[Please read the reflection at the end]
Judas Maccabeus begins his successful military career.
He extended the glory of his people. Like a giant he put on his breastplate; he bound on his armor of war and waged battles, protecting the camp by his sword. He was like a lion in his deeds, like a lion's cub roaring for prey. He searched out and pursued those who broke the law; he burned those who troubled his people. Lawbreakers shrank back for fear of him; all the evildoers were confounded; and deliverance prospered by his hand. He embittered many kings, but he made Jacob glad by his deeds, and his memory is blessed forever. He went through the cities of Judah; he destroyed the ungodly out of the land; thus he turned away wrath from Israel. He was renowned to the ends of the earth; he gathered in those who were perishing. (1 Mc 3:3-9)
First, Judas kills the Samarian, Apollonius, and defeats his army, taking Apollonius’ sword which Judas uses in battle for the rest of his life. Next, Judas is challenged by Seron the Syrian whose army greatly outnumbers his own. When Judas’ men ask how they can possibly defeat a larger force, he responds in faith.
“It is easy for many to be hemmed in by few, for in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from Heaven. They come against us in great insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us; but we fight for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them.” When he finished speaking, he rushed suddenly against Seron and his army, and they were crushed before him. (1 Mc 3:18-23)
Judas’ victories stoke fear in his enemies and when Antiochus IV Epiphanes hears about it, he becomes enraged. The Seleucid king raises a large army to destroy the Maccabees, but he exhausts the treasury in the process, so he travels to Persia to replenish it, and leaves his son’s guardian, Lysias, in charge while he is gone.
And he [Antiochus] turned over to Lysias half of his forces and the elephants, and gave him orders about all that he wanted done. As for the residents of Judea and Jerusalem, Lysias was to send a force against them to wipe out and destroy the strength of Israel and the remnant of Jerusalem; he was to banish the memory of them from the place, settle aliens in all their territory, and distribute their land by lot. (1 Mc 3:33-36)
Now Judas and his brothers saw that misfortunes had increased and that the forces were encamped in their territory. They also learned what the king had commanded to do to the people to cause their final destruction. But they said to one another, "Let us restore the ruins of our people, and fight for our people and the sanctuary." So the congregation assembled to be ready for battle, and to pray and ask for mercy and compassion. (1 Mc 3:42-44)
Before the battle begins, Judas brings vestments to the nazirite priests, but he laments that they are unable to conduct the proper rituals because the Temple remains desecrated by the Seleucids. Regardless, Judas appoints leaders over the people and gathers his army to fight Antiochus’ army, leaning on his faith once again.
And Judas said, “Arm yourselves and be courageous. Be ready early in the morning to fight with these Gentiles who have assembled against us to destroy us and our sanctuary. It is better for us to die in battle than to see the misfortunes of our nation and of the sanctuary. But as his will in heaven may be, so shall he do.” (1 Mc 3:58-60)
Reflection: Faith in action
In this action-packed chapter, we see that Judas’ outward deeds are animated by his internal faith.
When his army faces a superior force, Judas tells his men that their strength comes from heaven. (“It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from Heaven.”) He reminds them that, unlike their enemies, who seek to subjugate them, the Jews fight for a good cause, for their way of life and for God’s law (“They come against us in great insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us; but we fight for our lives and our laws.”) Judas gives God credit for their victory even before the battle begins (“He [God] himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them.”)
When Lysia’s army approaches, Judas reminds his men again that they fight for a good cause and puts his faith in God again rather than in weapons or tactics (“It is better for us to die in battle than to see the misfortunes of our nation and of the sanctuary. But as his will in heaven may be, so shall he do.”).
This chapter reminds us that God’s people are not people of passivity or pacifism. God’s will be done, of course, but we must discern his will and then do something. We are expected to participate in the world (“You are the salt of the earth; … You are the light of the world.” (Mt 5:13-14)). This cosmic game we play has a game clock which is running down, but there are no time outs or breaks left. There’s never a time when we can be off the field or on the sidelines (“[L]et us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us….” (Heb 12:1)).
We are on the field of spiritual warfare at all times. We fight until we breathe our last breath. Faith and action must work together.
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.