The Maccabean Revolt
(168 - 135 BC)

by Al Maxey

(Mattathias) (Judas) (Jonathan) (Simon)

Antiochus IV, Epiphanes was determined to completely destroy all worship of the one true God. In his efforts to accomplish this end he slaughtered many thousands of the people of Israel. Women who had circumcised their babies were executed with their dead babies hung around their necks (I Maccabees 1:60-61). It was his belief that such visible acts of extreme cruelty would discourage the Jews from following after their God.

The mistake of Antiochus, however, was in his underestimation of the devotion of the majority of the Israelites to their God, and the enduring power of their faith. This underestimation would cost him dearly. Not long after he defiled the Temple, the first stirrings of a revolt surfaced in an unexpected part of the empire, led by a relatively unknown Jewish family. This would grow into a bloody struggle for Jewish independence which has come to be known in history by several names --- The Maccabean Revolt --- The Hasmonean Period --- The Period of Independence.

MATTATHIAS (168 - 166 BC)

In the little village of Modein, which was 17 miles NW of Jerusalem, there lived an aged priest of God named Mattathias, who had five sons --- John, Simon, Judas, Eleazer, and Jonathan. This family is sometimes referred to as the Hasmoneans (a designation derived from "Asmoneus," the name of one of their ancestors). More frequently, however, they are called the Maccabeans (a nickname meaning "hammerer").

In 167 BC Antiochus sent some of his officers to the village of Modein to force the Jews living there to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Mattathias, as a leader in the city, was commanded by the officers to be the first person to offer a sacrifice -- as an example to the rest of the people. He refused with a noble speech reminiscent of the words of Joshua in Joshua 24:14-15 (see: I Maccabees 2:15-22).

Because of the determination of Mattathias, and fearing bloody reprisals against the people for his refusal, a certain Jew stepped forward and volunteered to offer the sacrifices to the pagan gods in the place of this aged priest. At this point Mattathias was overcome with a passionate zeal to defend his God, and he killed this Jewish man, as well as the officers of the king. He then tore down the altar to the pagan gods and ran through the village shouting, "Let everyone who is zealous for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me!" (I Maccabees 2:27). He and his sons, along with a good number of followers, fled to the mountains of the Judean wilderness.

These men organized themselves into a large, powerful guerrilla-warfare army, and soon began to launch raids against the towns and villages of the land, tearing down the pagan altars, killing the officials of Antiochus, and also executing those Jews who were worshipping the pagan gods. The aged priest Mattathias was much too old for such a rigorous lifestyle, however, and died in 166 BC just as the rebellion was gaining momentum. He chose wisely, though, when he left his son Judas in charge of the rebel forces.

JUDAS (166 - 160 BC)

In the early days of this growing revolt against his authority and abuses, Antiochus again made a major mistake -- he vastly underestimated the power and zeal of this band of Jewish rebels. He assumed this was little more than a minor incident which would be quickly put down. Therefore, he sent out some of his less capable generals, with only a small army, to seek out the rebels and put down the rebellion. It would prove to be a costly miscalculation.

These generals and their forces were simply not equal to Judas, who was possibly one of the greatest military minds in all of Jewish history! Even though greatly outnumbered, Judas and his rebels defeated general after general in battle. He overpowered General Appolonius near Samaria; he routed General Seron in the valley of Beth-horan; and in a tremendous victory south of Mizpah he conquered three generals, who led a combined army of 50,000 troops .... and he did it with only 6000 poorly equipped Jewish rebels!! The people of Israel gave Judas the nickname "Maccabeus" because of his great daring and success in "hammering" the enemy forces into the ground.

Antiochus soon realized he had a full-scale rebellion on his hands, and that it was far more serious than he had originally believed. He decided, therefore, to end the revolt in a most dramatic fashion, and to exterminate the Jewish people in the process. He sent Lysias, the commander-in-chief of the Seleucid army, along with 60,000 infantrymen and 5000 cavalry, to utterly destroy the Jews. This vast army was additionally commanded by two generals serving under Lysias -- Nicanor and Gorgias. This powerful army finally encountered Judas, who had a force of only 3000 poorly equipped rebels, in the town of Emmaus, which was just over 7 miles from Jerusalem. Judas managed to gather together another 7000 rebels, but was still terribly outnumbered. He prayed to God for strength and deliverance (I Maccabees 4:30-33), and God answered! They won a huge victory over the Seleucid army!

Judas then determined to enter Jerusalem and liberate the city, and also to purify the Temple and rededicate it to God. When they entered the holy city, the extent of the destruction which they beheld caused them to be overwhelmed by grief (I Maccabees 4:36-40). Their grief, however, soon turned to determination and action. They set about the task of driving the enemy out of the city, and also of cleaning up the Temple. On December 25, 165 BC (exactly three years after Antiochus had defiled the altar of God by offering a pig upon it), the Temple of God was rededicated to God with rejoicing and sacrifices. The celebration continued for eight days. This is the famous "Feast of Lights" (Hanukkah) which is still celebrated by the Jews to this day.

Having finally achieved the liberation of Jerusalem, and the restoration of their religious practices in the Temple, Judas and his rebels now turned their attention to the task of seeking to liberate all of Palestine from pagan control. Within a rather brief period of time they were able to regain possession of much of the land. However, their successes were short-lived, for Lysias, now acting as king after the death of Antiochus, who had died during a military campaign in Persia, gathered a large army and marched upon Jerusalem.

In the autumn of 163 BC, Lysias, and an army of 120,000 men and 32 war elephants, met Judas and his army 10 miles SW of Jerusalem. Lysias made the elephants drunk on grape and mulberry wine so they would stampede over the Jewish rebels (I Maccabees 6:34). This time Judas was unable to prevail, and although they killed 600 of the enemy soldiers, they were nevertheless forced to retreat into the city of Jerusalem. During this battle, Eleazer (the younger brother of Judas) died in a most heroic manner when he single-handedly attacked a large elephant that he believed to be carrying the enemy king (I Maccabees 6:42-46). Lysias surrounded Jerusalem in the hopes of starving the Jews into submission. But during this siege he learned that one of his rivals was marching against his own capital city in an effort to overthrow him and take the throne. Being anxious to return home and defend his throne, he made an offer of peace to Judas -- the Jews would be allowed to worship their God unmolested, if they would remain politically loyal to the Seleucid Empire. Judas agreed to these terms, and Lysias and his army departed.

Although the rebellion now appeared to be at an end, the Jews were nevertheless soon deprived again of peace. The Hellenistic Jews began seeking to force their beliefs and practices upon the pious Hebraic Jews. This led to civil war between Judas and his followers and the Hellenistic Jews. The Hellenists were able to convert large numbers of the rebels, and they convinced the Seleucids to send an army to defeat Judas. In 160 BC, Judas and his 800 men were surrounded by the enemy, and almost all of them, including Judas, were killed. Only a handful escaped and fled into the Wilderness of Judea. With the death of Judas, the first phase of the Maccabean struggle ended.

JONATHAN (160 - 142 BC)

The band of surviving rebels chose Jonathan, the brother of Judas, to be their new leader. For the next couple of years they continued to hide out in the wilderness, building up their forces. Jonathan was much more of a diplomat than a warrior, and for many years he was able to make progress for his people through diplomacy rather than military force.

In 152 BC civil war broke out in the Seleucid Empire between two factions who both wanted the throne. The factions were led by Demetrius II, the rightful king, and the pretender to the throne, Alexander Balas. Both sides sought the help of Jonathan and his growing army of rebel forces. Jonathan, however, straddled the fence between the two factions, watching to see who would gain the upper hand before committing himself. At the same time he became increasingly friendly with both Rome and Sparta. When the civil war ended, Jonathan had managed to place himself on the winning side, and as a reward was made the new High Priest in Jerusalem, as well as Governor of Judea and a member of the Syrian nobility. His brother Simon was made Governor of the Philistine coastal region.

During the next decade the Empire was beset time and again with revolutions and rebellions from various conquered peoples, and also by challenges to the throne. Nevertheless, Jonathan, by virtue of his skills in diplomacy, managed to survive and remain in the good graces of those in power. In fact, he even took advantage of the confusion in the Seleucid Empire by quietly extending his control over territories beyond Judah's borders.

In 143 BC, however, Jonathan miscalculated in a very tricky diplomatic situation, and he was taken prisoner by the Seleucids. His brother Simon immediately assumed control of the rebel forces in Jonathan's place, and began to prepare Jerusalem for battle with the Seleucid army. The enemy soldiers advanced upon Jerusalem, but were trapped in a severe snow storm just as they were about to attack. Their instruments of war were thus rendered useless, so in their frustration they executed Jonathan and then retreated. The year was 142 BC.

SIMON (142 - 135 BC)

A few months later, civil war again broke out in the Seleucid Empire over who would be king. Once again the warring factions appealed to the Jews for support in their struggle. Simon, who was also an able diplomat, took advantage of this situation and managed to negotiate the complete independence of the Jewish people as a condition of his support. Thus, through Simon's maneuverings, the Jews were at last free -- after almost 400 years of foreign bondage and oppression.

Two years later, in the summer of 140 BC, the people of Israel made Simon the leader of the newly formed nation, and they made this supreme office a hereditary one. Thus, Simon became the High Priest (the religious leader), the Commander of the Army (the military leader), and the King (the political leader). Although he was not actually referred to as "king," nevertheless that was essentially the position which he held.

Under his leadership the nation enjoyed peace and prosperity (I Maccabees 14:4-15). Unfortunately, Simon, like his other brothers, was destined to die a violent and tragic death. His son-in-law, who was Governor of Jericho, decided to attempt to seize power for himself. He convinced the new Seleucid king, Antiochus VII, to support him, and he then murdered Simon and two of his sons in 135 BC.

A third son of Simon's, John Hyrcanus, managed to escape the slaughter. By out-maneuvering his brother-in-law, and by paying heavy taxes to the Seleucids, he was able to retain power. The Seleucids, however, exercised control over Palestine until the death of Antiochus VII in 128 BC.

With the death of Simon, the last of the sons of the aged priest Mattathias, the heroic period of Jewish history known as the Maccabean Revolt came to an end.

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