While we do not place apocryphal literature, like the books of Maccabees, on the same level with Scripture, it makes for some incredible historical and inspirational reading! There are two examples of women from this time period that I would like to bring to your attention.
The first is two women, names unknown, who defied the Gentile king’s decree in favor of obeying the law of YHWH. 2 Maccabees 6:10 – “Thus, two women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall.”
Most, probably all, of us have never known what it is like to be physically persecuted for our faith. We have read the stories, watched the movies … but we have never personally experienced it. We don’t know what it is like to have our lives threatened because of a determination to follow our consciences. Yet many of us have probably considered this possibility and would hope that if we were ever in that situation, we would not be ashamed of our Savior, regardless of what it might cost us. But think about if your decision not only threatened your life, but that of your family. Your children. Your babies. I would like to think that the decision would be the same regardless … but that is a scary thought! It’s one thing to sacrifice your own life – another to sacrifice your children who are dependent on you.
That is why I find this account so inspiring. These women were willing to obey the commands of the Almighty, even at the cost of their own lives and those of their children. Can you imagine the heavenly reward they received (or will receive)?
The other account is that of a woman named Hannah and her seven sons. They were arrested, brought before the Greek King Antiochus and forced to eat what is forbidden by YHWH. Upon their refusal, they were put to death with terrible tortures – one at a time. Hannah was the last, she had to watch each of her sons suffer and die for their faith. You can find the whole account in 2 Maccabees 7 (it can be read online here) but I would like to share excerpts that I find challenging and inspiring.
After the record tells of the tortures and deaths of six of the brothers, it says, “Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother, who saw her seven sons perish in a single day, yet bore it courageously because of her hope in the LORD. Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly heart with manly courage, she exhorted each of them in the language of their forefathers with these words: ‘I do not know how you came into existence in my womb; it was not I who gave you the breath of life, nor was it I who set in order the elements of which each of you is composed. Therefore since it is the Creator of the universe who shapes each man’s beginning, as he brings about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of the law'”. 2 Maccabees 7:20-23
As the youngest brother was being brought forth, the king appealed to him, promising him riches and a high office if he would just eat the forbidden meat. The boy paid no attention to him and so Antiochus turned to Hannah, asking her to advise her son to save his life. Her advice was this: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age. I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things; and in the same way the human race came into existence. Do not be afraid of the executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with them.” 2 Maccabees 7:27-29
The faith and courage of this woman was incredible. One might think that after watching six of her sons suffer terribly painful torture, she would encourage her youngest son to save his life. On the contrary, she valued the praise and acceptance of her Heavenly Father instead of a that of a wicked, earthly king.
The last words of her sons provides an amazing testimony to the faith and courage they had as well. We read of the third son, “He put out his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: ‘It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.'” 2 Maccabees 7:10-11
The fourth brother, when he was near death, said to the king and his torturers, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope of being restored to life by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life”. 2 Maccabees 7:14
The sixth brothers spoke to them, “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such astonishing things have happened to us. Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.” 2 Maccabees 7:18-19
The youngest son had the most to say, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our forefathers through Moses. But you, who have contrived every kind of affliction for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God. We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins. Though our living LORD treats us harshly for a little while to correct us with chastisements, he will again be reconciled with his servants. But you, wretch, vilest of all men! do not, in your insolence, concern yourself with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of Heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgement of the almighty and all-seeing God. My brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant, but you, by the judgement of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance. Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God. Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the earth of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.” 2 Maccabees 7:30-38
After reading something like this, two questions come to my mind:
- how can I have faith and courage like that?
- how can I raise sons (and daughters) who will have that same boldness, honor and obedience for the Heavenly Father and absolutely no fear of man?
To me, accounts like these are some of the most important aspects of Hanukkah. Hannah is an inspiration to me. What did she do in raising her sons that produced such steadfast and courageous characters? I think we sometimes tend to gloss over or ignore the accounts like this and focus instead on the happy ending and the joy of the festival. But there is so much we can learn from these people who suffered for their faith. I hope and pray that none of us are ever put in the same position as these people but if we are, I hope and pray that we will be emboldened by the same Holy Spirit that strengthened them.
Happy Hanukkah y’all!