Alliances in I Maccabees: Good or Bad?

In I Maccabees 12:8-10, we read the following:

Onias welcomed the envoy with honor, and received the letter, which contained a clear declaration of alliance and friendship. Therefore, though we have no need of these things, since we have as encouragement the holy books that are in our hands, we have undertaken to send to renew our family ties and friendship with you, so that we may not become estranged from you, for considerable time has passed since you sent your letter to us” (NRSV).

In this passage, the high priest Jonathan wants to form an alliance with Sparta, even though he doesn’t feel Israel needs an alliance, since it has the Scriptures.

Throughout I Maccabees, the Maccabean priests try to make deals with nations for Israel’s advantage. For instance, Jonathan sent Jewish soldiers to fight for the Seleucid king Demetrius in Antioch, so that Demetrius would withdraw his troops from Jerusalem (I Maccabees 11:41-51). Before that incident, he formed an alliance with Alexander, the rival of Demetrius’ father (I Maccabees 10:46). In I Maccabees 8, Israel signs a treaty with the powerful nation of Rome, which intimidates the Seleucids, and Rome promised to assist Israel if other nations attacked her.

In the Hebrew Bible, alliances are often presented as a bad thing. The prophets criticize Judah for seeking military assistance from Egypt, for they see that as a lack of trust in God’s protective power (Isaiah 30-31; Jeremiah 2:18; Ezekiel 17:15; et. al.).

That may be why Jonathan stresses that he doesn’t really need alliances, since he has the Torah. If Israel obeys God, then God will protect her, his reasoning goes. Still, that doesn’t stop him from making alliances.

Interestingly, the deals that Israel makes with other countries don’t help her out much. Throughout I Maccabees, Seleucid leaders break their agreements with the Israelites (I Maccabees 6:62; 11:53; 13:19; 15:27). The book even closes with a double-cross, for the Gentile governor Ptolemy lures Simon Maccabee and his sons to a banquet, only to have them killed (I Maccabees 16:11-17). And Israel’s alliance with the Romans didn’t result in her protection. The Seleucids still bully Israel after I Maccabees 8, the chapter in which Israel makes her treaty with Rome. And the bullying continues even after she renews the Roman alliance (I Maccabees 15:15ff.). Rome’s not much help! We observe in I Maccabees that alliances have their limits, since Israel makes them with selfish people. Some nations are hostile and power-hungry. Others are too self-absorbed to lift a finger to help.

What is I Maccabees’ view on the alliances? It seems to think that the high priests meant well when they made them. In I Maccabees 15, the book presents a decree that brags about Simon’s accomplishments. Vv 38-40 state: “In view of these things King Demetrius confirmed him in the high priesthood, made him one of his Friends, and paid him high honors. For he had heard that the Jews were addressed by the Romans as friends and allies and brothers, and that the Romans had received the envoys of Simon with honor.” Simon is a smooth operator! He makes a treaty with Rome, and that gets him influence with the Seleucid king, Demetrius.

According to Daniel Harrington’s article on I Maccabees in the HarperCollins Study Bible, I Maccabees was most likely propaganda for the Maccabean priesthood. When it presents the Gentile powers double-crossing the Israelites, maybe it’s not saying that the priests were wrong to make alliances. They were trying to help their nation out! Its message may be that the Gentiles were evil.

Two more points:

1. I Maccabees contains a certain perspective about the Maccabean priesthood: that it was concerned for the well-being of Israel, even to the point of self-sacrifice (since many of the Maccabean leaders got killed). But could it be that the villains of the book were also trying to help their country out? The Jews who embraced Hellenism, for example, did so to prevent further evils from befalling their nation (I Maccabees 1:11). In their mind, if you can’t beat the Gentiles, join them! Why allow a bunch of archaic rituals to stand in the way? Plus, the Seleucid empire gave benefits to the cities that converted to polises, which Jerusalem became when it built a gymnasium (II Maccabees 4:9). But did the alliances pursued by the Hellenizers and the Maccabees help out their nation? No, for the Seleucids broke them in their pursuit of power.

2. Alliances led to Israel’s downfall. In the first century B.C.E., Rome intervened to resolve a dispute within the Hasmonean priesthood, after both brothers invited her into their conflict. The ultimate result was Rome’s crushing rule over Judea. The Israelites may have been more faithful to the Torah at that point, as compared to preexilic times. But they hadn’t conquered the sin of selfishness, and that culminated in disaster. Maybe they should have stuck with the Scriptures instead of seeking foreign assistance!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Alliances in I Maccabees: Good or Bad?

  1. Looney says:

    Yes, this point of an alliance with Sparta jumped out at me too. Herodotus records a dispute between Cyrus and Sparta (later adding Athens), which reached a frenzied peak under Darius and Xerxes. Thus, Esther 1:3 gives “and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.”

    A bit of alignment of this text with history and we find that this was the military planning meeting as Xerxes was preparing to attack Greece which gave us the movie “300” and other stories. God had chosen central planned Persia to be the vehicle for preserving the Jews, rather than free market, democratic Greece with Athens and Sparta being their premier cities.

    I guess my view on Maccabees is that it shouldn’t be part of scripture, but every Christian should read it, particularly to understand Daniel, prophecy and eschatology. What do you think? Is it equal to the rest of scripture?


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Looney,

    Thanks for your comments! I know you read a lot of classical literature (e.g., Herodotus, Tacitus).

    Do you have ideas on why God chose Persia instead of Greece to preserve the Jews?

    On the apocrypha, I’m not sure. The church fathers considered it deuterocanonical, which means it could be edifying, but not authoritative for doctrine. And one Catholic sent me a sheet that showed where the New Testament used it. So I think I can learn something from it–historically, spiritually, etc.

    BTW, did you know I Maccabees called Spartans children of Abraham?


  3. Looney says:

    James, thanks for the note on the Spartans being referred to as “children of Abraham”. I only read Maccabees quickly in the past and was looking again, but so much … Which reference?

    My impression was that the writer of Maccabees was more looking for a bond of warlike peoples between Sparta and Israel, given that Sparta wasn’t likely to directly intervene with the Seleucids. This seems like a joke to me in a way, because the Spartans were highly trained and disciplined (like the Romans), but the Jews were mostly an ill-disciplined rabble per Josephus and Tacitus. Their defeat of Antiochus was certainly from God. I haven’t yet found any non-Jewish historians writing about the same era, which would be fun for comparison.

    Regarding why God chose Persia to preserve His people instead of Greece, I can only speculate. Scholars have tried to connect with Persian Zoroastrianism – which had one god and no idols – to Judaism. Comparing and contrasting these religions is a complex subject, with earlier scholars insisting that Judaism was a corruption of Zoroastrianism, although it seems to me more likely that the influences went in the opposite direction.


  4. James Pate says:

    Hi Looney. It’s I Maccabees 12:21. Daniel Harrington implied that many alliances were made that way, though.


  5. Looney says:

    Thanks. I see the verse now. It is definitely a surprise!


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