Read I Macc. Chs. 1-14
THE story of Jewish Independence recorded in I Maccabees reads like an adventure story. Jewish resistance to Antiochus' proscription of Judaism began in 168 at Modin, a village in the hill country twenty miles north of Jerusalem. Mattathias, an aged priest, not only refused to comply with a government edict to perform pagan sacrifice, but killed the Syrian official who delivered the order and a fellow Jew who was prepared to conform to the decree. With his sons Judas, Jonathan and Simon, the old man fled to the hills and organized an armed resistance party employing guerrilla tactics. At first the Jews were handicapped by their refusal to do battle on the Sabbath, but when Antiochus' soldiers killed nearly one thousand Hasidim on the Sabbath, Mattathias and the Hasidim who joined him agreed to fight on the holy day to preserve their lives.
Antiochus IV was engaged in a struggle with the Parthians, but dispatched a powerful army in 166 to put down the Jewish rebels. Mattathias had died, but his son Judas, who was called Maccabee,l defeated the Syrians. In 165, a second and stronger army was stopped by Judas, whose forces grew with each victory. Now Syrians and Jews signed a peace treaty which removed the hated restrictions on Jewish religious expression. Judas and his soldiers entered Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and on the 25th of Chislev (December), three years to the day from the time Antiochus IV had desecrated the altar, reconsecrated the shrine and instituted worship services. The event has been commemorated ever since in the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Hanukkah.
Antiochus died in 164 and his son Antiochus V Eupator became king. Judas attempted to seize the Acra in Jerusalem, the fortified high place held by a Syrian garrison. When he failed, Syrian reprisal was swift. The temple walls were razed and Menelaus, the high priest, executed. Antiochus V was killed by his cousin Demetrius I Soter in 162. Demetrius appointed a pro-Syrian, Alcimus, to the high priesthood. Judas continued to struggle against the Syrians until his death in 161. His brother Jonathan took command of the Jewish forces.
Now a pretender, Alexander Balas, challenged Demetrius and subsequently became king. Jonathan threw in his lot with Balas and was rewarded with the high priesthood in 153, and with the governorship of Judah in 150. When Balas married Cleopatra, daughter of Ptolemy VI, in 150, the breach between Egypt and Syria was temporarily healed. In Egypt the Jews enjoyed particular benefits, and under Onias, son of Onias III, a Jewish temple was established at Leontopolis, a few miles from Memphis. Had the situation in Palestine been more normal, there is little doubt that there would have been much criticism of this violation of Deuteronomic law.2
Balas was next confronted with a legitimate heir to the throne, Demetrius II Nicator, son of Demetrius I. By 145, Balas had been murdered and Demetrius was king. Jonathan supported Demetrius, rescuing him with Jewish soldiers when his life was endangered by Balas' son Antiochus VI and Balas' former general Tryphon. At that desperate time Demetrius promised special favors to Jonathan which he failed to keep. Now Jonathan gave aid to Antiochus VI and Tryphon and, aided by his brother Simon, overcame Demetrius. Tryphon tricked Jonathan, imprisoned him and finally had him killed. Antiochus was murdered and Tryphon became king. Now Simon, Jonathan's brother, came to Jerusalem and by 142 had seized the Acra and had made Jerusalem a free city and the Jews an independent people. During these turbulent days several Jewish writings made their appearance, and a distinctive literary form known as apocalyptic writing came into being.
The desperate plight of the Jews under Antiochus IV elicited a literary call for stubborn resistance to Greek culture and zealous loyalty to the traditional faith, in the conviction that God was about to act to bring in the long-awaited kingdom and to redeem his people. The roots of such thinking rested, in part, in Jewish sacred history, which proclaimed God's miraculous saving acts in the past in the story of the preservation of the righteous Noah, and the escape of Israel from Egypt; in part in Jewish theology, which extolled the justice of God, the punishment of the wicked and the rewarding of the righteous; and in part in Jewish particularism, by which election and covenant theory were woven throughout the Jewish interpretation of history to demonstrate the uniqueness of those chosen by God as his own. These Jewish beliefs were given new expression through influences coming from Iranian and Zoroastrian theology, including cosmic dualism and a concept of history that postulated a beginning, a series of time periods and a climactic ending of time. The catalyst was the persecution under Antiochus, which produced a failure of nerve, a despair of man's ability to effect the kingdom of God through his own efforts and a conviction that the situation could only get worse until God himself broke in to terminate the present evil age and inaugurate the ideal.
Literature of this kind is said to be "apocalyptic" or expressive of "apocalypticism," terms drawn from a Greek word meaning "to disclose" or "to reveal" or "to make manifest," and which signify the uncovering of information hidden from men. That which is revealed in apocalyptic literature consists of secrets of the future, knowledge possessed only by God and revealed to his elect. The mode of revelation is through visions marked by extreme, and at times almost grotesque imagery, or by cryptic numbers whose significance and meaning is interpreted by angels. The purpose of the apocalypticist is to encourage the faithful to endure persecution and hardship and to resist the forces of evil, in the conviction that the end of time is at hand. The fullest expressions of this form of writing are the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Revelation to John in the New Testament, although other examples are found in the Pseudepigrapha, including Enoch, The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Assumption of Moses and the Apocalypse of Baruch.
The fundamental theological problem confronting the apocalypticist is theodicy. The response postulates a cosmic dualism with a polarity of good and evil. The struggle between good and evil experienced in human life is a microcosmic manifestation of a macrocosmic phenomenon. The roots of good and evil were metaphysical and cosmological, for the divine order was in itself bipolar. Powers of evil and good may be personified as they are in Zorastrianism by Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, or as they were to become in Jewish thought in God and Satan (or some other), or they may be left unpersonified. There is a further postulation of an eschaton, an end of time, when the forces of evil will be finally and completely defeated by the power of good. Time is pictured as a straight line with a point of beginning (already present in Jewish thought), a series of time-periods, an ending (incipient in Judaism in the Day of Yahweh concept), and a new beginning (implicit in the new beginnings in J). The reader is made to realize that he is standing at the threshold of the end of time, the destruction of the present evil world and the creation of a new world of righteousness. The writer speaks in the name of some ancient worthy and projects himself back in time to a specific historical setting and from that point "predicts" events that he knows have taken place as though they were "to come." Of course from his vantage point he can maintain relative accuracy, depending on his knowledge, in describing what has already occurred, but he colors his presentation with symbols, referring to nations as animals, or to rulers as "horns." When he attempts to go beyond his own day and unveil the shape of things to come, his predictions go awry, for history does not sustain his claims.3
Revelation comes through visions or dream-visions and interpretation is given by an angel (cf. Dan. 7:16; 8:15-18). The various apocalyptic writings so closely resemble one another that it is apparent that there was both borrowing of imagery and adherence to an accepted literary pattern. The visions are, therefore, more literary than experienced.
Because some motifs in apocalyptic writing are akin to those of prophecy, it is essential to distinguish between them:
Other distinctions could be pressed, such as the dualism of apocalypticism and the stress upon individual salvation, but it is possible to push the distinctions too far. It should not be assumed that the analysis is designed to demonstrate the superiority of one form of religious expression over another; each had its own values and weaknesses. The apocalypticist made it possible for men to maintain belief in the righteousness of God when all historical evidence appeared to point to the opposite. He brought into an age of darkness and despair a shaft of light and hope that gave to the age an air of expectancy, of looking toward a golden age about to be realized. The conviction that righteousness would ultimately prevail and that men of faith would triumph produced courage to face adversity and suffering. Because the ethics of apocalypticism were not only concerned with what men did here and now but with what men would do in the coming kingdom, there tended to develop ethical concerns that had universalistic implications. At the same time, there was a moral narrowness, for righteousness meant doing that which placed a man on God's side, and the definition of that righteousness became more and more restrictive. The mechanistic concept of a predetermined future, which would come despite anything man might do, contained a potential for moral irresponsibility. The prophets declared that a good society could come as a by-product from good people, the apocalypticists held that the future was unconditional and the good society would come as an act of God. What is most significant is that apocalypticism faded when its promises failed. Fortunately for the Jews, all did not accept the apocalyptic way of thinking, as the Maccabean revolt demonstrates, for what happened in subsequent history certainly involved man.
Although Daniel is set in the time of Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon it clearly belongs to the time of Antiochus IV. Knowledge of the Babylonian-Persian period as revealed in the book is vague and, on occasion, inaccurate. The opening verse (1:1) states that Jehoiakim surrendered Jerusalem to Nebuchadrezzar, but as we have seen, Jehoiakim was dead before Nebuchadrezzar took the city. Belshazzar (Bel-shar-user) is identified as the son of Nebuchadrezzar and is called "king" (5:1), but we have seen that his father was Nabonidus and that, though he was a regent, he never became a king. King Darius is called a Mede, the son of Xerxes (Ahasuerus), in Daniel 9:1, although we know that he was a Persian and the father of Xerxes. As the story moves into the Greek period, it becomes more accurate. The writer knows of the desecration of Yahweh's altar by Antiochus IV in 168 (9:27; 11:31) but not of the restoration of worship by Judas Maccabeus three years later. The book must have been completed between 168 and 165, probably closer to 165. The presence of Persian and Greek loan-words lends support to the Hellenistic dating.
The book is written in Hebrew except for Chapters 2:4a to 7 which are in Aramaic. The presence of a sizable Aramaic section does not necessarily indicate composite authorship, for there are several links in ideas between the Hebrew and Aramaic portions. One conjecture is that the author may have composed the work during two different periods, drawing from older Aramaic sources for some motifs, but this explanation does not suggest any reason why the book could not have been written in one language. To date, no satisfactory solution has been proposed.4
The book falls into two sections: Chapters 1 to 6, which consist of stories about Daniel and his three friends, and Chapters 7 to 12, which outline four visions and the interpretations provided by angels. Who Daniel was is known only from this book, and the author models his hero on Joseph in Egypt. Whether or not Daniel is to be associated with the pre-Exilic righteous man in Ezekiel (14:14, 20; 28:3), or with the more remote Canaanite figure of the same name, cannot be known.5 It is possible that a Daniel unknown outside of this book actually lived during the Exile and provided the basis for this account. In his loyalty to the prescriptions of the Torah, Daniel represents the Hasidim. He is called a "wise man" and symbolizes that segment of the wisdom movement that anchored wisdom in obedience to the Law.
Read Daniel Chs. 1-6
The first six chapters of the book of Daniel are fiction, set in the court of Babylon, and may be based on a Palestinian reworking of older folk tales. In their present form, they are designed to engender in the reader strength and courage in the face of the tyrannical oppression of Antiochus IV. For the four young men in the first chapter, loyalty to their beliefs is more important than life. Their refusal to eat non-kosher food is, no doubt, aimed at encouraging resistance among those under pressure from Antiochus to violate Jewish food laws (I Macc. 1:62 f.). In the second chapter, in which the Aramaic portion begins, Daniel interprets Nebuchadrezzar's dream, demonstrating that only Yahweh knows what the future holds and that the revealed wisdom of the Jew is superior to that of other peoples. The image in Nebuchadrezzar's dream introduces the epochs of world history which become progressively evil. The golden head represented the Babylonians and the silver breast and arms the Medians, who, probably because of the Exilic predictions of Isaiah 13-14, 21, the author of Daniel insists played an important role prior to the Persians. The Persians are the brazen belly and thighs, and the Alexandrian empire is represented by the iron legs. The feet and toes of mixed clay and iron are the separate kingdoms of the Diodochoi. The insecurity of the figure is such that God needed only to strike it with a stone to make it collapse. The writer is obviously teaching that the end was at hand and that Jews living in the Hellenistic era were near to the moment of divine intervention.
The reference to Nebuchadrezzar's image (ch. 4) may have served to remind Jews of a golden image of Apollo erected by Antiochus at Daphne. The courage of the young men in the fiery furnace was a model of resistance to stimulate fidelity to the ancestral faith.
On the basis of a fragmented manuscript found at Qumran and called "The Prayer of Nabonidus," it has been postulated that the story of Nebuchadrezzar's dream and madness may be drawn from an older story about Nabonidus.6 For the second century Jews, the mad king must have called to mind Antiochus, whom they believed had gone mad with power, and the story reassured them that God would take care of this deranged monarch.
The account of Belshazzar's feast that announced the end of the Babylonian empire errs, as we have noted, in describing Bel-shar-user as a king and in ascribing the conquest of Babylon to Darius, wrongly called a Mede. The miraculous handwriting with the message "Mene, mene, takel and parsin" records weights: the min, the shekel and the half-mina, all possessing symbolic significance. The weights, as Daniel explains, meant that God had weighed or judged the Neo-Babylonians and had decided the empire was to end.
The final story in this section, the well-known tale of Daniel in the den of lions, is set in the fictional Median court of Darius. The testing of Daniel was like the testing of Jews by Antiochus, and the miraculous deliverance gave hope that God would soon act on behalf of his people. One must assume that the fact that salvation always came in the Daniel stories and that it did not come in real life was not missed by the Jewish readers, who took the message of the stories to be that loyalty to God was of supreme importance.
The author now introduces a series of visions revealing events to follow the fall of the Neo-Babylonian empire. For the Palestinian reader in Antiochus' day, it was clearly demonstrated that the time was at hand when God would act. Apocalyptic historiography, as we have noted, segmented history into periods but partitioned cosmic time into two ages—the present evil age and the glorious future. Events prior to Antiochus' day are placed in predictive form; that which lay beyond involved the kingdom of God.
Read Daniel Ch. 7
Chapter 7 pictures the four empires as beasts. The lion-eagle was the Neo-Babylonians; the bear, the Medes; the leopard, the Persians; and the fourth beast with the iron teeth, the Macedonians. Now the symbol is changed, and the horns represent the successive rulers of Alexander's broken empire.7 The single small horn, which utters blasphemy and plucks up the other three, was Antiochus. As anti-god, Antiochus defied the Most High and was destroyed. The radiant figure of the "Ancient of Days" (7:9 ff.) who sits in judgment and transcends history, is Yahweh. The whiteness of his hair and garments and the presence of fire reveal purity, mark the separation of the sacred from the profane and perhaps recall the Iranian imagery of the testing of the good and evil in a stream of fire. The one "like a son of man" is not a messiah figure but the representation of the faithful Jews who would inherit the kingdom as Verses 18 and 27 indicate.8 The cryptic numbers that give a clue to the time of judgment (7:25) are given in years,9 and if the time is reckoned from the desecration of the temple by Antiochus IV, the author comes close to the time of re-dedication by Judas Maccabeus. The concept of a day of judgment in which the records of misdeeds were opened (7:10) is introduced for the first time.
Read Daniel Ch. 8
The second Hebrew portion of the book begins in Chapter 8, and there is a marked inferiority of quality and style of narrative. Possibly, as some scholars have suggested, the author prepared a separate collection of visions and appended these to the Aramaic section. The vision of the two-horned ram (the Medo-Persians), the single-horned he-goat (Alexander) and the four horns that sprout from the single horn (the Diodochoi) follow the same historical analysis as Chapter 7. The little horn that grew in power and desecrated the sanctuary is, of course, Antiochus IV. The interpreter of the vision is the angel Gabriel.10 The number 2,300 refers to daily sacrifices offered every morning and evening. If the number referred to "days," the apocalypticist would be predicting that six and one-half years after the desecration of the temple, worship would be restored. If the number represents the number of sacrifices that would be missed, a three and one-quarter year period is in the writer's mind—a figure very close to the actual date of the re-institution of worship. Verse 26 explains why the predictions had not been known before: they were sealed for many days.
Read Daniel Ch. 9
Chapter 9 is an extension of the previous vision. Daniel sought to explain Jeremiah's prediction of seventy years of exile (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10). Presumably, for all practical purposes, Jeremiah's words had been fulfilled when the Jews returned to Palestine in the Persian period. The seventy-year symbol was of little value to the author of Daniel, so he re-interpreted it under the instruction of Gabriel so that each year stood for a week of years, or seven years. The Exile was lengthened to 490 years, placing the end of the Exilic period in the future, somewhat distant from the author's immediate day. However, precise dating is ignored by the writer, and he brings the end of the Exile into his own time by the reference to the defiling of the temple (9:27).
Read Daniel Chs. 10-12
The last three chapters form a unit outlining the history of the Seleucid period through the reign of Antiochus IV and attempting to press into the hidden future. A second angelic figure is introduced, Michael,11 the patron angel of the Jews. Michael struggled against the Persians in what appears to be a celestial combat (10:11-12). Once again the apocalyptic interpretation of history brings the narrative to the writer's own day, to Antiochus Epiphanes, and to that one event that so horrified and shocked the writer that it came to be the turning point in his history—the profanation of the temple (11:31).
When the apocalypticist attempts to unveil the future, his predictions are wrong. He envisions an attack by Egypt that did not take place and other details are also in error.
The final chapter promises deliverance by the forces of Michael, then divine judgment. For the first time, the problem of theodicy is answered by pushing rewards and punishments beyond the grave, and for the first time, the concept of the resurrection of the dead is clearly presented. How much these concepts owe to Iranian religious thought cannot be determined for sure, for judgment in the afterlife had been accepted in Egypt for centuries.12 Once again the reader is informed that this vital information, revealed centuries before, had been sealed until the "end of time" (12:4), implying that "now," in the days of Antiochus, it was made known because this was the end of time. A slight re-interpretation of the time of the end occurs in the interpolation at 12:11-12.
A stirring story of feminine intrigue and courage, written during the Maccabean struggle, recorded the deliverance of a besieged city through the beauty and wiles of Judith. The writing must be classified as fiction with an imaginary setting in the time of Assyrian world conquest. If the author knew precise historical details, he chose to ignore them, for he names the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadrezzar as king over the Assyrians at Nineveh, though the city had been destroyed seven years before Nebuchadrezzar was crowned (2:1 ff.; 4:2 ff.). There is no evidence that Nebuchadrezzar ever warred against the Medes or captured Ecbatana (1:7, 14). What is more surprising is that the author implies that the Jews were returning from captivity at the very time they were experiencing further deportations. The names of the Assyrian commander Holofernes and his general Bagoas may indicate that the writer had in mind a campaign against Phoenicia and the Jews waged in 353 in the time of Artaxerxes III Ochus (358-338), for the Persian commander's name was Holofernes and his general was Bagoas, a eunuch. But the exaggerations in the story can only be fictional. Holofernes moved a massive army 300 miles in three days (2:21)! Numbers are also exaggerated (cf. 1:4, 16; 2:5, 15; 7:2, 17). The town of Bethulia, which must have been close to Shechem (or perhaps was Shechem), has never been located.13
The literary style is somewhat heavy at times because of the insertion of long instructional speeches or prayers, a characteristic of Hellenistic writing. Nevertheless, there are excellent sequences and the reader is led through scenes of potential danger to the tense moment of the murder of Holofernes and Judith's escape in the fashion of a good spy story. As an ideal heroine Judith is beautiful and courageous, and as an example to Jewish women she is a model of pious and meticulous observance of the Law. Other characterizations are equally good.
The author did not write solely for entertainment, but as in other Jewish fiction, to instruct. As the ideal Jewess (the name "Judith" means "Jewess"), Judith demonstrated one of the ways in which loyal and religious women could aid the cause of freedom. She was a Maccabean counterpart of Jael (Judg. 4-5), using deception, intrigue, human weakness and in Judith's case, a touch of sensual enticement, to bring about the murder of an enemy general. She demonstrated the importance of active resistance to the enemy by the Hasidim.
The story has two parts. The first (chs. 1-7) describes the war of the Assyrians against the Jews, leading up to the siege of Bethulia. The second (chs. 8-16) tells of the deliverance by Judith. Once again Nebuchadrezzar is the model for the power-hungry Seleucid oppressor, and once again the Jews are the target. Standing in the way of Assyrian conquest is the legendary city of Bethulia, and against this tiny community the tremendous armed might of Assyria is mustered. Rather than using his armies to crush the city, Holofernes is persuaded to bring the people to their knees by cutting off the water supply.
In the second portion, Judith, a wealthy and beautiful widow, succeeds in penetrating the Assyrian camp. Using beauty and wisdom as her initial weapons, she manages to get Holofernes drunk, then murders him and returns with his head to Bethulia. The comment of the stunned Bagoas can only have been designed to provoke a chuckle (14:18). The Jewish victory and the dutiful performance of rites of thanksgiving and purification could only have produced a sigh of satisfaction among the Hasidim.
The theology of the book combines universalism (9:5 f., 12; 13:18) and particularism (4:12; 6:21; 10:1; 12:8; 13:7). The stress on piety tends to make obedience to the law the test of piety (cf. II:12 ff.) and would suggest that the writer was a member of the Hasidim. He believes that God's help comes when man obeys the Law. There is no concern over the use of deceit or sensuousness in entrapping the enemy, nor is there any condemnation of Judith's murder of Holofernes. These were days of open warfare, and in dealing with the enemy, ethical considerations could be safely ignored. For this writer, loyalty and piety were equated.
Judith has canonical status in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, but not in Jewish and Protestant versions.
I Esdras, or III Esdras according to Roman Catholic listings, is accepted as canonical only by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its contents, with one major exception, are based on a version of II Chronicles 35-36, Ezra and Neh. 7:73-8:12. Apart from general comments and the consideration of the one unique story of the three guardsmen, we will pass by I Esdras without suggesting it be read or subjected to detailed analysis. For the specialist, a study of the textual variations between I Esdras, the LXX and the Masoretic text has value since I Esdras represents a different recension with certain omissions, additions and realignment of contents.14 It may be broadly outlined as follows:
The most acceptable date for I Esdras is the second century, preferably around 150. The dating is based on a study of the Greek style, two possible allusions to Daniel (cf. 4:40 and Dan. 2:37; 4:59 f. and Dan. 2:22 f.), and on the study of the relationship of I Esdras to the work of the Chronicler as we know it.
Read I Esdras Chs. 3:1-5:6
The most interesting addition to the traditions preserved by the editor is the story of the contest held in the court of King Darius by three young guards. Each extols what he believes to be the strongest thing in the world and the virtues of wine, the king, women and truth are presented. Some of the comments of the third speaker, who praises women and truth, are rather bold, but in fiction the incredible is seldom challenged. As a reward for the winning speech, the young man, who is certainly a Jew, requests that the promises to rebuild the temple and return the sacred vessels be kept.
Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968,
1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Gerald A. Larue.
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Last updated: Wednesday, 30-Nov-2005 17:06:22 CST