The Apocrypha’s “The First Book of Maccabees”: A Sprawling Saga of War and Political Maneuvering
I was in ninth grade when I first read The Iliad. A number of my classmates grumbled, hating its multiple story lines, its back-stabbing, its interspersing of interpersonal drama with battle planning and fighting. I loved it for these reasons, and much of my sense of story was learned that semester reading Homer’s classic. What I also love about this story is how significant its impact has been on pop culture in general and literature/writing specifically.
Where would we be without en medias res, the literary concept where you open in the middle of things (the action). How else would we label the computer virus that embeds itself in your hard drive and waits to infect (The Trojan Horse)? Or all the scheming, warrior egos, power grabs that created archetypes (both character and story)? This story has held up so well, several people have tried to retell it in flashier ways (as if that were necessary), with mixed results: see Troy (or, in fact, don’t). Would we even have Games of Thrones without this benchmark work from antiquities?
While I read The Apocrypha’s “The First Book of Maccabees,” there were several times I felt like I was reading The Iliad (or at least a partially plagiarized version), without, perhaps, the homoerotic scenes between soldiers (of course). This comparison is flattering, for this book is an interesting read.
This (unfortunately) excised book of the Old Testament is a prime account of the Jewish war of independence against Antiochus Epiphanes, covering 167-134 B.C. And there’s a lot of war covered, for it seems then (as perhaps now) people in power get itching when peace reigns for too long. The text provides a flurry of names (with a number of kings bearing the same names), and the drama that comes with various, seemingly endless military campaigns. Through the whole book, we are aligned with Israel’s constant need to be on the defensive, and it’s hard not to be impressed with all they had to endure and what they were able to accomplish.
The trouble starts when King Alexander, as a dying order, divides his kingdom. (1:7). His sins do evil everywhere (1:9), and in this after math, Antiochus Epiphanes comes to power and quickly sets his sights on Israel, thereby setting up a pattern of attempts, and sometimes success at occupying and destroying Israel, all while attempting to get those people to ignore God in favor of false gods. To fight this influence, Israel sees a line of leaders rise, including Mattathias, Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan, and Simon. Judas is the star in this line, and he leads several successful military campaigns designed to conquer enemies and secure Israel. During these campaigns, Judas must contend with a revolving door of rulers and generals, some of whom court his favor with treaties and some who give his troops a real challenge.
This book details, in an interesting way, all that these two sides experience, spending more time, naturally, with Judas and his struggles, as there is constant back and forth of aggression against Israel, victory, peace, treaty, new enemy, repeat. It also interesting to see the politics play out, with enemies trying (often successfully) to align with Israel—only to change their minds) and with the respect Israel earns from unexpected governments, such as Rome (8:17) and Sparta. It’s also interesting to see Cleopatra surface, for I had no idea (but was not shocked by the fact that) she was used as a pawn with Alexander and then Demetrius.
Given all the names and famous families vying to power in various kingdoms, it’s hard not to think how Game of Thrones (and other successful epic sagas like it) have taken several notes from this book (and not just because in one pivotal scene, vengeance is exacted at a wedding party (9:40-41) as well as a betrayal at a festive banquet (16:16-17). Given my love for that series, it makes sense that I found so much to enjoy in these pages.
So why was this book cut from the Old Testament? I’m not really sure, for it demonstrates that for all the love of peace a person (or a people) may value, war is, sadly, inevitable; however, this book doesn’t glamorize war—not much, anyway; it shows the devastation without getting into the personally emotionally or physically taxing toll or the extreme bloodshed. If anything, it presents a valuable lesson—over and over again—about how power and greed corrupts, and how, against bad odds, a small, well-trained, dedicated army can succeed.