The Maccabean Revolt

Throughout history, the Jewish nation has been tormented, persecuted, enslaved, expelled, and has gone through repeated attempts at being annihilated. In the year 3408 (353 B.C.E.), the Jewish people, after having recently returned from the Babylonian exile, rebuilt the Second Temple with the permission of Darius and Cyrus. After some time, Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem. Many of Alexander's generals and advisors attempted to persuade him to hinder the spiritual practices of the Jews. An incredible moment is documented in the Talmud, Tractate Tamid (27b). Shimon the Righteous led a delegation of Jews out to the gates of Jerusalem to greet Alexander the Great. Upon seeing Shimon, Alexander descended from his horse and bowed at his feet. To his astonished men and Shimon, Alexander explained that every time before going into battle, he would see a figure of a man dressed like the Jewish High Priest leading his troops to victory. To Alexander, his victories were partly due to Shimon, and he was convinced not to restrict the Jew's religious practices. Unfortunately, a short time later, Alexander dies. Among all his generals, no one person could hold together the vast empire that Alexander had built. Because of this, in 3448 (313 B.C.E.), his four leading Generals divided the empire amongst themselves. Ptolemy I took Egypt while Seleucus I ruled Syria. Israel was incorporated into the Seleucus kingdom. In a short time, Alexander's heirs began to quarrel amongst themselves. Antigonas, who oversaw Asia Minor, wanted to annex Babylonia and Iraq, as well as Israel into his kingdom. He waged war on Seleucus, who was forced to ally with Ptolemy. In return for his allegiance, Israel was given to Ptolemy.  

During Ptolemy's reign, the Jews, although needing to pay a sizeable tax, were free to practice their Jewish observances without any actual interference. But in 198 BC, Antiochus III (father to the ruler the Maccabees would battle against) took Israel from the Ptolemies, making it part of the Seleucid empire. The Jews, now under Antiochus III, still maintained autonomy and religious freedom. Everything changed in 175 BC when Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne. 

Antiochus IV immediately took action to ensure his future kingdom. He knew that he would inevitably be thrust into war with Egypt, his Southern neighbor, but he also knew that the most severe threat would come from Rome, which was growing rapidly. Although the hills of Judea did not pose a threat, they were of vital strategic importance because they dominated the coastal route connecting Syria with Egypt. The only way to ensure that those in the Judean hills remained loyal to the Seleucid empire was to ensure that the Jews living there were faithful Greeks. His proposal? Hellanizaztion! It was how Antiochus IV decided to unite the empires. Derived from the word Hellas, meaning Greek, the Hellenist fell under the spell of Greek society. The lure of materialism and pleasures played to the Hellenists.

Whether free love and exploration of the human body or the rich culture and diverse gods, the Jewish Hellenists drifted far from their faith and deeper into the Greek hedonistic way of life. The ban on circumcision and kosher were only a few of the edicts of religious persecution thrust upon the Jews. When the Greeks appointed a high priest, a strong divide between the Hellenists and the faithful Jews emerged. A small rebellion began. Already in a sour mood from his retreat and subsequent defeat from Egypt due to Roman intervention, Antiochus tasked one of his generals, Apollonius, to quell the rebellion in Judea. Upon reaching the hills, the Seleucids engaged in a massacre of the Jewish population. To further show their dominance, they ransacked the Temple in Jerusalem, destroying countless vessels, and then converted it to a shrine honoring Zeus. Whereas they performed a sacrifice on a pig, completing the desecration. Around this time, a lesser-known story occurred that was no less important and integral to the Jewish narrative of Hannukah and rebellion.  

In a further display to break the will of the Jewish populous to embrace the anti-Jewish edicts, the Greeks arrested Hannah and her seven sons to force them to denounce their faith publicly. In an act of defiance and absolute devotion to God, Hannah watched as each of her seven children was murdered in cold blood, whereas Hannah proceeded to throw herself from a ledge. As news of her ultimate sacrifice spread, what became known as the Maccabean Revolt and a war to shape a nation had just begun.

Thirty miles from Jerusalem, in the small town of Modiin, a family of Jewish priests led by patriarch Matisyahu was asked to do the unthinkable. Apelles, the Greek Captain ordered to that area, had his men build an altar and demanded that Matisyahu perform a sacrifice in pagan fashion and not in that of Jewish tradition. Refusing to comply with the order, a Jewish man in the crowd approached the altar and began preparations for the sacrifice. Aghast at the man, Matisyahu grabbed a sword and proceeded to kill the Jewish man while his five sons battled and killed the Syrian troops. In a loud voice, Matisyahu roared, "Whoever is with God, With Me!" A loyal group of 200 followed the family into the hills of Gophna, beginning the reign of the Maccabees and thus launching the revolt for religious freedom. 

The hills of Gophna were strategically chosen due to the inaccessibility to the Seleucid garrisons and the mountainous terrain, which led to natural defensive measures. There, Yehuda (Judah), although the middle brother of 5, was designated as the leader of the Revolt by Matisyahu. But each brother had their strengths, and all were considered righteous. Matisyahu told his sons (Shimon, Yehuda, Elazar, Yochanan, and Yonasan) that although Judah was the leader, Shimon, a wise and steadfast man, was also to be followed as a spiritual leader.

In the first year of the revolt, the Maccabees prepared for what they knew would eventually be an all-out war. They defended themselves when necessary but concentrated their training on guerilla warfare. They recruited from villages and strengthened contacts in those areas, building a vast intelligence network of devout followers who believed in the Jewish faith and the Maccabee's mission. Most importantly, all those in the hills with Judah had to reaffirm their devotion to Jewish law and practice and the exact principles they were fighting for.

Remember that the Seleucids had the resources and advanced weaponry to crush any rebellion. They had cavalry, light and heavy infantry units, and even elephants. The Jews had rudimentary weapons built from farming tools that, only a year before, were being used to plow the land. Judah, a brilliant tactician, understood they were outnumbered and outmatched at nearly every turn. But the Jews of the Maccabean revolt had a few things going for them:

  1. The Seleucids were a conventional army and trained to fight by day. The Jews would raid by night.
  2. The Seleucids were primarily mercenaries. The Jews were sons and daughters of the land with which they were fighting. The drive for religious and political freedom was powerful.
  3. And because the Jews came from the local populace, they were able to strike the Seleucids and then melt back into society. 

By the end of the first year, the rebel group had surged to nearly 600. Training continued, tactics honed, and the intelligence line grew to Samaria, north of Judah's location. Quick ambushes on the Seleucids by the Maccabees were becoming frequent and helping build the Jewish arsenal. Eventually, the Jews controlled all the hills surrounding Jerusalem, cutting off the Seleucid garrison stationed there. Realizing that times were getting dangerous, Apollonius, the Governor and General of the forces in Jerusalem, decided to intervene. The war that Judah and his followers had been preparing for was now imminent.

The first engagement occurred in Nahal el-Haramiah between Apollonius, his two thousand men, and Judah and his 600 followers. While the Greeks made their way towards the supposed location of the rebels, Judah took advantage of the route Apollonius was taking. In other words, Judah chose his area of attack for a specific reason. The route traveled had a valley in which the Greeks were to trek. Upon entering the valley in two separate columns, each of 1000 men, Judah staged his attack by splitting his men into four groups. He began on the valley's eastern side, and the attack progressed. Once occupied, a second force from the west attacked. Judah's third force was in the South, ensuring the Greeks could not retreat. Seeing his men being slaughtered from two fronts, Apollonius joined the fight and was killed in battle. As soon as the Greeks became fully embattled, Judah attacked from the North and destroyed the opposing forces. The success was deafening. Not only did the Jewish army attain an arsenal of weaponry, but it also cemented Judah as the leader of the Jews. He was a force to be reckoned with now. Volunteers from all over descended on his location and joined the ranks of the Maccabees, increasing the Jewish army. On Judah's part, he learned a valuable lesson. Kill the leader early in the battle, and the enemy would have no leadership.  

The next battle for Judah and his rebels was against Seron, the military commander in Syria. Hearing about the death and decimation of Apollonius' Army, he decided he would crush the revolt, thereby gaining prestige and distinction. He gathered an extensive and well-equipped army and marched to Judea. Between Syria and Judea, there is a pass called Beth Choron. At the opening of the pass, the resistance fighters saw the mass army. The Rosh (Jewish Rabbi) in Tractate Megillah 2a says that Judah's men were fasting in keeping with the Jewish practice. Judah's men turned to him and asked, "How can we, so few in number, combat this vast multitude? We are fatigued - not having eaten today." But Judah, remembering his father's last dying wishes, was not worried and had complete confidence in Hashem (God) that they would prevail. "It is easy for the many to be handed over to the few...triumph in battle does not depend on the size of an army - for strength comes from heaven. But we are fighting for our lives and our Torah. God will crush them before us, and you must not fear them." (Mesachas Megillah) In the next few hours, an epic battle ensued. Yehuda and his followers ambushed Seron while passing through the Beth Choron pass, killing eight hundred of his men. With the results of the battle came national embarrassment. Antiochus finally gave heed to this "small, peasant rebellion."

Because of the previous battle, the Syrian Greeks sent three of their best Generals to crush the revolt. Nicanor, Gorgias, and Ptolemy brought an immense army of forty thousand foot soldiers and seven thousand cavalry to overwhelm Judah. In the pursuing battle, Yehuda distinguished himself as a brilliant military strategist. He divided his men into four groups of one thousand fighters a piece. Each of Judah's four brothers commanded one group.

Meanwhile, Gorgias took a group of five thousand of his men in an attempt to surprise attack the Jews. The Hellenist Jews acted as guides to show Gorgias the headquarters of the revolt. Judah and his one thousand men woke in the morning to an enemy surrounding their camp. He immediately ordered an attack on the Greeks. This attack broke the Syrian phalanxes. Breaking through the lines, "the Jews decimated the entire rear, and set fire to the Syrian camp." (Josephus, War Books 1) The Greeks began to panic and retreat. While fleeing, the Jews managed to kill three thousand Greeks. The battle had just begun. Yehuda cautioned his men that the central portion of the army was still camping in the mountains. When the remaining Greeks saw the smoke billowing from Gorgias' camp, they fled the battlefield. This battle was a turning point in the revolt because the damage caused to the Greeks and the number of men killed gave the Jews the number of weapons and armor they needed to become a well-equipped army and not just a band of rebellious peasants. (Solis-Cohen, Emily 1937, 34)

The following year, Antiochus, who still did not think the Jewish revolt was a priority, sent the central portion of his army to Parthia to wage war. Judah did not hesitate to use this recess to his advantage. He marched to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), where the Hellenist and Greek soldiers barricaded themselves in Acra, a stronghold built by Antiochus. Judah and his followers cleansed the Beis Hamikdosh (Jewish Temple) by removing all idols and pagan articles. The altar where all pagan sacrifices occurred was removed, and a new one was placed. It was at this time that the miracle of Channukah took place. But this did not signify the end of the Maccabean revolt. This act ended the religious oppression. After hearing through a messenger that his kingdom was in chaos and the battle in Parthia was lost, Antiochus began to lose all sense of his surroundings. Eventually, after a fall from his chariot, the once mighty King became ill. Before dying, he instructed Phillip, his closest advisor, that his son Antiochus V should be crowned King upon his death. He did, and King Antiochus V Eupator was the new King.  

Two years after the re-dedication of the Beis Hamikdosh, Judah decided to attack the Acra stronghold, where Greek soldiers, as well as Hellenists, would harass the Jews living in Yerushalayim. After besieging the hold, the Greek soldiers sent an urgent message to Antiochus V that Judah's siege was a blatant attack on his sovereignty. With his commander Lysias, Antiochus attacked Judah with one hundred thousand foot soldiers, seventy thousand cavalry, and war elephants. Entering through the South, his army's noise was terrifying and deafening. Undaunted, Judah attacked and killed six hundred soldiers. During the battle, Elazar, Judah's brother, sees an elephant robed in royal colors and believes it to be Antiochus's battle elephant. Fighting through the lines, he reached the elephant and speared its stomach. The dying elephant fell on Elazar, crushing him to death. "After battling the king's forces, Yehuda was forced to retreat to Gophna." (Josephus, War 1:1:5). Eventually, Antiochus V made a treaty with the Jews, giving them all rights back.  

Years before, the Romans imprisoned Demetrius, the son of Selecucus. After being in captivity for many years, he managed to escape and make his way to what he believed was his kingdom now under the command of Antiochus. Upon stepping foot in Syria, he proclaimed himself ruler. In a short period, he amassed a following. Finally, he overthrew the government, executing Antiochus V. At that time, the leader of the Hellenists was a man named Alcimus. He convinced Demetrius to attack Judah. Appointing Bacchides as General, Demetrius sent Bacchides and Alcimus to defeat Judah. Once established, Bacchides went back to Antiocha, leaving Alcimus in charge. Alcimus proceeded to terrorize and harass the Jews.

Judah had disbanded his men at this time because of the peace treaty between the Jewish people and Antiochus. Judah now knew he needed to take up arms once again. When Alcimus realized that his primary opponent was the great Judah the Maccabe, he sent a message to the King asking for help. Demetrius sent Judah's "arch nemesis" to battle him. In the first battle, Nikanor lost five hundred men, causing him to retreat to Yerushalayim. A short while later, Nikanor marched to Beth Choron to meet up with an additional Syrian Army. Judah, at that time, had a following of only three thousand men. When seeing their adversary, the Jews panicked. But due to his steadfastness and faith in Hashem, Judah convinced his fighters not to be afraid. They then proceeded to attack. One of the first men to fall in battle was Nikanor. Seeing their leader dead, the Greeks fled in panic. That day, Nikanor's proud army of thirty-five thousand men was decimated. 

After a few months, Demetrius sent a greater army under Bacchides and Alcimus. They traveled to Elasah, which was west of Yerushalayim. Upon seeing the vast army, most of Judah's men fled. Left with only eight hundred men, Judah battled the massive Greek army. In the pursuing battle, Yehuda the Macabbe was killed. His remaining men fled. Yonasan and Shimon (Two of Judah's remaining brothers) carried his body to Modin for burial. The year was 3601/160 B.C.E.  

The Hellenists became very powerful after the death of Judah and again began to harass and kill the remaining fighters who were involved in the revolt. The fighters urged Yonasan to take over the revolt. He fled to the Judea desert with his remaining brothers, Yochanan and Shimon. Yochanan was captured soon after by a trans-Jordan tribe and killed. After a few months, Bacchides was given intelligence on the location of Yonasan's headquarters. Marching another massive army, Bacchides surrounded the headquarters. Battling his way out, Yonasan's men managed to kill one thousand men before escaping.  

The Hellenists in Syria were too nervous to reside there while Yonasan was still at large. They urged Demetrius to try to capture him again. And again, he sent Bacchides. This time, Yonasan and his men barricaded themselves in a tower in Beth Lechem. After days of fighting, Bacchides was giving up. Yonasan sent a message to him that if the war ends, all prisoners will be returned safely. The Syrians accepted this, and the war was finally over. Yonasan moved his headquarters outside of Yerushalayim, soon to become the capital of the Chashmonaim reign.  

A couple of years later, Alexander Balas came into Syria, claiming to be the son of Antiochus IV. Many people believed him to be a fraud, but his appearance was highly similar to that of the dead King, so he was accepted. Demetrius turned to Yonasan to lead his army against those of Alexander. Bacchides and his men were outraged that Demetrius would do such a thing. They refused to be under Yonasan's leadership. Because of this, they left the country. Alexander, not wasting any time, befriended Yonasan and made him Cohen Gadol. Unfortunately, Alexander was not who he claimed to be and became unpopular. Years later, the son of the dead, Demetrius I (slain by Alexander), overthrew the government and banished Alexander. Shortly after this, Triphon, an officer of Alexanders, brought forth the son of the banished King, Antiochos VI. Triphon, wanting to restore the glory days of the Seleucid Empire, marched a large army to the Beth She'an valley. Here, he was met by forty thousand men led by Yonasan. Knowing he would not win, he called for a truce, asking Yonasan to sign a treaty. Yonasan was taken hostage and ransomed. After receiving the ransom, Yonasan was killed. The people now looked to Shimon as their leader. He gathered an army and defeated Triphon. From 3619/142 B.C.E. on, "the yoke of the gentiles was removed from Israel." (I Maccabbe. 13:14). The revolt that started so many years ago by one man and his family is now finished, leaving Israel free.           



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