Our first readings this week are going to be from the books of the Maccabees. Let me give the background for the first of the two books. It is a story that begins with Alexander the Great. In 333 B.C. Alexander set out to conquer the Middle East. He did all that, but he died in 323; and that set his generals fighting over the spoils. In 312 one general, Ptolemy was crowned king of Egypt, and another, Seleucus, was crowned king of Syria. He reigned from Antioch, a hundred miles north of Jerusalem.
Today’s reading began in the year 137 of the dynasty of Seleucus. It was 137 counting down from 312 when it was founded. That made it 180 B. C. by our reckoning. The story introduces King Antiochus Epiphanes, the son of King Antiochus. To get into our story we must begin with that father, King Antiochus. His proper title was King Antiochus III, but he was also known as Antiochus the Great.
With King Antiochus, his many victories in the east went to his head, and he felt he was great enough to march across Turkey, then annex all of Greece. The Romans, hearing of that venture, sent in an army that in 190 B.C. surrounded the camp of Antiochus at Magnesia. Antiochus asked for terms for sparing his life, and the Romans made him agree to make a heavy gold payment to Rome each year. To make sure Antiochus would send the gold, the Romans took the his sons, keeping them as hostages in Rome.
Each year from then on Antiochus had to find the gold that would keep his hostage sons alive. In 187 he was killed while pealing the gold from idols in Mesopotamia; and his son, Antiochus IV, returning from his years as a hostage, took the crown. He too had to set himself on finding gold to keep alive his sons who were hostages.
Antiochus IV invaded Egypt, getting hold of the gold; but then Roman troops moved in, ordering him to drop the loot, and to get out of there. Desperate for gold to save his sons, Antiochus headed for Jerusalem. Now, Alexander who conquered all before him, had made an exception of the temple in Jerusalem, declaring it to be too holy to be touched.
With no other way out of his problems, Antiochus robbed the temple, which was also the place where wealthy Jews banked their money. His profaning the sacred temple had all Mediterranean royalty turning on Antiochus in disgust. So, to put a good face on what he had done, Antiochus announced that his goal had been to replace the decadent religion of the Jews with the wonderful Greek religion. He mounted a statue of Zeus on the altar, and proceeded to force the Jews to worship in the Greek way.