Today’s feast is one we share with Jews throughout the world, who remember this same story during the festival of Hanukkah. The Maccabees (a name that means “hammer”) were Jews who lived around 168 B.C., during the reign of the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes. (“Epiphanes” means “God made manifest” and it is a name the king gave himself. That tells us a great deal about him.)
After conquering Egypt, King Antiochus turned his eyes on the Jews and set out to rid Judah of its Jewish customs and practices and replace them with Greek religion and ways. (You can read the full story in the Bible, in First and Second Maccabees.)
Antiochus invaded the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem, stripping it of its altar, its vessels and all its treasures. The writer of Maccabees sums Antiochus up this way, “He shed much blood, and spoke with great arrogance.”
Then Antiochus invaded Jerusalem plundering and burning the city. He decreed that all the people must sacrifice to the Greek gods. He forbade the possession of Jewish scriptures. He forced the people to stop circumcising their sons and to start eating foods, like pork, they regarded as unclean. The punishment for disobeying his ordinances was death.
The writer records that parents continued to circumcise their sons. When their crime was discovered, the circumcised boys were killed and their corpses were hung around their mothers’ necks. But some, among them the sons of a Jewish priest named Mattathias, stood firm.
When the king’s soldiers came and ordered Mattathias and his family to offer sacrifice to the king’s gods, Mattathias told them, “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 form our religion to the right hand or the left.”
The armies of Antiochus should have crushed the Maccabees. They had more soldiers, more horses and more weapons.
When Mattathias finished speaking a Jewish man went up and offered a sacrifice on the soldier’s altar. Over come with rage, Mattathias killed the man. Then he and his five sons and their families went into hiding and began the guerilla war immortalized in Hanukkah songs and stories.
The armies of Antiochus should have crushed the Maccabees. They had more soldiers, more horses and more weapons. But Mattathias’ son, Judas, proved to be an able commander, and he and his forces recaptured Jerusalem and the temple. They purified the temple and re-dedicated it to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This is a story of the use of force in the cause of justice. For an alternative view, read the Book of Daniel. Though it is supposedly set in the Babylonian court of King Nebuchadnezzar, the book was written during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and offers an account of what today would be called civil disobedience in the face of tyranny and religious persecution.
– Melissa Musick