What family fought for Israel’s freedom during the time between the writings of the Old and New Testaments? The Maccabees. In order to understand what they did, we must first understand the events that led up to their revolt.
In the book of Daniel, God foretold who would rule the world from the Babylonians to the Romans (Daniel 7–8). The book also mentioned a king of Greece who would become powerful (Daniel 8:21, 11:2–4). Alexander the Great fulfilled this prophecy. After he conquered Egypt, he marched to Jerusalem. Instead of resisting the Greek king, the Jews, dressed in white, went out to greet him. The ancient historian Josephus said the high priest at this time was Jaddua. When Jaddua approached Alexander, everyone was surprised to see the mighty warrior dismount from his magnificent white horse and bow down to the Jewish priest. Alexander claimed to have seen Jaddua in a dream, and because of this, he showed him great respect. After being shown the prophecy in Daniel, Alexander was kindly disposed toward the Jews and allowed them to request their own terms for conquest. They asked to be allowed to keep their ancient laws and to be exempt from tribute every seventh year in accordance with the Sabbath rest the law required for the land. Willingly Alexander agreed to these requests.
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his kingdom was divided among his generals. General Ptolemy took over Egypt and Palestine, including Judea, while Seleucus, another general, became the master of the northern land that had once been part of Babylon. For about a hundred years, the Ptolemies ruled over Judea. The Jews were in the middle of these two powerful kingdoms, both of which wanted to increase their domains. In 198 BC Antiochus III, a Seleucid king, conquered Israel.
At first the new overlords let the Jews continue as they had under the Ptolemies. The following year, the Seleucids lost a war against the Romans and were forced to pay a heavy fine over the next twelve years. Antiochus rationalized that his kingdom would be more willing to help him pay off his war debt if they embraced the Greek way of living and thinking called Hellenism. To bring this about, he began a vigorous program of Hellenizing his kingdom.
After the death of Antiochus III, his son, Seleucus IV, became king. An assassin killed him in 175 BC, and his brother, Antiochus IV, took the throne. This king thought of himself as Zeus and wanted his subjects to worship him as a god.
When a Jewish man named Jason paid the king for an appointment as high priest, he promised to Hellenize the Jews. A gymnasium was built, and young Jewish men were encouraged to participate in the immoral games of the Greeks. An all-out war against Judaism and its God began. Those who owned copies of the Torah, or Holy Scriptures, were put to death, and the scrolls were burned. The Jewish diet and festivals were forbidden. In December of 167 BC, the final blow to religious freedom came. The Jews’ sacred temple was defiled. An altar to Zeus was set up, and swine were sacrificed on it. All those who opposed Greek ways—and there were many—were killed.
In the western part of Judea, a man named Mattathias, of the tribe of Levi, and his five sons lived in the town of Modein. A Seleucid official and a group of soldiers arrived in Modein to insure the pagan sacrifice was made. The official wanted Mattathias to officiate, but he refused. Another leading citizen, wishing to keep the peace, stepped forward and offered the detestable sacrifice. Mattathias and his sons could not bear to see a pagan sacrifice being made, and they rushed at the man, the king’s official, and the soldiers. Mattathias called to the people, “If any one be zealous for the laws of his country, and for the worship of God, let him follow me.” His five sons and a group of loyal-hearted Jews joined him, and they carried out a guerrilla war from the hill country of Judea.
The brave Mattathias did not live to see his country freed from the tyranny of the Seleucids. After a year of fighting, he died. He encouraged his sons to continue the fight. The eldest son, Simon, was to be the counselor because he had wisdom. Judas Maccabee was put in command of the soldiers because of his military leadership abilities. The other three sons were John, Eleazar, and Jonathan. Together they led the Israelites through the war that followed. This family is sometimes called the Hasmoneans after Mattathias’s ancestor Hashmon, but are more often called the Maccabees after Judas.
The Maccabean revolt enjoyed early success. When Judas defeated the Seleucid governor, Appollonius, he took his sword and used it for the rest of the war. Judas was said to have fought like a lion (1 Maccabees 3:4).
Several disturbances in the east made it impossible for Antiochus to put down the revolt in Judea personally. Instead, he sent his generals to do the job. A decisive battle was fought at Emmaus in 166 BC. So certain were the Greeks of victory that slave traders accompanied the Greek army thinking they could make a fortune selling conquered Jews. When Judas heard of the mighty force gathered against them, he exclaimed, “Oh my fellow soldiers, no other time remains more opportune than the present for courage and contempt of dangers; for if you now fight manfully, you may recover your liberty, which, as it is a thing of itself agreeable to all men, so it proves to be to us much more desirable, by its affording us the liberty of worshipping God.”
Although their army was small, Judas obeyed the law and sent away all those who had recently been married or purchased property. The soldiers who were left were put in battle formation with captains over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.
Planning to attack the Jewish camp at night, the Greeks divided their forces. When Judas learned of their plans, he marched his army to Emmaus and attacked the Greeks camped there at dawn. The unsuspecting Greeks were routed, and when the other division returned and saw their countrymen in retreat, they also fled without fighting. The next year another army of sixty thousand marched into Judea. With only ten thousand soldiers, Judas was vastly outnumbered, but again the Jews were victorious.
Encouraged by the many unbelievable victories, Judas thought it was time to go to Jerusalem and purify the temple. When they arrived, the Maccabees were sad to see the condition of the temple. Weeds were growing, the doors had been burned down, and the abominable pagan altar still stood in its place. Judas ordered the altar to be pulled down and a new one of undressed stones, as prescribed in the law, put up. The rededication of the temple took place on the third anniversary of the desecration of the temple. A joyous festival was held, and it became known as the Festival of Lights, or Hanukah.
Peace did not last long. Another battle was fought at Beth-Zechariah. The Seleucids had a mighty army with golden shields that reflected the sun. Large elephants with towers on their backs carried archers. With loud shouts on both sides, the battle began. Judas’s brother Eleazar saw that one of the elephants bore the king’s crest, and thinking the king must be riding the beast, he rushed forward and killed the soldiers around the elephant, and then, standing underneath, he killed the animal. Unfortunately, the elephant fell on Eleazar and killed him. The Jews were defeated and retreated to Jerusalem where they were besieged for a long time. Eventually the Seleucids were called away by strife at home, and they offered peace to Judas and his followers.
In 160 BC, Judas led the Hebrews against the Seleucids at the Battle of Elasa. Judas noticed that the right wing was led by the enemy commander, and he rushed upon that section. His men caused such confusion that the Seleucids fled before them. When the left flank saw the disaster on the right flank, they came upon the Jews from behind and defeated them. Judas Maccabee was killed in the battle, and the leadership of Israel fell to his brother Jonathan. Political unrest among the Seleucids helped the Maccabees gain eventual freedom under the leadership of Judas’s last surviving brother, Simon.
Study questions and follow up research
- Judea was between which two kingdoms?
- How were the Jews oppressed by the Seleucids?
- How many sons did Mattathias have?
- In a dictionary, look up the word Hellenize.
- Read the Book of Daniel. Which parts talk about Alexander the Great?
Amy Puetz Fox, a homeschool graduate and servant of Jesus Christ, loves history. She is the author of Heroes, Heroines, and Tales of Ancient History and Heroes and Heroines of the Past: American History. In these elementary history books, history comes to life through the use of all five senses. To see a sample, visit her website, www.GoldenPrairiePress.com. Amy lives in Wyoming with her loving husband, Carl.
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This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.
Amy Puetz Fox, a homeschool graduate, loves history. She is the author of Heroes and Heroines of the Past: American History and Uncover Exciting History: Revealing America’s Christian Heritage in Short, Easy-to-Read Nuggets. Visit her website at www.AmyPuetz.com to see many resources relating to history.