Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 BC) ruled in Antioch in Syria over the Seleucid kingdom. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, there was civil war, until his empire was divided between four of his generals. Seleucus I established a dynasty, known as the Seleucids, which lasted about 250 years, ruling over a large empire stretching from Asia Minor, through Syria, and including much of Alexander’s eastern territories. To establish their power over such a large territory containing so many different nations and peoples, the Seleucids engaged in a policy of active Hellenization, the promotion of Greek culture, religion and philosophy. During this time, the dynasty of the Ptolemies controlled Egypt. Israel lay on the frontier between these rival powers, and was frequently fought over, first being under Egyptian control, and later under Syrian control. 1
It was during the reign of Antiochus IV that a woman and her seven sons were arrested and compelled by the king, under penalty of torture and death, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of her sons, acting as the family spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” (2 Mac. 7:2)
King Antiochus responded to this spokesman’s comments by having his tongue cut out and his hands and feet cut off in the presence of his brothers and his mother. Still alive, this young man was them fried in a pan in order to send a message to the rest of the family that resistance was futile.
Instead of breaking their resolve, the remaining six brothers and their mother said, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song that bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’”. For most of us, seeing our loved one not only disfigured being burned alive would be enough to convince us that it is only a matter of simply eating pork and we will be let go.
After the first son had died, the king’s men brought forth the second son and decided to “play” with him for a while. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” He told them that he would not eat pork, so he suffered the same fate as his older brother. With his dying breath he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the Universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” (2 Mac. 7:7-9)
The third son was then brought forth and was prepared to suffer as his two older brothers had. He put out his hands and said, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.” The king and his men were astonished by his response because this young man considered his suffering to be nothing at all.
This same treatment continued with the fourth, fifth, and sixth son as well. Each young man was firm in his resolve that he would rather die than transgress the law. This had to have been a remarkable thing for King Antiochus and his men to witness. The Greeks certainly had a notion of a “good death” (euthanasia) which involved someone taking their own life or having someone assist someone in ending their life due to excessive suffering; however, the idea of laying down one’s life for a religious belief or conviction would not have been expected.
The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable mention. Even though she had already seen six of her seven sons perish in one day, she bore her sufferings with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She acknowledged that it was not her that gave these young men life and breathe and she believed that the Lord, in His mercy, would give them back their lives, since they did not transgress the law.
From a worldly standpoint, what does this say about this woman? How can a mother maintain such composure and resolve after seeing six of her seven sons tortured and killed right in front of her? Many women would have said to the king, “Please, leave my children alone and take my life instead!”, but she does not do that. With what could only be seen as superhuman courage, she watches as her sons are hacked to pieces. She must have been very proud of her sons for standing up for their religious convictions, but whatever pride she felt would likely not have mitigated the sorrow she felt.
At this point King Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt because of the mother’s words. He approached her seventh son and offered him riches and said that he would make the young man a high official in the kingdom if he would turn from the law. The young man would not listen to a word that the king said, so the king told his mother to reason with him so his life might be spared.
She leaned forward and spoke to her son in their native language. Instead of telling him to spare his own life, she encouraged him to hold fast to his resolve and accept death. While she was still speaking, the young man turned to the king and asked, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey your command, but I will obey the law given to my ancestors by Moses.” This young man, knowing that he was going to die, then proceeded to verbally attack the king and told him that he will have to give an account for his actions before God.
After hearing this, the king flew into a rage. He treated this young man worse than the six older brothers. As he died, this young man put all his trust in the Lord. With all of her sons gone, the king then turned to the mother and had her put to death as well.
This is a very unique story. From a worldly standpoint it makes no sense. What kind of God could this woman and her sons possibly worship who would require them to give up their lives instead of doing something as simple as eating pork? Does God care so little for His people that He let them die rather than break the rules? After all, it’s just pork! They were not being asked to prostitute themselves or commit murder.
However, from a religious standpoint the story takes on a different meaning. For a Jewish man or woman, transgressing the law would be the same as turning your back on God. There is an old saying, “If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Well, this mother and her sons took a dramatic stand over the issue of eating pork and were willing to put their lives on the line.
Martyrdom, the giving of witness, as displayed by this woman and her sons, is something that not everyone is called to; however, when we read the life story of someone who actually does lay down his or her life for their faith we marvel at their convictions. It takes a super human level of commitment to be able to give up your life like that which is a strong indication that they were given the grace of God in order to do so.
The fact is that everyone witnesses to their faith, some people give good witness others give bad witness, but most of us are a combination of both. We may say to ourselves, “I could never lay down my life the way that those people did!” However, we never know what we are capable of doing until the time comes that we are called upon to do it. If God has called upon you to witness to your faith in a profound way, He will give you every gift necessary to be able to do so. We simply need to trust in Him as this mother and her sons did.
Living your life to be best of your ability and being the type of person that you believe God wants you to be is the best witness you can give anyone. There is a sense of joy which comes from living the life which God intends for you and that joy is noticeable to everyone around you. They may not know the source of your joy and, if they ask, that would give you an opportunity to witness to the presence of God in your life. Your witness can transform the life of someone you meet forever.
1) “Antiochus IV Epiphanes” http://julianspriggs.com/antiochusepiphanes.aspx