Judah Maccabee Recaptures the Temple
When people talked of sounding the trumptes (such as the trumpets that destroyed the walls of Jerich) they meant the ram horns, as depicted in this picture. It is still used on the Jewish high holidays.
They were three thousand men; they had no horses and certainly no elephants. “Ill-armed by reason of their poverty,”Josephus emphasizes. So badly equipped that Judas found it necessary to repeat that they would win even if their fought with no clothes on their naked bodies. They believed him and followed him, but in truth they had no chance whatsoever to win. They needed a miracle – and what happened next might be considered a very real one. Against all reason or logic, the celebrated General Gorgias made a tactical mistake.
Instead of simply marching against the scruffy guerillas, Gorgias separated his soldiers into two groups. He took five thousand foot soldiers and one thousand cavalry soldiers, and employing some renegade Jews as guides, decided to attack Judah’s camp at night and simply slaughter everyone. Arriving there, he saw the camp was empty, and assumed they had escaped to the mountain, to conduct their guerilla
campaign from there. Naturally he went further to seek them.
But they were not at the mountain. It is not clear how Judah found out what Gorgias had in mind, but somehow he did, and realized that this was his one chance since the enemy was divided. So Judah had his men eat a good supper, and then, leaving all the fires burning so the camp would look occupied, marched all night toward Gorgias’ camp. At daybreak, Judah and his three thousand men arrived at the camp. They sounded the trumpets and attacked the unsuspecting Greek-Syrian soldiers who were so surprised and confused that they were no match to the fury the Jews brought to battle. The Jews killed every soldier that showed resistance, and pursued the rest as far as Gadara, the plains of Idumea, Ashdod, and Jamnia, all of them quite a distance. The Jews killed three thousand enemy soldiers that day.
With extraordinary self control, Judah forbade his army to do any looting. He explained to them that there was still the other half of Gorgias’ army to deal with, so they could not burden themselves with spoils. After a victory against the remaining army, he said, then they could get all the spoils they wanted. Incredibly, the soldiers obeyed. Their loyalty paid off, since at that time the remaining army of Gorgias realized what happened, as they saw the smoke that came up from their camp which Judah had just destroyed. Terrified, the Greek-Syrian soldiers fled the area altogether. Judah, realizing the fight was over for this time, allowed his people to return to the abandoned camp and took gold, silver, weapons, precious fabrics – everything that could help them to finance the fight for freedom. This victory and the resulting spoils were decisive for the ongoing struggle.
Of course he knew this was not the end, so the next year Judah built his army to ten thousand men. Lysias tried again, and assembled sixty thousand footmen and five thousand horsemen – and they were defeated by the Jews. Five thousand of his people were killed by Judah’s army and he retreated. The records say: “Lysias observing the great spirit of the Jews, how they were prepared to die rather than lose their liberty, and being afraid of their desperate way of fighting, (my italics) as if it were real strength, he took the rest of the army back with him, and returned to Antioch, where he listed foreigners into the service, and prepared to fall upon Judea with a greater army.”
Other nations felt the same reluctance to deal with the mad Jews, and Judah Maccabee’s name struck terror in many hearts. He acquired a semi-mythological standing, a reputation of being supernatural in his powers. He did not disillusion anyone. Realizing that this state of his affairs was a welcome reprieve, Judah decided it was time to fulfill the big dream– and purify the Temple from all signs of the invasion.
It was a huge undertaking. First, he had to free the Temple from the guards who guarded the Citadel. That was not too difficult, but once in, he saw that the Temple was in a terrible state. It was winter, late in the month of Chislev by the Jewish calendar, which corresponds more or less to December. On the mountainous area around Jerusalem it was cold, dark, and rainy, and the deserted Temple would appear at its worst. After three full years of standing empty, the Temple seemed utterly deserted, the gates were burned down, and weeds grew between the stones inside and outside. The soldiers were horrified by what they saw, and started lamenting, but he stopped them and immediately set up a cleaning crew. They scrubbed and purged and hurled anything that belonged to the enemy outside the gates. They worked for days, but at last, after the Temple looked clean and strangely empty, Judah arranged to bring in new vessels, candlesticks, a table and an altar of incense, all made of gold. He hung up the veils at the gates, and added doors to them. He also took down the altar of burnt-offering, and built a new one of stones that he gathered together, stones that were never hewn with iron tools.
And so on the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev, they lighted the lamps that were on the candlesticks, and offered incense upon the altar of incense. They laid loaves of bread upon the table, and offered burnt-offerings upon the new altar. The legends say the festival started on the exact date of the desecration that happened three years before. Judah declared a celebration of eight days, and they followed the ancient customs with precision that gave them joy since it symbolized how they gained the freedom to pursue their own ways. Josephus says: “Now Judah celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted
them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights.”
When the festival was over, Judah rebuilt the walls around the city, and raised high towers with guards to watch against invasion, including fortifications of the city Bethsura to serve as an additional citadel. It would not be easy to conquer Jerusalem any time soon.
Some important questions remain. Why decide on eight days? Why call it the festival of Lights? The Talmudic rabbis later explained it by telling about the miracle of the little bit of oil found by Judah at the Temple. Miraculously, it was sufficient for lighting the menorah for eight full days. The miracle of the oil is not historical and is not mentioned by any of the sources. What does this discrepancy mean? Basically, it means that the Talmudic rabbis knew very well that the war was entirely acceptable, and they preferred to celebrate a religious miracle to the other option – a horrific war that was not really launched only against the Greek-Syrians. They did not want us to forget that Judah, the rest of the Hasmonean brothers, and earlier, their father Mattathias, fought against other Jews as well, and killed them without batting an eyelash. The war was not only to free Judea from oppression. It was fought to stomp assimilation by those Jews who wished to follow Hellenism, and therefore, it was a violent civil war as well as a war against the oppressors. One cannot deny the glory and bravery of the Hasmoneans – but it is best to remember that they could also be seen as dangerous religious fanatics and utterly power hungry. The next generation of the dynasty would show these traits clearly enough.