The Maccabees and Discerning God’s Will

In my reading of The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Hellenistic Age, a theme that I often encountered was discerning the will of God.  In this post, I’ll be drawing from Jonathan Goldstein’s contribution to the volume, “The Hasmonean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty”.

Throughout the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids, there were different opinions among Jews about how they should react to their oppressors.  As Goldstein discusses on page 300, there were many Jews who embraced the revolt, viewing it as God’s will for them to stand up to their oppressors and to resist attacks on their culture (and, on page 295, Goldstein says that the Hasmonean Mattathias admired Phinehas, the biblical character who killed an idolatrous Israelite who intermarried with a pagan).  But others had another point of view.  Some thought that the rebels should offer to cease fighting if the Seleucid official Lysias stopped the persecution.  Others were hesitant to attack the high priest Menelaus, who had collaborated with the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, for they saw him as a leader in Israel.  Still others believed that “God’s sentence of subjection to foreign rulers still stood” (page 300), meaning that God was still punishing Israel with foreign oppression.  In this view, the Maccabees’ revolt against the Seleucids was presumptuous and would not be blessed by God. 

On pages 309-310, Goldstein says that the victory of Judas over the Seleucid general Nicanor convinced Judas and many other pious Jews that “the age of servitude was over”.  But many still did not know what God wanted them to do.  Goldstein states, and I am placing his biblical references in parentheses:

“Even for the Hasmoneans and the majority the course was not clear.  Should they do nothing themselves and wait for God to destroy the illegitimate empire of Demetrius I[, a Seleucid king after Antiochus IV] (Isaiah 30:15)?  Should they, alone of mankind, join in God’s work of destroying the wicked kingdom (Isaiah 63:5)?  Would other nations become allies in God’s work (Isaiah 55:5)?  Surely the hostile neighbors of Judea would never be such allies.  Alliances with the ‘inhabitants of the land’ were forbidden.  Egypt was condemned by the prophets as a broken reed.  The Parthians, however, lay inaccessible across long reaches of Seleucid territory and were not yet an important power.  Rome was now the superpower in the Mediterranean world.  No Graeco-Macedonian kingdom dared to clash with her…Accordingly, the official organs of the Jewish nation, perhaps prompted by Judas and the Hasmonean party, in 161 B.C.E. sent Eupolemus son of John of the priestly clan Hakkoz and Jason son of Eleazar on an embassy to Rome to establish ties of alliance.  The ambassadors succeeded.”

The Jews in the time of the Maccabean revolt were looking to Scripture to determine what God wanted for them to do, and they were presented with a variety of biblical paradigms.  They struggled to discern which paradigm fit them, and they disagreed about this issue.  They also looked at the situation around them to see if there were open doors: who (if anybody) could be their friend in this struggle?  And did God desire for them to form alliances with certain people?

In the aftermath of the Jewish alliance with Rome, Judas Maccabeus was a casualty, for Judas died in battle.  Although I Maccabees implies that Judas’ brothers and comrades “urged him to withdraw and wait for a better day” (page 311), Judas plunged into the fight.  Perhaps he was trusting in an oracle in I Enoch 90:31, which “had predicted that Judas would live to see God’s miraculous triumph” (page 311).  But Judas did not live to see that.  And the response to Judas’ death was yet another attempt to discern the will of God.  According to Goldstein, some Jews probably interpreted Daniel 12:7 (which talks about when “the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end”) to mean that Judas’ death would immediately precede the victory of God and of Israel.  But I Maccabees 9:23 reflects that something different actually happened—-that evildoers only flourished after Judas’ death, for they solidified their power and hunted down Hasmoneans, plus a crop failure hurt the rebels.

Sabbath observance was another issue that pertained to the Maccabees and attempts to discern God’s will.  Several Jews chose not to fight on the Sabbath, with the result that they were slaughtered when their enemies attacked them on that day.  Consequently, Mattathias proclaimed that Jews could fight to defend themselves on the Sabbath, and the author of I Maccabees (perhaps in response to critics of Mattathias’ policy) insists that “Mattathias and his son Jonathan enjoyed divine favor after engaging in defensive warfare on the Sabbath” (Goldstein’s words on page 296).

The appeal to the Maccabees’ military successes for validation that they were following God’s will cut both ways, however, for there were struggles to account for how God could allow tragedies and the Maccabees’ military failures.  Sometimes, there really was no good answer. 

Even after the Maccabees succeeded against the Seleucids and inaugurated a period of independence for Israel from foreign oppression, there were still debates about God’s will.  The Hasmonean rulers believed that the time of God’s wrath on Israel was over and that God supported their rule over Israel, but there were a few Jews who were eager to point out that the Hasmoneans were not descendants of David, and so they were not qualified to be rulers of Israel.  Moreover, when the Roman Pompey took Judea for the Romans, that disappointed people who believed that “the age of God’s wrath had ended forever with the heroic Hasmonean liberation of Israel”, for “Now, contrary to the promises at Isaiah 52:1 and Zechariah 9:8, unclean and uncircumcised foreigners and tax-gatherers marched through the Holy Land” (page 349).

Is there a way to discern God’s will?  Or is “discerning God’s will” instead an attempt to make a coherent narrative out of the chaos of life?  Can wisdom still emerge out of the struggle to discern, however?  And when can beliefs about God’s will inhibit wisdom?

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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