On May 19, 1940—as depicted in the recent film Darkest Hour—a newly elected Winston Churchill addressed Britons by radio about the dire situation facing Europe and their own country, and the need to fight the Nazis. He concluded his remarks thus:
Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valor, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”
As Meir Soloveichik notes, the quotation was taken from the first book of Maccabees, which appears in the Apocrypha section of the King James Bible but in Hebrew scripture not at all. Soloveichik comments:
[Although] a rare rhetorical choice for [Churchill], the scriptural conclusion was a stunning success, stiffening the British spine and capturing the English imagination. . . . Why would Churchill select this verse with which to conclude his first address as prime minister? Like traditional Judaism, Churchill’s own Anglican church did not include the book of Maccabees in its canon, although there are any number of biblical instances, from Moses to Joshua to David, of eloquent exhortations in war.
The answer possibly lies in the fact that the Hanukkah story, [which is told in the book of Maccabees], is one of the few instances of a biblical battle waged against overwhelming odds. It is a tale, as the Jewish liturgy puts it, . . . of “the many falling into the hands of the few.” As the film depicts, Churchill’s own cabinet contained those who, like Lord Halifax, were so frightened by the British plight as to urge negotiation and capitulation. Churchill’s choice of quotation from Maccabees is thus understood in the context of the verses earlier in the same chapter, where Judah Maccabee’s own compatriots confess themselves daunted by their situation. . . .
It is a fascinating footnote in the life of a man who had written these words in 1920: “Some people like Jews and some do not, but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access