170 BC to 150 BC, Psalm 39: hanukkah.

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This generation is that of the years between 170 BC and 150 BC.

This generation is marked by the revolt of the Maccabees. This is largely justified by the exactions of the occupier, Antiochus Epiphanes.
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 other brothers follow the same fate, each in turn joined in death by their mother without renouncing the law of Moses and continuing to affirm their faith in God and his justice.
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:

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

Plate_14_of_22_for_the_Macklin_Bible_after_Loutherbourg._Bowyer_Bible._Mattathias_Punishes_Idolatry_2So 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 [2] 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,
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 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. Séron, commander of the Syrian army then decides to oppose him a powerful army. Judas calms the anxiety of his troops before the confrontation by reaffirming his faith in God.
Judas will win the victory against Séron.
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.
The confidence of Judas will not be in vain, because 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.
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.
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 Gemara asks [3]: 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. 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 vial of pure oil is in the image of the Jewish people. Isaac evokes “the fatness of the earth” when he blesses Jacob, which is a parallel between the olive oil used in the service of the Temple and the Jewish people in its 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.
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.
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.
Judas fights the Idumeans and conquers them, then the tribe of Baia, and the Ammonites. This is not enough, because the attacks against the Jews in the neighboring countries of those under the control of Judas multiply.
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.
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.
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:
  • I can not [4] sleep anymore and the worry falls on me. I wonder why I’m plunged into such deep despair. Indeed when I was powerful, I did good, and people loved me. But now, I remember all the evil I did in Jerusalem. I took all the gold and silver objects that were in the Temple and gave the order to kill without any reason the inhabitants of Judea. So I recognize it: it is because of this that these misfortunes strike me and I will die of despair in a foreign country.
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.
Judas decides to attack the Greek citadel built in the heart of Jerusalem, some of its occupants manage to flee and to call to their rescue the successor of Antiochus Epiphanes, King Antiochus Eupator. Antiochus Eupator then gathered an army of 100,000 soldiers on foot, 20,000 horsemen and 32 elephants trained for the fight. During the first clash and despite the heroic sacrifice of Elazar Maccabee brother of Judas, the Jews are dominated by 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.
Taking 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.
Thus, the fighting will resume and Judas will die in one of them. Thus Demetrius sends an army again against Jerusalem. The soldiers of Judas are frightened, and few of them stay with Judas who is still going to fight. Judas dies in this battle.



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[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 2, verses 23 to 26 (“Mattathias and His Sons”).
(according to: http://www.usccb.org/bible/1maccabees/2 )

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

[4] I MACCABEES Chapitre 6, versets 10 à 13