Judah Maccabee and the Impossible Battles
While Antiochus Epiphanes was wasting his time in the pursuit of money that would allow him to conquer the unconquerable, back in Judea the old Hasmonean lion, Mattathias, said his last goodbyes, and the young lion, Judah Maccabee, rose to take his place. While not too many people could have stepped into Mattathias shoes, Judah Maccabee was eminently suitable for the job. He shared his father’s religious zeal that could override any other emotion – for example, as noted in the previous segment, both men were comfortable killing their own countrymen who succumbed to the Hellenistic lure. To this was added military genius that cannot be overemphasized. With absolutely no resources, he managed to defeat the Greek-Syrians again and again, winning battles against established armies that had ten times more soldiers and weapons than he did.
Part of his success depended on his uncanny ability to hypnotize his troops into fearlessness similar to his own. After an impossible victory against Apollonius, the governor of Samaria, where Judah killed Apollonius and symbolically adopted his sword as his own weapon, Seron, the governor of Coel-Syria, decided to attack him. Seron inflated his army by not only adding mercenaries, but many Jews who objected to the Hasmoneans. Then he marched on and camped by the village of Bethoron, not far from where Judas and his soldiers camped.
For once, the Jewish guerillas were intimidated. For reasons that are not clear from any of the sources, they had not eaten that day and were tired. Perhaps it was a day of ritual fasting, or possibly they had just returned from another campaign, but the fact remains that they were faint with hunger, and they could see that Seron’s soldiers greatly outnumbered them. The conversation between the soldiers and Judah is quoted in the first Book of Maccabee, Chapter 3, and is more or less repeated by Josephus. Hearing their words over the two thousand years gap is strange and unsettling, since unlike myth, where magic can be encountered with equanimity, this is recorded history, and the surrealistic, almost psychedelic scene defies normal psychology. The soldiers said, “How shall we be able, being so few, to fight against so great a multitude and so strong, seeing we are ready to faint with fasting all day?”
Judah answered “It is no hard matter for many to shut up in the hands of a few; and with the God of heaven it is all one, to deliver with a great multitude, or a small company. For the victory of battle standeth not in the multitude of the host; but strength comes from heaven. They come against us in much pride and iniquity to destroy us, and our wives and children, and to spoil us. But we fight for our lives and laws. Wherefore the Lord himself will overthrow them before our face; and as for you, be ye not afraid of them.”
Such words were surely heard before from other desperate commanders, but what Judah did next determined the strange outcome. After making it clear to his soldiers that he expected them to hold the enemy in contempt, the next verse in the chapter says it all. “Now as soon as he had left off speaking, he leapt suddenly upon them, and so Seron and his host was overthrown before him. And they pursued them from the going down of Bethoron unto the plain, where were slain about eight hundred men of them; and the residue fled into the land of the Philistines.” The translation is somewhat convoluted, so I will rearrange the sentence a little to make it clearer: “As soon as he finished speaking, Judah leapt suddenly upon the enemy, and Seron and his host were defeated by him. And Judah’s army pursued Seron’s soldiers from the slopes of Bethoron into the plain. They killed about eight hundred of Seron’s soldiers, and those who lived fled into the sea coast.”
Judah leapt suddenly… which means that he did not wait to see how his soldiers reacted to his speech. He was so certain that his men would follow him, that he did not even see the need to hear their answer. And indeed, hungry, scared, and tired, the small company took on the mighty army and not only won the battle, but chased the remaining enemy to the sea coast.
This was the battle that made Antiochus determine that Judah must be destroyed, and his reactions were described in the last segment. As I mentioned there he left the country under the charge of a man he trusted, called Lysias. The instructions were clear – Lysias was responsible for everything, from protecting Antiochus’ young child, to looking after some of the troops he left behind, taking care of all the
elephants and governing the country. But most important, he had to fight Judah Maccabee. Antiochus told Lysias that “When he had subdued Judea and reduced its inhabitants to slavery, to make the end of Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish Race.” And with these words he left on his way to Persia.
Lysias got busy engaging generals to fight Judah. He took his instructions seriously and engaged three
great generals, highly respected by Antiochus. They were named Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes, Nicanor, and Gorgias. It seems that the operation was to be headed by Gorgias. Between them, the generals had forty thousand foot soldiers and seven thousand horsemen, quite a respectable army. They went to the town of Emmaus, about fifteen miles northwest of Jerusalem, and camped there. They were joined by Jewish allies who were willing to fight Judah, other allies from the surrounding lands, and slave dealers who came equipped with gold, silver, and chains since they planned to buy Judah’s defeated soldiers from the victorious Greek-Syrian generals. The presence of this last group proves that no one, absolutely no one, could expect Judah to win this battle.
Judah saw them coming. Once again, his aim was to abolish fear among his followers; he knew very well that only fearless fury could make them win. Therefore, following an ancient custom, he proceeded to reduce the number of his soldiers by sending some of them home. And if this sounds insane, it certainly was not; it was a strategy that had been used by the Jews for thousands of years, and always succeeded. Those who were building houses, or had just married or got engaged, or were in the middle of planting a vineyard, were told to go home. They might be too eager to live; they would fight with too little spirit. When these people came forward and were sent home, he commanded that anyone who felt fearful should admit it openly and leave. There was no disgrace involved. Honesty was essential, and everyone knew that the emotions can change from one battle to the next. Fearful people would endanger the entire enterprise – they would do the army a favor if they admitted to a temporary stage of anxiety, and they would be welcome to come back to the next battle.
After these people left, he divided his army in the old tradition of commanders of thousands, ommanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties and commanders of tens, and when everything was properly arranged, he spoke to his people. “No time will ever be given you, my comrades, when there will be more need for courage and contempt of danger than at the present moment. For if you now fight bravely, you may recover that liberty which is loved for its own sake by all men, but to you most of all happens to be desirable because it gives you the right to worship God. Since, therefore, at the present moment it lies in our power either to recover this liberty and regain a happy and blessed life, or to suffer the most shameful fate and to leave your race without any seed by being cowardly in battle, exert yourself accordingly, bearing in mind that death is the portion even of those who do not fight, and holding firmly to the belief that if you die for such precious causes as liberty, country, laws and religion, you will gain eternal glory. Make ready, therefore, and be prepared in spirit so that at daybreak tomorrow you may meet the enemy.”
The outcome of the battle will be discussed in the next segment.