Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bible Reading: 1 Machabees 4:36-51

Just to give you some context, this is a historical book that centers around the history of the Jews while under the command of Judas Machabeus and his brethren. The Jews were persecuted and occupied by a number of invaders, and Rome was on the horizon, though they were not yet conquered by Rome. The scripture I am including here describes how the Jews recaptured a holy place and see the desecration that had taken place, and how they respond. These events are less than two hundred years before Jesus was born.

1 Machabees 4:36-51

Then Judas and his brethren said: Behold our enemies are discomfited. Let us go up now to cleanse the holy places and to repair them. And all the army assembled together, and they went up into mount Sion.

And they saw the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burnt, and shrubs growing up in the courts as in a forest or on the mountains, and the chambers joining to the temple thrown down.

And they rent their garments, and made great lamentation, and put ashes on their heads, and they fell down to the ground on their faces, and they sounded with the trumpets of alarms, and they cried towards heaven.

Then Judas appointed men to fight against them that were in the castle, till they had cleansed the holy places. And he chose priests without blemish, whose will was set upon the law of God: and they cleansed the holy places, and took away the stones that had been defiled into an unclean place.

And he considered about the altar of holocausts that had been profaned, what he should do with it. And a good counsel [remember counsel is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit] came into their minds to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the Gentiles had defiled it; so they threw it down.

And they laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, till there should come a prophet, and give answer concerning them. And they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former. And they built up the holy places, and the things that were within the temple, and they sanctified the temple and the courts.

And they made new holy vessels, and brought in the candlestick, and the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. And they put incense upon the altar, and lighted up the lamps that were upon the candlestick, and they gave light in the temple. And they set the loaves upon the table, and hung up the veils, and finished all the works they had begun to make.

This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible that deals with historical events. There are several reasons I love how these events were recorded in the scripture, which Catholics consider part of the sacred canon of the Bible, while Jews (who do celebrate the memory of these events in their sacred calendar) and Protestants do not consider it part of the canon. The first reason that I love this passage is that it allows the reader over two thousand years later to look over the shoulders of these soldiers and witness their response when they see how their holy places and God's house were profaned. Soldiers were extremely pious. They were distraught at the profanity they had found.

Second they then get down to business and restore the sanctity of the place. Again one is able to look over the shoulder of the leader, Judas, as he considers how to handle the resanctification of the holy place. Here is a mention of the Holy Spirit giving him counsel, advising him to tear down the sacred altar because having been profaned it cannot remain as it is without being a blemish and a shame to those who would worship there. At the same time, though, Judas realizes that deciding what to do with the removed stones of the altar is beyond him or anyone alive among the Jews, and so they put the stones aside "till there should come a prophet, and give answer concerning them."

This shows two things. One is that the Jews continued to have faith that God would send a prophet when it is time, and so even though it had been very long since a prophet had arisen from God among the people, with confidence they put aside this complex and thorny decision for the next prophet. Secondly it shows their great humility. No one pushed forward and declared themselves to be "wise" enough to know what to do with the profaned stones, or claim to be "channeling" God (yikes) as we see so often today among the multitude of false prophets abroad around the globe. This is why I share this passage with you because it is a crucial part of understanding a genuine relationship with God.

Another thing I love is the loving care where they record how they sanctify and restore the temple, the courts and the altar. They understand that this is God's home, because wherever an altar is sanctified to him, God commits that his presence is there.

I hope you have enjoyed this reading and come to love it as much as I do. And remember that though they did not live to see it, around one hundred and fifty years after these events a prophet came to the Jews indeed, however he was the Messiah himself, Jesus Christ.

Oh, and here is something else to share with you. Chapters four and five describe how Judas fights against all the various oppressors, retaking lands that had been captured. On one particular day this is written:

1 Machabees 5:67

In that day some priests fell in battle, while desiring to do manfully they went out unadvisedly to fight.

This is just information about what had happened, not a hidden message or exhortation about the role of priests. But it does tell you, if you want to understand Biblical times better, that while no one stopped priests from fighting with the army, it was a very rare event because priests are the precious role of serving God and are not, in general, considered as military resources. Lest anyone imagine a role of "fighting priest," I include this passage to show you there is no Biblical justification for warrior priests at all.