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Chanukah: The Book of the Maccabees Uncovered
Video 2 of 4
Okay, so we're going to pick up here in First Maccabees, Chapter 1, right where we left off. Last thing that happened; women and children taken captive, the forced building of this fortress right near the Temple. So the next thing we get in the Book of the Maccabees right towards the middle of the first chapter is this poetic lament. The author creates this kind of poetry to mourn this terrible development that's taking place. [Reading from text] Because of all this the inhabitants of Jerusalem fled away, she became the abode of strangers, Jerusalem, she became a stranger to her own offspring, and her children deserted her.
Now think about those words, do they ring a little bit of a bell? One more time. She became a stranger to her own offspring. With reference to the Egyptian experience, do we ever have that kind of imagery? Offspring becoming strangers, a land that doesn't recognize them? Oh yes, that was the very beginning of it all, the vision that Abraham had, long before Egyptian servitude, when he fell into a deep, dark sleep and G-d came to him and said; Ger yiheye zaracha - your offspring will be strangers in a land not their own. That was the prophecy about the very first exile; Egypt would be that land in which children would become strangers. And now, centuries after Egypt, the author of the Book of the Maccabees seems to be evoking those earliest memories of Egypt, by speaking of a different kind of exile that the people of Israel are now experiencing.
If you think about the exile at the time of Chanukah, it was an altogether different kind of exile. In Egypt the children of Israel had left Canaan physically, and they travelled to another land where they were strangers. Here, no one left, it all takes place in the land of Israel, and yet it's still described in traditional sources as a kind of exile; Galut Yavan - the exile of the Greeks, in which people do not move. Well the people do not move to a different land, but it's as if the land is moving away from the people. In the words of the Book of the Maccabees; She became a stranger to her own offspring, it's like the land was the stranger this time, instead of the people becoming a stranger.
And that of course is what the Book of the Maccabees is talking about here, it's like the land was just sort of pulled out from under the feet of the people. The houses were demolished, Antiochus destroyed everything. Like in any exile, there was this separation or alienation between the land and the people, but this time it wasn't really the people who first left the land, it was the land who left the people.
Okay, so let's kind of continue and ask ourselves what was the next main event in the Egyptian exile? Well the next thing that Pharaoh did after he gradually enslaved the people by deceptive means, after the people were forced to build Arei Miskenot - the storehouses and fortresses for Pharaoh, came the terrible decree of killing little children, baby boys, by throwing them in the Nile. A partial kind of genocide waged against the people of Israel, involving the most vulnerable; little baby boys separated from their anguished mothers and killed.
As it turns out, if we keep on reading the Book of the Maccabees we hear something eerily similar. Antiochus creates a decree prohibiting circumcision of little baby boys. And what would happen if you violated that decree? Chapter 1, line 60 in First Maccabees. Women who had their children circumcised, the baby first was put to death and the lifeless body was hung over the neck of the mother. After that the mother and then the family would be put to death too. Here too, the events that take place eerily echo those in Egypt, and yet, even as Antiochus seems to follow in the footsteps of Pharaoh, in a way, what he's doing is the mirror image of Pharaoh as well.
Centuries before in Egypt the Egyptians had killed the young, but they did so in a way that covered up the crime, they threw the children in the Nile, allowing the placid waters of the river to cover the dead and disguise the crime. In Antiochus' time there's no attempt to disguise; instead, he decrees that the bodies of the murdered infants be put on display. It's just a twist on the same gruesome trick.
Okay, so let's see if the parallels continue, what happens next in our Egypt story? The savior arrives on the scene, and that of course would be Moses. Lo and behold the next thing that happens in the book of First Maccabees, the savior arrives on the scene in the personhood of Matityahu, the leader of what would become the Maccabees. Who is Matityahu, by the way? What tribe does he come from? He just happens to be a Kohen from the tribe of Levi. What tribe was Moses from, by the way? From the tribe of Levi too. And just to heighten the sense of resonance, where did Moses get his name from? Ki min ha'mayim meshitihu - that's what the daughter of Pharaoh said - because I pulled you out of the water. But that word Meshitihu, you know how you spell it? Almost exactly the same as Matityahu, the Hebrew name for the leader of the Maccabees. As a matter of fact, just about the only difference between the two names is a Shin that turns into a Taf. Those of you who know Aramaic know that Shin and Taf interchange all the time. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that this leader's name just happens to be Matityahu.
So what happens to this man, this Matityahu? How exactly does he enter the fray? Interestingly, almost exactly the same way Moses did centuries before. The first thing Moses does, his first moment of truth, he's a prince of Egypt but he wants to know what's doing with the Israelites, these slaves? Well, what about Matityahu? We talked before how the Egyptian exile was an exile where the people went into exile, and this, the Greek exile, was an exile where the land kind of went into exile, the land is downtrodden and that is exactly what Matityahu sees. Early in the second chapter of First Maccabees there's this poetic lament ascribed to Matityahu. He talks about witnessing the ruin of his nation, how the holy city Jerusalem was given into the hands of enemies, the Sanctuary into the hands of strangers, her Temple has become disgraced, glorious vessels carried off in spoils. All her adornment has been taken away from her. Once free, he says, she, the city, has become a slave.
And then - then a crucial event happens in the life of Matityahu, an event that will radically change his life and will alter the course of Jewish history as well. Officers of King Antiochus come to Modi'in, the home city of Matityahu; they came to offer public sacrifices to pagan gods. But the chief officer of the king saw an opportunity in Matityahu and addressed him. I'm reading now from Chapter 2, line 17. The officer said to him, you are a leader, an honorable and great man in this city. Come now, you be the first to obey the king's command. Participate in this pagan sacrifice, then you and your sons will be counted among the king's friends, you'll be rich and allied with the throne, you'll have nothing more to fear in your life. What was this bargain that the king's officer seeks to make with Matityahu? This is a moment of truth where Matityahu has to decide who am I really? He has a choice to be close to the king, a friend of the throne, a prince, a nobleman, or he can throw in his lot with the downtrodden people, with the people of Israel.
That was exactly Moses' choice too. Brought up as a prince of Egypt in the palace he faces that same choice. The moment of truth came for Moses when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster brutally beating an Israelite slave. Moses kills the Egyptian taskmaster and his life is forever changed. Just after that Moses sees one Israelite beating a fellow person from Israel and he stops that injustice as well. And yet, even as he does all this, he knows he cannot stay in Egypt, word has leaked out about his activities, he will be a hunted man and he flees into self-imposed exile.
Well, what's the turning point for Matityahu? Here the king's officer has tried to make this public bargain with him, he rejects the bargain, saying that he can never sacrifice to this pagan god, no matter what the lifestyle rewards in store for him are. Just then a Hellenized Jew steps us and tries to offer the sacrifice himself. Matityahu sees it and in a flash attacks the apostate, stops the sacrifice and kills the officer of the king. Moses opposed two men; an Egyptian and a Jew, and fled, Matityahu opposes two men; a Syrian Greek and a Jew, and he too also flees into self-imposed exile, into the mountains outside of Modi'in where he begins to wage a guerrilla campaign against the Greeks.
Matityahu really does seem like Moses; when he dies he blesses the people just like Moses. He tells them, like Moses before him, who their next leader will be; Moses anointed Joshua, Matityahu anoints his son Shimon as a political leader and his son Yehuda as a general, as a military leader. Just like Moses before him the great conquest is yet to come after his lifetime, and so it is with Matityahu, he will die but the great battles that will be fought for control of the land, they will happen - like Moses before him - after his death.
All in all, the correspondences between the trajectory of Egyptian servitude and redemption from Egypt find too many echoes in the Book of the Maccabees to ascribe it all to mere coincidence. It seems to have been something that was on the mind of the author of Maccabees, but the question now is why? What did he want us to see from this? How does this shed light on how he and the Maccabees may have viewed as the meaning of their experiences? How are we to interpret these clues that have been given us?
I'd like to suggest that the Book of the Maccabees itself provides the answer, because just as these Egypt parallels come to a close the author of Maccabees brings us to one other Biblical narrative, a narrative that happened centuries later, that seemingly has nothing to do with Egypt, but perhaps has everything to do with it? It is in this final clue that I think we'll see the meaning of this all, let's explore it in our next video.
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