A landscape in the Judean hills
The End of the Beginning
With his brother dead, surrounded by the enemy, Judah decided to retire to Jerusalem and prepare for a siege, defending the temple and the city against the Greek-Syrians. This was not his preferred way to fight since the Jews were better at the open field, where their fury could destroy the enemy. The limited space in the city dampened their spirit. Also, it was the worst time for them to be stuck in a long siege, since it was the “seventh year” in agricultural terms. During the seventh year the land lied fallow and nothing grew on it. This was one of the laws that were kept very scrupulously. From King James Bible: “But the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie still; that the poor of your people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive yard.” In addition to charity, it was a very sound and sustainable agricultural habit. But no matter how good it was in principle, Judah and his army had very limited provisions.
Antiochus went to Bethsura, near Jerusalem, and in a very short time took it and placed his own garrison there. This position gave him an easy reach to Jerusalem, and he started his siege. The forces were more or less matched. Antiochus set his artillery with engines and instruments to cast fire and stones, and pieces to cast darts and slings. But for every war engine he utilized, the Jews used another against it. They fought hard, but time was on Antiochus’s side, since the supplies were beginning to run very low indeed and the Jews experienced true famine. Many of Judah’s men managed to run away back to their homes, and the situation became desperate.
At that time Antiochus received terrible news. Lysias heard that Philip, the same loyal Philip that the King’s father, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes trusted with his kingdom and his son’s upbringing, betrayed them. He left Persia, traveled back to Syria, intending to take the kingship to himself. The king and Lysias knew they simply had to go back to Syria and defeat the usurper, but did not want to tell the army about Philip’s betrayal. It is possible that they thought the army would side with Philip, but there is no record as to why they thought so. Josephus describes it in interesting detail: “The king commanded Lysias to speak openly to the soldiers and the officers, without saying a word about the business of Philip; and to intimate to them that the siege would be very long; that the place was very strong; that they were already in want of provisions; that many affairs of the kingdom wanted regulation; and that it was much better to make a league with the besieged, and to become friends to their whole nation, by permitting them to observe the laws of their fathers, while they broke out into this war only because they were deprived of them, and so to depart home. When Lysias had discoursed thus to them, both the army and the officers were pleased with this resolution.” It seems that the amazing “about face” did not bother the army who was beginning to get sick and tired of these rebels and just wanted to go home.
One can only imagine Judah’s amazement when the king sent for him and offered unconditional peace. Religious freedom would be fully restored, the Jews could live by their own laws, and the Temple was returned to the Jews. The king fully admitted and recognized that the rebellion happened because the ancient laws were abolished. Judah accepted the offer, knowing that the object of the rebellion was fully achieved. The king departed, leaving the Jews to their restored freedom. Was this the end of strife, with peace and prosperity restored to Judea? Of course not, because once free of the Syrians, they had to admit that they were really two factions, and the internal conflicts would lead to more bloodshed. But for a fleeting, wonderful moment, freedom was glorious indeed.
What were petty enmities and troubles between the Hellenistic Jews and the fully Hebraic Jews, now became a looming problem. The Hellenists despised the religious zeal and intolerance practiced by the Hebraic Jews. The Hebraic Jews saw the Hellenistic Jews as traitors. There was no way to reconcile the two factions, and a full-fledged civil war raged over Judea. At one point, the Hellenist faction went so far as to contact the new Syrian king, Demetrius, and ask him to send an army to help them defeat Judah.
The king contacted an old friend, General Nicanor, and asked him to defeat Judah once and for all. Nicanor decided to try treachery first, hoping he could avoid an open fight with what the Syrians considered a half-crazed individual. Josephus tells: “He sent Judah a message of peace, and said there was no manner of necessity for them to fight and hazard themselves; and that he would give him his oath that he would do him no harm, for that he only came with some friends, in order to let him know what king Demetrius' intentions were, and what opinion he had of their nation.”
Judah suspected nothing. He agreed to meet with Nicanor, and they met near Jerusalem. But while Nicanor was saluting Judah he gave a secret signal to his soldiers. It meant that they were to seize Judah. Somehow, Judah perceived the treachery, ran back to his own soldiers, and fled away with them. I find it infuriating that with all this information, we are not told how he figured it out. His senses must have been as sharp as a lion’s, the majestic animal to whom he was always compared. Nicanor most likely sighed with utter frustration, because fighting with Judah and his army was not a pleasant experience, and now he was forced into an open battle. He met Judah near the village of Capharsalama and defeated him, so the Jews retreated to the Jerusalem Citadel. But that was a mere skirmish; Nicanor prepared for another battle, vowing to make this a decisive one.
The day of the great battle arrived. Nicanor camped at Bethoron, and was joined by a second army that came from Syria. He had nine thousand soldiers. Judah pitched his camp at the village of Adasa. He had only one thousand soldiers. And yet again, Judah won. How did he win such an impossible battle is a mystery, because even Josephus, so pro-Judah, admits that Nicanor fought well. Many Syrians were killed – among them Nicanor himself. Their leader’s death completely demoralized the Syrian army. They threw down their arms and ran wildly. While pursuing them, Judah sounded the trumpets, signaling to the villages ahead that they should expect them. The villagers hastily put on their armor, and met the enemy who were now surrounded from front and back. The battle was indeed decisive.
A period of peace followed. At that time, the high priest died, and the people asked Judah to assume the priesthood, which he accepted. He made Simon the general of the army, but his thoughts were always on preserving the peace, since he would never trust the Greek-Syrians. He heard about the power of the Romans, and how they conquered Galatia, Iberia, Carthage, Libya, and Greece, and the idea came to him to seek their friendship. He sent a delegation of ambassadors to Rome, and they were cordially accepted by the Senate. The matter was discussed, and the Romans granted them a league of assistance, and made a decree concerning it. It was laid up in the capitol, engraved in brass, and a copy was sent to Judea. The decree said: "The decree of the senate concerning a league of assistance and friendship with the nation of the Jews. It shall not be lawful for any that are subject to the Romans to make war with the nation of the Jews, nor to assist those that do so, either by sending them corn, or ships, or money; and if any attack be made upon the Jews, the Romans shall assist them, as far as they are able; and again, if any attack be made upon the Romans, the Jews shall assist them. And if the Jews have a mind to add to, or to take away any thing from, this league of assistance, that shall be done with the common consent of the Romans. And whatsoever addition shall thus be made, it shall be of force." This decree was written by Eupolemus the son of John, and by Jason the son of Eleazar, who headed the delegation.
Joining forces with the Romans was a creative idea, but it did not do much good. King Demetrius was not going to forget the death of Nicanor, and the destruction of his army. He sent another general, Bacchides, with a huge army into Judea, and they pitched their camp at Arbela in Galilee. There, he killed many Jews who hid in the mountain caves, then set out to Jerusalem.
Judah, even as high priest, knew he had to command the army; this was too big a job for Simon. He pitched his camp in Bethzetho, with a thousand soldiers. Bacchides had twenty thousand footmen, and two thousand horsemen. For some reason, the Jewish soldiers, who had never shown fear before, panicked at the sight of Bacchides’ huge army. So much so, that two hundred deserted Judah, and he was left with only eight hundred men. They were not in a good state of mind, and told Judah that they did not feel they had sufficient numbers for fighting such a huge army as they had in front of them. They suggested that they should leave, and regroup some other time, when they could gather a bigger army. Judah would not listen. His recorded answer was this: "Let not the sun ever see such a thing, that I should show my back to the enemy and although this be the time that will bring me to my end, and I must die in this battle, I will rather stand to it courageously, and bear whatsoever comes upon me, than by now running away bring reproach upon my former great actions, or tarnish their glory." Such was Judah psychological power, that incredibly, the men stayed. Eight hundred men against twenty two thousand warriors. Did Judah truly believe he could win such a battle? Even with his supernatural past successes, it is hard to accept that he could expect to do so. But he stayed and made his followers stay. Was it hubris, belief in God, sheer insanity? What could have been his thoughts? We will never know.
Bacchides placed the horsemen on both wings, the light soldiers and archers before the army, and put himself on the right wing. He commanded the trumpeters to give the sign of battle and made his soldiers shout loudly. Both armies fought well until sunset. Judah, looking for an advantage point, saw that the strongest part of the army was on the right side, surrounding Bacchides. Calling for his most courageous men, he ran upon the enemy like a furious storm. The sudden attack broke their ranks and drove the whole right wing into the middle, in a horrible melee which confused the enemy to such an extent that they ran away, in the direction of the Aza mountain, and Judah and his men pursued them. But the tactic did not pay off. The left wing saw that the right wing and the middle were put to flight, so they ran after Judah and swarming behind him, created a circle that completely surrounded the Jews.
Unable to escape, Judah stood completely still for a moment, as if frozen in time, and then burst into the fury that made him seem supernatural to his enemies, whirling and killing scores around him. The other Jews joined in the bloodbath and killed many Greek-Syrians. But this could not last indefinitely; they were too few, and no matter how many they killed, more Greek-Syrians kept coming. Judah was severely wounded. It did not stop him from fighting, and while bleeding heavily, he continued to destroy all those who came against him, never stopping, when suddenly, still brandishing his sword, he fell dead to the ground. Josephus says: “He fell and gave up the ghost, and died in a way like to his formerfamous actions.” It is a good and true obituary for a demi-god.
The shock of his death stopped both armies long enough to allow Judah’s soldiers to run away. It seems that everyone, friend and foe, could not believe what they were seeing. Somehow, no one expected him Judah Maccabee to die, since even in his own lifetime he was already a legend. But there he was, lying on the blood-soaked ground, and they moved away in awe.
Later, a treaty was signed and Simon and Jonathan received the dead body from the enemy. They carried it to the village of Modin, to bury him near his father, Mattathias. He was lamented for days, weeks, months. With his death, Judea lost a general, a high priest, and a symbol, and the first phase of the Hasmonean revolt ended. The wars would continue, but the blazing glory had dimmed.