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 pre–exilic 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!