Dreams of death (Wis 18:17-18:19)

“Then at once

Apparitions in dreadful dreams

Greatly troubled them.

Unexpected fears assailed them.

One here

Another there,

They were hurled down half dead.

They were made known why they were dying.

The dreams that disturbed them

Forewarned them of this.

Thus they might not perish

Without knowing Why they suffered.”

Apparently, this section is not really tied to the Exodus story, but does concern the problem of death. It is not clear what this refers to since most of the first-born killed were infants and not capable of knowing why they were perishing. However, it could have been the first-born grown children of some families whose first-born would have been older and thus capable of understanding what was happening. Anyway, dreadful or fearful (φόβοι) dreams or apparitions (φαντασίαι) definitely troubled these people before they were hurled half dead. They knew why they were dying because they had been warned. They knew why they were suffering.

The impending death of old age (Eccl 12:3-12:7)

“In the day

When the guards of the house tremble,

The strong men are bent.

The women who grind cease working

Because they are few.

Those who look through the windows see dimly.

The doors on the street are shut.

The sound of the grinding is low.

One rises up at the sound of a bird.

All the daughters of song are brought low.

When one is afraid of heights,

The terrors are in the road.

The almond tree blossoms.

The grasshopper drags itself along.

Desire fails.

Because all must go to their eternal home.

The mourners will go about the streets.

The silver cord is snapped.

The golden bowl is broken.

The pitcher is broken at the fountain.

The wheel is broken at the cistern.

The dust returns to the earth as it was.

The spirit returns to God who gave it.”

This is an ode to old age. The dying old man, with his many servants and guards, comes to an end. The guards tremble. The strong men bend over. The women grinders stop their dancing. They can only see dimly out the window. Everyone has shut their doors. The grinders have ceased. Morning comes early with the first sound of a bird. There are no more singing young girls. The old man is afraid of heights. He dreads going out on the road because of the fear of attack. The old people tend to walk awkwardly like a grasshopper. Their desires fail maybe due to incompetence. The trees still blossom, but the mourners are out on the streets. The signs of death, the snapped silver cord, the broken gold bowl, and the broken pitcher at the fountain all take place. The wheel was broken at the cistern. They return to dust, but their spirit or breath returns to God. This is a depressing description of old age, just before death, along with the symbolic actions that go with death.

Strong drinks (Prov 31:4-31:7)

“It is not for kings.

O Lemuel!

It is not for kings to drink wine.

Rulers should not desire strong drink.

Otherwise if they drink,

They will forget what has been decreed.

They will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.

Give strong drink to him who is perishing!

Give wine to those in bitter distress!

Let them drink!

Let them forget their poverty!

Let them remember their misery no more!”

Now we have a warning against strong drink or alcohol, which was a common prohibition among the ancient and current Arabic countries. The king should not drink wine or strong drinks because he would forget what he had decreed. He might end up perverting the rights of all the afflicted. Even in this prohibition against strong drink, there was a sense of social justice in that the king might forget about his subjects and their afflictions. However, in a strange turn of events, it was okay to give strong drink to those who were dying. My father, who was dying of throat cancer, decided to drink alcohol rather than take drugs. Anyone in great distress could have a strong drink. They were allowed to drink because it would help them forget their poverty and misery. Strong drink was allowed for the dying, the poor, and the miserable, but not for a king.

The death bed repentance of King Antiochus (1 Macc 6:8-6:13)

“When King Antiochus king heard this news, he was astounded and badly shaken. He took to his bed. He became sick from grief because things had not turned out for him as he had planned. He lay there for many days because deep disappointment continually gripped him. He concluded that he was dying. So he called all his friends. He said to them.

‘Sleep has departed from my eyes.

I am downhearted with worry.

I said to myself.

‘To what distress I have come!

Into what a great flood I now am plunged!

For I was kind and beloved in my power.’

But now I remember the wrong I did in Jerusalem.

I seized all her vessels of silver and gold.

I sent to destroy the inhabitants of Judah without good reason.

I know that it is because of this

That these misfortunes have come upon me.

Here I am perishing of bitter disappointment in a strange land.’”

King Antiochus IV was astonished and shaken by the news that he heard about Judah. In quite a melodramatic way, he took to his bed because things had not turned out the way that he had planned them. He was very despondent. Thinking that he was dying, he called his friends. He tried to clear his soul with a confession to his friends. He could no longer sleep because he was so worried. He was in great distress that he himself had caused. He had been a kind and beloved king, until he went to Jerusalem. There he took the silver and gold vessels and destroyed the people of Jerusalem for no reason. He believed that all his misfortunes stemmed from that incident. Now he was going to die disappointed in a strange land, Persia.

Mattathias reminds his sons about their ancestors (1 Macc 2:51-2:60)

“Remember the deeds of the ancestors.

What they did in their generations.

Then you will receive great honor and an everlasting name.

Was not Abraham found faithful when tested?

It was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Joseph in the time of his distress kept the commandment.

He became lord of Egypt.

Phinehas our ancestor,

Because he was deeply zealous,

He received the covenant of everlasting priesthood.

Joshua, because he fulfilled the command,

He became a judge in Israel.

Caleb, because he testified in the assembly,

He received an inheritance in the land.

David, because he was merciful,

He inherited the throne of the kingdom forever.

Elijah, because of great zeal for the law

He was taken up into heaven.

Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael believed.

They were saved from the flame.

Daniel, because of his innocence

He was delivered from the mouth of the lions.”

Much like Jacob at the end of Genesis, chapter 49, the dying Mattathias reminded his sons about their great ancestors, although there is no explicit mention of Jacob. It is interesting to note which ancestors he cited. Abraham and Joseph from Genesis were obvious examples. There is no mention of Moses, but there is a mention of Phinehas from Numbers, who was the grandson of Aaron. Then he mentioned Joshua and Caleb because of their fighting spirit. David, the great king, and Elijah, the great prophet, were obvious choices. Finally, there is the mention of Daniel and the 3 Judeans. This gives some idea of the people that Mattathias and this biblical author admired.

The division of the empire of Alexander the Great (1 Macc 1:5-1:9)

“After this, King Alexander fell sick. He perceived that he was dying. He summoned his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth. He divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. After King Alexander had reigned twelve years, he died. Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death. Their sons after them did the same for many years. They caused many evils on the earth.”

King Alexander the Great only ruled for 12 years and died at the age of 33. However, before he died, he had divided up his kingdom among his trusted officers. Obviously, it was probably not that neatly done. After his death, 3 major kingdoms evolved the Antigonids of Macedonia in Greece, the Ptolemies in Egypt, and Seleucids in Syria. You have to remember that the Jewish people had a very pleasant relationship with the Persian kings since the time of Cyrus in the 6th century BCE. Thus they would have thought of these new kingdoms as evil.   This would have been very traumatic in the late 4th century BCE.

The Israelite victory (Jdt 16:11-16:12)

“Then my oppressed people shouted.

My weak people cried out.

The enemy trembled.

They lifted up their voices.

The enemy was turned back.

Sons of slave girls pierced them through.

They were wounded like the children of fugitives.

They perished before the army of my Lord.”

The victory chant came last. The weak people got courage. Now the enemy trembled at the Israelite shout. The sons of slave girls defeated the trained soldiers. This may be an illusion to the fact that some of the people of the land may have been involved in this attack. The enemy was like fugitive wounded children dying before the great army of the Lord.

 

The prayer of Tobit (Tob 3:1-3:6)

“Then with much grief and anguish of heart, I wept. With groaning I began to pray.

‘You are righteous, O Lord

All your deeds are just.

All your ways are mercy and truth.

You judge the world.

Now, O Lord, remember me.

Look favorably upon me.

Do not punish me for my sins.

Do not punish me for my unwitting offences.

Do not punish me for those offences

That my ancestors committed before you.

They sinned against you.

They disobeyed your commandments.

So you gave us over to plunder, exile, and death.

We became the talk, the byword, an object of reproach,

Among all the nations,

Among whom you have dispersed us.

Now your many judgments are true

In exacting penalty from me for my sins.

We have not kept your commandments.

We have not walked in accordance with truth before you.

Now deal with me as you will.

Command my spirit to be taken from me.

So that I may be released from the face of the earth and become dust.

For it is better for me to die than to live,

Because I have had to listen to undeserved insults.

Great is the sorrow within me.

Command, O Lord,

That I be released from this distress.

Release me to go to the eternal home.

Do not, O Lord,

Turn your face away from me.

For it is better to die

Than to see so much distress in my life

And to listen to insults.”

This is a prayer of despair and distress, yet a hope for eternal life. Tobit admitted that he was a sinner and that his ancestors have sinned. He believed that God was just, truthful, and merciful. He and his people were in exile, plundered, and dying because they had failed to keep the commandments of God. They were an object of reproach scattered among the various countries. After admitting that God is just, Tobit then wanted out of this life with its undeserved insults. He said the words of despair that it is better to die than to live. He wanted his eternal home, not this life of sorrow and distress. Better to die than continue all this distress and insults. Suddenly this righteous man is now depressed.