The Faith of the Martyred Mother and her Seven Sons
2 Maccabees: More than Just a History Book
One of the first ancient texts that relates the story of Chanukah is known as 2 Maccabees.This book survives as a condensed and reworked version of a five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene, a Hellenistic Jew who lived in the 2nd century BCE. It recalls the historical events that led to the uprising of Judah Maccabee and his brothers against the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, culminating in Judah Maccabee’s defeat of General Nicanor, and it condemns the Hellenistic cultural influences that were enticing the Judean population at this time.
Although parts of this work recall mundane historical events, 2 Maccabees also inserts miraculous details, prayers, soliloquys, and anecdotes which all underscore the author’s belief that the Hasmonean victory was entirely orchestrated by God. These details help to dramatize the story and no doubt made it memorable for the generations of Jews who read the book and kept it in circulation.
The Mother and her Seven Sons
Perhaps the best-known story recorded in 2 Maccabees recounts the tale of a mother who witnessed the martyrdom of her seven sons before Antiochus IV Epiphanes, following their refusal to violate their ancestral tradition. Each of the brothers undergo terrible tortures and are ultimately killed at the hands of Antiochus IV when he demands that they bow down to idols or consume non-kosher meat. The unnamed mother in this story, who only in the medieval period (in Josippon, 16th cent.) was identified by Jewish writers as a woman named Hannah, is depicted as so pious and noble that she encourages her own sons to stay fast to their ancestral traditions even if it means guaranteeing their own deaths.
Shortly after 2 Maccabees was written, the mother and her sons became the subject of the second half of an entire book, 4 Maccabees, written by another (unknown) Hellenistic Jew. The legend of a mother of seven sons who was martyred is also preserved in a number of rabbinic texts. All of these traditions were no doubt influenced by some version—either a written or oral—of the 2 Maccabees 7 story, which was passed down through the generations.
The Theology of the Mother’s Two Speeches
During the ordeal of watching her sons being tortured and murdered, the mother makes two speeches to her youngest and only surviving son in the presence of Antiochus IV himself. These two speeches reveal her complete rejection of Hellenistic culture and philosophy, and a surrender to the will of the One True God.
Speech 1: Resurrection
Antiochus executes the woman’s sons one by one, beginning with the oldest. Immediately before her youngest son is violently killed, the woman makes her first speech. She encourages him to allow himself to be martyred rather than to violate his ancestral tradition. She declares,
22 I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23 Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.” (2 Mac. 7:22–23; NRSV)
Here, the mother affirms her belief in resurrection, which in the second century BCE was a notion in which many Jews believed, but the Greeks (and certain Hellenized Jewish sects, like the Sadducees) did not.
Speech 2: Creation Ex Nihilo
Antiochus then appeals to the youngest son by promising him a bribe should he reject his ancestral law, but, in her second speech, his mother reminds him that not only must he reject Greek practice, he must also reject ideas that were regarded as foundational to Greek philosophy.
27 “My son, have pity on me. I carried you for nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. 28I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. 29Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.” (2 Mac. 7:27–29; NRSV)
From the perspective of Hellenistic culture, the mother is making a bold claim: the widely held belief that the world was eternal and that matter has always existed, a notion that was first articulated in the fourth century BCE by Aristotle, is wrong. In truth, the mother declares, the One True God created the world out of nothing, as the Torah itself (in 2 Maccabees’ reading) states.
The mother closes her speech by repeating her belief in resurrection, and assuring her sons that after their deaths, she will one day see them again.
Biblical Influences on the Seven Sons Story
The mother’s speeches in 2 Maccabees 7 bear similarities to passages regarding two pious women in the Bible. One is Hannah, who in 1 Samuel 2 promises God that if she conceives, her son will become dedicated to a life of service to God. The second is the bereft mother in Jeremiah 15, who symbolizes the suffering of the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the wake of the Babylonian exile.
Hannah’s Psalm: The Barren Woman with Seven Sons
In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah praises God and declares that He is the sole ruler and creator of the world. Since He is the only one who gives life, Hannah thanks God for helping her to conceive a child. Hannah characterizes humankind as being wholly vulnerable to the will of God. She declares (1 Sam 2:5–8, NRSV),
ה שְׂבֵעִ֤ים בַּלֶּ֙חֶם֙ נִשְׂכָּ֔רוּ
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
עַד־עֲקָרָה֙ יָלְדָ֣ה שִׁבְעָ֔ה
וְרַבַּ֥ת בָּנִ֖ים אֻמְלָֽלָה:
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
ו יְ-הֹוָ֖ה מֵמִ֣ית וּמְחַיֶּ֑ה
מוֹרִ֥יד שְׁא֖וֹל וַיָּֽעַל:
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
ז יְ-הֹוָ֖ה מוֹרִ֣ישׁ וּמַעֲשִׁ֑יר
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
ח מֵקִ֨ים מֵעָפָ֜ר דָּ֗ל
מֵֽאַשְׁפֹּת֙ יָרִ֣ים אֶבְי֔וֹן
וְכִסֵּ֥א כָב֖וֹד יַנְחִלֵ֑ם
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
כִּ֤י לַֽי-הֹוָה֙ מְצֻ֣קֵי אֶ֔רֶץ
וַיָּ֥שֶׁת עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם תֵּבֵֽל:
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
The reference to a mother of seven children juxtaposed with that of a mother who loses her children is probably what led later Jewish writers to connect the mother of 2 Maccabees 7 with Hannah. In fact, I believe that the writer of 2 Maccabees 7 was most probably influenced by this passage in writing his narrative. The connection is deeper than only the imagery of a mother of seven sons becoming bereft; the author of 2 Maccabees 7 seems to have been influenced by Hannah’s statement that “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” in two ways.
First, the verse has echoes in the statement of the mother that it was not she who gave her son life, but God (2 Mac 7:22). Since the mother was not responsible for giving her son life, she has no right to argue for the prevention of his death. Second, the reference to God’s bringing people down to Sheol and then raising them up would have sounded to Second Temple Jews like a defense of the doctrine of resurrection, which is central to the mother’s belief that her sons’ deaths are not cause for despair.
Hannah’s poem ends with her prediction that God will right all wrongs, that those who violate God’s commands will be punished, and those who follow paths of righteousness will be rewarded:
ט רַגְלֵ֤י [חֲסִידָיו֙] יִשְׁמֹ֔ר
וּרְשָׁעִ֖ים בַּחֹ֣שֶׁךְ יִדָּ֑מּוּ
כִּֽי־לֹ֥א בְכֹ֖חַ יִגְבַּר־אִֽישׁ:
י יְ-הֹוָ֞ה יֵחַ֣תּוּ [מְרִיבָ֗יו]
[עָלָיו֙] בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם יַרְעֵ֔ם
יְ-הֹוָ֖ה יָדִ֣ין אַפְסֵי־אָ֑רֶץ
9 He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
The belief that all wrongs will be righted and that justice will prevail is expressed in the speech of the youngest brother, who says to Antiochus, “you, who have contributed all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God.” This idea would have meant a great deal to the earliest readers of 2 Maccabees 7 who remembered the misery of living under the Syrian Greek Empire, but had not yet witnessed any indication that the Greeks suffered from divine retribution for the way that they treated the Jews.
Finally, the brother’s reference to Antiochus’s arrogance also seems to evoke 1 Samuel 2 . His prediction that “you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance” (2 Mac 36; NRSV) recalls Hannah’s admonition to unbelievers:
ב:ג אַל־תַּרְבּ֤וּ תְדַבְּרוּ֙ גְּבֹהָ֣ה גְבֹהָ֔ה
יֵצֵ֥א עָתָ֖ק מִפִּיכֶ֑ם
כִּ֣י אֵ֤ל דֵּעוֹת֙ יְ-הֹוָ֔ה
[וְל֥וֹ] נִתְכְּנ֖וּ עֲלִלֽוֹת:
2:3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge
and by him actions are weighed. (NRSV)
For the author of 2 Maccabees 7, Antiochus embodies the unbeliever who calls God’s omnipotence into question, while the mother, making use of imagery inspired by the prayer of Hannah, believes with conviction that God will reward the pious Jews with future life while (eventually) punishing the wicked Greek persecutors for their cruelty and arrogance.
Jeremiah Bemoans Jerusalem’s Abandonment by God: The Bereft Mother
Another biblical passage mentions a mother of seven sons. But whereas 1 Samuel 2 optimistically predicts that the enemies of Israel will ultimately be vanquished, Jeremiah 15 bewails the vanquished state of Jerusalem, attributing its suffering to a choice that God has made to mete out punishments as retribution for (the Judahites’) sins.
This passage closes by describing the women of Jerusalem whose husbands and sons have been killed as part of God’s retribution against his rebellious people, using the imagery of a mother who bore seven children and lost them:
ח עָֽצְמוּ־לִ֤י אַלְמְנֹתָו֙
הֵבֵ֨אתִי לָהֶ֥ם עַל־אֵ֛ם בָּח֖וּר
הִפַּ֤לְתִּי עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ פִּתְאֹ֔ם עִ֖יר וּבֶהָלֽוֹת:
ט אֻמְלְלָ֞ה יֹלֶ֣דֶת הַשִּׁבְעָ֗ה
[בָּ֥א] שִׁמְשָׁ֛הּ בְּעֹ֥ד יוֹמָ֖ם
וּשְׁאֵֽרִיתָ֗ם לַחֶ֧רֶב אֶתֵּ֛ן
לִפְנֵ֥י אֹיְבֵיהֶ֖ם נְאֻם־יְ-הֹוָֽה: ס
8 Their widows became more numerous
than the sand of the seas;
I have brought against the mothers of youths
a destroyer at noonday;
I have made anguish and terror fall upon her suddenly.
9 She who bore seven has languished;
she has swooned away;
her sun went down while it was yet day;
she has been shamed and disgraced.
And the rest of them I will give to the sword
before their enemies, says the Lord.
In these verses, the speaker describes the great suffering of his people and then homes in on the suffering of the mother of seven, whose “sun went down while it was yet day.” Considering the context, it seems likely that she has lost them (or some of them), whether to the sword, or famine, or capture by the enemy.
This passage in Jeremiah 15 does not bear strong literary parallels to 2 Maccabees 7, as 1 Samuel 2 does. But because it references a mother of seven children who languishes, and addresses the question of how to understand Jewish suffering in light of Israel’s relationship to God, it may be that the author of 2 Maccabees 7 had this passage in mind as well when he wrote down his story. Indeed, when these passages in 1 Samuel 2 and Jeremiah 15 are read together, a message emerges that correlates with the message of 2 Maccabees 7.
Hannah vs. Jeremiah: Obverse Texts
The poems in 1 Samuel 2 and in Jeremiah 15 stand in contrast to one another. In 1 Samuel 2, a woman who has never borne children utters a moving poem to God thanking Him for allowing her to conceive. In Jeremiah 15, the prophet addresses a mother who has had seven children, and now languishes in suffering. 1 Samuel 2 predicts that God will ultimately save His people, and Jeremiah 15 focuses on the suffering that God’s people have endured, and will endure, having been abandoned by God.
The two passages share three similarities.
- Both texts speak of mothers of seven.
- Both reference mothers losing their children.
- Both texts portray God as being in total control over humankind, and the cities that they inhabit.
Invoking the bereft Mothers
By invoking Hannah’s poem in 1 Samuel 2, the author of 2 Maccabees 7 is reminding his readers that the biblical heroes of the past have long recognized that our fate lies in the hands of God, that the poor can overnight become rich, and that the barren can overnight conceive. One’s fate can change in a heartbeat, if God wills it. What might seem hopeless today might yield to new life tomorrow. If the author was indeed intending to invoke Jeremiah 15 as well, he would have been also reminding his readers that God controls all of humanity’s destiny; His actions are not random and arbitrary.
Nevertheless, the author of 2 Maccabees is not satisfied with merely stating the Jews deserve what they get. Instead, he paints a portrait of righteous Jews suffering in God’s name—a mother and her minor children no less!—to make the point that God has chosen Israel as his people. Although they suffer today, there will soon come a time when they will be saved by Him.
The author of 2 Maccabees shares Hannah’s optimism and rebuts Jeremiah’s pessimistic view. Even when God decrees that we must suffer, we should take comfort in knowing that ultimately we will be resurrected—a doctrine 2 Maccabees likely believes can already be found in Hannah’s prayer—and that a period of peace will ensue following our resurrection. Suffering cannot be undone, but we can look forward to a time when it will belong to our distant past.
The Jeremiah passage actually continues with Jeremiah’s bemoaning his own birth and existence (Jer. 15:10). If we were to extend the comparison between the seven sons in 2 Maccabees 7 and this section in Jeremiah, we find that the sons actually come out more noble than Jeremiah: they bear their pain stoically, and do not question the will of God.
The Mother of the Seven Boys: Not Truly Bereft
Despite its biblical references to suffering or bereft women, the mother in 2 Maccabees 7 is not truly bereft: She has full confidence that one day she will see her sons again after they are all resurrected. The author of 2 Maccabees 7 not only builds on a biblical paradigms, but also develops a new layer based on Second Temple period theology whose seeds are only alluded to in 1 Samuel 2. This new layer offers an answer to how to transcend the pain that God’s people have endured: the Jews will be resurrected in the end of days and the wicked punished. Death is not permanent. This belief is the secret of how the mother and her sons endure their torture.
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December 8, 2015
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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