Not long after that, the king sent an elderly Athenian to force the Jews to abandon their religion and the customs of their ancestors.
He was also to defile their Temple by dedicating it to the Olympian god Zeus. The temple on Mount Gerizim was to be officially named "Temple of Zeus the God of Hospitality," as the people who lived there had requested.
The oppression was harsh and almost intolerable.
Gentiles filled the Temple with drinking parties and all sorts of immorality. They even had intercourse with prostitutes there. Forbidden objects were brought into the Temple,
and the altar was covered with detestable sacrifices prohibited by our Law.
It was impossible to observe the Sabbath, to celebrate any of the traditional festivals, or even so much as to admit to being a Jew.
Each month when the king's birthday was celebrated, the Jews were compelled by brute force to eat the intestines of sacrificial animals. Then, during the festival in honor of the wine god Dionysus, they were required to wear ivy wreaths on their heads and march in procession.
On the advice of Ptolemy, the neighboring Greek cities were also instructed to require Jews to eat the sacrifices;
they were told to put to death every Jew who refused to adopt the Greek way of life. It was easy to see that hard times were ahead.
For example, two women were arrested for having their babies circumcised. They were paraded around the city with their babies hung from their breasts; then they were thrown down from the city wall. 1
On another occasion, Philip was told that some Jews had gathered in a nearby cave to observe the Sabbath in secret. Philip attacked and burned them all alive. They had such respect for the Sabbath that they would not fight to defend themselves. 2
I beg you not to become discouraged as you read about the terrible things that happened. Consider that this was the Lord's way of punishing his people, not of destroying them.
In fact, it is a sign of kindness to punish a person immediately for his sins, rather than to wait a long time.
The Lord does not treat us as he does other nations: he waits patiently until they have become deeply involved in sin before he punishes them,
but he punishes us before we have sinned too much.
So the Lord is always merciful to us, his own people. Although he punishes us with disasters, he never abandons us.
I have made these few observations by way of reminder. We will now get on with the story.
There was an elderly and highly respected teacher of the Law by the name of Eleazar, whose mouth was being forced open to make him eat pork. 3
But he preferred an honorable death rather than a life of disgrace. So he spit out the meat and went willingly to the place of torture, showing how people should have courage to refuse unclean food, even if it costs them their lives.
Those in charge of the sacrifice had been friends of Eleazar for a long time, and because of this friendship they told him privately to bring meat that was lawful for him to eat. He need only pretend to eat the pork, they said, and in this way he would not be put to death.
But Eleazar made a decision worthy of his gray hair and advanced age. All his life he had lived in perfect obedience to God's holy laws, so he replied, "Kill me, here and now.
Such deception is not worthy of a man of my years. Many young people would think that I had denied my faith after I was ninety years old.
If I pretended to eat this meat, just to live a little while longer, it would bring shame and disgrace on me and lead many young people astray.
For the present I might be able to escape what you could do to me, but whether I live or die, I cannot escape Almighty God.
If I die bravely now, it will show that I deserved my long life.
It will also set a good example of the way young people should be willing and glad to die for our sacred and respected laws." As soon as he said these things, he went off to be tortured,
and the very people who had treated him kindly a few minutes before, now turned against him, because they thought he had spoken like a madman.
When they had beaten him almost to the point of death, he groaned and said, "The Lord possesses all holy knowledge. He knows I could have escaped these terrible sufferings and death, yet he also knows that I gladly suffer these things, because I fear him."
So Eleazar died. But his courageous death was remembered as a glorious example, not only by young people, but by the entire nation as well.