The Military History of Hanukkah
When a Christian encounters the name “Judas,” he or she instinctively thinks of Judas Iskariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ to his persecutors in the new Testament. When a Jew encounters the name, he or she is just as likely to think of the hero behind the holiday of Hanukkah, Judas Maccabeus.
Judah the Hammer
As with Jesus, the heroic Judas’ most familiarly known moniker is based on Greek, the language of his Hellenistic adversaries. The third of five sons born to Mattathias of the Hasmonean family, priest ( cohen ) of Modein—the others being Eleazar, Simon, John and Jonathan—his Hebrew name was Yehuda HaMakab, or Judah the Hammer.
Judah was originally a cohen in his own right and the circumstances that thrust him into the military limelight were tragically avoidable. After the death of King Alexander III (the Great) of Macedon in 323 BCE, his vast empire was partitioned into three regions, Macedonia under his direct successors, Egypt under the dynasty of his General Ptolemy and the Seleucid kingdom, based in what is now Syria, administering western Asia, including Judea.
For almost two centuries the Seleucids, like the Persians whose power they had displaced, were content to let the many cultures under their aegis practice their customs and religions without interference, just as long as they swore fealty to the Seleucid king. During that time, however, the art, science and philosophy of Hellenic civilization that Alexander's heirs brought with them was embraced to differing degrees by subjects either genuinely attracted by them or hoping that doing so would be to their political or social advantage.
That included a good many Jews, who began to mix aspects of their traditional religion with that of their polytheistic rulers. Stricter advocates of the Ten Commandments, including Mattathias, found such theological compromises intolerable and made no secret of it.
Training An Army
Still, the Seleucids—including Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) when he ascended to the throne on September 9, 175 BCE—continued a policy of laissez- faire, until a series of intrigues, bribery and corruption among the Judean governors and an unsuccessful coup attempt against him led Antiochus to impose Hellenism on all his subjects in 168 BCE, as a measure toward achieving cultural unity.
In regard to Judea, that included forcing the Jews to abandon their dietary laws, work on the Sabbath, and cease circumcising their sons. He also ordered the syncretic Jews to install graven images of Hellenic gods and goddesses in the Second Temple of Jerusalem and had a citadel for a garrison to enforce the new policy.
If Antiochus thought his assimilationist acts would eventually lead to greater homogeneity and thereby more loyalty among his subjects, he would soon learn how wrong he was. In 167 BCE, when a Jewish Hellenist arrived to replace Mattathias as priest of Modein, Mattathias killed him and the Greek soldier accompanying him, destroyed the Greek altar they had brought and then took to the nearby hills with his sons. There they began enlisting and training fellow pietists to form an army to oppose the Seleucid forces.
When they were in towns engaged in their clandestine efforts to gather forces in town, they devised a cover for their subversive activities by playing a game with a spinning top whenever a Greek or known Jewish Hellenist passed by. That top, or dreidel, has been a part of the Hanukkah tradition ever since.
As rebel forces grew, they began what the Seleucids undoubtedly would have labeled a terrorist campaign, striking out from town to town destroying Hellenistic altars, forcing Jewish boys to be circumcised and killing Hellenized Jews.
As Seleucid forces were dispatched to hunt down the rebels and resecure their control over Judea, Judas seems to have come to the fore as a military leader, organizing his followers into a small but growing and disciplined army. Sometime between the springs of 166 and 165 BCE Mattathius died, but his sons carried on for him with a series of dramatic events that raised the Hasmonean revolt to a higher level.
Hit And Run Tactics
At the Battle of the Ascent of Lebanon Judas led a night attack that scattered a column of Samaritan warriors marching to join a Syrian army and personally defeated and killed their commander, Apollonius. Soon afterward, at Beth Horon, Judas and his fighters ambushed the Syrian force in a pass, sending it and its commander, Seron, fleeing.
Then, in September 165, while another, larger Seleucid army commanded by Gorgias was scouring the region for the rebels, Judas and a large detachment slipped into the main camp at Emmaus, overwhelmed its defenders and helped themselves to enough much needed arms, armor and supplies to equip a viable army. By now Judas was being called Makebet (the Hammer), a sobriquet that was later applied to his brothers and ultimately to all of his military followers.
At this point the Hellenized Jews and Judas’ pietists made an attempt to restore peaceful coexistence, but negotiations broke down and Antiochus sent more troops, led by his regent, Lysias into Judea. At the same time, he led an expedition against another, greater threat to his kingdom, the Parthians.
As Lysias moved on Jerusalem he was intercepted by Judas’ still-smaller army at Beth Zur, north of Hebron. What little is known from the biblical accounts suggest that Judas reverted to hit and run tactics, striking at Seleucid units and disengaging before reinforcements could reach them.
The Hammer’s well-practiced skills at guerrilla fighting wore down his opponents while denying Lysias the chance at a decisive blow.
For their own part, the Jews chalked up the Battle of Beth Zur as the decisive victory that directly preceded their retaking of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple, but it was only one of two coinciding factors behind the Maccabean triumph. The other was the arrival in the Seleucid camp that November news that Antiochus had died of disease while campaigning in Armenia, leaving a nine-year-old son, Antiochus V Eupator, as his successor. As regent to the kingdom, Lysias needed to disengage and march his troops back to the royal capital of Antioch to secure the succession. The Hasmonean revolt could—and would—have to wait.
The Hanukkah Miracle
So it was that on the 25th day in the Hebrew month of Kislev (approximately December) of 164 BCE, Judas Maccabeus led his makeshift army into Jerusalem, leaving the Seleucid-built fortified citadel known as the Akra and its garrison of Greeks and Hellenized Jews unmolested but isolated within the city. He focused instead on cleansing the Temple, removing the Hellenistic idols and relighting the candles.
It is here that the sole divine miracle of Hanukkah (“dedication”) appears in the story. With only enough oil to light the Temple for a single day, the Maccabees made do with what they had, but the flames burned through eight nights until more oil was found to keep it lit.
As important as the Temple’s rededication was, Judas’ labors were by no means ended. He faced the responsibilities of administering the lands under his control while anticipating an inevitable backlash from the Seleucids, starting with a long—and unsuccessful—siege of the Akra. Indeed, once Antiochus V was firmly on the throne, Lysias returned to Judea with an army estimated at numbering 50,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry and 30 war elephants.
After briefly besieging and taking Beth Zur, he met Judas in open battle at Beth Zechariah. The Jews had no more than 20,000 fighters at hand, but the fourth of Mattiathus’ sons, Eleazar Avaran, thought he recognized Lysias’ war elephant and, hoping he could win the battle by killing the enemy commander as brother Judas had done at the Ascent of Lebanon, he charged into the enemy line and mortally speared the elephant—only to perish when the beast toppled on him. Beth Zechariah ended in victory for Lysias and a personal tragedy for Judas, though he was able to recover from the defeat with most of his army intact.
Lysias next laid siege to Jerusalem, but 163 had been a fallow year and food was a limited commodity for both sides. In addition, political troubles were again brewing in Antioch. Therefore Lysias and Judas negotiated a deal: Lysias signed an agreement to lift Antiochus IV’s anti-Jewish laws, restoring freedom of worship to Judean Hellenist and pietist alike. The corrupt High Priest Menalaus was executed and a more acceptable successor sought out. The Jews in turn lifted their siege of the Akra but retained their arms as Lysias returned to Antioch.
What followed showed that Judea’s woes were not over. Soon after Lysias’ homecoming, the 11-year-old Antiochus V was overthrown and put to death, along with his regent, by his cousin, Demitrius I Soter. Among his first acts in a kingdom surrounded by enemies was to send another army, led by Bacchides, Governor of the Western Regions, to reinstate political control over Judea and install a new high priest, Alcimus, who appealed at least to the moderate pro- Seleucid Jews. Bacchides was then recalled and another commander, Nicanor, took charge as military governor of Judea.
Nicanor and Judas agreed to a truce, with Nicanor even offering Judas a deputy’s position in the government but it did not last long. Mobilizing their forces, the two leaders skirmished at Caphar-salama, a Jewish victory that killed 500 Seleucid troops and compelled Nicanor to withdraw behind the walls of Jerusalem. While he was there, rumors broke out of Nicanor blaspheming in the Temple and threatened to burn it if Alcimus did not help him to find and arrest Judas. This only raised local rancor and enlistments in the Maccabees’ ranks.
Forging An Independent Kingdom
In late winter (probably March) of 161 BCE Nicanor took to the field again and engaged Judas at Adasa, near Beth-Horon. Once again the loss of a commander decided the battle, in this case the death of Nicanor early in the fighting, after which the Seleucid soldier broke and fled.
News of the disaster at Adasa was accompanied by reports that Judas, a skilled diplomat as well as warrior, had been feeling out the possibilities of alliance with a new power that had been appearing in the Middle East: the Roman Republic. In 160 BCE, while Demetrius led an army east against a rebellious satrap, Timarchus, tyrant of Miletus, he ordered Bacchides back to reassert Seleucid rule over Judea with 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.
As he marched toward Jerusalem, Bacchides rounded up and massacred pietist Jews in Galilee, probably to set an example for the rebels and as a means of committing Judas to defend his land and people by meeting him in open battle. If that was his stratagem, it worked. As he approached Jerusalem in (Nisan (April) of 160 BCE, Bacchides found himself confronted on the flat but uneven terrain of a plateau between Elassa and Berea, near present-day Ramallah, by a comparable force of Maccabees.
Bacchides deployed his forces in classic Seleucid style, with a phalanx of spearmen flanked on both sides by cavalry and a skirmish line of archers and slingers up front. The governor-general himself commanded from the right-flank cavalry, a custom with which Judas was well aware.
The biblical accounts describe the Battle of Elasa as being fought from “morning until evening,” suggesting that both the commanders and their soldiers were evenly matched. At the later stage of the fighting, however, Judas sent all of his cavalry against the horse on the Seleucid right, in man attempt to settle the issue once more by slaying his counterpart. Bacchides, however, seems to have anticipated such a move and was prepared to exploit it. As Judas’ smaller cavalry unit attacked, the Seleucids gave way in what seemed to be disorder. As the Jews plunged deeper into the Seleucid right, however, Bacchides’ horsemen wheeled about, regrouped and countercharged.
At that critical moment Judas’ cavalrymen found the cavalry from the Seleucid left cutting off their escape route, having galloped behind the infantry line to complete the trap. Although flanked and disintegrating, a great number of Maccabean warriors went down fighting—including their commander. Unlike Eleazar’s, Judas’ remains were somehow recovered and given a proper burial ending with a quotation from King David’s lament to King Saul: “How the mighty have fallen!”
Regrouping from this defeat, Jonathan withdrew across the Jordan River while Bacchides tried to consolidate Seleucid rule. The latter ventured after Jonathan, but their next clash, fought on a Sabbath day, cost him about a thousand casualties. He then set about fortifying the Akra, Jericho, Emmaus, Beth-horon, Beth-el, Thamnata, Parathon, Tephon, Beth-zur and Gazara, but the countryside around those cities and towns remained unsafe for any Greeks or Hellenists and when the general returned to Antioch he found himself being summoned a third time, this time by the Jewish Hellenists. After several further defeats at Simon’s hands Bacchides contacted Jonathan and the two worked out a renewed treaty, with pledges of enforcement, then withdrew for home for the last time.
The story was not quite over and both Jonathan and Simon would be killed in the process, leaving John the last Hasmonean brother standing, but between 160 and 142 BCE Judea was an autonomous element of the Seleucid kingdom and in 141 it became an independent kingdom that in 139 BCE forged an alliance with the Roman Republic…but the consequences of that fateful decision constitute another story.
Remembering a Great military leader
The last great military leader of native-born Jews until the resurrection of the state of Israel in 1947, Judas Maccabeus is credited with preserving traditional Jewish monotheism against both the seductive power of assimilation and the might of an empire…especially when Hanukah rolls around.
Historically, he has found comparison with rebels taking on the odds worldwide throughout the centuries that followed, from Christian Armenian Vardan Marmikonian to Scotland’s William Wallace and Wales’ Owain Glyndwr, to American general George Washington and Haitian revolutionary Toussaint l’Ouverture.
Centuries’ worth of literary, musical and visual artwork has been hammered out in memory of Judas and his brothers. That said, one of the greater metaphoric stretches when it came to drawing historical parallels was Thomas Morell’s libretto to George Frederick Handel’s oratorio, Judas Maccabeus, when it was first publicly performed on April 1, 1747. There, it is the Jacobite Scots Highlanders under Charles Edward Stuart, aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” who are cast as the villainous Seleucids and the metaphoric “Conqu’ring Hero” is William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, whose victory at Culloden on April 16,1746 is praised for “saving” Hanoverian Britain…but whose draconian follow-up indelibly stamped him in Scottish memory as “the Butcher.”
Trust William Shakespeare, however, to catch the irony that others either failed to notice or chose to ignore. In Love’s Labour Lost, Judas is listed among the “Nine Worthies,” but still gets heckled just for having the same first name of that other Judas.