A Widow with Seven Sons and the Resurrection

240px-Ciseri,_Antonio_-_Das_Martyrium_der_sieben_Makkabäer_-_1863
The Mother with Seven Sons from II Maccabees, depicted in Antonio Cisiri’s Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863) from Wikipedia.com

During the war against the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes, Judas son of Matthias Hasmon and his priest militia developed a strict code of purity and called themselves “Hasid” meaning “separated”[i] as in ritually pure, as a way to prepare to fight their Holy War against the Greeks. Judas was seen as the nation’s only hope to defeat Antiochus. Even the priests in Jerusalem whom Judas attacked as collaborators and who wrote II Maccabees saw Judas as the nation’s “Savior” and called upon the prophet Jeremiah to hand him a golden sword to “strike down your adversaries.” (II Maccabees 15:9)

But Judas also seems to have begun or at least made popular, the belief in a bodily resurrection and rewards in heaven for those who died in the Holy War. Such a doctrine was helpful because the warriors knew they were on a suicide mission and most would be martyrs. While I Maccabees recorded the war from the warrior’s viewpoint, again, it is II Maccabees who adds a new dimension to the war…resurrection.

And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin…he also took a collection, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, each man contributing, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide a sin offering, acting very finely and properly in taking account of the resurrection. For if he had not expected that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead; or if it was for the splendid regard destined for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be set free from their sin. II Maccabees 12:42-45

When Judas died in battle, his fellow Saints as they called themselves, believing in a physical resurrection would have expected Judas to “return” to lead the Resurrection of the Saints who had died in the war.  Sections of The Book of Daniel[ii] in the Old Testament came from this war, ca 164-163 B.C, and appear to have been written to expressly explain—in my view—why it was taking Judas and the saints so long to return…

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn man to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. Daniel 12:2[1]

But still, a bodily resurrection was expected. It was still expected in Mary’s day. Matthew will say plainly that immediately after Jesus died…

…the veil of the temple was rent in twain…and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose. And came out of the graves after his resurrection…and were seen by many. Matthew 27:51-53

The Widow/Woman/Mother with Seven Sons

But there is more. Another famous story from the war with Antiochus Epiphanes was meant to encourage young men to martyr themselves for the Holy War AND to encourage mothers to urge their sons to martyrdom. Again, it is in the Book of II Maccabees and repeated by Josephus. This time, though the woman was not named and no husband was mentioned.[iii] I chose to call her a widow—this time a mother of seven sons—as she prepares her sons for martyrdom. Here are some gruesome excerpts:

It happened that seven brothers were also arrested with their mother, and were tortured with whips and thongs by the king, to force them to taste of the unlawful swine’s meat. One of them made himself their advocate and said,

“What do you expect to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die, rather than transgress the laws of our forefathers.”

The king was infuriated and gave orders that pans and caldrons should be heated. And when they were immediately heated, he commanded that the tongue of the one who had been their advocate should be cut out, and that they should scalp him and cut off his extremities, while his brothers and his mother looked on. And when he was utterly crippled, he ordered them to bring him to the fire and fry him. As the vapor from the pan spread thickly, they with their mother encouraged one another to die nobly…

Each brother was tortured and killed vowing his belief that God would restore him to life even as their mother continued to encourage them to martyrdom. To the last son she said:

 “I do not know how you appeared in my womb, for it was not I that gave you life and breath…Therefore the creator of the world, who formed the human race and arranged the generation of all things, will give you back again life and breath in his mercy, as you now are…”

Now Antiochus, thinking that he was being treated with contempt…called the mother to him and urged her to advise the boy to save himself…She bent over him, and mocking the cruel tyrant, she spoke thus, in the language of her forefathers:

My sonDo not be afraid of this butcher, but show yourself worthy of your brothers, and accept death, so that by God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”…Last of all, the mother met her end, after her sons. II Maccabees 7:1-41

Most scholars seem to agree that the story comes from the war with Epiphanes when martyrdom was needed as they were so outnumbered…and resurrection was promised as their reward. The story of the Widow/Mother/Woman with Seven Sons, I believe, was patterned after a specific woman as we will see in the next blog. This unnamed woman was a daughter of Aaron…a daughter of a High Priest and then a queen without the title and a heroine in her own right.

Two notes: Women, especially widows will be called upon to urge their sons to martyrdom again and again in Jewish literature because of a promise made to mothers that they will get their sons back in Resurrection…Jesus will also do it, as we will see. (The origin of the term “Jewish Mother,” perhaps?) And, “Miriam” as she will be later named by rabbis, was said to have told the last and youngest son something like this…When he got to Heaven he was to find Abraham and tell him: you had to sacrifice only one son…I sacrificed seven…and there was no reprieve.

 

Notes

 [i] Both political groups that came out of this war, the Pharisees and the Sadducees’ names also reflect the “separated” and “pure” ethos of the times.

[ii] The book was set in an earlier time in a war with Nebuchadnezzar not Epiphanes, so it could be safely written as a prophecy about the war in the writer’s own time; a common practice in antiquity.

[iii] In “A Tale of Two Women” about the unnamed woman and Judith by Mrs. Deena S. Rabiovich, Director , Legacy Heritage Foundation Scholars Program, Stern College for Women, article at yutorah.org/2012 and at a Jewish Women’s Archive at jwa.org/encyclopedia, the unnamed woman got the name “Chana”/Hannah in the Middle Ages. Earlier she was also called “Miriam daughter of Tanhum” in Lamentations Rabbah, a rabbinical midrash. Also see http://www.chabad.org

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