Restoring God’s Image and Likeness in Man

The Priestly Theocracy #11 (The Maccabees)

The priests had their way from the time of Ezra — Nehemiah to the Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus’ day. The Maccabees were the first who had to defend their way of life against the outside intruders, who had determined to hellenize the Jews. It turned into the bloodiest period in Jewish history. And it ended in the most disastrous destruction of Jerusalem and Judaism. The events turned the Jews into world missionaries for nearly two thousand years. This all began between a priest by the name of Mattathias and Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria over a pig, which was sacrificed on the altar of God in the temple. The word “Maccabee” means “a hammer or a club”; it was given to Judas, the oldest son of Mattathias for defeating the Syrians and securing religious freedom for sixty-five years. After Judas, his brothers became the Hasmoneans, and they reigned over Judea for one hundred years (I Maccabees 2:4; 2:66; 3:1).

Judea was the passage between east and west, north and south. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans crossed it back and forth. Unlike Israel, Judea submitted to these nations. Therefore, Judea was allowed to exist for seven centuries longer than Israel, her sister to the north, which was shut down by Assyria. Aside from Babylon, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans were friendly to the Jews. In particular, Alexander the Great made a special stop in Jerusalem and sacrificed to the Hebrew God in the temple. Due to Alexander the Great’s friendship, tiny Judea, with these mighty powers, reached its peak during the Greco-Roman period. Before the Maccabees began to resist the Hellenized Syrians, a powerful Hasidim movement had taken over Judea. The name Hasid represented the idea of “hesed” which means “love.” They fell in love with Hellenism, which was Alexander’s Macedonian brand of Greek inclusionism. Hellenism spread very rapidly beyond the territories Alexander had conquered with his “love for all people” policy. The Hasidean Jews preferred to live outside Judea and far more people did live in Egypt, alone. More Jews settled in the new city of Alexsandra than those that lived in Jerusalem. They even translated the Bible into Greek by seventy scholars and named it the “Septuaginta.” The love for Hellenism disturbed some of the Hasideans and they felt that “hesed” stood for purity and holiness (saddiq and zakha). These new Puritans became the survivors of Judaism in the world. While living among the other nations in the world, these Jews prospered. These Jews developed the banking system and taught the world leaders how to manage their affairs and how to build cities, pyramids, and temples. Back in Judea, these Jews became enemies of the Maccabees or the Hasmoneans. The man who saved Orthodox Judaism from becoming a Hellenistic religion was Mattathias, the father of the Hasmoneans (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, V II, 528-535; V III, 197-215).

Alexander’s sudden demise in 323 BC, caused four of his generals to divide Alexander’s empire among themselves. General Seleucus took Babylon, and General Ptolemy took Egypt. Judea belonged to Babylon, but Ptolemy wanted it for Egypt and he invaded Judea on a sabbath day when the Jews were not allowed to fight. So, the Jews withdrew into the hills and waited the outcome between Ptolemy and Seleucus. Ptolemy and Seleucus had to join forces against the armada of the third General Antigonus, who wanted Judea for his western empire. Together, they defeated Antigonus and Seleucus and they emerged as the head of Western Asia. They marked the year of the Greeks as the “First Year of the Seleucus Era,” or of “Hellenistic Syria.” And Judea became part of Syria. Ptolemy disagreed and occupied some of the strategic areas of Judea. And it became the reason for over a one-hundred year war between Egypt and Syria. During that time the Jews split into two factions. Those that preferred the Aramaic to the Greek sided with the Seleucids. And those that converted to Greek favored Egypt. The priests also leaned toward the Aramaic, which also was a sister to the Hebrew language; thus, they preferred Syria to Egypt. Unfortunately, Ptolemy the III of Egypt recaptured Judea from Seleucid the II. But, the high priest Onias II, circa 250 BC, still sided with the Seleucids and he refused to pay a twenty talent tribute to Ptolemy.

Onias faced unexpected opposition within his own family. His sister was married to Tobiah, the father of Joseph who had lucrative business interests in Egypt. Joseph, who was a legitimate heir to the priesthood, was installed as the political head of Judea, and he remained loyal to the Ptolemies. He did not have Judea’s well-being in his heart, but only his own personal power. Joseph borrowed money from some Samaritan friends, then he appointed himself ambassador for Judea. Joseph then went to Ptolemy in Alexandria. While Joseph was there he bribed enough officials to become the head tax collector of Coele-Syria. Then, Joseph set up his office in Jerusalem and he made the city vital to the region. In addition, he secured, for his family, the sons of Tobias, the civil authority which reached beyond Judea. Joseph was instrumental in dividing the Jewish people into two camps. His Hellenizing push increased the Jewish population in Egypt. And therefore, Joseph made the Jewish commercial aristocracy depend on Hellenized Egypt to survive. Trade and cultural exchange were conducted in Greek and not in Aramaic. Joseph stripped his half brothers, Joshua, Onias, and Simon, who sided with Syria of all political and religious authority. Joseph passed on his authority to his son Hyrcanus, who supported the growth of Egyptian Hellenism.

For several decades Egypt and Syria forced their will on tiny Judea. Syrian Hellenism began more forcefully to covert the Aramaic Jews religious system and worship. In 219 BC, the Syrian Antiochus III, also known as the Great, annexed Coele-Syria and Transjordan. Two years later, Ptolemy IV of Egypt repossessed the territory. Some one came up with the idea that a Jewish council should decide under whose protection they should be? After several meetings, the Jewish elders chose Syria over Egypt. The Egyptians responded with an Army, they took possessions of several Jewish cities, established a garrison in Jerusalem and they severely punished many of the Seleucid Jews. Again, two years later, the Syrians drove the Egyptians out of Judea for good. Antiochus and Ptolemy signed a treaty, which settled the issue of Coele-Syria on paper, but not in reality. The wording of the treaty was ambiguous and it was subject to misinterpretations. Both sides claimed the right to occupy Judea. Antiochus proved to be the better politician and offered the Jews an attractive package of privileges. Antiochus promised a three-year tax-break, compensation for the cities that were damaged by war. The priests, the scribes, and the temple personnel were exempt from the poll and crown taxes. Antiochus also provided duty-free lumber for the walls of Jerusalem and for the cloisters in the temple. He also made money available for the sacrifices, and he set the Jewish captives free.

The deal was not fulfilled because the political leadership changed over night in the year 190 BC. This was when Rome began to show interest in Western Asia. Rome defeated the Syrians under Antiochus III at the battle of Magnesia. Antiochus III had two sons, Seleucus IV and Antiochus IV, also known as Epiphanes. Seleucus was assassinated and his infant son was murdered by the supporters of Epiphanes. Epiphanes became a hostage of Rome and for a while also had lived in exile in Athens. With his brother and nephew out of the way, Antiochus Epiphanes set out to stop the Roman imperialism by defeating Egypt. Antiochus Epiphanes Hellenized the heterogeneous people that he conquered. The Jews were Epiphanes’ first target. The Jews became the first people that resisted Hellenization. Antiochus IV overlooked the people who were led by some priests, who had never parted from Yahweh or from the “Priestly Theocracy” of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These faithful people to Yahweh did not belong to the pro-Egyptian or to the pro-Syrian parties. The leader of those people was a priest by the name of Mattathias, who had moved his family and five sons from Jerusalem to Modein. Mattathias wanted no part in turning Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city.

The leading citizens of Judea were either pro-Egyptian or pro-Syrian. The rise of superior cultural, economic, and military forces united these parties to adopt Hellenism as a more practical approach to living. The Hebrew language and God’s Laws were replaced by the Greek language and religion. Jerusalem was not just going to be an imitation, but Jerusalem was going to be a real Hellenistic city. Joshua replaced his brother Onias as high priest, and petitioned Epiphanes to build a school to educate their youth in Hellenism, even exposing their bodies in games. Joshua was too busy being a high priest. He sent Menelaus, the son of Onias, to carry the money and Joshua’s petition to the king. The money was intended to secure Joshua’s appointment as the legitimate high priest. However, Menelaus endeared himself to the king with three hundred talents of silver. And Menelaus became the legal high priest. Joshua’s supporters fought back, but Antiochus sent an army to install his man as the high priest. During this time, Epiphanes tried to annex Egypt, but Rome ordered him to return home. And Epiphanes obeyed. However, on his way back, Epiphanes let his anger loose in Jerusalem. Epiphanes defiled the temple, robbed the treasure of gold and silver, and even committed murder. While the Syrians withdrew, Joshua raised an army and attacked Jerusalem to unseat Menelaus, who sought refuge in the citadel. This enraged the Syrian king and he ordered “the Jews to depart from the laws of their fathers, to cease living by the Laws of God, and to pollute the temple. “… this onset of evil came to be harsh and odious for everyone” (II Maccabees 6; I Maccabees 1:29-64).

To add insult to injury, Epiphanes defiled the temple hill by building a fortress, called “Acra,” to house his army. And to submit the Jews to his Hellenistic system of politics and religion. Epiphanes was determined to replace Yahweh with Zeus and the goat or the lamb with the pig. The upper Jewish class did not oppose Hellenization. However, the common people were hoping for a leader who could hold and turn back the tide. They did not have to wait long — for Mattathias had decided to end the Syrian obsession with Hellenism. On the day Epiphanes’ officials arrived  in Modein and tried to force the Jews to sacrifice the pig, Mattathias slew the officials. And the Jews, who were willing to obey the king announced, “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” Mattathias and his sons fled to the hills and the common people began to flock to them, including the Hasidim. The Syrians took advantage of the sabbath when the Jews were not allowed to war. So, Mattathias’ men began to defend themselves and their surprised attacks on their enemies began to turn the scrimmages in their favor. First, Mattathias punished his own people who had submitted to Hellenization. He tore down their altars, circumcised their children, coerced them to join the fight against all Hellenists, and return to observing the Law, the rituals and the sacrifices Moses had installed. His own people began to fear him more than the Syrians. Mattathias was aging and according to custom called his sons to his bedside and handed down his wishes:

Behold, I know that Simeon your brother is wise in counsel; always listen to him; he shall be your father. Judas Maccabeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples” (I Maccabees 2:14-68).

Judas proved himself as a clever tactician and easily outmaneuvered and defeated Apollonius, the governor of Samaria with a much larger army. Judas, with his swelling forces, killed the govern and liquidated his army. He proceeded mercilessly against those that tried to obliterate the way of his father and he became more feared than his father Mattathias. General Seron and a larger military force was also easily annihilated. It became apparent to Epiphanes that the revolt against his Hellenization had awakened a lion he could not tame. To the Jews, Judas was fulfilling the prophecy of his ancestor Jacob:

“Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until it comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of all the peoples” (Genesis 49:9-10).

Judas gave the Theocratic Jews an enormous lift. Judas additional proved that no one could terminate their faith and their life in Yahweh. The fear and care of God did not allow the Babylonians to do it. And the fear of God caused the Persians and the Greeks to maintain it. Therefore, who was this little self-glorified king who dared to dethrone God’s chosen prince? Instead of leaving the Jews alone, Antiochus Epiphanes authorized Lysias, his most prominent general and half of his army, to liquidate and wipe out the very memory of Israel and Jerusalem. Epiphanes wanted to scattered those who survived the liquidation among the nations and divide their land among the new settlers. Lysias marched into Judea with forty thousand foot-soldiers and seven thousand men on horses. Judas and his small force of three thousand men put their trust in Yahweh and did their best. They said, “It is better for us to die in battle than to see the misfortunes of our nation and of the sanctuary. But as his will in heaven may be, so he will do” (I Maccabees 3:35-60).

Lysias planned to surprise Judas at Emmaus. He dispatched General Gorgias at nights with five thousand men on foot and one thousand on horses. Judas and his men learned of the plot and used their tactics to surprise Lysias’ main army. Judas’ men succeeded by confusing General Gorias’ army at night and drove them into flight. The news of the defeat of the main army, disarmed General Gorgias and he, too, went down in defeat. The victory for Judas and his men, more than tripled his forces. Judas began to set traps for the Syrians with overwhelming success. A year later, Lysias returned with sixty thousand trained fighters and five thousand riders. And as before, Lysias suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of only ten thousand Jews. The defeated General Lysias described Judas’ men “They were ready ‘either to live or to die nobly’” (I Maccabees 4:1-35).

The defeat of Lysias gave Judas some time to return to his priestly roots and to restore the Law of Moses; and also to restore the Jewish religious system, which the Syrians had Hellenized. To do so, Judas chose priests who were devoted to the Levitical heritage, which dated back to Moses’ brother Aaron and to Ezra and Nehemiah. These priests cleaned the temple and the area of all Greek religious artifacts and symbols. They reinstated the celebrations and the feats. That year in September 165 BC, the Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. While the restoration was in progress, Judas’ men had to defend themselves against the Idumeans or the descendants of Esau, who had copied Judas’ tactics to lay in wait for the Jews, their enemies. The Ammonites also had to be contained and so were the enemies of the people in Galilee and in Gilead. Judas had to leave small detachments in these areas, which weakened his fighting force against the Syrians. He had some help from his brothers Simon and Jonathan; but not enough to raise an army that could evict Antiochus’ people from the Acra, the fortress in Jerusalem. The Persian monarch was shocked and enraged over Lysias’ defeat; therefore he planned to avenge himself and to wipe out the Jews with another one hundred thousand soldiers, twenty thousand horsemen, and thirty-two elephants (I Maccabees 4:59; 5:14-19; 6:8, 30-39).

Judas and his depleted army did not have to face the evil Antiochus IV. Antiochus IV died in October 165 BC, a month before the temple was rededicated. His successor, Antiochus V sent a man called Philip to replace Lysias. To save himself, Lysias tried to help the new king to adopt a more friendly policy with Judea. He counseled, “Let us come to terms with these men, … and agree to let them live by their own laws as they did before; for it was on account of their laws which we abolished that they became angry and did all these things” (I Maccabees 6:58-59; II Maccabees 11:22-33). Antiochus V was not able to follow Lysias’ congenial policy to the Jews. The humiliation which the Syrian army suffered at the hands of Judas Maccabee (the hammer) sided with Demetrius. Demetrius was a nephew of the hateful Antiochus IV. Demetrius also was a Roman hostage at the time, but escaped to Tripoli with the help of a powerful friend, where he claimed to be the legitimate king of Syriam. Thus, before Demetrius returned to Antioch in Syria, the army arrested and killed Antiochus V and Lysias. The news pleased the Jews that had benefited for becoming converts to Hellenism. They complained to king Demetrius, “Then there came to him all the lawless and ungodly men of Israel; they were led by Alcimus, who wanted to be high priest. And they brought to the king this accusation: ‘Judas and his brothers have destroyed all our friends’” (I Maccabees 7:5-7).

The complaint was music to the ears of Demetrius and he made Alcimus high priest. Demetrius ordered his General Bacchides to dispose of Judas and his followers; nevertheless, he promised the Jewish people religious freedom. Many of the leading scribes, and in particular the Hasidim, who had joined Judas out of necessity, were willing to accept peace with Syria instead of political independence. The ploy did not succeed and only sixty of Judas’ men were apprehended and killed. Alcimus, himself, had to flee to Antioch in Syrian and he began to plot with king Demetrius how to stop Judas. Among his officer was Nicanor, who despised and hated the Jews with a passion. Nicanor and his army suffered the same fate that Bacchides and his Syrians did. Thus, for a short time, Judea had peace. This also gave Alcimus and Demetrius time to rebuild their army for another and final showdown with Judas Maccabee. The conflict had lasted too long and Judas, himself, realized that the false promise of Demetrius, which depleted his army. Judas appealed to Rome, only to get a friendly pact and no military help. The Romans had defeated the Syrians before when they tried to take Egypt. Unfortunately, Judea did not have the same interest as Caesar. Caesar did not interfere when Demetrius sent another twenty thousand destroyers to go after Judas and his freedom fighters. By that time, only eight hundred men stood by Judas. Alcimus and Bacchides subdued Judea and killed Judas Maccabee, the hammer. Judas’s Maccabee’s brother Jonathan took his place. Judea’s future of independance appeared to have come to and end (I Maccabees 7:10-50; 8:1-3).

Jonathan had the support of his brother Simon; and Simon was more of a diplomat than his brother Judas. Jonathan and Simon and those who survived the last battle fled into the wilderness of Tekoa. He counted on Alcimus and Bacchides’ blunders to restore the desire for political independence among all the peoples on whom Syria was forcing Hellenism. As was expected, the Bedouin tribes and others, even the Hellenized Jews, could not live under the Syrian domination and under their oppression. His men continued to harass the Syrians with losses. Alcimus failed as the first Hellenist high priest and he died of a stroke. Jonathan felt that the time had come to offer peace to Bacchides, and the weary Syrian General was ready to lay down his arms and leave the Maccabees alone. No other family had caused the Syrians that many heartaches and losses as this small group of Jews. Bacchides went home and Jonathan did not return to Jerusalem. Jonathan made his headquarters in Michmash, from where he ruled Judea. Jonathan removed and destroyed all that was foreign to the orthodox Jews (I Maccabees 9:1-73).

Jonathan continued his diplomatic ways with the Syrians and others and benefitted by it for a time. The Syrians, themselves, were in disagreement over who should be their next king. Demetrius the son of Antiochus V was challenged by Alexander Balos of Smyrna. Both contenders vied for Judea’s support. Demetrius, who was the acting king and whose General Bacchides had established fortified posts in Judea, abandoned all of them, except for Bethzur. He then authorized Jonathan to raise an army and he made him to be his ally. Balas offered Jonathan the office of the high priest and his personal friendship. To make up for his mistakes, and also gain favor with the Jews relieved them of taxes, Demetrius declared Jerusalem a free city. He added three territories to Judea, which belonged to Samari. Demetrius recognized the high priest as the highest authority over the Jews, even beyond Judea. Jonathan did not trust Demetrius and his promises and sided with Balas. Balas did defeat Demetrius in battle. Balas also strengthened his position by marrying into the Egyptian royalty. The friendship with Egypt did not last because Egypt also wanted Judea; therefore, they took Judea from Syria by force. Balas had to flee from Syria and the contest for the next ruler of Syria was on again. Demetrius’ son Nicator was contesting against Antiochus VI, a supporter of Balas and his adjutant Trypho. Trypho did play a major role in destroying Balas and Jonathan by turning against them for a price paid by Simon Jonathan’s brother. Jonathan remained loyal to Balas and supported Antiochus VI. Jonathan raised an army and defeated a contingent army of Demetrius that was marching into Galilee (I Maccabees 10-11).

Jonathan was fully aware of the uncertainty, which hung over Judea between Egypt and Syria. He sent messengers to Rome and sought to renew his friendship with Caesar and opened discussions with the Spartans. The move did not please Simon, his brother. Simon paid Trypho one hundred talents in silver, and gave him two of his sons as hostage, to eliminate Antiochus VI and Jonathan. Trypho was secured to be the king of Syria, and the power-hungry Simon became the sole authority of Judea. With the death of Jonathan, Simon began a new era, which became known as the “Hasmoneans” (I Maccabees 12-13).