Judah Maccabee Could Wait No Longer

7 Dec

The Jewish Bible does not include the Book of Maccabees. This is a function of several factors, but mainly because they were written way after Ezra the Scribe, and so they just didn’t make the biblical cut. Nonetheless, they offer a depth of understanding about the circumstances surrounding the events we commemorate on Chanukah, and I suggest that if you have an hour, go online and simply skim through the stories. There are a lot of heroics, and a number of interesting parallels to the current political realities in the Middle East, especially in terms of issues related to peace agreements and trust. Biblical Scholar Jonathan A. Goldstein(1929-2004) translated Maccabees I and II in the 1970’s for Anchor Bible. His introduction and notes are extensive, and have offered me a brand new insight into the Chanukah story that I can’t way to share! Here it goes…. In the Spring of 164 BCE, Judah and his armies had won a decisive battle against the armies of the Seleucid empire, who had been sent from the west to conquer Judea. This victorious battle was far from the last one that he and his brothers would be forced to wage against the Syrian-Greeks, but it was an important one, since it was accompanied by the glorious return of the Temple into Jewish control. Five years earlier, returning from a euphoric of victory in Egypt, Antiochus IV, passed through Jerusalem and lay siege to the Temple, looting it of all of its riches and vessels of silver and gold. Many were killed and there was great sorrow in Jerusalem in the wake of this violent act. Two years later, still thirsting for more, Antiochus sent mercenaries to Jerusalem. The commander treacherously addressed the people in peaceful terms, so that that they trusted him, and then he hit the city hard with a surprise attack (sound familiar?). At his point, oppression set in against the nation, and the Temple was desecrated with offerings to idols. This lasted for three years until the Maccabee victory that we celebrate on Chanukah. Apparently form the text, Judah waited at least a half a year following that victory before rededicating the Temple in Kislev, in the winter of that year. You’ve gotta wonder why…. Goldstein offers a fascinating suggestion: he writes that at the time of Antiochus’ conquest, the nation was in shock. Amidst the confusion and chaos of the times, inspired writers put quill to parchment and wrote a number of works that we consider “apocalyptic,” in that that they took the events of their times and put them into a providential scheme of history, accompanied by glorious predictions about the future. In order to give these works an imprimatur of authenticity, they ascribed them to some well-known Biblical characters, such as, Enoch(who “walked with God,” and was “taken by God” – see Genesis 5:22-24), and Moses. The people who wrote these books did not consider themselves to be prophets, as everyone knew well that prophecy was a thing of the past; however, in lieu of prophecy, the writings were so persuasive that many got caught up in their predictions, and considered it inappropriate to take action until the “prophecies came true.” It seems that the notion that the next Temple will descend from the heavens, and not be built by humans, may find its early origins in this one of these works (Enoch 90:28-19). If this was the case, suggests Goldstein, then it could very well be the case that Judah felt the need to wait and give the “prophecies” a chance to come true….so he waited. One such “prophecy” claimed that the Temple would be rebuilt in the Sabbatical year. There was a prediction that it would happen only after an earthquake, or only after the gentiles would be duly punished, and after the Seleucid Empire would come to an end. Some suggested that revival of the dead would precede the new building, and that God would first destroy all idols. After waiting half a year or so, Judah and the people could wait no longer. As Goldstein writes: “…Judah and the Jews waited through the twenty-second day of ….Kislev. When no miracle occurred, the prophecies were clearly proved false…. The long vain wait for prophecies to be fulfilled was embarrassing both for Judah and for the believers in the veracity of the prophecies. “ For me, this is another layer to the Chanukah celebration – and a profound one at that. For me, Judah becomes here a forerunner of Religious Zionism – an approach to Jewish national life that shows respect for pious opinions and visions, but does not allow such predictions to overshadow the obvious needs that stare us squarely in the face. The problem with much of our ancient wisdom is that it is subject to multiple interpretations. When weighing the potential understandings of ancient prophecy against clear-cut current needs of the Jewish people – such as the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 – the multiple, even conflicting visions provided by the former must give way to the pressing demands of the latter. Kol hakavod to the wise ones who find new interpretations of ancient prophecies of the past, renewing them so that they more adequately line up with the pressing needs of the present; however, when that is not possible, then we must take Judah Maccabee’s lead and go forth, casting our spotlight upon the pressing, urgent needs that lie before us. We must not wait any longer.


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