I’m a Bible reader.
For many years, I read through-the-year Bibles which are divided up into 365 readings that take you through the entire Scriptures. Then, I began reading straight through the Bible, a few pages or chapters every day.
I like to read different translations. I read through one translation, then switch to another. Right now, I’m slowly wending my way through the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition.
I’m on second Maccabees, deep in the Greek persecutions of the Jews. Last night, I read about the martyrdom of Eleazar. I quit there because I’ve read this before and I knew what was coming. Reading about Eleazar was enough sadness for one day. Tonight, I’ll read the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother.
Seven books were removed from the Protestant Bible during the Reformation, 1 & 2 Maccabees among them. It’s a real shame this happened. I encourage my Protestant brothers and sister to find a copy of the Bible that contains these proscribed books, what is often called the “Catholic Edition” by book publishers, and read them. It will fill a lot of holes.
I remember when I was just a young girl, it bothered me that the Scriptures stopped before the Greeks and the Romans. The Bible went through the Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians, and then stopped. The storyline fell off a historical cliff. When the New Testament took up the story again, so much history was missing that it made for confusion.
The Maccabees fills those historical holes. They tell the story of what happened during the campaigns of Philip and the rule of the four Greek kings who succeeded Alexander. The Bible becomes a historic whole when you read the Scriptures that were removed 500 years ago.
If you want to know who hid the Ark of the Covenant, why they did it and approximately where they hid it, read Maccabees. If you want to know how Israel fit into the Greek conquests and the beginnings of Roman power, read Maccabees.
You will learn a lot from the Maccabees. The most important thing you will gain is an understanding of why people behaved the way they did in Jesus’ time. Read Maccabees and the behavior of the Jews during Jesus’ time becomes explicable.
The attitudes that people display in the Gospels make sense when fitted into historical context. I remember years ago, standing in front of a wall that the people of Spain had built in preparation for a desperate attempt to drive the Moors out of their land and reclaim it for themselves. That wall was built with a hodgepodge of materials slammed together in a crazy quilt fashion. Those people had used the stones they laid over their privies, complete with the holes, they had taken the troughs they used to feed their livestock and mortared them together into a desperate defensive wall.
Hundreds of years later, on a sunny day, I stood there and looked at the wall that still, after all this time, gave off desperation and fanatic determination like steam rising off a lake and thought, “Now I understand the Inquisition.” They won that war and got their country back. But all that violent emotion was still running hot. They built their resistance on their religion and when the obvious target was gone they had a need, a visceral explosive internal directive, to keep fighting. At that point, they did what people usually do in such circumstances. They turned it on their own members.
I felt a similar thing, reading Maccabees.
It fits together like pieces of a puzzle and you see, not just how things happened, but why. It’s hard going, reading the martyrdom of Eleazar. The martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother is thrilling literature but it’s also knife-cold grisly suffering that cuts right through you. What these people went through rather than violate their faith is beyond comprehension to someone like me. I don’t comprehend it, and I don’t want to. I’d much rather it stayed thrilling literature rather than face the hard reality of the pain they suffered.
The people of Jesus’ time were only a historic stone’s throw away from these events. The martyrdoms of their friends and family members lingered in a place so close to living memory that they could almost smell the blood and hear the screams. The dissolute, half faithfulness of earlier generations had been boiled out of the Israelites during the years of exile. They lived a concentrated, almost nuclear faith that gave no margin for life or death.
Read Maccabees, and Matthew Mark, Luke and John will make sense on a primal level. No wonder they killed Our Lord. No wonder they resisted the Romans until the Romans took the Temple apart stone by stone and scattered the Jews over the face of the Earth. No wonder they survived 2,000 years of pogroms, Inquisitions and ghettos. No wonder they came out of the Holocaust and went back to where the story began and started it all over again with a new nation.
It was meant. They were meant.
They are meant.
I don’t have any understanding of what’s coming. But I believe without doubt that the story of the Jews and the story of the followers of Jesus are interwoven and will at some point become one story. I have even less understanding of this but I would not be surprised if the followers of Mohammed become part of that one story as well. Isaac, Ishmael and those of us who were grafted onto that great tree by the blood of the Lamb; it is one story. It doesn’t make sense to you and me because we are small actors in the telling of a tale that includes all the nations and peoples of the earth and goes on for millennia. It is our story — all of us — our story of us and God.
I can’t think of any better way to begin this particular 2020 Advent season than reading 2 Maccabees. It is the story of people who were so close to their salvation in historic time that the difference hardly mattered. But the traumas they were experiencing pushed them into a frame of mind and heart that led them to rush past that salvation when He came and plunge headfirst into their own 2000-year diaspora.
It was an inflection in history, a singularity in time at which there were roads for traveling and peace in which to do it that allowed the Gospel to be spread over all the world in a few years. It was His time.
That singularity closed. The darkness fell. And it is only now, at another inflection point where we can communicate from dateline to dateline and pole to pole in an instantaneous fashion that change of that magnitude can happen again.
This is Advent.
Are you ready?