December 09, 2002 Copyright © by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God;
- 1 also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus, and that on Mount Gerizim to Zeus the Hospitable, as the inhabitants of the place requested.
- This intensified the evil in an intolerable and utterly disgusting way.
- 2 The Gentiles filled the temple with debauchery and revelry; they amused themselves with prostitutes and had intercourse with women even in the sacred court. They also brought into the temple things that were forbidden,
- so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws.
- A man could not keep the sabbath or celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit that he was a Jew.
- 3 Moreover, at the monthly celebration of the king's birthday the Jews had, from bitter necessity, to partake of the sacrifices, and when the festival of Dionysus was celebrated, they were compelled to march in his procession, wearing wreaths of ivy.
- At the suggestion of the citizens of Ptolemais, a decree was issued ordering the neighboring Greek cities to act in the same way against the Jews: oblige them to partake of the sacrifices,
- and put to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks. It was obvious, therefore, that disaster impended.
- 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.
- Others, who had assembled in nearby caves to observe the sabbath in secret, were betrayed to Philip and all burned to death. In their respect for the holiness of that day, they had scruples about defending themselves.
- Now I beg those who read this book not to be disheartened by these misfortunes, but to consider that these chastisements were meant not for the ruin but for the correction of our nation.
- It is, in fact, a sign of great kindness to punish sinners promptly instead of letting them go for long.
- Thus, in dealing with other nations, the Lord patiently waits until they reach the full measure of their sins before he punishes them; but with us he has decided to deal differently,
- in order that he may not have to punish us more severely later, when our sins have reached their fullness.
- He never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with misfortunes, he does not abandon his own people.
- Let these words suffice for recalling this truth. Without further ado we must go on with our story.
- 4 Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man of advanced age and noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.
- But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he spat out the meat, and went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture,
- as men ought to do who have the courage to reject the food which it is unlawful to taste even for love of life.
- Those in charge of that unlawful ritual meal took the man aside privately, because of their long acquaintance with him, and urged him to bring meat of his own providing, such as he could legitimately eat, and to pretend to be eating some of the meat of the sacrifice prescribed by the king;
- in this way he would escape the death penalty, and be treated kindly because of their old friendship with him.
- But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood; and so he declared that above all he would be loyal to the holy laws given by God. He told them to send him at once to the abode of the dead, explaining:
- "At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young men would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion.
- Should I thus dissimulate for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age.
- Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty.
- Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
- and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws." He spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture.
- Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness.
- When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned and said: "The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him."
- This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of courage and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation.
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1  Olympian Zeus: equated with the Syrian Baal Shamen ("the lord of the heavens"), a term which the Jews rendered as "Shiqqus shomem," horrible abomination (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; 1 Macc 1:54).
2  Amused themselves with prostitutes: as in the fertility cults of the ancient Near East; see notes on Baruch 6:10, 42-43.
3  Dionysus: called also Bacchus, the god of the grape harvest and of wine; ivy was one of his symbols.
4 [6:18-7:42] The stories of Eleazar and of the mother and her seven sons, among the earliest models of "martyrology," were understandably popular among the Christians of the early centuries. Written originally to encourage God's people in times of persecution, they add gruesome details to the record of tortures, and place long speeches in the mouths of the martyrs.
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