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Drash The Maccabees After the Rededication

Drash By Mark L. Berch, Given 1998

We are generally familiar with the broad outlines of the Maccabee story. Hellenism offered access to a rich, cosmopolitan culture. Those who participated ---especially the elite --- found opportunities in governance, arts, sciences, and trade. The traditional culture would slowly wither. Thus, Greek language, culture, political forms, and gods became more pervasive.

Hellenism crept into Judea, gaining adherents. Hellenism’s particular danger was that it broke down barriers between people, and Jews relied on barriers to retain their identity. The Greek religious system and some aspects of the Greek ethical framework were antithetical to Judaism.

Judea was in the Seleucid empire. They had left Jews alone to practice Judaism. But there arose Antiochus IV, a true tyrant. Feeling squeezed between Rome in the west and the Parthians in the east, he decided that mandatory Hellenism was to be the mechanism to bind his empire.

Added to the mix was political instability in Judea. A group of Hellenists, allied with Antiochus, had pulled off a coup, and installed Jason,as High Priest. But his Hellenizing went too slowly, and he was dumped in favor of the more radical Menelaus. The increased pace of Hellenizations led to riots. Pleas to Antiochus to remove Menelaus fell on deaf ears. When Jason’s attempt to unseat Menelaus gained major support, Jerusalem was seized, its walls torn down and replaced with a fortress at Acra. Judaism was forbidden, on the pain of death. The Temple was desecrated, and torture and murder became the order of the day.

A priest Mattathias and his five sons began a rebellion from Gophna. Son Judah took charge on his death. Forming a coalition of traditionalists, pietists, and moderate Hellenists, his organization gradually gained sway. Judah ambushed two attempts to relieve the Acra garrison. A third attempt by generals Nicanor and Gorgias resulted in a major victory for Judah. Finally, General Lysias himself took the field. Eventually, negotiations took place with Lysias, with Menelaus and even a Roman ambassador as intermediaries. In early 164 BCE Antiochus, broke and engaged in a major war against Parthia, cut his losses. He proclaimed that Jews could again practice Judaism. A few months later, Judah swept into Jerusalem. Three years after the Temple was desecrated, it was rededicated. The End.

Or so we tend to think. From our The-Story-of-Chanukah perspective, this was the glorious finale. For the Maccabees*, however, the Temple Rededication was just a pause. Judah next fortified the Temple Mount against Acra, and Beth Zur to guard against troubles from Idumea. Early in 163 BCE, he turned his attention to Jewish communities outside Judea which were being persecuted by local rulers, who took advantage of Jewish weakness. Reports came in from the Galilee, Akko, Tyre, Sidon that Jews were in dire straits, with hundreds killed and others enslaved. It was decided that brother Simon would be sent with 3000 men to the western Galilee, and he and brother Jonathan would take 8000 to Gilead (southern Syria) to confront Timotheus. Simon effected a major rescue and brought back Jews and their possessions. Judah moved northeast. From the Nabateans, a tribe at odds with the Seleucids he got detailed intelligence on where the beleaguered Jews were. He seized Bozrah, and headed northwest. He came upon Dathema just as Timotheus was storming the fortress sheltering the Jews there, and trapped the enemy by the walls. He then went on to relieve 4 other Jewish settlements. This gave Timotheus time to regroup, but in the subsequent battle at Raphon, Judah was again victorious. With a large number of rescued Jewish families, Judah returned, and all made thanksgiving offerings at the Temple. It was a remarkable campaign of armed rescue, almost without precedent in Jewish history; it reminds one a little of Entebbe.

Bad news awaited Judah. The Jerusalem commanders had orders not to engage the heathen until Judah and Simon had returned. But they had decided to try to neutralize the threat from Idumea by marching toward the southern coastal plain. Their intelligence was very poor, for they stumbled on Gorgias, who inflicted a serious defeat. Judah rested his men and headed south, taking Hebron and other places in a generally successful campaign in Idumea. When he learned that the local inhabitants of Jaffa harbor had turned on the Jews, he sent them to sea in boats and drowned them. A raiding tribe east of the Dead Sea was attacked. Thus, 163 BCE completed a remarkable turnaround for Jewish fortunes. Judea’s borders were secure, except for Acra, and Pilgrimage Festivals could again be observed. Judah retained a nucleus of his army as a standing force and set up a militia as a ready reserve.

By contrast, the Seleucids had a really bad year. They had lost their grip on Judea, and were unable to even help at Raphon. The empire had some successes in Persia and Armenia, but had gotten bogged down, and were low on funds. Antiochus’ attempt to plunder the Temple at Elymais was a humiliating failure, and he died shortly afterwards, at Isfahan in Persia. According to First Maccabees, he died from hearing of the failure of his plans in Judea. According to Second Maccabees, “The God of Israel struck him a fatal and invisible blow” to foil plans to return to Judea. This was followed by a lurid description of his rotting away. According to the historian Polybius, the goddess of the Temple of Elymais caused him to become deranged. Josephus attributes his death to his profanation of the Temple in Jerusalem. Oddly enough, Maccabees reports that he had a deathbed change of heart, regretting what he had done in Jerusalem. The historian Moshe Pearlman suggests that this is entirely possible. Not out of sentiment for the Jews. He may have realized that his attempt to strongarm Judea had been an extraordinarily costly blunder.

His final act was to appoint as his successor and regent for his nine year old son, not Lysias, his son’s guardian, but his friend Philip. But Lysias enthroned the child as Emperor; himself as regent. Philip, under pressure from Parthia, stayed in the east, perhaps hoping victories there would allow him to return to Antioch as the conquering hero.

Judah calculated that Lysias would stay put in Antioch until his confrontation with Philip. This was then the time to move against the fortress at Acra and the Hellenists holed up there. But the wall breaching equipment captured at Dathema was ineffective against the fortress. Judah was forced to a conventional siege, a novel task for an army which had thrived on speed and daring. But all this took time, time for pleas from the garrison to reach Lysias: We have held out for Seleucid prestige for so long, and now our need is great.

Lysias may have also been rankled by his earlier loss; or felt that he needed a victory to balance Philip’s victories, to establish himself as a strongman in the eyes of Egypt and Rome. Lysias probably figured that he’d have advance warning of Philip’s return. So in the Summer of 163 BCE, he headed south with mercenaries, infantry, calvary, and, in defiance of a pact with Rome, war elephants. Scholars estimate his total strength at 30,000, plus 20-30 elephants. This was not at all what Judah expected.

Lysias took the same coastal route as before, and again met Judah at Beth Zur. Judah had fortified Beth Zur, but this assault forced him to break off the siege of Acra. These were not at all conditions suited to his guerrilla tactics. Judah surrendered the garrison and made a stand along the road by Beth Zechariah, 5 miles north. Lysias moved his massive army carefully, securing the higher ground, and generally avoiding past errors. The Seleucid army was grand. The sun reflected on their shield and gilt so “the mountains shone therewith, and blazed like torches of fire” , says Maccabees. The elephants had a terrifying effect. With their guards, they could lumber forward almost without resistance; it was like an infantryman facing a tank. Eleazar, a younger brother, made a mad dash at an elephant. Perhaps he wanted to show the men that elephants were not invincible. Maccabees says that he saw an insignia indicating this could be an important commander or even the young king. He stabbed the beast from below, and was crushed by it. The first Maccabee had fallen. Worse, Judah’s attempt to disrupt the approach of the Seleucid phalanxes had failed, and Judah was forced to move further north.

Two millennia later, history would be repeated. In the same area, a group of four Kibbutzim called the Etzion Block stood in the way of an Arab army headed for Jerusalem. Many kibbutznicks were killed, and the kibbutzim were overrun, in the hours before Israel proclaimed her statehood. Their stand at Etzion Block delayed the enemy, and thus provided vital aid to Jerusalem. Etzion was retaken in the 6 day war, and resettled that summer by people who had been evacuated out as infants in 1948.

Where Judah went next is unclear. Josephus in one book says he retreated to Gophna; another book said he withdrew to Jerusalem to carry on the fight. Moshe Pearlman believes he did both. A contingent was posted at the Temple Mount to delay Lysias and give Judah time to reorganize as a guerrilla force in the hills. Elias Bickerman places him squarely in Jerusalem, and I’ll follow that opinion. Lysias entered Jerusalem and, and having shattered Maccabee resistance at Beth Zechariah, surely expected a quick victory. But the Temple Mount defenders held against the assault, and he was forced to resort to a siege. But this had been a sabbatical year, with no crops planted, and the defenders quickly ran out of food. Only a miracle could save them, and a miracle was what they got. Or to put it differently, Judah’s faith was such that he could hold out until the last possible moment, giving additional time for the intervention of outside events. Specifically, in February 162, news arrived that Philip was on his way back to Antioch. Lysias had abruptly run out of time. He opted for a graceful departure. Perhaps he decided that he wasn’t obligated to repeat the errors of Antiochus. A deal was struck. Judah formally surrendered, and the boy-king released a statement saying that Jewish conditions were to be reset to pre-Antiochus. Judaism was now to be the law of Judea; Hellenism would have no role. Lysias entered the Temple Mount, decided that the fortifications were entirely too strong, and ordered them torn down. Perhaps to mollify the Jews for that act, and perhaps to set a seal on the expulsion of Hellenism, the hated Menelaus was assigned all blame, and executed. For centuries, this withdrawal was celebrated on 27th of Shevat.

In Judea, a split occurred. The pietists saw no further need for even a militia. After all, the Temple was restored, the invaders were gone, Menelaus was dead, the reformists scattered. Life could go back as before; one could just trust in God for security. To this day there are those in Israel with a rather similar attitude. But Judah felt that only Independence would really secure freedom for the Jews, and a deterrent force would be needed to keep Lysias from returning. He knew that the Seleucid empire’s instability could give opportunities to break free.

Indeed, in 162 BCE, the Court at Antioch exploded in a murderous power struggle. Lysias defeated Philip, and ordered more political killings. Rome intervened, sending a detachment to burn forbidden Seleucid warships and to assassinate the war elephants. Next, Demetrius, a nephew of Antiochus who had been raised in Rome as a hostage, set up an elaborate escape plan, came ashore in Lebanon, and rallied the locals and defecting army units to his cause. He prevailed in Antioch, putting Lysias and the young King to death.

It was likely Demetrius who appointed Eliakim as High Priest in Jerusalem. This was fine with the Pietists, for he was of Priestly stock, and fine with the Hellenists, as he was one of them. But the Maccabees were furious, for he was chosen by the Seleucids, and installed by General Bacchides. For reasons which are unclear, one of Bacchides’ first acts was to execute 60 of the pietists and some other Jews.

Indignation arose, Judah reactivated the militia, began harassing Hellenizers, and blocked Eliakim from performing any of this functions. This issue split the Jews, as Judah charged him with having participated in pagan festivals during the earlier rule. Eliakim appealed to Antioch for help, and a mixed force of Seleucids and Jews, led by Nicanor --- its not clear if this is the same Nicanor who was earlier defeated at Emmaus --- took Jerusalem and threatened and vilified the Temple. He headed into the countryside to flush out the rebels. Nicanor was ambushed not far from Beth Horon. History was repeating itself. A large contingent of Seleucid reinforcements joined Nicanor. In March 161 BCE, Judah launched a massive surprise attack, killing Nicanor, and driving the Seleucid forces far west. He retook the Sanctuary. This was established by the Judeans as Nicanor Day (Adar 13), even though it was a victory in a civil war. Some calendars to this day list it.

The empire did not strike back. Demetrius was preoccupied with more serious rebellions. Judah now made his fateful decision: He sent two emissaries to Rome to seek an alliance. First Maccabees says that Rome and Jerusalem each agreed to aid the other if attacked. We cannot be sure that such a treaty really existed. And Rome’s purpose may have been to further destabilize the Seleucid empire. Judah may have only been seeking to bolster support for his cause and legitimacy. But it was the first time since the Exile that Jews were acknowledged as an independent power --- and by mighty Rome.

Demetrius had to act decisively to show that provinces could not just deal with Rome on their own. And Judea might ally with Egypt as well. No religious persecutions were set --- he didn’t want the populace inflamed. But the Maccabee militia had to go.

General Bacchides headed south with over 20,000 men and cavalry. Judah could muster no more than 3,000. The general took Jerusalem, and headed into the hills to find the rebels. Judah attacked, but the enemy was so immense that many deserted, leaving him with just 800 men, and in desperate straits. He launched a suicidal attack, trying to kill Bacchides. Instead, it was Judah who fell, a devastating loss.

Bacchides established a series of military bases, and sent the sons of important Jewish families as hostages, to Acra. Eliakim tracked down Maccabee sympathizers. Rome, despite her promises, did nothing.

The surviving Maccabee brothers chose Jonathan as their leader. They hid out in the Wilderness of Tekoa, a rocky area near the Dead Sea where David had once hid from Saul, to wait. Brother Johanan died in an early skirmish with a local tribe.

Quiet settled on Judea. But in 159, Eliakim demolished the inner wall of the Temple, allowing pagans into the inner court, an act referred to Ma’oz Tzur that I’ll mention next week. Then, Eliakim suddenly died. Bacchides declined to name a High Priest, and returned to Antioch.

During the next two years, Jonathan and Simon built up their organization while the occupiers grew lax and the Hellenizers were leaderless. Guerrilla operations began. Pleas for help were sent to Antioch, and Bacchides headed back south. It was a very familiar pattern.

A fortress was set up near Bethlehem, with Simon inside, and Jonathan on the move. When Bacchides besieged the fortress, Jonathan attacked from the rear. Bacchides withdrew to Jerusalem and took out his anger on Hellenists, executing many for their promises of an easy victory. Figuring that Bacchides was demoralized, Jonathan proposed a ceasefire, amnesty and exchange of prisoners. The Jews would have some autonomy, but Judea would still be a Seleucid dependency. Bacchides, in 156 or 155, accepted and withdrew, never to return.

Jonathan now settled on a period of quiet, to build up his authority, and keep the Seleucids from having to consider Judea. Sure enough, the empire drew down its forces. He next turned his attention to the Hellenists: First Maccabees says he began “rooting the godless out of Israel”. We can imagine that this was none too gentle. With no overt military threat being posed, and facing a grave threats elsewhere, Demetrius did not intervene. Jonathan was thus able to reach for full authority.

In 152 one Alexander Balas secured a footing in Akko and with the help of the King of Egypt, challenged the rule of the increasingly unpopular Demetrius. Demetrius needed the help of Judea to keep Balas cut off from Egypt. So he ordered all Jewish hostages released, and gave permission for Jonathan to forge weapons and raise an army, which Jonathan had actually already done. Jonathan seized the opportunity to establish himself in Jerusalem, and fortified the Temple Mount. Next came Balas, who sent a letter, robe and crown, and proclaimed that Jonathan was to be High Priest --- there had been none in 7 years. Although traditional Jews would never accept the right of outsiders to name the High Priest, this was taken as full recognition of Jonathan’s secular authority. This was presumably reported back to Demetrius, who then made an extravagant offer --- land, money, army positions etc. . His sincerity was questioned by the Jews. Jonathan stalled, needing time to build up his forces, and sensing that the time was not right. In the end, Jonathan allied with Balas, although apparently he wasn’t involved in Balas’ military victory in 150.

There followed three peaceful years, with Jonathan on good terms with Balas. But then Demetrius II arose to challenge arose to Balas, whose allies then deserted him, except Jonathan. In the ensuing battle, Jonathan and Simon were victorious,, and Judean control was extended along the coast. Jonathan was now a key ally to Balas. The King of Egypt , Balas’ father-in-law, now headed north, and while his original intentions were unclear, he decided to dump Balas and threw in with Demetrius II. Balas was overthrown and killed, but Jonathan managed to stay out of the fighting. With the Seleucid authority further weakened, Jonathan set siege to that longstanding thorn in the side, Acra. The Hellenists then wailed to Antioch, and Demetrius II met with Jonathan in Akko. It was Jonathan’s diplomatic triumph. He got recognition as High Priest, return of some lands from Samaria, freedom from taxes . The siege was lifted. Judea was larger, richer and freer than it had been in a very long time. But later, when Jonathan saved Demetrius II from an uprising, Demetrius II promised to evacuate Acra. He reneged. So when a new pretender Tryphon arose, splitting the empire, Jonathan threw in with him. Judea was given more land, with Simon given jurisdiction over Rosh Hanikra. Jonathan took control of Ashkelon and Gaza; Simon seized the fortresses at Beth Zur and Jaffa. Demetrius II made two failed attempts to invade Judea. The brothers then decided to fortify Jerusalem’s walls, and further isolate Acra. Perhaps alarmed by the success and independence of Judea, Tryphon marched his army into Beth Shean, and the two leaders met warily. Tryphon now duped Jonathan, and lured him to Akko. Jonathan was seized, and his guard of a thousand men was slaughtered.

Simon took control, completed the fortifications of Jerusalem, and rushed out to meet Tryphon. Tryphon offered Jonathan’s release in return for money and Simon’s two sons as hostages. Payment was made; and Tryphon reneged. The troops maneuvered; a severe snowstorm foiled Tryphon’s attack on Jerusalem. Tryphon withdrew, and executed Jonathan.

At this point, Simon contacted Demetrius II, who agreed to the end of all taxes. This formally made Judea independent, and Simon becomes the first of the Hasmonean dynasty. With the evacuation of Acra in 141 BCE, and the selection by the Jews of Simon, the last living son, as the High Priest in 140, the campaign of Mattathias and his 5 sons came to a triumphant end.


*The terms “Maccabees” is an anachronism used for clarity to refer to the brothers. In the historical accounts of the times, only Judah is called Maccabee. Similarly, I have used some modern place names like “Akko”.

Given at Tifereth Israel, Washington DC, as a D’var Torah, December 19, 1998