Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Judea Fights for Its Independence.

This Temple consecration (forever memorable through the Feast of Hanukkah) was the climax of the Maccabean story, but it was by no means its close. But this event was chosen as the occasion for the institution of the Festival of Hanukkah, not the independence—that was won later. Israel took up arms to defend its Faith, not to win back a separate nation. But its triumph for a spiritual cause awakened the possibility of wresting Judea from the Syrian grasp. For a while swords rested in their scabbards; but it was only an "armed peace." Judas Maccabeus had to build new fortifications against possible invasion.

The petty nations around all looked on with ill-concealed jealousy at Judah's victories. Those who in many instances had become Syrian allies had now to be met on the field. The alert and energetic Judas marched out once more and subdued the Idumeans and Ammonites and won peace and security for his people dwelling on their borders. Appeals from brethren whose possessions had been despoiled and their families slain reached him from many sides. With the aid of his brother Simon, whom he despatched to Galilee while he marched to Gilead, these heathen raids were suppressed. Jewish refugees were brought to Judea. So there were new rejoicings at these victories on his return next year (164).

The fight for the restoration of the Jewish faith was now over, but the fight for the restoration of the Jewish nation had only just begun.

Not for very long was Judas allowed to rest. It is far easier to take up the sword than to lay it down. The never-sleeping Syrians were again in the field, defeating two of his generals. But once more victory crowned his arms. In the same year Antiochus, humiliated with defeats in Parthia and Persia as well as in Judea, came to a sad end. The powerful monarch had now to

'Meet face to face a greater potentate,

King Death, Epiphanes, the illustrious.'

His death left two rival governors for the regency of the Syrian kingdom.

Death of Eleazar.

The obstinate Hellenist party within Israel had not yet learned their lesson, and appealed to the new monarch, Antiochus Eupator, to take up their cause. So war broke out again in 163. It was the Sabbatic year, when nothing is sown and the land lies fallow. (See Leviticus xxv.) So these circumstances added further embarrassment to the usual evils of war. It meant scarcity of provisions and the terror of long siege. A brave fight in the open field against large odds brought reverse to the Maccabees. One of the brothers, Eleazar, died on the field, a martyr to his bravery. He stabbed an elephant supposed to bear the king, though like Samson, he fell in the overthrow he designed. The army retreated before the second siege was begun. Meanwhile Philip, the rival regent of Syria, raising an army against Lysias, compelled this general's withdrawal from Jerusalem. So Lysias concluded an honorable peace with the Judeans, allowing them the religious liberty for which they had at first taken up arms.

The blessings of peace were now theirs for a space. Judas Maccabeus was made for the time being High Priest. He was not of the priestly line, but the office involved the wielding of temporal as well as spiritual authority. For the former, none more fitted than he. Yet the more strict were not satisfied that it should pass from the traditional priestly family! The Hellenist menace had not yet disappeared, though Jason and Menelaus, its fathers, were now both dead. This party now supported a new Syrian claimant for the throne against the one endorsed by the Maccabees—Demetrius (162), whose agent, Bacchides, appointed one of these very Hellenists, Alcimus, as High Priest. Thus discord was sown anew in Israel.

Death of Judas.

The Syrians with large armies twice repulsed the small army of Judas, but Nicanor, the cruel general of Demetrius, was slain in a brilliant victory by the Jews. This brought such relief to the Jews that "Nicanor Day" was celebrated in Judaea for some years as a day of rejoicing. Judas was certainly at the head of the commonwealth now, even though deprived of the High Priest's office. Hearing of Rome's great power and recognizing that it exercised a kind of sovereignty over Syria, Judas entered into an alliance with it, but too late for its interference to be of aid. For with a meagre force, discouraged by persistent war and overwhelming odds, he had now to meet a large avenging army under Bacchides. With but a few hundred men he went forth to meet the picked thousands of his foes, as brave and as determined as the Greeks of Thermopylae. When defeat was certain he yet stood fighting and undaunted till wounded unto death. So died a great man who had wrought salvation for Israel. He had made Judah a nation of warrior heroes exalted by religious zeal. His name, his spirit, continued to inspire them to determined resistance against foes without and within. Their religious liberty gained at such fearful cost, even Demetrius, though now holding Judea in subjection, no longer dared defy.

"He put on a breast place as a giant and girt his warlike armor about him. He battled like a lion and the wicked shrunk for fear of him. He cheered Jacob by his mighty acts and his memorial is blessed forever."


With Judas the Great and his brother John both dead, with Alcimus, the Hellenist, High Priest, and with Syrian garrisons in the capital and all the surrounding places, there was more or less conflict and demoralization. The outlook was not promising. But Jonathan, another of Mattathias' five sons, a worthy brother of Judas, kept the Hasmonean party together. The obnoxious Alcimus died, and there was no religious or political head for seven years. But confidence in Jonathan quietly grew; until eventually he filled both offices. He strengthened his forces sufficiently to withstand a new uprising and even to make it advisable for the Syrians to sue for peace. So when the Syrian throne was seized by a new claimant, Alexander Balas, he realized sufficiently the importance of Jonathan to appoint him High Priest and Tributary Prince in 152; though the deposed Demetrius, who still maintained a partial sway, now sought Jonathan's aid too. The tables were turned and Jonathan held something like a balance of power. Jonathan showed his foresight in remaining loyal also to Alexander Balas, his son, who became Antiochus VI. The Hellenist party quietly died out; it never had the people behind it.

Loaded with honors, Jonathan was now given the golden clasp of independence, and his brother Simon made a Syrian commander. Enemies had become allies. Loyalty to the Syrians meant hard fighting again for the Jews, but the opportunity was given now to strengthen the defences of Jerusalem and to enable the city and the people to recover from the ravages consequent on a long series of wars. Judea had now an army of forty thousand men. They stood by Alexander Balas when all deserted him. Even then concessions were obtained from the new king, Demetrius II., showing that the Syrian power was broken.

The treachery of Tryphon, a general of the new king, led to Jonathan's death and the massacre of a thousand of his men. Thus passed another of the patriot brothers. It is hard to say to whom Israel owed the greater debt, Judas or Jonathan. Judas saved the nation at a perilous hour; Jonathan reorganized it and gave it an abiding strength.


Simon, the last brother, now stepped forward to rally and save Judea. This persistence (characteristic of the resolution of this great family) where only the non-resistance of despair was looked for, completely upset Tryphon's scheme and saved Judea from disaster. Like Jonathan, Simon became at once by popular choice the religious and civil head of his people with the title High Priest included. He felt the time had come to throw off the weak rule of the unreliable, vacillating Syrian power, though this was far beyond the original expectation when the revolt began and far beyond its aims. Yet the march of events made it a logical sequence. He decided to recognize Demetrius II. against Tryphon on condition that Jewish independence be recognized in turn. The terms were accepted—"We release you from the crown which you owe us and we remit the taxes that we laid on Jerusalem." Verily, the yoke of the heathen was taken away from Israel.

The Seleucidan Era (see page 28) was now given up with the Seleucidan sway, and the reckoning of years began anew from 142 with the accession of Simon as High Priest, Commander of the Army and Prince of the Nation. This marked again the independence of Judah, that had been lost since the year 600 B. C. E., when Nebuchadrezzar overthrew Jerusalem and its Temple and took the Jews into Babylonian exile.


Calendar:—In the Jewish calendar to-day time is reckoned from the traditional year of the world's creation.

Independence:—Fighting first against the oppression of an overlord and winning independence as an unexpected outcome—has many historic parallels. In this way the American colonies threw off their allegiance to Great Britain in 1776.

Theme for discussion:—Had the Hasmoneans the right to assume the office of High Priest?