Saturday of Week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Maccabees 6:1-13

We read today of the end of the reign of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who caused such sufferings to the Jews, as we have seen. Disasters now overtake him, resulting in his sickness and death. For the author of First Maccabees the reason is clear: his desecration of God’s holy city of Jerusalem.

In terms of strict chronology, this episode of the king’s death should really be recorded before the Dedication of the Temple which we saw in yesterday’s reading. The reading begins by telling us that Antiochus was making his way through the Upper Provinces of his empire, that is, inland to the east. Reports had reached him of a city called Elymais which was extremely wealthy with silver and gold. There was a temple there full of golden armour which had been left there by Alexander the Great, who was the son of Philip of Macedon, the first king of all the Greeks. This was the temple of Nanaea-Artemis.

In fact, there is no town of this name known. ‘Elymais’ is the Greek form of Elam, which refers to the country around Susa, the old capital of Persia, close to where the River Tigris runs in the Persian Gulf. The term more strictly refers to the mountainous region north of Susa.

Antiochus attacked the city, but was unable to take it because, as we are told, the inhabitants had forewarning of the attack. In Second Maccabees we read:

When the leader reached Persia with a force that seemed irresistible, they were cut to pieces in the temple of Nanea [a Persian counterpart of the Greeks’ Artemis] by a deception employed by the priests of the goddess Nanea.
(2 Macc 1:13)

First Maccabees does not mention this and may not know of it. The author says that the king was routed in battle and had to retreat to Babylon which lay some distance to the northwest on the River Euphrates.

On top of this, more bad news reached the king. His armies which had invaded Judaea had been routed, and one of his top generals, Lysias, in particular, who had advanced with massive strength had been forced to flee before the Jews. The Jews, in turn, were now more powerful than ever thanks to the large amounts of weapons they had captured in their victories.

They had also pulled down the “Abomination of Desolation”, the altar to Zeus which Antiochus had erected in the Jerusalem Temple and rebuilt the old walls which surrounded the sanctuary and fortified Beth-Zur, one of the king’s cities.

All of this was too much for Antiochus, who was shocked and profoundly shaken by the turn of events. These defeats – and perhaps the overthrow of the statue of all the all-powerful gods, Zeus and Baal (in whom he believed), filled him with grief, undermined his health. He took to his bed, fell sick with grief because things had turned out so badly for him. After spending some days confined to his bed, with recurrent attacks of melancholy and depression, he realised that his end was near. It was time for him to make his peace with his gods.

On his deathbed, he summons all his “Friends”, that is, his close associates and ministers, and makes a deathbed speech. He cannot sleep and he is overcome with anxiety about his fate. He wonders how he could have come to such a state of distress, considering how generous and well-loved he was in his heyday. He remembers only the favours he showered on those who were close to him, but seems to have been completely unaware of the depth of suffering that he had caused in the peoples he had conquered and over-run. How many other authoritarian tyrants have felt the same – that all they did was for the good of their people? Dictators come to believe their own propaganda.

However, Antiochus does remember now how wrongly he acted in Jerusalem, when he plundered the Temple of all its sacred vessels and ordered the extermination of the people of Judah “for no reason at all”. He is now convinced that this is the reason why so many misfortunes have overtaken him and why he is dying miserable, “perishing of bitter disappointment in a strange land”. It is the just punishment for all he did against God’s people. There is an element of true repentance in his words and for this he lays himself open to God’s mercy.

Technically speaking, he was not dying in a “strange land” because Persia still was part of his Seleucid Empire. This book says the king’s death was punishment for the pillaging of the Temple in Jerusalem, but Second Maccabees says it was for plundering the temple of Artemis. Second Maccabees also says, as we saw from the quotation above, that the king died in this temple, having walked into the trap set for him and his ‘Friends’ by the priests of the temple.

Actually, Antiochus must have died before all of this, but the author has to adapt his story to fit the time frame he has chosen. As we saw in speaking of the Dedication feast yesterday, it is likely that it was because the king was already dead that Judas Maccabeus was able to seize the Temple in Jerusalem. As far as we are concerned, it is not an important point because it does not alter the basic meaning of the story and what it might say to us.

How do we think our lives will be evaluated by those who have known us in life? Do we believe ourselves to be more kindly and compassionate than we actually are? What actions of ours in the past do we now see were very wrong and unjust? What amends can we make, for it is never too late to turn ourselves round. We cannot undo what has been done, but we can act to make a radical change in our lives and relationships from today on.

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