Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Judea Fights for Its Faith.

High Priest's Office Sold.

Antiochus was succeeded by his son of the same name, an eccentric despot who claimed the title of Epiphanes, the "illustrious," though styled by his enemies Epimanes "the madman," and in rabbinic literature Harasha, the "wicked." The rule of this ill-balanced tyrant was to bring woe to Judea, for which their own internal troubles were in a measure responsible. Indeed, it was these discords that drew his attention to this particular province. The Hellenists, who had grown to quite a party, sought his interference in their behalf. Jason offered the king a bribe to make him High Priest and depose Onias, his own brother. What a blasphemy on the holy office to fight for its material powers! The pity was that material power should be vested in a spiritual office, so the system was wrong as well as the man.

Imitation of Greek life went on apace. Olympic games, gymnasia, were now introduced into Judea. These games named from Olympia in Macedonia, Greece, where they first took place, were also religious festivals and were accompanied by sacrifices to the Greek god Zeus. Yet they involved immoralities, so contradictory were some ancient conceptions of religion.

Menelaus, another unscrupulous character, offered to Antiochus a still higher bribe for the priesthood and thus obtained it, regardless of the fact that it had already been sold to Jason. Like master, like man.

Led from crime to crime, Menelaus became a traitor to his people. He robbed the Temple of some of its treasures to pay his bribe and then slew the deposed but worthy Onias because he had denounced the sin. The outraged people rose against Menelaus, but an armed guard provided by the king enabled him to hold his office by force, and saved him for the time being.

At about this time (170) Antiochus IV, like his predecessor, attempted to seize Egypt. Some patriotic Jews in Alexandria showed active sympathy for the endangered nation. Therefore Antiochus on his return from the expedition seized Jerusalem, aided by the traitor Menelaus. This attack meant the slaughter of many souls and the desecration and plunder of the Temple. Not content with this, Antiochus spread slanders against Judaism to justify his excesses. The rumor went forth, for example, that a golden headed ass was found in the Temple.

Religious Persecution.

Next year his further attack on Egypt was checked by Rome, rapidly becoming a great power. Again he vented his rage on the Jews and determined to exterminate the Jewish religion by attacking their most revered institutions, as the most complete means of erasing their distinct individuality. The predecessors of Antiochus Epiphanes had encouraged the spread of paganism among the Jews; but he, less intelligent and more despotic, tried to force it upon them. He did not realize that where persuasion may succeed, tyranny often fails. Apollonius, his general, cowardly attacked Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, when he knew religious scruples would prevent the Jews defending themselves. So it proved. Many more were slain and the women and children sold in slavery. A general plunder followed. The paganizing of Judea became now his avowed policy. Therefore a decree went forth forbidding the recognition of the God of Israel and His Law and commanding the worship of Greek divinities—"gods that were nothings," to quote Psalm xcvi. The Law was burned and the statue of Jupiter set up in the Temple. Jewish ceremonial, Sabbath, festivals, the Abrahamic rite, were replaced by the sacrifice of unclean animals. At the same time other methods were employed completely to subdue the people.

The same policy was applied against Jews in Higher Syria and Phoenicia. But if some were weak enough to surrender their Faith, many were prepared to remain staunch to it. Eleazar in Antioch met a martyr's death. Hannah, a mother in Israel, taught her sons how to die for conscience's sake. Here are the words with which she exhorted them: "Doubtless the Creator of the world who formed the generations of man will also of His own mercy give you breath and life again as ye now regard not your own selves for His law's sake." Martyrdom such as that found its counterpart in many scattered places. Not succeeding by threats and persecutions Antiochus once more resorted to arms. Again followed an unresisted Sabbath slaughter. The walls of Jerusalem were leveled and Zion made a fortress with a Syrian garrison. Greek colonists were transplanted to Palestine for the purpose of Hellenizing Judea. The country was placed under rigid surveillance. If a copy of the Law was found on the monthly inspection the punishment was death. Participation in the festivals of Dionysius was now a compulsion.

Yet many dared resist. From the worldly point of view, opposition seemed madness, but religious zeal counts not the material cost.

In Modin, a town eighteen miles northwest of Palestine, lived Mattathias, with his five sons, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar and Jonathan. Hither in the year 168 came officials of the tyrant with promises of a large bribe to Mattathias if he would make offering to an idol and with threats of punishment if he declined. Mattathias was a leading townsman and his example would bring many followers. Not only did he scorn the infamous proposal, but slew a coward who prepared to obey. That act was casting down the gauntlet to Antiochus; it was a declaration of war. With his brave sons around him, the aged hero sent this message to the people: "Whoever is zealous for the Lord and whosoever wishes to support the Covenant, follow me." That became the rallying cry. The little band deposed the Syrian overseer and the guard. Once more when attacked on the Sabbath, the Jews submitted to slaughter. Then they came to the realization that self-defense was their duty, even on that holy day. Were they not fighting for a holy cause? They began at first guerilla warfare on apostates and heathens. Avoiding regular attacks, they would swoop down with a bold clash on a town to punish and reform.

Judas Maccabeus.

Next year Mattathias died. Simon became the counselor and Judas was chosen commander of the trusty band of revolutionists. He was Israel's greatest warrior since David. The title given him was transmitted to his party—Maccabeus, the Hammer. But a something more than generalship was to decide this contest—faith. Judged by material standards, resistance seemed like a forlorn hope, but the intrepid bravery of this staunch band fighting pro aris et focis, "for their altars and their hearths," increased the number of their adherents and even won back the allegiance of some who had almost drifted from the fold.

The first victory over the Syrians was small, but Appolonius, the general who had been entrusted with carrying out the persecuting laws, was slain. In a second engagement the "rebels" were attacked at Beth Horon, north of Jerusalem, and Judas won here a still more decided success over an army much larger than his own. Antiochus became alarmed. He had not the means to raise a large army to meet this unexpected opposition, because all his resources were taxed to meet troubles in other quarters—Parthia, Armenia, Phoenicia.

Angered at the rebellion of this petty people, he now determined on their extermination, Hellenists and all. He sent Lysias with full power to Jerusalem to raze the city to the ground. To the Syrians the Jewish defeat seemed so certain that slave-dealers with money and chains followed the army, sure of a harvest in their repulsive trade. A horror like unto that of Shushan in Esther's days spread through the doomed city. But it raised champions, even among the Hellenistic Jews, who were still attached to their Faith when the decisive test came.

It was in the year 166 that Lysias, the viceroy of Antiochus, sent an army of four thousand men into Judea under the generals Ptolemy, Nicanor and Gorgias. But Judas Maccabeus had now a well organized force, although it consisted of but six thousand men. Before the struggle began he called a solemn assembly at Mizpah, where Samuel had gathered Israel nine hundred years earlier, ordered a fast, conducted a service of prayer and read the Law. In reading the story of the Puritan war against Charles I of England and their singing hymns before the battle, we are reminded of the religious earnestness of these Maccabees. "When they saw the host coming to meet them, they said to Judas, how shall we be able, being so few, to fight against so great a multitude and so strong.... Judas answered: with the God of heaven it is all one to deliver with a great multitude or a small company." The usual proclamation of the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy xx), was now read, excusing certain classes from the ranks; this reduced the army still more. Then the struggle once more began. By a clever stratagem Judas Maccabeus met the Syrian army on a plain near Emmaus, not far from the capital. With the words of the Law on his lips and with an encouraging appeal to fight for the holy cause, he gave the signal to advance. Defeating the first contingent of the enemy before the main army came up, the next battalion fled without fighting.

The moral effect of this decisive victory was most valuable, apart from the fact that the booty obtained supplied arms to the Maccabees—the "sinews of war" both in a literal and metaphoric sense. But Lysias dared not be beaten. He therefore sent a big army against Judas, whose force had meanwhile increased to some ten thousand, proving again that nothing succeeds like success. The Syrians chose a new route to Beth Horon, but only to meet the old defeat. This was the turning point in the war. The struggle was not over, but confidence was restored and a respite gained.

Feast of Hanukkah.

Judas Maccabeus marched to the capital and a sorry picture of desolation met his gaze. His first work was to remove all signs of idolatry and desecration. A new altar was built, the Temple was repaired and cleaned and on Kislev the 25th in the year 165, it was reconsecrated. The ceremony recalls Solomon's consecration of the first Temple; not as splendid a ceremonial perhaps, but it meant far more. Solomon's Temple had cost treasure, but this had cost blood. It was more than a civil victory; it was that least, it was a triumph of the divine cause expressed in Israel's mission. They fought for Zion as an idea rather than Zion as a city—the "Zion from which goeth forth the law." They proved again that ideals can conquer battalions. This great lesson is always brought home to us when we celebrate our festival of Hanukkah (re-dedication) instituted by the Great Council—the successor of the "Great Synagogue"—to celebrate the victory. The Syrian had been defeated. He was the enemy without. But a greater foe had to be conquered, the enemy within—religious indifference, that lurked among the Hellenist worldlings and many faint-hearted souls throughout the land.

The legend runs that when Judas Maccabeus wished to consecrate the Temple, but one flask of pure oil bearing the priestly seal had been left after the enemy's ravage. It was a measure that would last for a day, but—marvelous to tell—it served for eight, by which time new oil was prepared. The story is immortalized in the second name "Feast of Lights," given to the Hanukkah festival. The ceremony of kindling lights begins with one on the first night, continues with two lights on the second and thus progresses till the eighth and last night is reached. What is the meaning of the ceremonial and the story? It is the Maccabean victory told in symbol; for it was a story of advance from strength to strength. First, Mattathias stood alone for Judaism's cause, a solitary light. Next came his sons; then a tiny army growing instead of lessening with each conflict, from two thousand to six thousand, from six to ten, then victory crowned their efforts; and with the conquest on the field rose the faith in the hearts of the people in the same progressive way. The tiny embers became a flame, and the flame burst into a conflagration. This miracle is often found repeated in Israel's history.

The Feast of Lights is called a Minor Festival in our calendar, for reasons accidental rather than intrinsic. It is hard to institute a new observance after a religion is crystallized. It is still harder to give it the old sanction. So the rabbis did not venture then to place Hanukkah or Purim on a par with Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Yet in very truth Hanukkah is a great festival. None question its authority—all are thrilled by its stirring story.

The Book of Daniel.

In seeking to realize this critical time of "storm and stress," we shall be aided somewhat by taking a glimpse at its literature. For here we see pictured the struggles and sufferings experienced and the alternate hopes and fears that swayed the heart of the nation, far better than in the record of the historian.

A work reflecting these times, the Book of Daniel, is perhaps the latest of the Bible books. The book throws light on the epoch and the epoch is the key to the book. Daniel is written in the form of a revelation of events that were to happen centuries later, made known through dream and vision to the God-fearing Daniel, one of the Babylonian exiles. These visions are presented as foretelling the main incidents after the exile. The pictures grow in detail as they reach the Maccabean uprising (168 B.C.E.), showing that the author probably belonged to this time.

The first picture is the dream of King Nebuchadrezzar, which Daniel—who is as wise as he is good—is able to interpret. The dream presented an image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, the lower limbs of brass and iron mixed with clay. A stone cut without hands destroyed the image and then grew to a mountain that filled the earth. In the light of later events, it is thus explained: The golden head was Babylon, the silver breast and arms the kingdom of Media, the bronze trunk Persia, the lower limbs of baser metal and clay represented the Greek empire, split up into many principalities, thus bringing the picture down to the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes. What did the "stone" represent? It expresses the faith of the writer in Israel's eventual triumph and the spread of Judaism over the world. But it was doubtless written when the outcome was still uncertain, perhaps in the very height and heat of the struggle.

The same march of events is later repeated in visions to Daniel himself. The four empires are depicted in the figures of beasts that give the same assurance of Israel's ultimate victory. "The greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and all dominions shall serve and obey Him."

In another vision our attention is focused on the events nearer the Maccabean time. First a ram with two horns is the Medo-Persian empire. Next a he-goat represents Greece, its horn Alexander the Great. Four horns that uprose in its place are the four kingdoms into which his empire was split—Macedonia, Thrace, Syria and Egypt, while a little horn that overthrows Judah's sanctuary is none other than Antiochus Epiphanes.

A last vision drops metaphor and mentions the kingdoms by actual name. The persecutions under Antiochus are vividly depicted:

"They shall profane the Sanctuary, even the fortress, and shall take away the continual burnt offering; and they shall set up the abomination that maketh desolate. And such as do wickedly against the covenant shall he pervert by flatteries; but the people that know their God shall be strong and do exploits. They that be wise among the people shall instruct many. Yet they shall fall by the sword and by flame, by captivity and by spoil many days. Now when they shall fall they shall be helped with a little help (the Maccabees).... And some of them that be wise shall fall, to refine them and to purge and to make them white."

The last reference indicates the ennobling influence of martyrdom touchingly depicted also in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah.

The death of these noble souls deepened the belief of this writer in the future life, as demanded by divine justice:

"Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever."

The book was certainly written by a patriotic and pious author to inspire his brethren during that dark struggle, to urge them to be loyal to God and His Law with the staunch conviction that all would come right in the end. It is an appeal to the faith and courage of Israel, with Daniel held up as a thrilling exemplar. He is portrayed as unswerving in his determination to be steadfast to the God of his fathers; on one occasion daring a fiery furnace and on another a lion's den, and his faith saves him from both perils.

Who can say how many may have been nerved to be loyal and to "wait for God's salvation" by these impassioned pictures? So, next to Judas Maccabeus, the hero of the Hanukkah story, let us enshrine in our hearts and memories the unknown author of the Book of Daniel who fed the faith and the courage of Israel in their days of sorrow and darkness.


Birthday of the Maccabees:—This was the title of a special day set aside by the Church to commemorate the martyrdom of the Jewish mother and her seven sons.

Daniel:— Immortality. In addition to the quotation from Daniel on immortality, here are appended further Biblical quotations that express this belief: Isaiah xxvi, 19; xxv, 8; Ezekiel xxxvii, 1-14; Psalm xvi, 10, 11; xvii, 15; Proverbs xii, 28; Ecclesiastes xii, 7. Montefiore, The Bible for Home Reading, Part II, section v, chapter ii. Driver, "Daniel," Cambridge Bible, (Cambridge University Press.)