A couple weeks ago I pondered 1 Maccabees 2 and I wanted to share some thoughts from that reading. Mattathias and his sons were faithful Jews who kept Torah in the face of oppression and pressure to live like Gentiles. Those who refused to leave the faith of Yahweh were tortured and killed; martyrs to the faith. Mattathias led a rebellion, striking down the Syrian enforcer of pagan worship, which generated an uprising. The rejection of the pagan ruler's command spread. A large number of Jews had fled the city and went into hiding in the desert. Their desire was to avoid pagan worship. The Syrians found one group and invited them to obey the king, forget their faith and to save their lifes. The Jews' response was negative. They simply refused to abandon God's covenant and profane the sabbath. The text speaks for itself: Then the enemy attacked them at once; but they did not retaliate; they neither threw stones, nor blocked up their own hiding places. They said, "Let us all die without reproach; heaven and earth are our witnesses that you destroy us unjustly." so the officers and soldier attacked them on the sabbath, and they died with their wives, their children and their cattle to the number of a thousand persons.
The wanton slaughter of so many people because they practiced their religion (and it might be noted practiced it in their homeland) is not unknown in our own times. The dilemma of the Jews, the demands of the Sabbath, compound the issue. The paradox was not lost on Mattathias. The text continues, When Mattathias and his friends heard of it they mourned deeply. Many of us remember the bitter pains of 9/11 and the fall of the Towers in New York. This was a tragedy of the same scope. But Mattathias recognized the conundrum: If we do not fight...they will destroy us...On that day they came to this decision: "Let us fight anyone who attacks us on the Sabbath, so that we may not all die as our kinsmen died in the hiding places.
The chapter continues, informing us that the Hasisdim (the Pious Ones) joined their group and inspired many of the devout to flee to them for protection. However, in their zeal to uphold the Law and save it from destruction at the hands of the Gentiles, they began to persecute the Jews who were willing to go along with laxity, including forced circumcision. The oppressed become the oppressors, though the author certainly sees this as a triumph over arrogance and infidelity.
Therein lies the problem. They must break the Law (Sabbath rest) for the sake of saving the people to keep the law. And that is life, we cannot avoid such dilemmas all the time. In the end, the use of reason led to this decision. Was it a lack of faith? I think that it is clear the 1,000 who kept Sabbath perished. Not fighting back is a decision to embrace death and mass martyrdom. In Nazi Germany six million were killed and their is no reason to doubt the final goal was to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth. On the other hand, the practical decision to break sabbath is (to a small degree) similar to the practical decision to offer the incense to the pagan god and just go along with one's neighbors. It is breaking law to stay alive. Once one deems it necessary to make exceptions it is easy to make more and more. Over time one becomes what one is fighting against.... Another problem is the enforcement issue. If it is wrong to persecute a Jew for his/her faith, is it not arguable that it is likewise wrong to persecute the apostate? In our own age with its emphasis on personal rights and freedom this is more pressing. As secular states enforce stricter limits on religious practice in the name of tolerance it is not hard to see that the path we are currently on could soon lead to a similar situation.
Life is tricky. We are blinded to our acts of fidelity and infidelity by practical concerns and "reasonable" compromise. Things are messy in a fallen world. I do not have an answer to Mattahtias' conundrum. Should one break the law to save the law? Should one oppress those who are friends of one's oppressors? Is martyrdom a faithful witness or an invitation to annihilation. Probably no one can answer such questions, yet real life demands that we make choices. So we ponder and choose, and place the process in God's hands. We trust Him and pray for the best.