Introducing the concept of martyrdom

From the perspective of a straight-through reading of the Bible, the two books of Maccabees appear in the wrong place.

For one thing, although missing altogether from the canon I’d grown up with, the narratives provide important background for understanding the tensions at the time of Jesus, especially in their recognition of the tenuous political detente that emerges to allow the practice of Judaism at all. Roman rule would be oppressive, no doubt about that, but Jews worshiped at the Temple and could practice their teachings openly. There was even the freedom for nervous debate among factions like the Pharisees and Scribes, among others. Thus, I finish reading Maccabbees and want to lunge ahead into Matthew.

Instead, we still have the sets of books known as the Wisdom literature and the Prophets to consider, and at this point these could well be leftovers gone astray from the history we’ve just traversed.

The remarkable Wisdom collection (hardly a unified view of life, as it turns out), could well fit between First and Second Kings as a prelude to the outlook of Solomon’s court and the counterarguments. The Prophets, meanwhile, with their anguished reflection on exile and return, could serve as an introduction to Ezra/Nehemiah.

The fact that we hear lamentations on the lack of prophecy after Ezra/Nehemiah’s reformations is instructive. Consider this hint: “A terrible oppression began in Israel; there had been nothing like it since the disappearance of prophecy among them” (1 Maccabees 9:27).

In introducing the concept of martyrdom, a willingness to die for the faith itself rather than the nation, Maccabees changes my understanding of history. It’s a theme we see developed in Christian tradition, for certain.

Murder of the Maccabean brothers

Also crucial is Maccabees embrace of the individual soul and a refusal to succumb to those tempted by totalitarianism. We’ve seen all too well the ravages of Hitler and Stalin or the Inquisition or fundamentalist Islam, even before we get to the persecution of pacifist Mennonites and Quakers or the warring factions in Western Christianity during the Protestant Reformation. Quite simple, truth cannot be imposed by brute force. The paradox of the Maccabees is, of course, that the sword countered the sword in ways that allowed free thought to survive and breathe.

The controversies regarding Hellenized Jews are far from over, by the way. They form an essential element in the development of Christianity in the work of the Apostle Paul.

Quite simply, the books of Maccabees ask, “What price are you willing to pay to be faithful?”

Could it be that those who have nothing they’d die for have nothing to live for, either?

The Maccabees’ militant resistance

At this point, the Vulgate (Roman Catholic) Bible presents two books springing from the life of Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers. (The Eastern Orthodox canon includes more.)

Curiously, neither the Hebrew nor Protestant Bible includes this history of the Jewish people in the second century BCE and a crisis unlike any they’ve previously faced. Frankly, I’m puzzled that it’s not in the Hebrew Bible.

Trying to gain a clearer understanding of either the developments within Judah from the time of Ezra/Nehemiah or engulfing them in the broader succession of consolidated political power that culminates in Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) and his aftermath is tricky. What does become clear is that the dominant Greek authorities are set on eradicating all but their own religion. Jews are not the only culture at risk, but perhaps they have the most to lose. Indeed, I’ve seen arguments that the Greek religion was the antithesis of Judaic teaching, or at least its inversion. As Robert Bowie Johnson Jr. contends in The Parthenon Code, there’s no creation story, as such, which puts the first couple at the forefront of the action, in effect laying the foundation for a cult of ancestor worship. Here, the serpent does not delude the couple in the ancient garden but enlightens them. “And the power that Homer gives to Zeus, Scripture gives to Satan.” He goes further, but the point remains: Greek cosmology, with its emphasis on visual beauty, stood at odds with the word-based emphasis — as Law, Covenant, and Teaching — on justice among a distinct, or holy, people. One looks outward, at surfaces; the other, within, for thoughts, emotions, and connections with others.

This was — and continues to be — a threat to those who wish to impose their command over others:

“The king then issued a proclamation to his whole kingdom that they were to become a single people, each nation renouncing its particular customs. All the gentiles conformed to the king’s decree, and many Israelites chose to accept his religion, sacrificing to idols and profaning the Sabbath. The king also sent edicts by messenger to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, directing them to adopt customs foreign to the country, banning burnt offerings, sacrifices and libations from the sanctuary, profaning Sabbaths and feasts, defiling the sanctuary and everything holy, building altars, shrines and temples for idols, sacrificing pigs and unclean beasts, leaving their sons uncircumcised, prostituting themselves to all kinds of impurity and abomination, so that they should forget the Law and revoke all observance of it. Anyone not obeying the king’s command was to be put to death.” (1 Maccabees 1:41-50). And inspectors began searching town to town to obliterate Jewish culture.

Here, in its most ruthless form to date, we have a textbook presentation of totalitarianism. Previous tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar were at least willing to acknowledge the possibility of the God of Israel, leaving open a crack of liberty for nonconformists to the regime, but now we are introduced to a concept that will be repeated down through history, the use of religion by the head of state to enact ideological conformity from the top down. In short, the people would be enslaved to the monarch and military power.

Worship of God was now forbidden.

As we would see time after time, tyrants target first and foremost the stories and art of a people — its language and spirit: “Any books of Law that came to light were torn up and burned. Whenever anyone was discovered possessing a copy of the covenant or practicing the Law, the king’s decree sentenced him to death” (1 Maccabees 1:57).

Led by their father, Judas Maccabaeus and his four brothers unleash a holy resistance. Unlike the earlier Hebrew calls to arms, their rebellion voices little of the war-god defiance previously shouted, but takes on an almost guerrilla strategy of ongoing effort. They manage to purge the Temple of its invaders, and then purify it and rededicate it in the eight days now known as Chanukah, or feast of lights, albeit without the familiar mystery of the oil supply. Rather, we have the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother told in 2 Maccabees 7, one burned alive each night for refusing the king’s orders that they taste pork. Their witness still rings: what belief are you willing to stake your life on? Where’s the line you refuse to cross?

In the public outrage that ensues, the Maccabees (literally, “hammers”) rally an opposition that garners sufficient edge to preserve the people of the Law, even as they themselves fall one by one in the 41-year-long struggle from 175 to 134 BCE. Perhaps as a reflection of a sense of individual responsibility gained in the reforms instituted by Ezra/Nehemiah, the two books of Maccabees have none of the theological apologetics surrounding the plight of Jerusalem and Judah that accompanied the Babylon captivity, nor do I sense much by way of blame for those who have strayed. Rather, there’s simply a call for action: “This is the time, my children, for you to have a burning zeal for the Law, and to give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors” (1 Maccabees 2:50).

Tristram, Ernest William’s reconstruction of Medieval mural painting, Battle of Judas Maccabeus with Timotheus and the Fall of Maspha.

The two books relate the opposition from distinct viewpoints — First Maccabees focuses on the heroes, while Second Maccabees is more of a sermon — and both involve the complex alliances the brothers must forge in their quest for independence. They remain as seminal hymns to human liberty.

The eunuch alternative

One of my favorite Bible scholars is the self-described Queer Quaker performance artist and scholar Peterson Toscano. He argues that the Scriptures present a wide range of gender identities, not the presumed rigidly male/masculine or female/feminine. It’s quite eye-opening. (Visit his website for examples.)

In one discussion after one set of appearances, I mentioned the story of Esther as a gender example and was surprised when he responded that nothing would have happened there without the eunuchs.

“What?” This was an unexpected twist. I’d didn’t remember eunuchs. The opening episode was the equivalent of a stag party.

Peterson explained that he had become intrigued with the underlying role of eunuchs in the Bible. He was finding them everywhere.

I went to my concordance and found only 15 usages in the Hebrew Bible — none of them in Esther. That’s everywhere? What was I missing?

I then looked up the book of Esther in the first alternative translation at hand, the New Revised Standard Version, and voila. There the first chapter names seven men it then labels eunuchs. When someone’s named in the Bible, he or she is important. Take note!

“What’s with this?” I wondered.

Then I returned to the King James, where I found them described as chamberlains. Ah! How sly! No wonder these “chamberlains” can go into the harem! They’re sexually no threat to the king.

It turns out that the Hebrew term for eunuch, saris (to castrate), can also refer to an official or commander. Sometimes some of the king’s servants, too.

Now the plot definitely thickens.

Since then, I’ve been watching for hints of the eunuch possibility.

Think of Esther’s uncle Mordecai. No mention of descendants or wife.

Think of Daniel. No mention of descendants or wife, but he is a close counselor to the king and seven of the King James references to eunuchs are in the book of Daniel.

How many men who count at court will turn out to eunuchs?

Adamites is a category of men in the Bible. The term doesn’t refer to their nationality. Pay attention.


And then there are hermaphrodites.

I’m also wondering how much a man typically gives up in becoming an official — in the corporate world as well as in politics. As we say one way or another in the vernacular, “Has he lost his balls?”

Considering the emphasis on male fertility running through the Hebrew Bible, this certainly opens an alternative perspective on the survival of the Jewish people.

What other major threads are we overlooking in these texts?

Star of the harem

With Esther — a name derived perhaps from Ishtar or “star,” or perhaps from a word for myrtle — the struggle for the survival of the Jewish people moves from the battlefield, where Judith triumphed, to the royal court of Persia and its behind-the-scenes factions lusting for dominion.

The book in Hebrew is known simply as the Megilla, or “the scoll,” which is read at the annual commemoration of Purim, described to me as Jewish Halloween. Three-cornered Hamantaschen pastries distributed at the time represent the hat that toppled from the villain Haman’s head when he became the victim of the evil executions he’d been plotting to exterminate the Jews. In the festival and wildly imaginative retelling of the story (our local Temple once performed it to the score of “South Pacific”), the men of the congregation vie to perform his role. You’d think that nobody would want to embody one of most despicable figures in the Bible, but as I was told, this comes with the recognition of the potential for evil that each of us carries within ourselves.

The scroll of Esther.

There is nothing in Christian celebrations this riotous or playful, not even with the Nativity as its customs have evolved.

In the story, we once again have a vain and shallow king ruling over the Middle East. After his first queen, Vashti, stands up for her honor, she is erased from the scene once her husband’s advisers fear the potential power of women of courage. The distaff challenge could be contagious. So Vashti simply vanishes from the picture, leaving me with a desire to know more. (Once again, this in itself could be a movie.) A vacuum is created, in more ways than one.

And then Esther enters the scene. Apart from her one prayer from Mordecai, her uncle, and one from Esther, there’s little mention of God until the thanks at the end of the story.

The real opponent here is the goddess Ishtar.