THE MACCABEAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
1. Antiochus Epiphanes.—
Seleucus was succeeded on the Syrian throne by his brother Antiochus, surnamed by his flatterers Epiphanes the Illustrious, and by his more candid friends, Epimanes the Madman. By the date of his accession ancient Greece had lost her supremacy, and Rome was getting to be the great power in the world. All the little kings made their little wars, or planned their big projects, with a thought of Rome in the background. Antiochus was no exception. He had led an expedition against Egypt, and had been defeated by Rome. He knew the Roman policy was to break up empires, and to attract the pieces, as it were, to itself. The geographical position of Judea would make her a valuable Roman ally. He determined to get rid of this possibility by getting rid of the Jews. And besides this, the disputes and riots in Jerusalem over the priesthood were making the Jews and their religion personally unpleasant to Antiochus. He entered the capital 169 B.C., plundered the Temple, offered swine’s flesh on the altar, and put to death a great many of the inhabitants.
2. Antiochus’s Tyranny.—
That was only the beginning. He set up heathen idols in the Samaritan temple as well as in the Jerusalem one. The Jewish Scriptures were burned, and the reading of the law and the observance of the law forbidden on pain of death. Great rewards were offered to those who would renounce Judaism. A mother and her seven sons were separately and in succession tempted. ‘I can better bear to see them all die than for one of them to live as a coward,’ said the brave woman; and they took her at her word, and one after another the boys were led out to death. An old man, Eleazar by name, did his part, too, to prove that the calmness of age can be as steadfast as the impulse of youth. They tried bribes and they tried tortures on him; all to no avail. ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is One,’ was the last utterance of his dying lips.
3. Resistance of Mattathias.—
Things had come to a bad pass. The martyrs who were steadfast in the covenant were more numerous by far than the weak-minded folks who yielded, but the persecutors outnumbered both. There was a passion of resentment felt by weak and strong alike, and the feeling needed only directing to find forcible expression. In the little town of Modin, near Jerusalem, there lived an Asmonean family, of whom an old priest, named Mattathias, was the head. An officer of Antiochus made a visit to this place, calling on the Jews to perform heathen sacrifice. Some waverer in the crowd tremblingly obeyed. Mattathias struck him down, and, aiming another blow at the altar, called on all those who were ‘zealous for the law’ to follow him. There was an immediate rally to his side. The enemy was worsted for the day, and Mattathias and his party left the town at once, and raised the standard of revolt throughout the country. That was the beginning of the terrible unequal struggle, which lasted twenty-seven years, and ended in well-deserved victory for the Jews.
4. Chasidim and Zaddikim.—
In appealing to those who were ‘zealous for the law’ to gather round him, Mattathias secured at once a strong and enthusiastic following. For a large party had grown up among the Jews who were ‘zealous for the law’ in a very complete sense. They loved it devotedly, if sometimes, perhaps, just a little ostentatiously. These men were called Chasidim, Saints; and occasionally, it may be, they took on themselves the pretensions as well as the qualities attaching to the name. Side by side with these, there were many who contented themselves with just conforming to the law and doing their duty, as it were, in outline. Such were called, in Biblical language, Zaddikim, or ‘righteous.’ These righteous ones, it is possible, found the saints a little difficult to live up to. In reaction, they, at any rate, became occasionally a little less than ‘righteous,’ even somewhat lax and Grecianised Jews, and were called Hellenists.
5. The Success of Judas Maccabeus.—
Helped greatly by the Chasidim, Mattathias soon made head against the enemy. He had five strong, brave sons to work with him. To the second, Judas, he left the command when, soon after the campaign opened, he died. The little ragged following by that time had grown into a disciplined army. ‘Who is like to Thee among the gods, O Lord?’ (מִי־כָמֹכָה בָאֵלִם יְיָ) was the motto on their flag, and the answer seemed to come in the beaten ranks of the Syrians. The initial letters of these courageous, humble words (מכבי) were taken to form a surname for this family of heroes, of whom Judas is the central figure.
Victory did not come at once nor suddenly. It had to be worked for, and to be waited for at the sacrifice of much that was dear. The Chasidim were called on to give up for the cause some very strong religious scruples, and they showed themselves true patriots, as ready to yield their opinions as their lives in the service of their country. It was the mean custom of Apollonius, the chief general of Antiochus, to attack the Jews on the Sabbath, believing that on that day the rigid observance of ‘the law’ would prevent the Jews from defending themselves. The exceptional circumstances, however, were recognised by the leaders of the people, permission was given, and the Jews, the Chasidim among the rest, when attacked on the Sabbath, fought for their land and their faith as bravely as on week days.
6. Institution of Hanucah.—
Slowly and surely, step by step, this William Tell of Judaism wrested his country from the tight grip of the oppressor. The decisive battle of the campaign was fought out and won on the plains of Emmaus, some seventeen miles to the west of the capital. Judas Maccabeus marched unopposed with his triumphant troops into Jerusalem, and on the twenty-fifth of Kislev 3592 (B.C. 169) the נֵר חָמִיד was gladly and solemnly relighted in the now cleansed and reconsecrated temple. A joyful dedication service was held, and its anniversary was instituted as a religious and historical observance among the Jews.
7. Treaty with Rome.—
Judea was won back for the Jews. But could the Jews hold it? That was the question which, after a very short experience, presented itself to their brave commander. The little ‘kingdom of priests’ had transformed itself into a camp of soldiers; the nation of ‘witnesses’ had given evidence; but could the possession they had gained for themselves be kept by themselves? Judas Maccabeus knew enough of his countrymen to doubt it. He believed that without allies it would be impossible for the Jews to retain Judea. Syria had been a dangerous enemy, and seemed likely to prove a yet more dangerous friend. Not long after the re-dedication of the temple Antiochus Epiphanes had died, and after the taking of Jerusalem by the Jews a sort of truce had been arranged.
For a short while the Syrian succession was disturbed by a usurper. When the rightful heir came to his own, he wished to include Judea in that category. But he proved a little too paternal in his ideas. He took it upon himself to nominate a high priest, perhaps reckoning that the party feeling between Chasidim and Zaddikim would induce a strong difference of opinion on the subject of the succession, and that the section of the people whom he pleased by his nomination would become his adherents. He was a little too clever.
The Zaddikim, who were already the Hellenist party in the State, did seem a trifle flattered at this foreign interest displayed in their affairs, but Judas and the great body of the Jews rightly resented it. The Syrian overtures were gravely declined by Judas, and Alkimos, the Syrian nominee, backed up though he was by a Syrian general, was deprived of his dignity. Syria fought for her candidate, and was defeated. His success, however, only made Judas the more certain of his difficulties. He took the bold step of proclaiming Judea an independent state, and sent an embassy to Rome to ask for an alliance. The embassy was kindly received, and the alliance accepted.