I finished III Maccabees last night. III Maccabees is not actually about the Maccabees, for it relates to the persecution of the Jews under King Ptolemy Philopator of Egypt (221-203 B.C.E.). Ptolemy defeats the Seleucid Antiochus III at the Battle of Rafia, and the Jews of Jerusalem are eager to congratulate the victor. Ptolemy then goes to the holy city in order to offer a sacrifice, and he is so enamored by the temple that he wants to go inside. The Jews tell him he can’t do that, since only the high priest can enter the holy of holies–and once a year, at that. But Ptolemy doesn’t listen, and he tries to go into the innermost sanctuary. God then knocks him down. That makes Ptolemy mad, and the Egyptian king tries to wipe out the Jews of Alexandria (in Egypt) and other places.
In III Maccabees, there are Jews who want to take up arms against Ptolemy, but the elders dissuade them from doing so (III Maccabees 1:23). The Jews of III Maccabees solve their problems through prayer, as they trust God to work in unexpected ways. And the Jews in that book really don’t do much else but pray. God is the one who fights their battles for them. God strikes down Ptolemy when he tried to enter the temple (III Maccabees 2:21-24). When Ptolemy’s intoxicated elephants are about to stomp the Jews to death, God sends two angels to frighten them, leading them to stomp Ptolemy’s men instead (III Maccabees 6:18-21). And God is the one who changes Ptolemy’s heart and makes it favorable towards the Jews (III Maccabees 6:22ff).
In I-II Maccabees, by contrast, God does not fight Israel’s battles as it passively looks to him. Rather, the Israelites have to fight for the survival of their nation and customs, and they trust in God to assist them in battle (I Maccabees 3-4). And they try to conduct themselves in a godly manner in their fight against Antiochus, for they rest and purify themselves on the Sabbath rather than pursuing their enemies (II Maccabees 8:26-28; 12:38). But they are not passive, for God helps them through their action, not apart from it.
But they realize early on that they may have to break the Sabbath to preserve their nation and their laws. In I Maccabees 2, we read that Antiochus’ army attacked a group of observant Jews on the Sabbath, and the Jews refused to fight back. As a result, the Jews got killed. The priest Mattathias then declared that Jews are allowed to fight on the Sabbath.
But why didn’t God protect those Jews who chose to honor his Sabbath day rather than fight? And God could have done so. Sure, he could’ve used some of the techniques we see in III Maccabees, but let’s look at Scriptures whose canonicity Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and the Greek Orthodox can agree on. God could have put the Seleucid army in a frenzy so that they killed each other off (Judges 7:22; II Chronicles 20). He could have dropped heavenly stones on the Seleucids (Joshua 10:11). He could have sent an angel to kill them off before they arrived at the Jews’ location (II Kings 19:36). He could have blinded them (II Kings 6:16-18). He could’ve arranged for Antiochus to meet a hot Jewish babe who would make him favorable to the Jewish people (Esther). God had done these things before, so they were not logically impossible for him. Why didn’t he help out those who were simply honoring his Sabbath?
I don’t know why God acts one way in one situation, and another way in another. In the case of the Maccabees, perhaps he wanted the Jews to take an active stand for his laws, or to value life above the rigid observance of the Sabbath. The latter idea set the stage for Jesus’ Sabbath ministry (Mark 2; Luke 6:7-10; 14:5), in which Jesus declared that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. But there may have been other times when the Jews were not militarily strong enough to take on their opponents, and so God intervened in a miraculous sense.
But then another question confronts us: Why didn’t God intervene during the Holocaust? I guess he did, in the sense that he used the allies to defeat Hitler, but that was after millions of Jews had died.