The Maccabees’ Firsthand Account Of Hanukkah
The Book Of Maccabees Illuminated
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
We know what Hanukkah looks like today – candles, latkes, dreidels – but do we know what it was like for the people who actually lived through it, more than 2,000 years ago?
What if we told you that there was a sort of personal diary, written by one of the Maccabees, that gives us a firsthand account of what it was like to live through the Hanukkah story? And if we told you that the author of that text wrote it in a sort of “code” – and that in this video, Rabbi Fohrman manages to “decode” it and reveal its hidden message?
Join Rabbi Fohrman in this journey through the Book of Maccabees and get a taste of what it was like to experience Hanukkah firsthand!
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?
Studying the Biblical Parallels to the Book of Maccabees
The first thing we want to do here is to test the theory, is it in fact the case that the author of the Book of the Maccabees is intending to evoke all of these memories of Egyptian slavery underneath the surface of the text in the Book of the Maccabees? That's really the first thing we need to decide. As you read further in the Book of the Maccabees do these parallels continue to exist?
Okay, so we're going to pick up here, 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 Maccabeesis 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? 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.
In Egypt, the children of Israel had left Canaan physically, and they traveled to another land where they were strangers. Here, 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.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 just sort of pulled out from under the feet of the people. The houses were demolished, Antiochus destroyed everything. 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 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? 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.
Matityahu and Moses
And what happens next? 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.
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.
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. A 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 military leader.
Just like Moses before him the great conquest is yet to come after his lifetime. 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.
Digging Deeper into the Book of Maccabees
We saw all these resonances of the Egypt story: servitude and redemption in the story that the author of the Book of the Maccabees tells about the oppression of Antiochus and the rise of Matityahu, leader of the Maccabees, against him.
When Matityahu dies though, those parallels to the Egypt story seem to end – at least I can't find any more. But just as the torch is being passed to a new generation and Yehuda ha'Maccabee, the son of Matityahu, takes over leadership of this band of fighters, just then, if you listen carefully to the narrative of the Book of the Maccabees, you will hear echoes of an entirely different Biblical story besides the exodus.
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 , 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: 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? 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.
Studying More Biblical Connections to the Maccabees
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 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 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 to understand?
What Is the Meaning of the Maccabees' Story?
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.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.
Its 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. So, lets get started here.
A Deeper Study of the Backstories to the Book of Maccabees
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 mind-boggling.
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.
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.
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 anyway, 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.
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.
Understanding the Biblical References in Maccabees
Let's play odds-maker you and me. Imagine it's 2,500 years ago, you're in the ancient equivalent of Las Vegas and you're waging a bet on Saul's ability to vanquish the Philistines in this upcoming battle.
Saul has 3,000 men and the Philistines, 30,000 chariots, 6,000 sharpshooters, and an almost innumerable amount of infantry. So now, what are the odds of a victory here? You'd have to say, vanishingly close to zero.
Now one more question for you, let's say Saul doesn't have 3,000 men any more, a bunch start to desert him, and now he only has 600 left, now what are the odds? Honestly, have they really changed?
Think about it rationally. You have to answer no. There was basically a zero chance of success to begin with and there's the same zero chance of success now. If Saul looks at the situation with a clear head he actually loses nothing by waiting for Samuel.
But look what he gains. The symbolic act of waiting, it would have been very powerful indeed, and that's what Samuel had been telling Saul. Way back, all the way at his coronation, when he said there would come a time when you're going to have to wait for seven days for me, now was the time, the war of the Philistines.
It was a desperate moment that war, and in desperate moments like that, Samuel was saying, don't make the fatal error of thinking that you control the path to victory. As the Philistines mass their overwhelming army Saul's job was to wait, to watch his men fade away and to understand that their desertions were all irrelevant. His job at that moment was a spiritual job, he needed to express faith in the King of Kings. And just wait with peace and equanimity for Samuel, and when he arrived the two of them would offer offerings – Olah offerings and Shlamim offerings.
The type of offerings, I think, are not coincidental. An Olah offering, as we talked about in our Vayikra video this past year, is an offering that expresses giving yourself over in an ultimate way to G-d. And Shlamim means peace. Those two things were exactly what was called for here; just give yourself totally over to G-d, and feel a feeling of peace with that. It's all going to be okay.
In Samuel's eyes, Saul's inability to wait, his desperation at the desertion of his useless troops, was a failure, but intriguingly though, there is someone involved in the battle that day, who did carry out Samuel's vision to the fullest; it wasn't Saul, it was his son Jonathan.
As the Philistine forces are massing, Jonathan slips away from his father's camp with his armor bearer and situates himself just below the hill upon which the enemy is encamped. And this is where Jonathan speaks the words that are later quoted by the author of First Maccabees.
He tells his armor bearer, let's go over, just you and me together to the camp of these Philistines, maybe G-d will act on our behalf, for there is nothing holding back G-d's ability to save, whether with many or with few.
Jonathan is taking the idea that we were talking about to its logical endpoint. Vanishingly small odds are vanishingly small odds, period. This is a war that will be won or lost purely on the basis of G-d's involvement, and once that's true, well for G-d there really is no difference between many or few.
So Jonathan and his armor bearer attack, it seems insane and the Philistines taunt Jonathan and his armor bearer, but as the two of them get close to the camp, confusion breaks out among the Philistines. The Philistines, trying to attack Jonathan, unintentionally direct their fire at one another, those on the receiving end counterattack,. Before you know it the Philistine camp is at war with itself.
And at that very point the text of the Book of Samuel gives us a telling phrase, it says: Vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu et Yisrael – and G-d saved Israel that day. Now those words in Hebrew they might be familiar to you, because that phrase, 'vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu,' it appears only one other time in all of Tanach.
The only other time it appears is at Israel's triumphant crossing of the Red Sea after G-d brought down walls of water on Pharaoh and his troops. By re-using that expression now, the Book of Samuel seems to be saying sure, Jonathan and his armor bearer attacked, but where did the victory really come from? It came from G-d. It was just like the salvation from Egypt at the Red Sea.
The destruction of Pharaoh's army at the sea was the greatest, most overt example of G-d's involvement in human affairs. The war against the Philistines, by contrast, contained no overt miracle at all, it was just a case of friendly fire that got out of control.
But in using these words to describe the victory, the text of the Book of Samuel is making very clear Jonathan's victory was no less a product of the Divine hand than the victory at the Red Sea.
So let's go back to the biblical account. Off in the distance, Saul looks out at the Philistine army and he doesn't know why but somehow the enemy appears to be disintegrating before his eyes. Saul demands a count of his men to see if any might have left to attack somehow but word comes back that everyone is there, except for two people, his son Jonathan and his armor bearer.
So Saul and his men begin to pursue the panicked remnants of the Philistine army, but along the way King Saul says something strange. He says: Cursed be the man who eats any bread until the evening, until I have finished avenging myself against my enemies.
Pay attention carefully to those words. Avenging myself, my enemies. Vengeance is when violence gets very personal. Saul sees this as his war, which brings us to the restriction he places on his troops; no one can eat until the evening, because our single-minded priority is my vengeance against my enemies.
The restriction may seem strange and difficult to understand, but it's like it's an expression of control; if you can't control the big things you want to control, like the progress of the war, sometimes you make up little things you can control. It's almost as if Saul is reaching for something he knows he can't or shouldn't have – ownership over this victory.
Meanwhile, let's cut away to Jonathan. Jonathan is out there in the field, he has met up with an Israelite battalion and together they're all pursuing the retreating Philistines. All of a sudden the people come across a substance that seems like honey spread out over the length of the field that they're advancing across.
None of them touch the honey out of fear, they know about Saul's oath forbidding anyone to eat, but Jonathan does not know about that oath and he innocently tastes some of the honey and suddenly the nourishment lights up his eyes. It almost seems as if there's something Divine about this honey on the face of the field, it has these magical qualities, you eat it and your eyes light up. And what was honey doing on the face of the field in the first place? It's not like an everyday occurrence.
And here too, the careful reader notices a resonance, I think, with the redemption from Egypt. For indeed, after the salvation at the sea, after the people had run out of bread, they were fed by G-d with something that covered the face of the field, it was Manah, and the Manah had tasted, of all things just like honey.
Here too, centuries later the people had experienced a victory that reminds us of the victory at the sea; vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu. Here too, the people had run out of bread, Saul had told them, no one is allowed to eat bread, so it's as if G-d stepped in to provide sustenance. The same kind of sustenance as He did the last time. It's like He provided Manah with this honey.
The sense we get, if I'm right about these resonances, is that Jonathan did not do anything wrong in eating that honey, he was in fact eating the food that G-d had provided. Indeed, G-d had chosen to provide food because manmade food, bread, was now impossible to eat due to Saul's oath. It's as if the true owner of the war, G-d, is stepping in to make sure His troops are properly nourished.
At the very end of the story, Jonathan's eating of this honey creates a conflict between him and his father. Jonathan nearly loses his life over the infraction, and, looking back at the whole story, one wonders maybe whether that's what Samuel had meant all along.
When Samuel had told Saul way back earlier that his kingship was not going to last, maybe that was less of a decree than it was a clear-sighted statement of how things would go naturally. Jonathan is Saul's son, his heir to the throne; if Saul's kingship is to last and become a dynasty it has to continue through Jonathan. But Saul thinks of this war as his war, and because of that needlessly sets himself up a rival to Jonathan; and Jonathan, Jonathan didn't see it that way, it was G-d's war.
And that change in vision between them somehow it's the beginning of separation between these two people, father and son. It's the beginning of the dissolution of Saul's kingdom.
Had Saul understood that this was G-d's war, rivalry would never have occurred between father and son, they would have been completely on the same page; the kingdom would last. But alas, that was not to be.
In the end the author of the Book of the Maccabees leads us, his reader, to associate the triumph of Matityahu and his sons with two prior events: the redemption of Israel from Egypt, and the victory of Jonathan over the Philistines in this crucial battle in which Saul's chance at an undying dynasty was ultimately dashed.
Why do this? Because these three victories – Israel over Egypt, Saul and Jonathan over the Philistines, and the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks – they form a kind of historical chain.
The Maccabees' Commentary About the Miracle
In other words, to explain: on the one hand, the author of First Maccabees seems to be saying the victory of the Maccabees has to be viewed as akin to the victory of the Israelites over Egypt. Overt miracles and covert miracles are both made out of the same stuff; they're both manifestations of the Divine in this world.
But immediately after taking us back with language parallels to the events of Egypt, the author of First Maccabees brings us forward a few centuries to the story of Jonathan. It's a story that illustrates vividly the choice before the Maccabees.
The Maccabees have won against astounding odds but the real question is how will they and their descendants view their victory? And it's a question that had faced Saul and had faced Jonathan, the very same question. That indeed is why the author of the Book of Samuel had embedded all those references to take us all the way back to Egypt – the references to the sea, the references to Manah.
The author of the Book of Samuel was saying the right way to see that victory was Jonathan's way, it was G-d's war, it was not man's war. There was another Egypt happening but without all the fireworks.
But there is, of course, another choice when you win in this kind of war, and it's a choice the author of the Book of the Maccabees warns us about.
The author of First Maccabees was living at the time in which a new dynasty of kings had come to reign over Israel; Malchut Chashmonai – the Hasmonean Dynasty. In many ways the era in which he lived was very much like the era of Saul – there was a new king. The question is, would the dynasty last?
The author of First Maccabees knows that this question: How permanent will this new, triumphant Hasmonean dynasty be? Will find its ultimate answer in how the kings of his time choose to see their own triumph. Will they recognize it for what it is?
Yes, G-d helped them beat the Greeks, but the hard, cold truth is that you can be a king who G-d is helping, a king who G-d smiles upon, a king who is the beneficiary of G-d's miraculous military assistance; and if you fail to see it, if you insist on seeing your triumph as your own triumph, this will have devastating consequences for the endurance of your kingship. A king of Israel is not an ultimate power and power devolves to him only as long as he doesn't lose sight over that truth.
All this expresses itself, I think, in how we choose to celebrate Hanukkah.
What Does the Maccabees' Story Teach Us About Hanukkah?
What do you do when another Egypt happens? After the splitting of the sea the Israelites broke into a song of thanksgiving to G-d. And how do we celebrate Hanukkah? We celebrate it with nothing but song – Hallel, thankfulness – for all eight days.
We celebrate it by kindling something as fragile as a light and thereby remembering a light that burned and burned and refused to go out. We remember that all fires are not created equal, some fires are fuelled by oil and wicks, and some are not. When there's only one day's worth of oil and the fire continues to burn and burn and burn, it means the oil wasn't the fuel for the fire, the fire was coming from somewhere else. The source for the light of Hanukkah isn't terrestrial oil, it's transcendent, G-d.
The author of First Maccabees knew that to be true. When we pick up his book and read it, when we open the fragile pages of that yellowed newspaper written almost 2,500 years ago, we can see even then, when the fate of Malchut Chashmonai was up in the air, when the course of Jewish history and the fate of the Second Temple was as yet undecided, we can see even then what was on the mind of the author of that newspaper, so to speak, the book of First Maccabees.
He understood that it was a time of great hope but also of great peril; would the kings of his era look at the victory of their immediate forebearers and see it clearly for what it was? See that it wasn't about them and their might? Would they resist the impulse to lionize the Maccabees as independent heroes who won by their own might alone? Or would these rulers give into the timeless temptations of power and themselves join the dust heap of history as failed kings?
In the end, the Hasmonean Kingdom was a bright moment, a bright flare in the darkness of the late Second Temple era, but it was only a flare. The Hasmonean Dynasty was noble in the beginning but over time it would be plagued by in-fighting, rivalries between brothers, rivalries between parents and children. Ultimately, it would be replaced by Herod, it would be extinguished, and the great Roman destruction of Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago.
But the questions the author of First Maccabees raises remain as fresh today as they were when he first asked them.
We too, have seen the rise of Israel as an independent state in our own day, a state that sometimes faces overwhelming odds, but somehow manages to prevail. It happened in 1948, it happened in 1967 and, with Iran arming itself, newly enriched with 150 billion dollars, who knows whether it will happen again in our lifetimes?
We live in a time of miracles, covert ones, our existence as a sovereign people in Israel owes itself to a highly improbable chain of events. So let's learn from Hanukkah how to sing about that.
Dynasties of Israel can thrive or fail based upon whether they can recognize transcendence when it's staring at them in the face. Let's have the strength to make that recognition, to understand the meaning of the fragile flame that will not go out. For in our time, the need to do so is every bit as urgent as it was in the days of old.