170 BC to 150 BC, Psalm 39: hanukkah.

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    Summary

This generation is from the years 170 BC to 150 BC

According to our count, this generation is the 39th generation associated with Psalm 39. It is in this Psalm 39 that we therefore find an illustration of the facts of this generation.

This generation is marked by the revolt of the Maccabees. This is largely justified by the exactions of the occupier, Antiochus Epiphanes.

When the officers of King Antiochus will arrive in the city of Modine to force the Jews again to deny their religion through idolatrous sacrifices, Mattathias revolts. Mattathias led the start of the revolt and garnered the first victories against the enemy and the Jews who had sided with the new Greek power and its beliefs. Before dying he entrusts the continuation of his fight to his son Judas (Judas Maccabee).

Judas takes over from his father after his death and records some first successes. He also fights against the Greeks but also against the Jews who have taken their side. He fights Apollonius, governor of Samaria, and defeats him. Seron, commander of the Syrian army then decides to oppose him a powerful army. Judas will win the victory against Seron.

Antiochus then ordered another expedition against Judas, hoping this time to overcome it. Despite the numerical inferiority of his men and the equipment imbalance of the two camps, he wins the victory. When the Greeks try again to attack the Jews a year later, again with an overwhelming numerical superiority of the Greeks, the Jews will win the victory again.

After the Greek occupation, the sanctuary is desolated, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a thicket or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished.

Judas then purifies the temple defiled by the Greeks and resets the sacred cult.

Of all these events the Jewish tradition has retained only the miracle of Hanukkah. The victory of the Hasmoneans, against the logic of power relations, is naturally part of the Jewish memory. But the Jewish people know that military victories are fleeting and that when one danger is defeated, another is not long in coming.

Thus the feast of Hanukkah, commemorating the Hasmonean victory and the restoration of the Temple is recalled in the Talmud: the Hasmonean searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days, until a ritually pure oil can be produced

The successes of Judas are not enough. Further battles take place either with the successors of Antiochus or with other peoples. Judas dies in one of these battles. Jonathan takes over from his brother Judas and manages to restore peace to Judea for two years.

Talk

Seven brothers

This generation is marked by the revolt of the Maccabees. This is largely justified by the exactions of the occupier, Antiochus Epiphanes.

Dandré-Bardon-Anthichos

Thus we can cite the episode of the torture of the seven brothers:

  • It also [1] happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.
  • One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
  • At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated.
  • These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on.
  • When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly.

The[2] other brothers follow the same fate, each in turn, joined in death by their mother. Without renouncing the law of Moses and continuing to assert their faith in God and in his righteousness.

This limitless courage of the Jews in the face of Antiochus Epiphanes’ desire to make them give up their faith is thus illustrated in the beginning of the psalm, where the parallelism with the account of the martyrdom of the seven brothers is particularly clear.

(extract of the psalm 39 associated to this generation, verses 1 to 3 )

  • For the conductor, to Jeduthun, a song of David.
  • I said, « I will guard my ways from sinning with my tongue; I will guard my mouth [as with] a muzzle while the wicked man is still before me.
  • I made myself dumb in silence; I was silent from good although my pain was intense.

Mattathias

In this intolerable situation, the reaction is not long in emerging through the family Mattathias.

  • In[3] those days (the one where Antiochus Epiphanes martyred the Jews to make them abandon their religion) Mattathias, son of John, son of Simeon, a priest of the family of Joarib,a left Jerusalem and settled in Modein.*
  • He had five sons: John, who was called Gaddi;
  • Simon, who was called Thassi;
  • Judas, who was called Maccabeus;
  • Eleazar, who was called Avaran; and Jonathan, who was called Apphus.
  • When he saw the sacrileges that were being committed in Judah and in Jerusalem,
  • he said: “Woe is me! Why was I born to see the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city. To dwell there as it was given into the hands of enemies, the sanctuary into the hands of strangers?

So when the officers of King Antiochus will arrive in the city of Modine to force the Jews again to deny their religion through idolatrous sacrifices, Mattathias revolts:

  • As[4] he finished saying these words (Matatthias, to refuse the advantageous offers of the officers of King Antiochus in exchange for his cooperation), a certain Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein according to the king’s order.
  • When Mattathias saw him, he was filled with zeal; his heart was moved and his just fury was aroused; he sprang forward and killed him upon the altar.
  • At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.
  • Thus he showed his zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did with Zimri, son of Salu.

This righteous anger of Mattathias is evoked in the following verses of the psalm:

(extract of the psalm 39 associated to this generation, verse 4 )

  • My heart is hot within me; in my thoughts fire burns; I spoke with my tongue,

Judas Maccabee

Mattathias led the start of the revolt and garnered the first victories against the enemy and the Jews who had sided with the new Greek power and its beliefs. Before dying he entrusts the continuation of his fight to his son Judas (Judas Maccabee):

  • When[5] the time came for Mattathias to die, he said to his sons: “Arrogance and scorn have now grown strong; it is a time of disaster and violent wrath.
  • Therefore, my children, be zealous for the law and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors.
  • “Remember the deeds that our ancestors did in their times, and you shall win great honor and an everlasting name.
  • Was not Abraham found faithful in trial, and it was credited to him as righteousness?f

Mattathias[6] gives yet other examples of biblical figures who rightly put their faith in God. Judas takes over from his father after his death and records some early successes. He also fights against the Greeks but also against the Jews who took their side.

The victories against the Greeks

He fights Apollonius, governor of Samaria and defeats him. Seron, commander of the Syrian army, decides to oppose him with a powerful army. Judas calms the anxiety of his troops before the clash:

  • But[7] when they saw the army coming against them, they said to Judas: “How can we, few as we are, fight such a strong host as this? Besides, we are weak since we have not eaten today.”
  • But Judas said: “Many are easily hemmed in by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few;
  • for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven.
  • With great presumption and lawlessness they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us;
  • but we are fighting for our lives and our laws.
  • He* will crush them before us; so do not fear them.”

Judas[8] wins against Seron.

Antiochus then ordered another expedition against Judas, hoping this time to overcome it. It brings together nearly fifty thousand soldiers to finally end with the Jewish people. This one is preparing for the confrontation:

  • Thus[9] they assembled and went to Mizpah near Jerusalem, because formerly at Mizpah there was a place of prayer for Israel.
  • That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their garments.
  • They unrolled the scroll of the law, to learn about the things for which the Gentiles consulted the images of their idols.*
  • They brought with them the priestly garments, the first fruits, and the tithes; and they brought forward the nazirites* d who had completed the time of their vows.
  • And they cried aloud to Heaven: “What shall we do with these, and where shall we take them?
  • For your sanctuary has been trampled on and profaned, and your priests are in mourning and humbled.
  • Now the Gentiles are gathered together against us to destroy us. You know what they plot against us.
  • How shall we be able to resist them unless you help us?”
  • Then they blew the trumpets and cried out loudly.
  • After this Judas appointed officers for the people, over thousands, over hundreds, over fifties, and over tens.
  • He proclaimed that those who were building houses, or were just married, or were planting vineyards, and those who were afraid, could each return home, according to the law.
  • Then the army moved off, and they camped to the south of Emmaus.
  • Judas said: “Arm yourselves and be brave; in the morning be ready to fight these Gentiles who have assembled against us to destroy us and our sanctuary.
  • It is better for us to die in battle than to witness the evils befalling our nation and our sanctuary.
  • Whatever is willed in heaven will be done.”

The[10] confidence brought by Judas is not in vain. Despite the numerical inferiority of his men and the imbalance of equipment on both sides, he won. When the Greeks again attempt to attack the Jews a year later, again with overwhelming outnumbered advantage of the Greeks, the Jews will once again be victorious.

The purification of the Temple

Judas then purifies the temple defiled by the Greeks and resets the sacred worship:

  • Then[11] Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary* and rededicate it.”
  • So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion.
  • They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a thicket or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished.
  • Then they tore their garments and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes
  • and prostrated themselves. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
  • Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary.
  • He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law;
  • these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the defilement to an unclean place.
  • They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar for burnt offerings that had been desecrated.
  • They decided it best to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar.
  • They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple mount, until the coming of a prophet who could determine what to do with them.
  • Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one.
  • They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and consecrated the courts.
  • They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple.
  • Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple.
  • They also put loaves on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Of all these events the Jewish tradition has retained only the miracle of Hanukkah. The victory of the Hasmoneans, against the logic of power relations, is naturally part of the Jewish memory. But the Jewish people know that military victories are fleeting and that when one danger is defeated, another is not long in coming.

Hanukkah

The books of the Maccabees are not part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible, only this passage of the Talmud refers to the events we have just mentioned:

  • The[12] Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days (- until a ritually pure oil can be produced -). The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

The revolt of the Maccabees was not due to the exacerbation of a national sentiment but was the only answer that Mattathias and his men could bring to the deliberate will of Antiochus Epiphanes to destroy them, to destroy their faith.

It is against this threat that Mattathias decides to fight to save what he can from his people and try to restore the purity of the Temple.

Without divine support, the chances of defeating Mattathias are rather slim, which justifies the questioning of David in the psalm of this generation that interprets the anguishes of Mattathias that we have just quoted:

(extract of the psalm 39 associated to this generation, verses 5 and 6 )

  • O Lord, let me know my end, and the measure of my days, what it is; I would know when I will cease.
  • Behold You made my days as handbreadths, and my old age is as nought before You; surely all vanity is in every man; this is his condition forever.

The miracle of Hanukkah comes to answer this question.

When David, through the psalm of this generation, reproaches God for having strictly limited his days, God just prolongs the days of the light produced by the single vial of still pure oil found in the Temple.

It was to last one day, it will last eight days.

This[13] vial of pure oil is in the image of the Jewish people. Isaac evokes the juices of the earth when he blesses Jacob. This draws a parallel between the olive oil used in the service of the Temple and the Jewish people in their characteristic of sanctified people, of people of priests.

Like the vials of oil from the Temple, the people of Israel will have trouble going through time because most vials will disappear under the onslaught of other peoples. But, as God has promised, a remnant will remain to witness the advent of the future world:

  • But[14] despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God.
  • I will remember for them the covenant [made with] the ancestors, whom I took out from the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be a God to them. I am the Lord.

The wisdom of retaining at the level of the event that constitutes the first victory of the Maccabees that the miracle of Chanukah is a commendable decision of our sages.

The fight against the Idumeans

Indeed the victory of the Maccabees was not enough to put the Jews out of danger. The day after this victory, the enemies of Israel do not give up their fight:

  • When[15] the nations round about heard that the altar had been rebuilt and the sanctuary restored as before, they were enraged.
  • So they decided to destroy the descendants of Jacob who were among them, and they began to kill and eradicate the people.

Judas[16] fights the Idumeans and defeats them. Then it is the turn of the tribe of Baia, and the Ammonites. This is not enough, because the attacks against the Jews in the countries neighboring to those under the control of Judas multiply. Thus Judas receives appeals for help from the Jews of Gilead at the same time as those of Galilee. Judas thus manages to free his co-religionists at the cost of new battles. All Jews from these areas who were threatened are repatriated to Judea. Enthused by the exploits of Judas and his troops, some Jews take the initiative to attack Jamnia. But this is a defeat that awaits them with nearly two thousand Israelites killed. Judas then seizes Hebron and fights the Philistines.

Thus Judas receives calls for the help of the Jews of Gilead at the same time as those of Galilee. Judas thus manages to free his fellow believers at the price of new battles. All the Jews in these areas who were threatened are repatriated to Judea. Encouraged by the exploits of Judas and his troops, some Jews take the initiative to attack Jamnia in turn. But here is a defeat that awaits them with nearly two thousand Israelites killed. Judas then seizes Hebron and fights the Philistines.

The humiliation of Antiochus

While the Maccabees rebuilt the country of Judea, somewhat in spite of themselves, to respond to foreign attacks, Antiochus, the one who initiated the Maccabean rebellion, suffered a humiliation in Persia by unsuccessfully attempting to appropriate the riches of the Temple of Elymais:

  • As[17] King Antiochus passed through the eastern provinces, he heard that in Persia there was a city, Elam,* famous for its wealth in silver and gold,
  • and that its temple was very rich, containing gold helmets, breastplates, and weapons left there by the first king of the Greeks, Alexander, son of Philip, king of Macedon.
  • He went therefore and tried to capture and loot the city. But he could not do so, because his plan became known to the people of the city
  • who rose up in battle against him. So he fled and in great dismay withdrew from there to return to Babylon.

Following this defeat and the announcement that the Jews have defeated his army, Antiochus falls ill and feeling his death close, he recounts the results of his reign:

  • So[18] he called in all his Friends and said to them: “Sleep has departed from my eyes, and my heart sinks from anxiety.
  • I said to myself: ‘Into what tribulation have I come, and in what floods of sorrow am I now! Yet I was kindly and beloved in my rule.’
  • But I now recall the evils I did in Jerusalem, when I carried away all the vessels of silver and gold that were in it, and for no cause gave orders that the inhabitants of Judah be destroyed.
  • I know that this is why these evils have overtaken me; and now I am dying, in bitter grief, in a foreign land.”

It is in search of wealth that ends the life of Antiochus Epiphanes, it has always been present in his life. His record illustrates the rest of the psalm:

(extract of the psalm 39 associated to this generation, verse 7 )

  • Man walks but in darkness; all that they stir is but vanity; he gathers yet he knows not who will bring them in.

The battles against the successors of Antiochus Epiphanes

Judas[19] decides to attack the Greek citadel built in the heart of Jerusalem. Some of its occupants manage to escape and call for help from Antiochus Epiphanes’ successor, King Antiochus Eupator. Antiochus Eupator then brought together an army of 100,000 foot soldiers, 20,000 horsemen and 32 elephants trained for combat. In the first confrontation and despite the heroic sacrifice of Elazar Maccabeus, brother of Judas, the Jews gave way before the enemy.

Antiochus Eupator then sieges Jerusalem where the Jews are starving because of the influx of Jews from other lands as a result of Judas’ previous campaigns and because it was a sabbatical year without harvest. But recalled by internal affairs to his kingdom, Antiochus Eupator withdrew after proposing peace to the Jews of Judea. The peace is short-lived, because Antiochus Eupator loses his kingdom to the benefit of Demetrius, son of Seleucus. He tries to establish Alkime as a high priest who sows terror in Jerusalem. Judas reacts and Alkime runs away. The king then sends Nicanor, one of his generals to fight Judas. This one is defeated by Judas:

  • The[20] people rejoiced greatly (Nicanor was just killed), and observed that day as a day of much joy.
  • They decreed that it should be observed every year on the thirteenth of Adar.
  • And so for a few days* the land of Judah was at rest.

Taking[21] advantage of the respite, Judea concludes an alliance with the Romans.

The fight of the Maccabees initiated by Mattathias, is pursued by Judas, who once cleared of Antiochus Epiphanes is not finished with the fighting.

The end of the psalm expresses well what the prayer of this Jewish hero is:

(extract of the psalm 39 associated to this generation, verses 8 to 12 to 14 )

  • And now, what have I hoped, O Lord?
    • The death of Antiochus Epiphanes whose action had generated the revolt of the Jews does not end their struggle, on the contrary many formidable enemies are constantly rising to try to take over.
  • My hope to You is;
  • Save me from all my transgressions; do not make me the reproach of an ignoble man.
  • I have become mute; I will not open my mouth because You have done it.
  • Remove Your affliction from me; from the fear of Your hand I perish.
  • With rebukes for iniquity You have chastised man; You have caused his flesh to decay as by a moth. Surely all man is vanity forever.
    • Judas and the Maccabees remained faithful Jews. Rather than claiming each of their victory, they never cease to rely on God to avoid the defeat that would be justified by the errors of the Jewish people attracted by the Greek culture with what it entails of worship idolatrous.
  • Hear my prayer, O Lord, and hearken to my cry. Be not silent to my tears, for I am a stranger with You, a dweller as all my forefathers.
  • Turn away from me that I may recover, before I go and am here no longer. » 
    • In all these fights, Judas is looking for a period of calm for him and his people, realizing that it will not be eternal. He will get it by Antiochus Eupator who finally gives up attacking Jerusalem. Also by the beginnings of peace with the Romans that will allow the Jews to take a first breath in the next generations before suffering again great confrontations. This is the conclusion of this psalm, also illustrated by the end of Judas in this generation.

The death of Judas

So[22] the fighting will resume and Judas will die in one of them. So Demetrius once again sends an army against Jerusalem. Judas’s soldiers get scared, and few of them stay with Judas who goes into battle anyway. Judas died in this battle.

The Jews sympathetic to the Greek culture regain the upper hand for a while before Jonathan comes to take over from his brother Judas. After the first laborious but victorious battles, the Greeks decided to fortify the cities of Judea. Including Jerusalem, whose surrounding wall of the Temple they are destroying, which indirectly ends the fight:

  • Alcimus[23] ordered the wall of the inner court of the sanctuary to be torn down, thus destroying the work of the prophets. But he only began to tear it down.
  • Just at that time Alcimus was stricken, and his work was interrupted; his mouth was closed and he was paralyzed, so that he could no longer utter a word or give orders concerning his household.
  • Alcimus died in great agony at that time.
  • Seeing that Alcimus was dead, Bacchides returned to the king, and the land of Judah was at rest for two years.


[1] 2 Maccabees, chapter 7, verses 1 à 5 (« Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons »).
(according to: http://www.usccb.org/bible/2maccabees/7 )

[2] 2 Maccabees, chapter 7

[3] 1 Maccabees, chapter 2, verses 1 to 7

[4] 2 Maccabees, chapter 2, verses 23 to 26 (« Mattathias and His Sons »).
(according to: http://www.usccb.org/bible/1maccabees/2 )

[5] 1 Maccabees, chapter 2, verses 49 to 52

[6] See continuation of I MACCABEES Chapter 2 and beginning of chapter 3.

[7] 1 Maccabees, chapter 3, verses 17 to 22

[8] Continuation of 1 Maccabees, chapter 3

[9] 1 Maccabees, chapter 3, verses 46 to 60

[10] 1 Maccabees, chapter 4

[11] 1 Maccabees, chapter 4, verses 36 to 51

[12] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b (The William Davidson Talmud)
(according to: https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.21b.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en )

[13] Bereishit – Genesis – Chapter 27, verse 28

[14] Vayikra – Leviticus – Chapter 26, verses 44 and 45

[15] 1 Maccabees, chapter 5, verses 1 and 2

[16] 1 Maccabees, chapter 5

[17] 1 Maccabees, chapter 6, verses 1 to 4

[18] 1 Maccabees, chapter 6, verses 10 to 13

[19] 1 Maccabees, chapters 6 and 7

[20] 1 Maccabees, chapters 7, verses 48 to 50

[21] 1 Maccabees, chapter 8

[22] 1 Maccabees, chapter 9

[23] 1 Maccabees, chapter 9, verses 54 to 57