I hadn’t gotten very far into reading 1 Maccabees before I was overwhelmed with the number of strange names of people and places. I wondered, “Is this how it is for someone reading the Bible for the first time?”
1&2 Maccabees are part of the Old Testament Apocrypha and tell the story of Israel in the intertestamental period. The writing isn’t particularly riveting, and at one point the author even says his work isn’t meant to be accurate (2 Macc 2:28). That aside, the books are a useful historical source for learning how Hanukkah came about, for understanding the Hellenisation (adoption of Greek culture) in Israel and for explaining how there were two high priests in office when John the Baptist began his ministry (Luke 3:2).
During the period in which the books are set, the Jews were under oppression and were being forced to give up their distinctive Jewish practices—the Sabbath observance, temple worship, circumcision on the eighth day, etc. Their reactions ranged from capitulation to resistance.
Mattathias the priest and his five sons were among those who resisted, vowing to fight the spread of pagan worship in Israel. They were successful despite the loss of many lives. Things were looking up in Israel: temple sacrifices had been re-instituted and Jewish rule had been reinstated in the land. But the Maccabees were only human: Mattathias’ youngest son, Jonathan, combined the offices of high priest and prince, though he lacked the genealogical prerequisites for both. Jonathan’s son, John Hyrcanus, was as ruthless as any pagan ruler.
On completing the books of Maccabees, I wondered if there were any in Israel at the time who longed for a leader with the right pedigree, one who would restore pure worship of the one true God, who would rule in justice… He was on His way!