The Theology of 4 Maccabees

I am starting my discussions of Post-Modern Jewish Theology from an unlikely place.

With Hanukkah 2013 just behind us, this is as good a time as any to present my own way of reading the theology expressed in the 4th book of Maccabees.

I will be using the Revised Standard Edition English Bible version of 4 Maccabees. If you want some historical background, you might want to take a quick break and read the Wikipedia article about 4 Maccabees. I will abbreviate it as 4Mac.

What I find unique about this book is that it turns theology on its head. Its central claim is that studying and interpreting “the law” (i.e. the Bible) leads to moral and just behavior through the use of reason, not through blind faith.

Why would studying the Bible or the Talmud make you more just and moral? One way to think about it is that it forces you to solve moral problems. It’s like a math exercise book, but the problem domain is morality. It hands you a moral problem in the form of a scenario. This could be Abraham and Isaac, or it could be two people claiming ownership of the same Talit. In scientific terms, that is the problem statement. Then, it offers one or more solutions, and in this process, through your own act of interpretation, you are forced to contemplate what you might do in that situation.

Can thinking about morality influence your behavior? Does reading the Ten Commandments make you less likely to cheat?

Prof. Dan Ariely certainly thinks so. In his book Predictably Irrational, he devotes a full chapter to this question. Here is an excerpt from this video:

Will the fact that some people try to remember the Ten Commandments influence how much they cheated? Absolutely. People stopped cheating. We didn’t detect any cheating after that.


You can read Prof. Ariely’s analysis of this phenomenon using the tools of modern Psychology in more detail, but fow now, let’s return to the book of 4Mac. How does the author derive this idea that studying the Bible leads to moral behavior?

The author starts with a very simple premise: reason rules over emotion.

[14] We shall decide just what reason is and what emotion is, how many kinds of emotions there are, and whether reason rules over all these

He continues by answering the question: what will you get from an education in the law?

[15] Now reason is the mind that with sound logic prefers the life of wisdom.
[16] Wisdom, next, is the knowledge of divine and human matters and the causes of these.
[17] This, in turn, is education in the law, by which we learn divine matters reverently and human affairs to our advantage.
[18] Now the kinds of wisdom are rational judgment, justice, courage, and self-control.
[19] Rational judgment is supreme over all of these, since by means of it reason rules over the emotions.

The author then explains his view of emotions:

[20] The two most comprehensive types of the emotions are pleasure and pain; and each of these is by nature concerned with both body and soul.
[21] The emotions of both pleasure and pain have many consequences.
[22] Thus desire precedes pleasure and delight follows it.
[23] Fear precedes pain and sorrow comes after.
[24] Anger, as a man will see if he reflects on this experience, is an emotion embracing pleasure and pain.
[25] In pleasure there exists even a malevolent tendency, which is the most complex of all the emotions.
[26] In the soul it is boastfulness, covetousness, thirst for honor, rivalry, and malice;
[27] in the body, indiscriminate eating, gluttony, and solitary gormandizing.

There are some powerful insights in the paragraph above (I highlighted a few) regarding the sequence of emotions we all feel in certain situations.

At this stage, the author starts linking them (I am showing only highlights, but you may want to read the full text):

[31] Self-control, then, is dominance over the desires.
[32] Some desires are mental, others are physical, and reason obviously rules over both.
[33] Otherwise how is it that when we are attracted to forbidden foods we abstain from the pleasure to be had from them? Is it not because reason is able to rule over appetites? I for one think so.
[34] Therefore when we crave seafood and fowl and animals and all sorts of foods that are forbidden to us by the law, we abstain because of domination by reason.
[35] For the emotions of the appetites are restrained, checked by the temperate mind, and all the impulses of the body are bridled by reason.

The crux of his argument is that emotion drives us to desire things without bounds, and then reason kicks in and says: “hold on, based on the moral conclusions I reached through my education in religious law, I should stop myself from doing this”.

He moves on to give a powerful example of reason over emotion in the story of Joseph resisting Potiphar’s wife’s advances. Note that this example has two purposes. It demonstrates his point, but it also forces you, the reader, to consider the moral dilemma and analyze how you would and should react.

[2] It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by mental effort he overcame sexual desire.
[3] For when he was young and in his prime for intercourse, by his reason he nullified the frenzy of the passions.
[4] Not only is reason proved to rule over the frenzied urge of sexual desire, but also over every desire.
[5] Thus the law says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
[6] In fact, since the law has told us not to covet, I could prove to you all the more that reason is able to control desires. Just so it is with the emotions that hinder one from justice.

Reason, then, is informed by education in law, which leads to justice. Notice that the author is using divine law here as a set of rules that lead you to behave justly. This is very different from saying that divine law is a set of rules you must follow without questioning because God said so. It is very important to him to make it clear that there is a rational thinking process involved, not blind faith.

He gives further examples of how following the law results in justice:

[8] Thus, as soon as a man adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, even though he is a lover of money, he is forced to act contrary to his natural ways and to lend without interest to the needy and to cancel the debt when the seventh year arrives.
[9] If one is greedy, he is ruled by the law through his reason so that he neither gleans his harvest nor gathers the last grapes from the vineyard.

So far, so good. Studying Jewish Law makes you a better person. Most of us can live with that. But, suddenly, in chapter 5, we are transformed into a whole other world. From the lofty world of abstractions and theoretical moral ideas, we descend into the physical reality of Maccabean horror: Antiochus who is about to torture Eleazar to death over his Judaism. This is not just a moral exercise. This is a Final Exam of epic proportions.

When Antiochus saw him he said,
[6] “Before I begin to torture you, old man, I would advise you to save yourself by eating pork,
[7] for I respect your age and your gray hairs. Although you have had them for so long a time, it does not seem to me that you are a philosopher when you observe the religion of the Jews.
[8] Why, when nature has granted it to us, should you abhor eating the very excellent meat of this animal?
[9] It is senseless not to enjoy delicious things that are not shameful, and wrong to spurn the gifts of nature.
[10] It seems to me that you will do something even more senseless if, by holding a vain opinion concerning the truth, you continue to despise me to your own hurt.
[11] Will you not awaken from your foolish philosophy, dispel your futile reasonings, adopt a mind appropriate to your years, philosophize according to the truth of what is beneficial,
[12] and have compassion on your old age by honoring my humane advice?
[13] For consider this, that if there is some power watching over this religion of yours, it will excuse you from any transgression that arises out of compulsion.”

At this point, whether you want to or not, you are forced to think what would you do in this circumstance? Would you eat pork to save yourself? Most of us would. But Eleazar cannot just give Antiochus the pleasure of admitting that he is driven by “foolish philosophy” and “futile reasonings”.

His reply, which he knows will be his last, reads like a Shakespearean speech:

[16] “We, O Antiochus, who have been persuaded to govern our lives by the divine law, think that there is no compulsion more powerful than our obedience to the law.
[17] Therefore we consider that we should not transgress it in any respect.
[18] Even if, as you suppose, our law were not truly divine and we had wrongly held it to be divine, not even so would it be right for us to invalidate our reputation for piety.
[19] Therefore do not suppose that it would be a petty sin if we were to eat defiling food;
[20] to transgress the law in matters either small or great is of equal seriousness,
[21] for in either case the law is equally despised.
[22] You scoff at our philosophy as though living by it were irrational,
[23] but it teaches us self-control, so that we master all pleasures and desires, and it also trains us in courage, so that we endure any suffering willingly;
[24] it instructs us in justice, so that in all our dealings we act impartially, and it teaches us piety, so that with proper reverence we worship the only real God.
[25] “Therefore we do not eat defiling food; for since we believe that the law was established by God, we know that in the nature of things the Creator of the world in giving us the law has shown sympathy toward us.
[26] He has permitted us to eat what will be most suitable for our lives, but he has forbidden us to eat meats that would be contrary to this.
[27] It would be tyrannical for you to compel us not only to transgress the law, but also to eat in such a way that you may deride us for eating defiling foods, which are most hateful to us.
[28] But you shall have no such occasion to laugh at me,
[29] nor will I transgress the sacred oaths of my ancestors concerning the keeping of the law,
[30] not even if you gouge out my eyes and burn my entrails.
[31] I am not so old and cowardly as not to be young in reason on behalf of piety.
[32] Therefore get your torture wheels ready and fan the fire more vehemently!
[33] I do not so pity my old age as to break the ancestral law by my own act.
[34] I will not play false to you, O law that trained me, nor will I renounce you, beloved self-control.
[35] I will not put you to shame, philosophical reason, nor will I reject you, honored priesthood and knowledge of the law.
[36] You, O king, shall not stain the honorable mouth of my old age, nor my long life lived lawfully.
[37] The fathers will receive me as pure, as one who does not fear your violence even to death.
[38] You may tyrannize the ungodly, but you shall not dominate my religious principles either by word or by deed.”

I want to especially emphasize verse 18, which directly juxtaposes the divine argument versus the argument of piety. Clearly, Eleazar believes the Bible has divine origin or inspiration, but he concedes that even if it didn’t, “not even so would it be right for us to invalidate our reputation for piety”.

In Chapters 5 to 15, Eleazar and his six brothers are tortured in unimaginable ways and finally killed. Read these chapters with plenty of “viewer discretion” because these descriptions will continue to haunt you for many days.

And finally, in Chapter 16 to 18, the worst scene of all takes place. The mother of the seven brother, who has just watched her sons tortured and killed one by one, gives her final speech before her death. I hope I have enticed you enough to spend the time and read her whole speech. But, here is just one highlight:

[1] O Israelite children, offspring of the seed of Abraham, obey this law and exercise piety in every way,
[2] knowing that devout reason is master of all emotions, not only of sufferings from within, but also of those from without.
[3]Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by men, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance.
[4] Because of them the nation gained peace, and by reviving observance of the law in the homeland they ravaged the enemy.
[5] The tyrant Antiochus was both punished on earth and is being chastised after his death. Since in no way whatever was he able to compel the Israelites to become pagans and to abandon their ancestral customs, he left Jerusalem and marched against the Persians.

Like any mother, she struggles to find meaning in the death of her children, and the meaning she finds is not just that they died for their religious principles, but that this convinced Antiochus to abandon his mission to convert the Jews and leave Jerusalem.

As her last words to her already departed sons, at the end of the last chapter, she chooses to praise the education that their father gave them by enumerating his Bible teachings. With her moving words, she transports us from the bloody scene of torn limbs and corpses to the family bedroom and beit-midrash where the father educated his seven sons in “the law”:

[10] While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets.
[11] He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and of Joseph in prison.
[12] He told you of the zeal of Phineas, and he taught you about Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the fire.
[13] He praised Daniel in the den of the lions and blessed him.
[14] He reminded you of the scripture of Isaiah, which says, `Even though you go through the fire, the flame shall not consume you.’
[15] He sang to you songs of the psalmist David, who said, `Many are the afflictions of the righteous.’
[16] He recounted to you Solomon’s proverb, `There is a tree of life for those who do his will.’
[17] He confirmed the saying of Ezekiel, `Shall these dry bones live?’
[18] For he did not forget to teach you the song that Moses taught, which says,
[19] `I kill and I make alive: this is your life and the length of your days.’”