The First Book of Maccabees was written in Hebrew, incorporating some earlier Hebrew historical records. The book is not wholly narrative but includes portions of passionate poetry and prayer. It is primarily an account of the struggle of the Jewish people for religious and political liberty under the leadership of the Machabee family, with Judas Maccabeus as the central figure.

No data can be found either in the book itself or in later writers which would give us a clue as to the person of the author. Names have indeed been mentioned, but on groundless conjecture. That he was a native of Palestine is evident from the language in which he wrote, and from the thorough knowledge of the geography of Palestine which he possessed.

The last verses show that the book cannot have been written till some time after the beginning of the reign of John Hyrcanus (135-105 B.C.), for they mention his accession and some of the acts of his administration. The latest possible date is generally admitted to be prior to 63 B. C., the year of the occupation of Jerusalem by Pompey; but there is some difference in fixing the approximately exact date.          (F. Bechtel)

We have lost the original Hebrew manuscript. But a Jewish translation into Greek was made very soon after it was written, for use by the large Jewish population now living in Egypt and other Hellenistic cultures, including Judea itself. As these Jewish communities were transformed in character by the Roman rise to power and Jewish Greek died out, the Greek version was kept intact by the early Christian church, which included the first two Books of Maccabees in their version of the Old Testament.

In place of the original Hebrew text, the legend of the Maccabees was kept alive among Jews in the form of parochial Hebrew paraphrases and poems, such as the medieval scroll of Antiochus. However, these later versions do not approach the original book in depth, range, style, or authenticity, and their use has largely died out in modern times. I have gone back to the original book, aided by the remarkable Hebrew version of Abraham Kahana (first published in Jerusalem in 1931).

The First Book of Maccabees tells the story of Jewish resistance to the Greeks and then chronicles the Maccabean campaigns and the Hasmonean dynasty that comes to power in Judea. The seeds of Hanukkah's ultimate transformation into a major holiday may be found in the scattered psalms and prayers quoted by the author of First Maccabees and attributed to Mattathias or Judah.

Mattathias was a priest from Jerusalem who had moved to the village of Modi'in, escaping Jerusalem's devastation. He is the father of Judah Maccabee and Judah's brothers John, Simon, Eliezer and Jonathan. Mattathias' is the first act of Jewish resistance: he refuses to offer a sacrifice to the Greek-Seleucid king, is driven to kill an apostate collaborator together with the king's officer, pulls down the pagan altar, and takes to the hills and mountains with his sons, making armed revolt a reality. When he is ready to die, he speaks to his son about the need to continue the armed resistance. Within this speech is the short psalm that follows, an echo of earlier biblical psalms.

A Psalm of Mattathias (from Chapter 2)
There is no need for fear
of men dressed in threats of power
all their successes are masks

that will fade like words in a gust of wind
and though one walks as if he wears a crown
in a show of pride — the whole performance collapses

in an instant: one last breath
and his body crowns the dunghill
and his words have turned to worms

today he shines on everyone's tongue
tomorrow no one has heard of him
he's vanished quickly as a winter sunset
gone — turned back into dust
all his schemes turned back
into nothing.

but you, my children, take hold of your lives
by a stronger hand,
by the deep strength in Torah

your hearts unsinkable vessels
bearing its words: sustenance
for a day beyond mere dreams of success

it will bring you into the future
it will bring you courage
worn as surely as a crown.

The following psalm, which parallels the earlier Babylonian destruction and exile, is quoted as a prayer by Judah and his people, as they prepare for battle.


A Psalm of Judah (from Chapter 3)
Jerusalem was a desert
empty of its spirit
none of her children were left

who had been signs of life
and none would go in
even Jerusalem air so pure

seemed choked with dust
the spirit that once breathed deeply

the Temple quiet as a graveyard
walked upon by foreigners
as if it were grass
strangers were sleeping in the citadel
another desolate renovation
by pagans

Jacob awoke in a nightmare
and his children had gone
joy had abandoned him

flute and lyre
pipe and zither
had ceased.

The following psalm is offered by Judah, as he surveys the battlefield — an early instance of a prayer that begins with the same words used to preface benedictions in Jewish life Barukh Atah Adonai. It is not a request for vengeance, but a prayer for the strength of a deeper motivation.... When Judah saw how huge the enemy expedition was, he prayed as follows:

A Psalm of Judah (from Chapter 4)
[Barukh Atah Adonai...]
You are deeply felt
Lord beyond lords
Israel's strength is with you

who broke the spirit of warriors
crushing their plans along with their violent hero
by the hand of David, your servant

and the power of the Philistine army was dismantled
falling into the hand
of Jonathan, son of Saul—

in the same way, dismay this army
by the hand of Israel
humble their pride in superior number and horses
let their hearts be crushed by shame
let them be struck by panic
their arrogance melt away

let them quake in their boots
and run away in fear of destruction
by a people who love you

and let all who feel the power
behind your name which is a shield
feel like singing psalms to you.

excerpted From: A Blazing Fountain: A Book for Hanukkah, by David Rosenberg (NY: Schocken Books).



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