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The Books of Maccabees: A tale of two stories

Imagine if Antiochus had written the story of Hanukkah... or if Judah Maccabee's mother had. Every account reflects its author's background, including the ones we have
The search for the lost tombs of the Maccabees has preoccupied scholars for nearly 150 years. The site in central Israel known as the 'Maccabees' graves' contains pagan or Christian graves hewed into bedrock centuries after the time of the Maccabees, and has no connection to the famous family of Judean rebels.. (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
The search for the lost tombs of the Maccabees has preoccupied scholars for nearly 150 years. The site in central Israel known as the 'Maccabees' graves' contains pagan or Christian graves hewed into bedrock centuries after the time of the Maccabees, and has no connection to the famous family of Judean rebels.. (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

The tour guide’s sleeves were rolled up, his sunglasses were perched on the top of his head, and when he spoke, he did so in a heavy accent and clumsy English, and with a dogmatism I had come to learn was symptomatic of young Israeli tour guides. He pointed to the sculpture a few feet away, one that, as he went on to explain, also appears at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and declared, “The Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter.” And in that moment, in the courtyard of Yad Vashem, I understood, perhaps for the first time in my life, that the Jewish Story isn’t, in fact, a story at all.

Growing up in the United States, with four European grandparents, I grew up on the sheep-to-the-slaughter narrative. There were family traditions of spiritual resistance, passed down through proud tears, to be sure. But beyond the grief, the most prominent emotion that pierced every account was the frustration at their own helplessness, at their inability to prevent their grisly fate. For 18 years, I had looked into my grandparents’ eyes, and I had seen that frustration. And yet there I found myself, looking into the eyes of a young Israeli man, representing a society that needed to hold on to a different shard of our past.

* * *

There is no Jewish Story. There are Jewish Stories. Lots of them. There are overlapping narratives, and simultaneous truths, and parallel portraits of the events that make up our history — but each strand has a different take; each story its own unique discourse. Respect for another’s story can only flourish where there is understanding. To understand, we need to learn not only to listen, but to ask the important questions. The stories of Hanukkah, as told by First and Second Maccabees are fertile training ground.

The first two Books of Maccabees were both written in the second century BCE. Both tell of the Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, and the Hellenist King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The First Book was likely written in the Land of Israel by an individual well versed in biblical scriptures and intimately familiar with the topography of his beloved homeland. The Second Book, likely written in Ptolemaic Egypt, points to an author with an excellent knowledge of Greek culture, language, and literature. The authors of both books were proud Jews. Both authors were devoutly loyal to their faith, their God, and their people. And yet, their stories diverge. Superficially, the same events serve as the basis for their story, but probe beneath the surface and what emerges are two very different works.

The First Book, for example, describes the events that took place between the years 175 and 143 BCE. The book does not end with the liberation of Jerusalem, or even, as we might expect, with the purification of the Temple. To the Jew writing in Israel, attacks on religious freedoms were simply a manifestation of the attack on their hegemony. As such, the story only ends once a stable monarchy has been established by the grandson of Mattathias, John Hyrcanus. For the author of the First Book, the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state, for first time since the sixth century BCE, was the greatest feat of his generation, and that accomplishment is the fulcrum around which the work is structured.

The Second Book covers a much briefer time period, ending with Judah the Maccabee’s victory at the Battle of Nicanor in 161 BCE. The author, no doubt, knew that Judah was killed the following year, but the continuity of the Hasmonean dynasty was not what his story was about. For the Greek-speaking author of Second Maccabees, the greatest battle of his day was not for independence, but for religious freedom. To the author in Egypt, far from the Temple and undaunted by the need for political sovereign, the great threat to his reality was an attack on Judaism. What sent a shock through his system, and through that of his audience, was the fear that a foreign king would infringe on the religious rights of his people. Jerusalem, in Second Maccabees is presented as the “Jewish Polis,” and attacks on their religious freedoms, was presented as an attack on the “constitution” of that polis. The narrative created through the framing of events in Second Maccabees was one that no Greek could help but sympathize with.

And so, identifying the literary frames constructed by each author helps us better understand each of their respective orientations. Understanding the authors’ orientations, enables us to formulate questions that promote an entirely different level of appreciation for the communities that generated them. The right questions can be the key to accepting divergent stories as simultaneously valid interpretations of history.

If we were to read First Book of Maccabees exclusively for example, we would assume that all foreign leaders subsequent to Alexander the Great, were habitually evil. Second Book of Maccabees though, has a very different take. In the Second Book, foreign leaders are not only moral, they make donations to the temple, wish for the welfare of the Jewish people, and abhor evil no matter the source. Rather than resorting to the easy “who’s right” question, perhaps we can ask, “Why did the author, whose main focus was national sovereignty, feel the need to create caricatures of all of the leaders that preceded Antiochus IV?” Or perhaps: “Why did this author in Israel need to present foreign rule as untenable?” If we ask the right questions, the answers engender empathy. Turning to Second Maccabees, we reverse the question once again. Rather than asking, “Were all Greek leaders in fact principled and virtuous?” Perhaps we can ask, “Why does the author of this work, living as an ethnic minority among a Greek majority, feel the need to create a sense of ideological and moral alignment with his hosts?” Let us not ask, “Is he fooling himself?” but let us ask “Why was it so important to this author, and to the community to which he was speaking, to believe that the people controlling their fate were, at their core, benevolent dictators?”

When the author of the Fist Book of Maccabees speaks openly about Jewish infighting, corruption, and dissension, something which is almost entirely absent in the Second Book, we need to carefully shape the question that naturally arises. Rather than asking, “Why couldn’t the Jews in Israel reform their society?” or “Why couldn’t they find a way to co-exist?” perhaps we can ask, “What is it about living in one’s own country that desensitizes people to internecine fighting?” Or alternatively, “ What is it about the Diaspora experience, that makes a community hesitant to be publicly self-critical?” There are questions that implicitly critique, and there are questions that foster compassion. Without a doubt, only the latter can bridge communities.

When the author of the Second Book of Maccabees alone makes the case that the Greek persecutions were a punishment for the sins of the Hellenized Jews, it is futile to ask, “Was he right?” Rather, let us ask, “What worldview is the author preserving by inserting theology into politics?” Or perhaps, “By blaming Jews for their own suffering, who is being spared the blame?” And of course, on the flipside, we might wonder why the author of First Maccabees, no doubt a devout Jew, leaves Divine Providence out of his narrative. But rather than question his religiosity, perhaps we can ask, “What was he scared God’s role would eclipse?” Or even, “Why did the author in Israel feel it important to focus on the strategic finesse and the bravery of his soldiers, over and above miraculous interventions?”

After a battle is lost, and many Jews die, the author of Second Maccabees tells us that when the surviving Jewish soldiers went to gather the corpses, they found sacred tokens of foreign idols under the tunic of each fallen soldier. And as he goes on to write, “It became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen.” No such account exists in First Maccabees. “Why,” we might ask, “do the Jews in Diaspora cling so desperately to belief in a just God?” The notion of Dual Causality is developed extensively in the Bible, but still, we might ask, “What fears underlie such a fastidious application of Divine Intervention?” Of course, regarding the absence of the episode in the First Book, we might also ask, “Is there something in the theology that his counterpart ascribes to that the author of First Maccabees finds difficult, or painful?” “Why,” we might ask, “does the author in Israel resist leveling a similar critique of the fallen soldiers, if he too believes that God is just?”

Along similar lines, the author of the Second Book valorizes the martyrs of his day, the Jews that chose to die rather than defy Jewish law. He provides detailed accounts of the elderly Elazar, who publicly refused to eat swine, and the woman (later named Hannah) and her seven sons, who proudly went to their deaths in the name of God. Instead of asking, “Were they justified in their choice?” we can consider, “What scenarios force a community to attribute significance to the deaths of martyrs? What reality lay behind the need to find meaning in victimhood?” And, on the flipside, “Why, from the Israeli author, do we sense such disdain for people that passively allowed themselves to be slaughtered? What dangers,” we have to ask, “did the aggrandizement of martyrs pose for a people whose very existence depended on the willingness to go out into disproportionate battles?”

The questions go on and on. Like all good Jewish stories, the details of past events, in this specific case, the Maccabean revolt, became the mechanism through which Jews made sense of their present, and articulated a vision for the future. It is entirely possible that a Jew living in Egypt never set eyes on First Maccabees. And it equally possible that a Jew living in Judea, even if he had received a copy of Second Maccabees, would not have had the tools at his disposal to decipher the foreign work. There is a good chance their stories were unknown to each other. But we are lucky Jews. We live in a world that is so much smaller and so much more connected than it’s ever been. Unlike Second Temple Jews, we can read each other’s writings, and we can listen to each other’s stories. We have the unprecedented luxury of being able to set aside our own stories, for just a moment, and listen carefully to another. We can travel to other parts of the world, listen to native guides tell their story, and know that the truths embedded in theirs, don’t undermine our own. If we ask the right questions, we may even get glimpses into the struggles our brethren face, from which we have been exempt. Divisions that seem impervious, can be breached through true understanding.

We don’t need to have identical stories. We never have. But we do need each other. And once we accept that truth, we can begin to read each other’s stories without questioning each other’s loyalties. So in the spirit of the joy and light of this Hanukkah season, let us listen openly, and thoughtfully to each other’s stories, and let us remember, always, that braided wicks burn the brightest.

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.
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