The importance of fire (2 Macc 1:19-1:23)

“When our ancestors were being led captive to Persia,

The pious priests of that time took

Some of the fire of the altar.

They secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern.

They took such precautions

That the place was unknown to anyone.

But after many years had passed,

When it pleased God,

Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia,

Sent the descendants of the priests

Who had hidden the fire to get it.

When they reported to us

That they had not found fire

But only a thick liquid,

He ordered them to dip it out and bring it.

When the materials for the sacrifices were presented,

Nehemiah ordered the priests

To sprinkle the liquid on the wood

And on the things laid upon it.

When this was done,

Some time had passed.

The sun, which had been clouded over,

Shone out,

A great fire blazed up,

So that all marveled.

While the sacrifice was being consumed,

The priests offered prayer.

The priests and everyone,

Jonathan led.

The rest responded,

As did Nehemiah.”

There is nothing in the book of Nehemiah about this fire incident. If anything it is a reference to the cult of fire among the Persians. Somehow the captured Israelite priests hid a fire that had been on an altar in a dry cistern that no one knew about. How could a fire keep going it no feeds it? When Nehemiah asked the descendents of these priests to get the fire, they told him that they only had a thick liquid that could have been naphtha or petro-chemical oil, which of course, was found in the Persian area. They put wood on it. When the sun shone it, it burst into flames so that it consumed the sacrifice. Obviously, the priests and everyone offered sacrifices. A certain Jonathan seemed to be the priest leader of this ceremony.

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The festival of fire (2 Macc 1:18-1:18)

“On the twenty-fifth day of Chislev

We shall celebrate the purification of the temple.

We thought it necessary to notify you.

Thus you also may celebrate the feast of booths.

You may celebrate the feast of the fire

That was given when Nehemiah offered sacrifices

When he built the temple and the altar.”

Judas Maccabeus had celebrated the festival of booths in 1 Maccabees, chapter 4, in 164 BCE. They wanted to celebrate the purification of the temple. At the same time, they wanted them to know that the festival of fire was like at the time of Nehemiah, chapter 8. That writing explained what was to take place at the festival of Booths. There they gathered branches to make tents and live around the fire. It could also refer to the reestablishment of the Temple at that time.

Thanksgiving for the punishment to King Antiochus IV (2 Macc 1:11-1:17)

‘Having been saved by God,

Out of grave dangers.

We thank him greatly

For taking our side against the king.

God drove out those who fought against the holy city.

When the leader reached Persia

With a force that seemed irresistible,

They were cut to pieces in the temple of Nanea

By a deception employed by the priests of Nanea.

On the pretext of intending to marry her,

Antiochus came to the place together with his friends,

To secure most of its treasures as a dowry.

When the priests of the temple of Nanea

Had set out the treasures,

Antiochus had come with a few men

Inside the wall of the sacred precinct,

They closed the temple as soon as he entered it.

Opening the secret door in the ceiling,

They threw stones.

They struck down the leader and his men,

They dismembered them.

They cut off their heads.

They threw them to the people outside.

Blessed in every way be our God,

Who has brought judgment

Upon those who have behaved impiously.”

They were thankful that God had taken King Antiochus IV in 164 BCE. He had brought great dangers to Jerusalem by his attack as in 1 Maccabees, chapter 1. He died about the same time of the writing of this letter, according to 1 Maccabees, chapter 5. However, there was no indication there on how he died, but this story in 2 Maccabees is very explicit. Here the king died at the hands of the Nanea priests, since Nanea was some kind of Syrian goddess. Perhaps King Antiochus IV was trying to take money from the temple. This story shows how the king suffered a brutal death with stones dropped on him and his men. Then they dismembered him, cutting off his head, and throwing him outside the temple.   All this they did because he had acted impiously. However, in 1 Maccabees, chapter 6, King Antiochus IV had repentance for what he had done. However, there is no mention of that here. Remember that this same King Antiochus IV had invaded Egypt also. He had received his just reward.

The address of the second letter (2 Macc 1:10-1:10)

“The people of Jerusalem

And of Judea

And the senate

And Judas,

To Aristobulus,

Who is of the family of the anointed priests,

Teacher of King Ptolemy,

And to the Jews in Egypt,

Greetings!

Good health!”

Once again, it is the people of Jerusalem and Judea who are sending this letter. However, here there is a mention of a Jewish senate, perhaps modeled after the Roman Senate that was also mentioned by Jonathan in chapter 12 of 1 Maccabees. Judas, mentioned here in this letter, is Judas Maccabeus. Thus this letter actually preceded the first letter since it about 40 years earlier, around 164 BCE. Once again we are not sure of the author. The recipient, however, is Aristobulus, who was an Alexandrian Jew, who somehow was a teacher to King Ptolemy VII in Egypt who died in 144 BCE. This may be Aristobulus of Paneas, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who attempted to combine Hebrew Scripture with Greek philosophical thought who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He argued that the essentials of Greek philosophy and metaphysics were derived from Jewish sources. He may have been the author of the Book or Sirach. Somehow he was related to a family of anointed priests that came with King Ptolemy I (367-283 BCE) to Egypt. This greeting is for all the Jews in Egypt. So this is a Greek letter to the Greek speaking Jews in Egypt from the Jews in Judea and Jerusalem who were against the Greek influence in their life.

The situation of this letter (2 Macc 1:7-1:9)

“In the reign of King Demetrius,

In the one hundred and sixty-ninth year,

We Jews wrote to you.

In the critical distress that came upon us,

In those years

After Jason and his company

Revolted from the holy land and the kingdom.

He burned the gate and shed innocent blood.

We prayed to the Lord.

We were heard.

We offered sacrifice and cereal offering.

We lighted the lamps.

We set out the loaves.

Now see that you keep the festival of booths

In the month of Chislev,

In the one hundred and eighty-eighth year.”

Here is the reason for the letter. They want the Jews in Egypt to celebrate the festival of Booths in 124 BCE in the month of Chislev, the 188th year. Apparently this is not the first letter since there is a reference to an earlier letter around 143 BCE, the 169th year mentioned here, when King Demetrius II was the Seleucid leader. All these calendar dates are from the beginning of this Seleucid Empire in 312 BCE. The distress was the capture and murder of Jonathan Apphus, the son of Mattathias in 143 BCE. Jason was the brother of the high priest Onias, who turned on the Maccabees. The destruction and shedding of innocent blood can be found in 1 Maccabees, chapter 1. However, under Simon, they were able to recover and rebuild the Temple. Thus they were asking the Jews in Egypt to celebrate with them the feast of Booths in Chislev. However, the normal time of festival of Tents or Booths, according to Leviticus, chapter 23, was in the 7th month, 1 week after the Day of Atonement. Clearly this work must have been written after 124 BCE.

The blessings for the Jews in Egypt (2 Macc 1:2-1:6)

“May God be good to you.

May God remember his covenant

With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

His faithful servants.

May God give you all a heart to worship him.

May you do his will with a strong heart and a willing spirit.

May God open your heart to his law and his commandments.

May God bring peace.

May God hear your prayers.

May God be reconciled to you.

May God not forsake you in time of evil.

We are now praying for you here.”

There is an obvious reference to the God of our common ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as outlined in Genesis. They have this common bond with their faithful ancestors. This biblical author wants to make sure that God blesses his kindred in Egypt. He wants God to be good to them. However, he also expects that they are worshiping God with a strong heart and willing spirit. He hopes that they are listening to the law and the commandments. Thus they will have peace as God will hear their prayers, be reconciled to them, and not abandon them in bad times. That is the simple prayer of the people of Jerusalem and Judea.

The salutation of the first letter (2 Macc 1:1-1:1)

“The Jews in Jerusalem

And those in the land of Judea,

To their Jewish kindred in Egypt,

Greetings and true peace!”

The unknown author of this letter implies that there were Jews in Egypt. Beginning at the time of Alexander the Great, Jews began to live in Egypt in the new city of Alexandria in 332 BCE. Somehow during the 2nd century BCE many more Jews went to Egypt. The son of a high priest, Onias IV apparently built a temple at Leontopolis based on the Jerusalem Temple. The beginnings of Greek letters usually used the word “greetings” as in 1 Maccabees. However, the Jewish letters usually began with “peace” so that both are here in this salutation. Those Jews in Egypt were related to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea. Notice that there is a distinction between Jerusalem and Judea. This letter may have come after the 2nd letter since it seems to have been written before this letter.