Monday of Week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Maccabees 1:10-15, 41-43, 54-57, 62-64

During this week we take readings from the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. These are among the latest of Old Testament writings. 1 Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, but we only have the Greek translation now; 2 Maccabees was written in Greek. They date from about 100 BC, not long before the birth of Christ. Although they deal with the same period of history, they are clearly separate books written by different authors. They are not part of the Jewish canon and are not included, except as “apocrypha”, in Protestant bibles.

The first book is mainly historical and covers events between 175-134 BC, including a successful revolution by the Jews. The second book is less concerned about history and covers a shorter period than the first book. Our readings will alternate between the first and second books.

The period we are covering follows on the death of Alexander the Great. As the opening of 1 Maccabees indicates, the territories conquered by Alexander were divided among his officers and noblemen, who appointed themselves kings in their own regions.

From these there emerged a “wicked offshoot”, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, son of King Antiochus (175-164 BC). He was the younger brother of Seleucus IV and son of Antiochus II. The royal epithet Epiphanes (‘who reveals himself in splendour’) indicates the king’s claim to be the earthly manifestation of the Greek god, Zeus. He had been among hostages handed over to the Romans by his father in 189 BC, after his defeat at Magnesia in Sipyle.

Antiochus IV became king in the 107th year of the “kingdom of the Greeks”. This refers to the Seleucid era which began in Syria in the autumn of 312 BC (when Antioch was supposed to have been founded) and in Babylonia in the following year, 311 BC.

It was at this point, according to 1 Maccabees, that a group of “renegades” (literally, “breakers of the Law”) emerged among the Israelites with the purpose of leading the people astray. They began urging the people to merge with the surrounding Hellenistic peoples on the grounds that by separating themselves they had had nothing but trouble. They began making propaganda among their fellow-Jews urging them to break down the barriers that divided the Jews from the surrounding peoples.

This proposal met with a favourable response on the part of many, and some of them approached Antiochus, who gave them the authority to practise gentile customs. One of the signs of change was the building of a gymnasium, which was a feature of every Greek city. Many of the Jews “made foreskins for themselves” (i.e. disguised their circumcision) because men were always naked in the gymnasium and circumcision was peculiar only to the Jews. The nakedness which was no problem to the Greeks was a source of discomfort to the Jews (think of Adam and Eve in the garden after their sin). It is likely that other behaviour obnoxious to the Jews, such as homosexual behaviour, would also take place there. The statement that some “abandoned the holy covenant…joined with the nations and sold themselves to do evil” may even imply that some of the Jewish men and women practised prostitution.

The New Jerusalem Bible comments:

”Religion, the Law and ancestral custom isolated the Jews as a foreign community inside the oriental world which had been unified and hellenised since Alexander’s conquest. Assimilation by the new culture offered material benefits, but could not be achieved without breaking down the barriers which safeguarded the integrity of the Jewish faith. At this point, the innovations were not yet identified with the idolatrous practices which the king was to impose seven years later, but they increased the opportunities for taking part in such rites; and here lies the underlying theme of the two books of Maccabees. This movement among the hellenising Jews was sure of support from Antiochus Epiphanes, a devotee of Greek culture.”

Antiochus now began to reveal his real intentions. After invading Egypt and defeating Ptolemy its king, he moved against Judah and sacked Jerusalem. He rebuilt the City of David and filled it with Jews allied to his Hellenistic ways. He then issued a proclamation ordering all ethnic groups in his kingdom to renounce their customs and accept his religion.

Our reading picks up the story at this point. On the 15th day of Chislev in the year 145 of his dynasty (which corresponds to 8 December 167 BC), Antiochus erected the “desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering” in the Temple at Jerusalem. This was an altar to Baal Shamem or the Olympian god Zeus which was erected on the Jewish altar of holocausts in the Temple. A greater and more humiliating sacrilege could not be imagined by any Israelite. It was not unlike French revolutionaries placing a naked woman as Venus on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Altars to Antiochus’ gods were also erected in other towns of Judah and incense offered at the doors of houses and in the streets. Again, for the Jews, there was only one altar and that was in the Temple. Incense too would only be used in Temple liturgies. Books of the Law, meaning copies of the Pentateuch containing the Law, were seized and burnt.

However, not all the Jews accepted this situation. There were those who stood their ground and refused to comply:

But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food.

Many of these paid for their courageous resistance with their lives:

They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant, and they did die.

Once again, the suffering of the people is at least partly attributed to their own former sins:

Very great wrath came upon Israel.

It will be the beginning of a bitter struggle to preserve Jewish integrity in Antiochus’ kingdom.

As Christians we can face similar problems although they may vary a great deal in intensity. There are strong pressures on us to conform to the prevailing cultures of our society which involve paying worship to various idols such as materialism, consumerism, sex (with its various “recreational” offshoots), success, status, power and the fashion of the moment.

Among Christians some have taken all this culture on board and subscribe to it as did some of the Israelites in our reading. Most of us would have to admit that we are infected in varying degrees. It is not easy to walk a truly Christian path through our societies and, if we do, we can expect criticism, resistance and abuse, even violence.

Like the Israelites, though not in exactly the same way, we need to keep away from everything that is unclean or tainted with falsehood, greed, hate or violence. The covenant we have made with the Lord is to follow his commandment of unconditional love at all times and with every person.

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