The name “Maccabee” is well known to history as the Jewish family who fought for religious freedom against a Greek King who proclaimed himself to be a god. Despite the fact that this year millions of Jews around the world, as well as an increasing number of Christians, will celebrate the Maccabees’ victory, no one is certain how exactly their name came to be, some say it wasn’t even a Jewish name at all. Each theory presents a fascinating look at the Maccabees however, highlighting a certain aspect of their lives and faith. I have compiled some of my favourite theories below.
Who can Compare to God?
Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz believes the name comes from the proclamation, “Mi kamocha ba’eilim Hashem” which translates as “Who is like You among the mighty, O God.” this was spoken by the Jews just after God drowned the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea. If you take the first letters of each word you end up with an acronym which in English reads as Maccabee. It is said the Jews placed the phrase on their shields while they fought against the Greeks. The Greek King, Antiochus assumed for himself the title “Epiphanes” meaning “Visible God”. The term Maccabee then may not have just been a mundane family name, but a theological declaration against an earthly King who demanded to be worshipped at the expense of God.
The Purity of Religious Freedom
Another theory comes from an expression in Ezekial, “Baruch Kevod Hashem Mimkomo” meaning “Blessed is the Glory of the Lord from this Place”, this also formed an acronym for Maccabee. The Maccabees were from the priestly tribe, assigned by God to care for the Temple and this gave them a great deal of legitimacy in their fight against the Greeks, a fight which ended in them forming a political dynasty to care for the affairs of State as well. Levites (the priestly tribe) taking political power was strictly prohibited by God and like all earthly dynasties they fell from frequent internal conflicts and dirty politics. But by being given the name Maccabee we are reminded of the ultimate justice of their fight for religious freedom, that despite their later decay in the moment that they fought, they did so with pure hearts which God rewarded.
Bringing the Light of God into the World
A natural feature of the Hebrew language is the linking of letters and numbers called Gematria. For example the first letter Aleph (the letter A) is also the number 1, the second letter Bet (B) is the number 2 and so on. Quite often this lines up in interesting ways. The word for Father is an Aleph and Bet, totalling the number 3, the word for Mother is Aleph and Mem. totalling 41, the word for Child, totals 44. There are bits like this all over the Hebrew language. Jewish scholars have often seen interesting numeric features in scripture, some speculate that the name Maccabee adds up to 72, a number associated with God’s presence. Included in the festival of Hanukkah then is a direct statement that just as the Maccabees restored the light of the Menorah, so to must we maintain the light of God in our lives.
Incidentally, the the word ‘life’ (chai) is composed of the 8th and 10th Hebrew letters; chet and yud, thus have a gematria of 18. Jews in their charitable giving will donate this amount. They may also donate $36.00 – double life. An amount of $180.00 or $360.00 is also used in their giving. L’chaim! To life!
A Mighty Hammer?
There are two last theories, one Hebrew and one Greek. It is possible the name may come from the Hebrew word for hammer, “makav” either as a reference to the “hammer of God” or pertaining to a previous life as a blacksmith. Another meaning may come for the believers’ bravery in battle, coming from a Greek term meaning “strong” or “fighter”