the majority and living in the wilderness could not have been easy for them: “troubles pressed heavily upon them.” (1 Mc 2:30)
Mattathias loved God and was zealous for the law. Though he and his family mourned Israel’s circumstances at first, they eventually hit their breaking point. It seems that desperate times call for desperate measures. Mattathias was not only willing to execute renegade Jews, forcibly circumcise the uncircumcised and go to war with Antiochus, but he also chose to break the sabbath to put an end to pagan worship and protect his beliefs.
This part of the Maccabean story can be helpful to us today. Doing what is good and avoiding what is evil is not easy. There may be harsh consequences, including being ostracized from society and living as a member of a persecuted minority group. However, those who impose evil upon the righteous should tread carefully. If the wicked push too hard, the righteous may hit a breaking point and do things they would not normally do to protect their way of life. Tyrants, beware the wrath of the righteous.
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.