The Law: Battle-Guide for the Maccabees

I started my daily quiet time in I Maccabees today. I began by reading through the entire book. For other books of the Bible, I already have a rough idea of what they say, and I read them to see things that I had not noticed before. But the apocrypha is rather new to me, so I saw a need to familiarize myself with it. Now that I have the overall plot of I Maccabees in my mind, I’ll meditate on its specific details throughout the week.

An intriguing verse is I Maccabees 3:48. The Jews are preparing to fight the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant of the Seleucid empire. According to this passage, in the midst of all their prayer and anxiety, “they opened the book of the law to inquire into those matters about which the Gentiles consulted the likenesses of their gods” (NRSV).

This verse baffled me because I never thought that the Torah could offer God’s guidance for battle. Sure, it contained God’s general will for how Israel should live, but specific battle plans? I didn’t think so.

In the Hebrew Bible, people didn’t really go to the Bible for God’s specific instructions. For example, the Israelites inquire of God which of their tribes should go up first to battle (Judges 1:2; 20:18), and whether or not they should fight the Benjamites (Judges 20). David asked God twice if he should attack the Philistines in Keilah (I Samuel 23:1-4). These applied to very specific situations, which the Bible does not explicitly address. You won’t find a Torah passage that says “Attack Benjamin.” As Rick Joyner states, the Bible contains God’s general will, but he gives people direct guidance in terms of his battle plans.

But the Maccabees are going to the law for specific instructions. And they do learn how to fight a battle God’s way, for I Maccabees 3:55-56 states that Judah the Maccabee followed Exodus 18:21, 25; Deuteronomy 1:15; and Deuteronomy 20:5-8: “After this Judas appointed leaders of the people, in charge of thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens. Those who were building houses, or were about to be married, or were planting a vineyard, or were fainthearted, he told to go home again, according to the law.” They needed God’s help to succeed against overwhelming odds, and one way to gain that was to obey God wherever they could.

But is it possible that they also sought God’s will outside of the Pentateuch? There are places in the New Testament that refer to non-Pentateuchal books as “the law” (e.g., John 10:34–Psalm 82:6; John 15:25–Psalm 35:19). Maybe the Maccabees consulted those too when they searched “the book of the law” for guidance. We see that Scripture played a big role in how they viewed and executed their battles. When the Seleucid soldiers vastly outnumbered those of the Israelites, Judah the Maccabee alluded to I Samuel 14, in which Jonathan and his armor-bearer defeat an entire Philistine garrison (I Maccabees 4:30). And we see in I Maccabees 4:20 the same type of battle plan that we find in Joshua 8 and Judges 20: in which the Israelites drew their enemy away from its location with one group of men, then sent another group to set that location on fire.

Perhaps we see a movement in the direction of Pirkei Avot 5:22: “Ben Bag-Bag said: Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it…” (Herbert Danby’s translation of the Mishnah). In this view, you can find all sorts of things in the Torah. According to the Greek philosopher Strabo (first century B.C.E.), there were people who consulted the Homeric epics for insight into generalship, agriculture, and rhetoric. Were the Maccabees doing that when they treated Scripture as a sort of oracle?

A possible reason that they leaned so heavily on Scripture was the absence of other forms of divine revelation. I Maccabees 9:27 is clear that “prophets ceased to appear among them.” The author is not exactly a cessationist, for he holds that God can send a prophet to Israel anytime in the future (I Maccabees 4:46; 14:41). But he doesn’t think God was communicating through prophets that much in the time of the Maccabees.

Also absent were the Urim and the Thummim, which were a source of divine guidance throughout Israel’s history. The first-century C.E. historian Josephus says that these oracular stones shone when Israel went to battle, indicating God’s presence with his people. But he continues to state that they “left off shining two hundred years before I composed this book, God having been displeased at the transgression of his laws” (Antiquities 3:218; Whiston’s translation). And the Bible and the Talmud both indicate that they may have been lost much earlier than that (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; Sotah 9:10; Yoma 21b; Tamid 65b in the Jerusalem Talmud).

So the Maccabees were pretty much limited to Scripture when they sought God’s will. That must have been hard for them, for I Maccabees 9:27 indicates that the absence of prophecy was a cause of their distress. Maybe they were trying to hold fast to the Torah so God would favor them with direct guidance, as he did in the days of old.

At the same time, even though they tried to please God by observing his laws, they could be flexible when circumstances demanded it. When the Seleucids killed devout Jews who refused to fight on the Sabbath, the priest Mattathias declared, “Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the sabbath day” (I Maccabees 2:32-41). They were willing to follow the law to a T, except in cases where it was foolish to do so.

Still, there were times when God blessed Israel’s obedience of an inconvenient law. In I Maccabees 6, the Seleucid king is besieging Jerusalem as well as the Jewish town of Beth-Zur. His sieges are quite effective, since that is the sabbatical year, when the Jews aren’t allowed to plant any crops. As v 53 narrates, “But they had no food in storage, because it was the seventh year; those who had found safety in Judea from the Gentiles had consumed the last of the stores.” I thought God promised in Leviticus 25:21-22: “I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old.” I guess that’s hard when a bunch of people are taking refuge in Jerusalem, eating whatever food is lying around.

But God intervened. When the Seleucid official Lysias learned that a competitor was taking over the government of Seleucia, he left Judea and let the Jews live according to their laws. Also, the famine was hurting his side, too (I Maccabees 6:55-63). So I guess God honors obedience of an inconvenient law in some cases, but not in others.

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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