Could Anyone Take Judah Maccabee's Place?
The shock of Judah's death reverberated throughout Judea. Today, it is hard for us to understand the depth of despair his followers, and particularly his brothers, succumbed to. They could not bring themselves to select a new High Priest. They did not have anyone whose charisma could create such fury, such fearlessness, that the army could win a battle against a force ten times their number, so they did not choose a commander in chief. And worst, they lost a guiding light, a symbol of freedom. The three brothers could perhaps be great leaders, but none of them had this undefined quality of a demigod, a mythological hero that Judah had even during his life time.
And so the war for freedom changed into something else. Many Jews were still willing to sacrifice their lives to free themselves from the Greek-Syrians, but the Hellenistic faction grew much stronger. A severe famine that followed Judah's death did not improve the people's mood. At times like that, people's faith is severely tested, and a large number of Jews lost theirs and deserted to the Greek-Syrians whose
lifestyle certainly had an appeal of comfort and ease that did not exist under the strict rules of the Hebraic Jews. General Bacchides knew this was the time to act, and he gathered many of the Jews who had given up the customs of their country and had chosen the kind of life common to other nations. Cleverly, he entrusted to them the government of Judea. Had it stayed like that, it would have been easy to understand and even accept. But the Hellenist Jews chose to do something truly horrible and unexpected.
They hunted and seized as many as they could of Judah’s followers and supporters, and delivered them to Bacchides. They knew full well that he would torture and kill them – their own countrymen – but chose to do so anyway. The remaining friends of Judah, desperate and fearful that their country was coming to an ignoble end, sent a delegation to Jonathan and begged him to assume the command and defend his country. Jonathan rose to the occasion. He shook away the mourning and inertia, and accepted the position, telling the delegate that he was prepared to die for them – like his brother. There and then, they appointed him officially as the Commander of the Jews.
Bacchides was not pleased. He knew Jonathan could cause just as much trouble to the king as his brother, and decided to kill him by treachery. But Jonathan, who knew Bacchides and his style, did not wait for the attack. He took his people and camped in a wilderness not too far from Jerusalem, by a body of water called the Pool of Asphar. Bacchides, therefore, had no choice but to prepare for a fight, and took an enormous army to encamp near the River Jordan. Jonathan began to move his own people to the same area, but in the meantime, sent his brother John to his allies, the Nabatean Arabs, to prepare for securing equipment.
John did not arrive at his destination. On the way, a group of people called Sons of Jambri from the town of Medaba, probably Amorites, fell upon the expedition, killed them all, and got away with their supplies. And so the third Hasmonean brother, John, was no more, and Jonathan and Simon vowed revenge. The opportunity came almost immediately. Jonathan and his brother Simon heard the news that the Sons of Jambri were about to celebrate a wedding. They arranged to bring the bride, the daughter of a prince from the town of Nadabatha, to the celebration, and the caravan would consist of about four hundred people, with musical instruments, drums, and gifts. They also had many valuable weapons. The caravan was to meet the bridegroom and his train in a specific spot. Jonathan, Simon and their soldiers hid in the mountain above that spot, ambushed the caravan, and killed every single person, including the bride; many unarmed people who were out for the party had nothing to do with the gang that killed John, other than belonging to the same people. It did not matter to Jonathan and Simon. After completing their mission of horror, Jonathan and Simon returned to their camp in the marshes of the River Jordan with enormous spoils. Had it been Judah in their place, he would have very likely spared the women and children at least, taking them to captivity, but times have changed.
Jonathan and Simon remained at the marshes of the Jordan, and Bacchides, wishing to employ more treachery, decided to attack Jonathan on Saturday, since he assumed the Jews never fought on that day. It is true that in past generations Jews martyred themselves so as not to fight on their holy day, but that was no more their way. Mattathias released them from this habit. They would never attack on Saturday, but if someone attacked them, and they had no way of escaping, they were permitted to fight.
When Bacchides attacked, Jonathan decided that since the Jews were hemmed between the river and the enemy, they were permitted to fight. It turned out to be the usual wild, furious battle, and the Jews killed many of the enemy, but nevertheless they had no chance for a long fight against the enormous numbers of the Greek-Syrians. Just as Jonathan was preparing to start retreating for the day, he saw Bacchides boldly advancing toward him. They stood face to face, for the first time. The two stood still for a few seconds; Jonathan probably thought about an eerily similar moment when Judah killed General Nicanor. And then Jonathan stretched out his right hand to strike Bacchides with his sword, but Bacchides saw the blow coming and evaded it. Seizing the moment, Jonathan leapt into the river with his companions and swam across, thus escaping to the other side of the Jordan.
Bacchides did not follow. It is hard to understand why, since it was a chance to rid himself from the two Hasmonean brothers once and for all. But instead, he returned to Jerusalem, and started a systematic occupation of various cities which he turned into strongholds. He imprisoned the sons of many noble Jews as hostages in these prisons. When Bacchides finished with all the garrisons he wanted to secure Judea with, he returned to his king in Syria. Unexpectedly, the violence between the Greek-Syrians and the Jews stopped for two full years – but will return with a vengeance.