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Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus IV)
It started with a blaze of glory of such magnitude, that despite the terror that followed, the light continued to shine in the consciousness of an entire nation for two thousand years; it does not seem to dim even now.
In the small town of Modin, not very far from Jerusalem, lived the family of the Hashmonai, or in English, the Hasmoneans. They were a priestly family, Cohanim in Hebrew, of an ancient lineage. We know the names of the father, Mattathias, a highly respected old man, and his five sons, Judas Maccabee, Jonathan, Simon, John and Eleazar. Their mother is not mentioned at all, but that is not uncommon in ancient Jewish literature. Contrary to the common idea that it was because the women were despised, it is really the opposite. Mentioning a lady’s name in public was thought to be disrespectful to her. Perhaps she passed away long before the events – which would have been a merciful fate.
At this time, around 175 B.C.E., Judea was ruled by the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus IV) who for reasons of state decided to change his father’s peaceful policy with the Jews. Up to that time, Judea had excellent relations with the Hellenistic Syrians, who were perfectly satisfied with taxes and military participation that the Jews were happily willing to provide, as long as no one interfered with their religious practices. The practical Seleucids realized that and kept their word.
Antiochus Epiphanes changed all that, and the level of atrocities he imposed on those who refused to convert to the pagan religions bordered on insanity. He wanted to show the Romans that his empire was united under one system, and nothing was going to stand in his way. Murder, mutilation, torture – he used everything he could to coerce the Jews to convert to paganism. In addition, his delegates humiliated the Jews by invading their holy Temple and introducing practices that were totally unacceptable to the Jewish Religion. To begin with, they entered areas that were only permitted to the select few of the priests. Second, they sacrificed pigs there, and pigs were forbidden for either food or sacrifice. In addition, the Jews were taxed to a point of total poverty, the Temple treasures were confiscated, and many Jews were systematically killed. The Jews endured, having no army, no weapons, and no other means of resistance. But it was a volatile situation which was just waiting to explode.
Mattathias. In Hebrew: מתתיהו בן יוחנן הכהן, Matithyahu ben Yoḥanan HakKohen
One day, a Syrian officer named Appeles came to Modin. He approached Mattathias and demanded that he would sacrifice to the Greek god Zeus. His reason, he said, was that Mattathias was a leader of his village, and therefore his actions would influence the others. Mattathias adamantly refused, risking his life, and at that moment, another Jew who lived in Modin came forward and performed the ritual instead. This one act was the last straw, probably because it was performed by a neighbor and friend. Mattathias went into a rage, and killed both the tax collector and the Jew who performed the rite. His sons, who had broad swords, joined and killed the soldiers who followed Appeles. In their fury, they pulled down the altar, and Mattathias cried: “Whoever is zealous for our country’s laws and the worship of God, let him come with me!” He turned around and walked away, followed by his five sons. They left all their possessions in Modin and took refuge in the nearby mountainous wilderness, to prepare for the return of the Syrians who were sure to pursue them. Many other people from Modin joined them, taking their wives and children, and thus the great revolt had begun.
For once acting with reason, the king tried to persuade them to repent and save their country from destruction. They refused. And the Syrians attacked a large group of Jews on Saturday, a day they could not fight in according to traditions that were already ancient two thousand years ago. They did not resist, and a huge number of Jews was slaughtered on that Saturday.
Mattathias and his sons were not at site of slaughter, and the remaining Jews followed and gathered around him. When he recovered from his grief and horror, Mattathias made an incredible decision – he allowed the Jews to fight on Saturday from that sad day on, as needed to save their lives.
For a year, Mattathias led the revolt, gathering a growing number of people to support it. They had no supplies, few weapons, and no money. But their fierce attacks and willingness to take any risk was such that they surprisingly won many victories, and tore down a great number of the offending altars. Their dream was to free the heavily defended Jerusalem and purify the Temple, but that seemed like an attainable dream. Nevertheless, Mattathias continue his brave resistance.
But he was an old man and his strength could not last. Knowing he was about to die, he gathered his sons around him and commanded them to continue the revolt and never give up. His speech, (particularly the version recorded by Josephus), is so intelligent, so inspiring, and so modern in spirit that I would like to present it in its entirety. This is the William Whiston translation, which is available to the public. I prefer the Ralph Marcus translation, but there is an issue of how much you can quote from the Loeb Classical Library, and therefore I will not take the risk of doing it illegally.
"O my sons, I am going the way of all the earth; and I recommend to you my resolution, and beseech you not to be negligent in keeping it, but to be mindful of the desires of him who begat you, and brought you up, and to preserve the customs of your country, and to recover your ancient form of government, which is in danger of being overturned, and not to be carried away with those that, either by their own inclination, or out of necessity, betray it, but to become such sons as are worthy of me; to be above all force and necessity, and so to dispose your souls, as to be ready, when it shall be necessary, to die for your laws; as sensible of this, by just reasoning, that if God see that you are so disposed he will not overlook you, but will have a great value for your virtue, and will restore to you again what you have lost, and will return to you that freedom in which you shall live quietly, and enjoy your own customs. Your bodies are mortal, and subject to fate; but they receive a sort of immortality, by the remembrance of what actions they have done. And I would have you so in love with this immortality, that you may pursue after glory, and that, when you have undergone the greatest difficulties, you may not scruple, for such things, to lose your lives. I exhort you, especially, to agree one with another; and in what excellency any one of you exceeds another, to yield to him so far, and by that means to reap the advantage of every one's own virtues. Do you then esteem Simon as your father, because he is a man of extraordinary prudence, and be governed by him in what counsels be gives you. Take Maccabeus for the general of your army, because of his courage and strength, for he will avenge your nation, and will bring vengeance on your enemies. Admit among you the righteous and religious, and augment their power."
Judah Maccabee took command – and proved himself to be not only a good guerilla fighter, but a true military genius. With the little he had to work with, he created an indomitable army, and won numerous victories, hoping to reach his great aim, liberating Jerusalem and the Temple.
To be continued in the next posting -- Stay tuned!.