Back to Egypt
The Book Of Maccabees Illuminated
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In the first video of the series, Rabbi Fohrman introduces the Book of the Maccabees as a primary text that can be useful for understanding the events surrounding Chanukah. He explores how this text can be understood in different ways depending on the translation used, showing a possible connection to the narrative of the enslavement in Egypt.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Aleph Beta.
Hanukkah in the Book of Maccabees: What Value Is in a Story?
So somewhere in my room I have a yellow newspaper, an original copy of the San Francisco Chronicle from August 15, 1945. I had picked it up when I was a kid for a few dollars from a souvenir shop. Emblazoned on the front in huge letters is the word 'peace' with an exclamation mark. This, of course, is the paper that records Japan's unconditional surrender at the end of the World War II.
Every once in a while I find myself leafing through its pages, reading not just the articles that have to do with the end of the war but the other stuff; even the ads, the business news of the day, it just has this way of transporting you back to another time. And you can read history in secondary sources like textbooks, but when you hold a newspaper in your hand, you hold a diary in your hand – you're there, it's a whole different experience.
Hanukkah is nearly upon us. Usually when we think about Hanukkah, when we read about it, we're reading secondary sources of history. Even if you're going back to the Babylonian Talmud itself, that's still a secondary work. The Talmud talks about Hanukkah but the Talmud was written a good five, six, seven hundred years after the events of Hanukkah actually took place.
Is there a primary source? What did Hanukkah look like to those who lived through the actual events?
I want to do something a little bit different than we've done before in Aleph Beta, I want to study a work with you, it's a historical work. The work is known as the Book of the Maccabees.
Who Were the Maccabees?
We do not know its author but scholars pretty unanimously believe that the book was written shortly after the victory of the Maccabees, possibly by the official scribe in the court of the Kings of the Chashmonaim themselves.
Judaism does not regard the Book of the Maccabees as a prophetic work, but at the very least it's kind of like a diary of the events from those who lived through them.
We're going to be looking at the Book of the Maccabees – the First Book of Maccabees to be precise, because there are two of them – and we're going to try to explore the book with an eye towards figuring out how they, the Maccabees themselves, understood the meaning of their own struggle.
Let me just set the scene for you here.
What Is the Book of Maccabees About?
The action in the Book of the Maccabees takes place in the middle of the Second Temple period. If you think about the holiday of Purim as the nearest cousin to Hanukkah, Purim took place well before Hanukkah.
Back in Purim times Israel was exiled from its land and found itself in Persia when they faced the menace of Haman and the possibility of genocide.
But now it's a couple of centuries later, the people of Israel have come back to the land, they've established a Second Temple, but Persia meanwhile has faded as a world power, it has been vanquished by Greece and the forces of Alexander the Great.
But now, though, a new threat has emerged on the horizon, it's the successors of Alexander. While Alexander himself was somewhat friendly towards the nation of Israel, Alexander's successors were less kindly disposed to us.
The Book of the Maccabees will tell the story of a steadily growing campaign of oppression waged by Antiochus, a Syrian Greek king, who is an heir to part of Alexander's kingdom. Antiochus, as you might know, is also aided in his repression by Greek sympathizers within the Jewish people, Jews who were known as Hellenists, who advocated assimilation to Greek culture.
Anyway, the book of First Maccabees picks up from that moment more or less that Antiochus begins his terrible campaign. He raids the Temple, he plunders its riches and then two years later he returns to wreak even more havoc.
Here's how the Book of the Maccabees puts it. Two years later, the king sent the Mysian commander to the cities of Judah, and he, that Mysian commander, he came to Jerusalem with a strong force.
He spoke to them peacefully but deceitfully, and they believed him. Then he attacked the city suddenly in a great onslaught and destroyed many of the people in Israel. He plundered the city and set fire to it, demolished its houses and its surrounding walls and they took captive the women and the children.
I want to go back and look at this with you, who was it who did all this damage to Jerusalem? You know the author of Maccabees tells us that Antiochus had sent the Mysian commander – whoever that is – to do it. Well who is that?
So the Mysians , they were mercenary soldiers, they came from Asia Minor, apparently Antiochus had hired a bunch of them to carry out this terrible and ruthless, brutal campaign against Jerusalem. Not very nice, but at least that reading of the Book of the Maccabees makes sense, you can understand what it's saying.
But now I'm going to give you another reading that doesn't make sense.
The Story of the Maccabees: Lost in Translation?
You know, here's the problem, when you and I are reading the Book of the Maccabees we're actually reading it in translation, it was written in Hebrew but the problem is you can't get to the Hebrew because the original Hebrew of the Book of the Maccabees has been lost to us over time.
The closest thing we have to the original now is a Greek translation of the work, and if you aren't fluent in Greek you're forced to rely on English translations of that Greek translation. Those lines that I read to you they come from a fairly modern English translation of First Maccabees, a translation that was done in just 2010 from the Greek, and it's used by a modern scholar, a guy by the name of Daniel Harrington.
However, this is not the only translation of First Maccabees available; one of the earliest English translations of First Maccabees is the King James' version, and there, the line I read you is portrayed in a radically different way.
In the King James' version it says that Antiochus did not send Mysians to Jerusalem; it says he sent tax collectors to Jerusalem.
Listen to how it sounds now. First those tax collectors they spoke peacefully and reassuringly, but all of that was actually deceitful, because shortly after these tax collectors they attacked the city, plundered it, set fire to it, took women and children captive, to be sold as slaves.
And now you're reading this King James' version here with the tax collectors instead of Mysians , and you're saying to yourself, who did all of this? Some tax collectors? Really?
It's like, imagine, one day you get a knock at the door and there's an IRS agent there. Then he takes out a machine gun and he just mows down everybody in the house, he and his friends, the other tax collectors, they start throwing grenades up and down the block, they kill half the people in the town, sell women and children as slaves.
It's like, what kind of tax collectors are these? Tax collectors are like mid-level bureaucrats, like Forrest Gump types, they're not like some sort of mercenary army out to rape, pillage and kill.
So you can see now why later translators like this 2010 translation and others would be tempted to sort of get rid of the tax collectors and – because Mysians , these guys are mercenary soldiers – the text actually makes sense. But the problem is what did the original Greek say?
If the original Greek said tax collectors, then Harrington doesn't get to change it to Mysians just because he's an academic and gets poetic license or something.
So here actually is how Harrington explains himself about all of this. Harrington admits that the Greek version of the text really had tax collectors, but he thinks the Greek translator got it wrong.
He suspects that the original Hebrew was Sarei Mem-Samech-Yud-Mem. Now he says the Greek translator read that as Sarei Missim, which would mean tax collectors, but Harrington says that the context proves that wrong. Why would nice, mild mannered tax collectors go on a killing rampage?
So Harrington says the original Hebrew should be read not as Sarei Missim, but as Sarei Mussim, which would mean Mysian officers. Mysian mercenaries would certainly be the kind of folks to go on a rampage. So this whole idea of using tax collectors in the translation, that's all just an unfortunate but understandable mistake.
But here's what I'd like to suggest. What if the Greek translator got it right? What if Harrington is the one who got it wrong?
If that was the original Hebrew text, Sarei Mem-Samech-Yud-Mem, you know that recalls something for us. In the Jewish experience Sarei Missim are the very original bad guys in our national history; going all the way back to our very first oppression in the land of Egypt.
The History Behind Maccabees and Hanukkah?
The text tells us in Exodus: Vayasimu alav sarei missim lema'an anoto b'sivlotam – the Egyptians, they placed upon us tax collectors to oppress us with their burdens. It all began with those darn tax collectors.
Ramban explains that the original descent into slavery back in Egypt, it took place deceptively. You can't just take a peaceful, law-abiding immigrant population and enslave them out of the blue.
Instead, Pharaoh started by levying taxes against the Hebrews, but all that was just a ruse, gradually those taxes grew more onerous, and then Pharaoh unleashed other deceptive measures upon the Hebrews. Before they knew it the Hebrews were slaves.
It seems like the author of the Book of the Maccabees wants to take us on a covert, literary journey all the way back to Egypt. The words Sarei Missim is a code word for the beginning of a dreadful Egypt-like experience. And the Book of the Maccabees seems to tell us that an Egypt-like experience happened to the Jews too centuries later, this time at the hands of Antiochus.
In Egypt first there were tax collectors, but they were deceptive and before you knew it everyone was slaves. And here in the Book of the Maccabees, first there were tax collectors, then they were deceptive, and then before you knew it women and children were being sold as slaves. It's like it was all happening again.
The echoes of Egypt in the Book of the Maccabees seem like they're real. Now if you doubt me, if you think this is all just a figment of my imagination, the echoes of Egypt actually continue.
Go back to Egypt for a minute, what happened after the tax collectors gave way to slavery? The very next thing we hear about in the text back in Exodus is: Vayiven orei miskenot l'Paraoh – the people were forced to build these great storehouses for Pharaoh.
Now go to the Book of the Maccabees, after the tax collectors give way to pillaging the populace, with women and children sold as slaves, the next thing the Book of the Maccabees tells us, is that Syrian forces co-opted Hebrews and forced them to build a fortress, a citadel that would be used as a huge storehouse for the Syrian Greeks.
So all in all, these parallels – tax collectors, deception, slavery, building the storehouses – it doesn't seem to be a coincidence.
Keep on reading the Book of the Maccabees and see if we can find continuing parallels to the Egypt story.
If we do, we're going to need to chart them carefully and then ask ourselves, why is this all here? Why did the author of the Book of the Maccabees want to remind us, his reader, of the story of Egyptian slavery? How might these parallels help us understand how the Maccabees viewed their own struggle? And how might that in turn help us understand how we are meant to relate to the great miracles of Hanukkah today?