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Chanukah: The Book of the Maccabees Uncovered
Video 3 of 4
Let me show you what I mean. The Book of the Maccabees in Chapter 2 picks up on the narrative after the death of Matityahu, it chronicles the first battle really between Yehuda the new leader and the Greek Syrian troops. So there's this Greek general by the name of [Saron 1:03], he's advancing and Yehuda comes out to meet him in battle with a comparatively small force of men. Those soldiers look up, they see the staggering array of forces that are gathering against them. And they say to Yehuda ha'Maccabee, Chapter 2, line 17; How can we, few as we are, fight such a strong host as this? Besides, we are weak since we haven't eaten today. But Yehuda said, many are easily hemmed in by a few, in the sight of heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few.
Now if you're just reading this as an account of what happened and you're ignoring any resonances to earlier events, it just seems a little strange what's happening here. I mean, fine, the people are outnumbered but why that mention that we're really hungry, can't we have some breakfast? Like Yehuda doesn't even answer, sure, help yourself to the Maccabee buffet, just put it on my tab, I'll be happy to pay for it. It doesn't even get picked up on, the fact that the people were very hungry and so they hadn't eaten today. But the truth is, I think the reason why it's there, the reason why we're hearing about it, is because each of these things that we're told now is intended to remind us of one Biblical story. It's like the author of Book of the Maccabees is hitting you over the head saying, you remember what story we're talking about? Remember when everyone was outnumbered? Remember when the leaders said yeah, don't worry about being outnumbered because G-d can help you whether you're few or many? Remember when the people didn't have anything to eat and it didn't matter? Remember all of that?
That's what seems to be happening. What story are we hearing the echoes of that the author of Maccabees wants us to remember? It's the story of Jonathan and King Saul.
The story of Jonathan and Saul in their very first war against the Philistines is recounted in the Biblical Book of Samuel, and it is eerily similar to the events that will occur centuries later in the time of the Maccabees. Israel is occupied by an enemy force but this time it's not the Syrian Greeks, it's the Philistines. There's a new and untested leader, but this time it's not Matityahu or his son Yehuda, it's Saul, and his son Jonathan. The new leader and his son start a war by assassinating the local enemy official, but this time it's not Matityahu assassinating the Syrian Greek official who is forcing him to make a pagan sacrifice, it's Jonathan who assassinates the local Philistine procurator. In both cases a war ensues, a war in which Israelite forces are vastly outnumbered, but against all odds they achieve victory anyway.
Then, there's the language that all of this is couched in. Just before attacking the superior enemy force, Jonathan, son of King Saul, speaks to his armor bearer and when he does so he says the exact words attributed to Yehuda ha'Maccabee by the Book of the Maccabees. Ein laHashem matzor l'hoshi'a b'rav o bime'at - there's nothing that holds back G-d from saving whether with many or with few. The Book of the Maccabees seems to quote Jonathan's words, placing them in the mouth of Yehuda ha'Maccabee centuries later.
And, lest you think that maybe all of this is some strange mere coincidence, you have to reckon with the second coincidence too. Remember that piece in the Book of the Maccabees about everybody in the outnumbered army being starving, hungry, haven't eaten all day? So it is in the Jonathan and Saul story too. Saul's men, as you're going to see in a few minutes, are hungry, they haven't eaten all day. For some reason, for better or for worse, Saul instructs them to avoid eating until they've completely vanquished the enemy.
So all in all, it really seems pretty clear that the author of the Book of the Maccabees is going out of his way to remind his reader, even as he's reading about the story of the Maccabees, of the Saul and Jonathan war that occurred centuries before this. But why would he be doing that? What, if anything, does the author of Maccabees want his reader, you and me, to understand?
I want to suggest to you that if we read the story of Saul and Jonathan more carefully, we will find ourselves looking at a gripping and slightly dark tale. The story is actually far more complex and interesting than it seems at first glance. It's not a simple celebration of victory at the hands of G-d, in the face of overwhelming odds against you. No, there actually is more going on here than that. If you look at the original story of Saul and Jonathan carefully, as the Book of Samuel tells it to you, you're going to find that us, the reader of that story, we're not meant to kind of just clap our hands and cheer with pride for the victorious Israelites in that battle. You, the reader, are actually meant to learn some hard but crucial truths in that story that the Book of Samuel is telling you.
I believe that the author of the Book of the Maccabees understood the Saul and Jonathan story, and wanted us to remember the great truths that emerge from that story, even as we read the story of the Maccabees. But it's as if the author of the Book of the Maccabees had two great, covert goals in writing the first few chapters of his book; he wanted the reader to remember about Egypt, and he wanted the reader to remember about Saul and Jonathan. And to see why, we're going to have to explore this a little bit more carefully. I want to go back with you now to the Saul and Jonathan story and really explore that story together. It's not an easy story to understand, questions seem to scream out at you as you read it, but if we read patiently and confront those questions, the depth and beauty of the Saul and Jonathan story will, I think, reveal itself to us. So let's get started here.
One of the most difficult parts of the Jonathan and Saul story that jumps out at you as you read it, is the role played by the prophet Samuel. You see, Samuel was the prophet who had anointed Saul as the very first king of Israel, and when he did so he had told Saul something mysterious. He said, wait for seven days for me and then you and me together we will offer peace offerings. Now when he had said that, all the way back at Saul's coronation it seemed unclear exactly what he meant. When was this going to happen this seven-day wait? He seemed to be saying that at some point in the future there will come a time when you're going to need to wait for seven days to see me, and then together, we'll offer peace offerings. But when exactly would that happen?
But then, if you keep on reading the Book of Samuel, just a couple of chapters later, you find out when that moment was. It actually occurs two years later in the context of the war that we have been talking about, the war that Jonathan and Saul will wage against the Philistines. In that war Saul finds himself to be completely outnumbered. The Philistines are arraying a vast army to fight him; and to give you a sense of exactly just how outnumbered Saul is, the Israelites start the campaign with 3,000 men, the Philistines have 30,000 chariots. Now chariots, those are like the ancient equivalent of tanks, so 10 enemy tanks for every Israelite soldier. But in addition to that, the Philistine also have 6,000 trained archers, and, what the text describes as, an innumerable amount of infantry troops. So this is not really a fair fight.
Anyway, Saul has gathered his army and then he starts to do exactly what the prophet had told him he would do, wait for him for seven days. This seems to be the appointed moment that Samuel was talking about. Somehow, Saul just knows this is what he meant, I need to wait seven days for him. So he waits and as he does so his men begin to tremble, looking at the vast enemy army gathering against them over on the other hill. They begin to hide in caves and crevices and holes in the ground, but still Saul faithfully waits for Samuel. Day after day he waits and finally the appointed seventh day arrives. Saul's men have now started to abandon him; out of the 3,000 men he started with only 600 remain.
Saul looks around and still Samuel has not arrived. So he commands his men to begin to prepare the offerings. He offers the first one and then, just then, who should he see coming around the bend, but the prophet Samuel. Now you can imagine at this point what must have been going through Saul's mind. It's like how come this took so long, but boy am I glad to see you. So Saul goes out to greet him and to bless him; Vayeitzei Shaul likrato le'barcho. But Samuel's response is absolutely mindboggling. Vayomer Shmuel meh asita - Samuel says, what have you done? Why did you offer this offering without me, you were supposed to wait? Saul says the people, they were starting to abandon me, I didn't want to face the enemy in war without offering these offerings to G-d.
Vayomer Shmuel el Shaul - so Samuel says to Saul; Niskalta - you have acted foolishly; Loh shamarta et mitzvat Hashem Elokecha - you have not faithfully kept the command of G-d. Had you only done so; Ki atah heichin Hashem et mamlachta el Yisrael ad olam - G-d would have prepared your kingship as a dynasty to last forever. But now it will not be so. V'atah mamlachtecha loh takum - now your dynasty shall not last. Bikeish Hashem lo ish kilvavo vayetzaveihu Hashem l'nagid al amo - G-d will find someone else to be the leader over His people. Your kingdom will not last.
Now you read this story and your heart just goes out to Saul. I mean, what could Samuel mean by all this? It just sounds so mean and capricious for him to say this. And any way, why did Samuel have to wait until the very last minute to arrive? You think that was fun for Saul? Saul's men really were starting to abandon him, the text says so, what did Samuel expect to happen? And even if Saul somehow did transgress here, how bad really was that sin - if we can even call it a sin? Saul's failure seems completely understandable really, why does he deserve to lose his entire dynasty because of this apparently trivial misdeed? Nothing about this seems to make any sense.
When we come back in our final video in this series, I want to explore this question with you. I believe that the author of the Book of the Maccabees knew the stories he was quoting very well, he understood the story of Saul, Jonathan and Samuel, he knew the dark aspects of this story, as well as the happy, celebratory ones. There was a reason he wanted his readers to remember the story of Saul when they read about the exploits of Yehuda ha'Maccabee. I think he saw a potential danger in the Maccabee victory as well as a reason to celebrate, there was no better way to bring that danger home to his readers than by evoking Saul and Jonathan's war. Come with me into the next video and let's explore that danger together.
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