J.R.C. Cousland, «Dionysus theomachos? Echoes of the Bacchae in 3 Maccabees», Vol. 82 (2001) 539-548
3 Maccabees demonstrates some suggestive affinities with
Euripides’ Bacchae. The protagonists of both works are kings who become
theomachoi. Pentheus and Ptolemy IV Philopator rashly attempt to spy on
things that they ought not, and each suffers for his repeated hybris.
Each king also attempts to kill the devotees of the god against whom he
struggles, and each is punished with a disordering of his mental state.
3 Maccabees further develops the theme of theomachy by stressing the associations between Dionysus and Ptolemy IV Philopator — the ‘New Dionysus’. YHWH effortlessly triumphs over the ‘New Dionysus’ with Dionysus’ own devices — sleep and oblivion. Ironically, Philopator is only able to serve Dionysus at YHWH’s pleasure. The Jewish people in Egypt may well be under the authority of Philopator, but Philopator only rules by the authority of the God of Israel. The author, therefore, draws on the literary heritage of the Greeks to pillory Philopator’s Dionysiac pretensions.
This was the consequence of Dionysus’ return from India, but also because Dionysus was regularly associated with a retinue of savage animals40. 3 Maccabees appears to provide Philopator with an analogous train of elephants. Ignoring the presence of Hermon, the elephant keeper, the author twice associates the king directly ‘with his wild beasts’ (o( basile_uj su_n toi=j qhri/oij [3 Macc 6,16; cf. 5,47]). The conjunction at 5,47 is especially evocative: ‘The king’s impious heart was filled with fierce anger, and with great vehemence he set forth along with the beasts wishing with pitiless heart to see with his own eyes the lamentable and wretched catastrophe of those we have described.’ Philopator thus appears most terrible to the Jewish people.
Yet the author of 3 Maccabees is just as adept at parodying the Dionysiac ‘sweet’ side of Philopator. Once he has been ‘tamed’ and brought to acknowledge the Jewish people, the very first thing he does for them is instantly to provide them with wine: ‘the king, summoning the overseer of the public revenues, ordered him to provide the Jews with wine and all the necessities for a feast for seven days’ (3 Macc 6,30)41. Shortly afterward, he generously (eu)yu/xwj) provides them with another seven-day po/ton at Ptolemais (3 Macc 7,18-19.) 42. While this festal motif is well established in Esther and elsewhere, wine is never mentioned in these accounts, much less mentioned first. It hardly needs to be added that the gift of wine is one of the most characteristic features of the god Dionysus. In the Bacchae itself we are told that he ‘has given the vine that ends pain to men’ (Euripides, Ba. 772; cf. 278-281), and that he sends forth a stream of wine to his maenads. Hence, it is fitting that the king, once he recognizes that the Jewish people are indeed loyal members of his following, sends forth a stream of wine to them.
If, then, Philopator is represented as a new Dionysus, it is evident that in the divine theomachy YHWH easily bests him. YHWH quells his savage bestiality, ironically, with a quasi-Dionysiac oblivion and slumber43. The drunk and mania-filled (sxe_don ... ei)j kata/stema maniw=dej) elephants do not heed their Dionysiac master, as his wild beasts usually do44. Instead, they turn and savage Philopator’s own troops. Finally, YHWH instills in Ptolemy IV a Dionysiac benevolence, where he provides his loyal subjects with wine and the materials for a feast. In a classic peripeteia, YHWH defeats Dionysus with Dionysus’ own devices. YHWH proves more adept at imitating Dionysus than the new Dionysus does. At the same time, he moves the king