February 15, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Mother and sons martyred

John F. Fink(Twenty-seventh in a series of columns)

When we think of martyrs, we think first of Christians. But the Jews, too, had martyrs. An account of the martyrdom of a woman and her seven sons is in Chapter 7 of the Second Book of Maccabees.

It happened while the Greeks were occupying Palestine and insisting that the Jews obey Greek customs. King Antiochus IV forbade circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws. Those who disobeyed were tortured cruelly and put to death.

Nothing can be crueler than to force a mother to watch her sons be tortured and killed. That is what happened before Judas Maccabeus and his brothers rebelled against the Greeks in 165 B.C. And it was all over the refusal of the brothers to eat pork.

The mother had clearly taught her sons to believe in the resurrection of the body—at least for the just. Belief in the resurrection was not part of Judaism from the beginning, but it is clear that it was taught by the time of the Maccabees.

I will not go into the details of the torture of the seven brothers; you can look them up in your Bible if you are so inclined. For this series on biblical women, I’ll concentrate on the actions of the mother.

The book praises her for encouraging her sons to die bravely. 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” (2 Mc 7:20).

She spoke in Hebrew to her sons, telling them, “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 his law” (2 Mc 7:23).

After six of the seven brothers had been killed, Antiochus appealed directly to the mother, urging her to advise her son to save his life. Finally, she went through the motions of persuading him. But again, she spoke in Hebrew rather than Greek.

Leaning close to her son, she said, “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 this 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 Mc 7:27-29).

Naturally, he proved to be as courageous as his brothers, telling the king that the king would not escape the hands of God. The king was enraged and treated him worse than the others before killing him.

The mother was the last to die.†

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