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Hanukkah uncensored, part 3: Everybody loves Jonathan

The following is the third in a three-part special, giving you the real and complete story of Hanukkah, from the deep socio-political background to the fruition of the dream of an independent Jewish kingdom under the heroic Maccabees – 19 years after the death of the famous Yehudah, or Judah.

These chapters are excerpted from “Jewcy Story: How the Jews blew redemption the last time around” by regular +972 contributor Rechavia (Rick) Berman. Read parts one and two

We last left the Maccabean revolt with dashing guerrilla leader Yehudah (Judah) refusing to settle for religious autonomy and demanding political independence, bucking all odds and getting himself killed in a hopeless battle. He brothers, Shimon and Yonatan (Jonathan), were forced to flee to the desert and restart the revolt against the Greeks and the Hellenizers from the beginning.

But worry not – it turns out that Yehudah wasn’t the only prodigy produced by daddy Mattityahu. While Yehudah was a military genius, it turned out that Yonatan, who assumed the leadership upon his brother’s death although he was the youngest sibling, was a political and diplomatic prodigy of equal stature.

After the death of Yehudah the commander Bacchides tried to finish the job and besieged the remnants of the Hasmonean force near the Jordan crossings, but Yonatan and Shimon swam across the river and escaped. Bacchides had to content himself with fortifying various cities throughout Judea and stationing garrisons in them before returning to his own country.

Meanwhile the Hellenized High Priest, Alkimus, began to annoy the people by destroying the temple’s inner wall. The book of 1st Maccabeans tells that as soon as he unveiled this renovation, Alkimos suffered a stroke and died. The year was 160 BCE, and for seven years there was no High Priest in Jerusalem. For two years following the death of Alkimos, Yonatan and Shimon built up their forces in the desert and the areas surrounding Jerusalem, while refraining from attacking the city itself. But as their power grew, they began to restrict the movements of the Hellenizers in the regions around the around the capital. Eventually the foreign enthusiasts got sick and tired, and they called on the empire to come save them from their tormentors.

So Bacchides came back down from Syria to Israel and besieged the brothers, who were fortified at Beit Hogla, near Jericho. Yonatan left Shimon inside the city, snuck outside, killed a few of Bacchides’ Arab supporters, and then attacked the Seleucid general himself from the rear. When Bacchides turned around to fend off the nuisance, Shimon and his forces sortied out of the city and attacked him from the other side. The battle was indecisive, but Bacchides was fed up. He realized that the Hellenizers, despite their welcome support of Greek culture, didn’t actually have any significant support among the people, and that these “fanatic” brothers were the ones with the real power. In his anger Bacchides killed some of the main Hellenizers, whom he blamed for getting him involved in this mess.

Hearing of this, Yonatan realized that maybe he could talk business with Bacchides and offered his enemy a truce. The two sides exchanged prisoners of war, and pledged not to attack each other. Bacchides left his forces in his fortified towns, and also took hostages from among Yonatan’s chief supporters and locked them up in the Chakra citadel in Jerusalem. Afterwards Bacchides returned to Syria and left the crazy Jews to figure it out among themselves.

Everybody loves Yonatan

Yonatan kept his distance from Jerusalem, but spent the next five years building up his army and increasing his popular support. In 153 BCE it began to pay off. A young man with no pedigree named Alexander Balas declared himself to be the son of Antiochus Ephipanes and claimed the Seleucid throne. Ptolemy king of Egypt, the Roman Senate and a few other regional actors who had an interest in disorder in Antioch supported Balas’s claim against that of the reigning king, Demetrius Soter, even though they knew perfectly well that the man was full of it. Both sides, Balas and Demetrius, realized that the most significant military force yet to sign with either team was that of Yonatan the Hasmonean, and they began to compete for his favors.

Demetrius offered Yonatan the right to recruit forces openly in Judea, and also gave him back the prisoners that were held at the Chakra. Yonatan accepted the offer and came to collect the prisoners personally, taking all of Jerusalem save the Chakra itself and fortifying the Temple Mount. Meanwhile Bacchides’ fortresses were emptied of their garrisons, who had gone back to take sides in the civil war back home.

Alexander Balas saw that his rival was recruiting the sought-after ringer, and decided to up the offer – by appointing Yonatan as High Priest. For the first time in some 800 years (not counting the short-lived and foreign-foisted Menelaus and Alkimus), the Jewish people had a High Priest who was not in any way descended from the House of Tzadok. The people mostly accepted the appointment with joy, and turned a blind eye to its less-than-legitimate source.

Those that didn’t either fled to Egypt, where Honio the 4th got permission to build a perfect replica of the Jerusalem temple and continue the ancient High Prioesthood line, or to the Dead Sea, where even more implacable traditionalists went to practice an ascetic way of life and compose dour scrolls.

Demetrius became very stressed and offered Yonatan so many goodies, honors, lands, exemptions from taxes and so on, that most researchers believe that the letter of promise, related in 1st Maccabeans, is either an outright fake or at least wildly exaggerated. In any event, the book also tells us that Yonatan, realizing that Demetrius was about to lose and wouldn’t be in any position to keep his promises, turned him down and remained true to Balas, who did indeed win and reigned for three years.

East and west, north and south

Even after Balas was vanquished in turn, Yonatan continued to maneuver brilliantly between the various pretenders to the Syrian throne, winning from each honors, titles, affirmations of the autonomous rule he already had and new territories. We won’t delve into all the details of the Seleucid soap opera and the ingenious uses Yonatan made of it. Suffice it to say that Yonatan reached the peak of his power when 3,000 of his soldiers marched to far-away Antioch to suppress a rebellion that broke out there and save the king Demetrius the Second.

Yonatan and Shimon, who ostensibly reigned in the name of the Syrian king, behaved as independent rulers in every way, and expanded north – where they conquered Beit Tzor Tower (near the current-day Israeli-Lebanese border), and south, where they took Ashkelon and Gaza.

Yonatan, who aspired to full independence, sent ambassadors to sign pacts with Rome and with Sparta and other Greek cities, whose rulers were interested in weakening the Seleucid kingdom. At the same time Shimon took Jaffa, the country’s major port city, and stationed a Jewish garrison there.

But like Yehudah, Yonatan’s gift also deserted him in the end, and he fell into the trap laid for him by the Seleucid king Tryphon, who persuaded him to come to Acre in order to receive new honors, and took him captive. Tryphon was convinced that the capture of Yonatan would put an end to Jewish power, which had begun to worry him a great deal. But the clever diplomat was succeeded – with popular acclaim – by his brother Shimon, who combined Yonatan’s political chops with a bit of Yehudah’s military skill.

Snow saves the Jews

The first act by the new ruler, after fortifying Jerusalem and enlisting “every sword holder in Judea”, was to go on the offensive and retake Jaffa. The Although the Hasmoneans began as leaders of a religious and national revolt, they quickly realized that money is what makes the world go round, and that in order to make money one has to be able to export. Shimon expelled the pagan foreigners from Jaffa and began to settle it with Jews. This procedure became permanent policy for House Hasmonean: ‘Having taken a city within the historic boundaries of David and Solomon’s kingdom, kill and expel the pagans living in it, and bring in Torah-abiding Jews in their stead.’

This action by Shimon was a direct continuation of Yonatan’s policy, who won the support of coastal cities throughout Israel. But while in Yonatan’s time the cities remained under the control of various Greeks and Phoenicians, Shimon decided to insist on direct control.

Tryphon tried to finish Shimon off and came down from Acre at the head of a very large army. He tried to outwit Shimon as well, claiming that he took Yonatan captive because the latter refused to pay his taxes. If Shimon paid the tax, Tryphon said, and send him Yonatan’s sons as hostages, he would agree to release Yonatan. Shimon knew he was being sold a bill of goods, but didn’t want it said that he refrained from freeing his brother in order to retain power. Tryphon took the money and didn’t release Yonatan.

Tryphon tried to invade Jerusalem, but a heavy snowfall foiled his plan. Tryphon got fed up and killed Yonatan and his two sons. Of the five sons of Mattityahu, there remained only Shimon, who sent a commando force to rescue his brother’s corpse, which he brought for burial in their ancestral town of Modi’in. 1st Maccabeans tells that Shimon built a memorial monument on it that was so tall it could be seen from sea, and on it he engraved images of weapons – and also of ships, hinting at his nautical ambitions.

Year one of Shimon…President of the Jews

Shimon aligned himself with Tryphon’s enemy, and in return for an easily kept promise not to aid his brother’s murderer, received from Demetrius the Second a document that officially confirmed the independence of Judea. On the 27th of Iyar (May 27), 142 BCE, Shimon formally declared independence from the Syrian king and the people of Judea began a new reckoning: “Year one of Shimon – High Priest, Commander of the Army and President of the Jews”. Shimon lobbied the Jews of Alexandria to begin observing the feast of Hanukkah, to celebrate the renewed independence of the Jewish people in their homeland, and thus the holiday struck roots throughout the Diaspora.

Shimon didn’t rest on his laurels. He continued to expand the borders of his country, and spent special efforts on conquering the area between Jerusalem and Jaffa, in order to assure his control of the port city of “Maritime Judea” (today there is a major street in Jaffa bearing that name). A year after declaring independence, Shimon allowed the foreign besieged garrison to leave the Chakra and entered this symbol of hated foreign occupation “with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs.” All of Jerusalem was now in his hands.

Shimon continued to expand the borders, solidified the new state of Judea’s control of the coastal cities and brought the people a period of quiet and prosperity. The people of Israel, the vast majority of whom subsisted on agriculture, could now export their produce to the wide world themselves, and slowly began to branch out into commerce as well. The standard of living in Israel began to rise, and this strengthened the position of Hasmonean rule. On the third year of Shimon’s rule a “Grand Knesset” convened and ratified the rule of Shimon son of Mattityahu “for all time”, or at least until the Messiah came and decided otherwise.

Shimon was clever enough to realize that he couldn’t stand against the entire world alone. Against his Seleucid enemies, Shimon enlisted the power of the rising superpower of Rome. He renewed the treaties with Rome signed by his brothers Yehudah and Yonatan and obtained a Senatorial decree, distributed among the kings of Syria, Egypt, Parthia and the other kingdoms of the region warning them not to violate the borders of Judea.

Shimon wins another battle and falls to treachery

But in the volatile state of affairs that existed in the region then (as always) there was no chance for a prolonged period of peace. Shimon’s ally, Demetrius the Second, fell captive to the Parthian kingdom. His brother, styling himself Antiochus the Seventh Sidates, took the throne in his place and continued the war against Tryphon. The new king sent Shimon a letter of friendship, reaffirming Judea’s independence. But after besting his foe in the war for the throne, he changed his mind. He blamed Shimon for violating the terms of independence he was granted by taking the cities of Jaffa and Gezer, and demanded that Shimon return the Chakra as well. Shimon, who was not looking for a fight at this time, offered the king 100 talents of silver for Jaffa and Gezer. But the Chakra, said Shimon, belonged to Judea and required no reimbursement.

The new king sent his general Candebaius to teach the Jews a lesson and bring them back under the control of the Syrian empire. Shimon appointed his sons, Yochanan (John) and Yehudah (Judah), to head the army, and they clashed with the Greek-Syrian forces near Modi’in. The Hellenic general was defeated, but Yehudah was mortally wounded and Yochanan remained his father’s sole heir.

After this defeat the Syrian king did not try his luck again against the Judean army. One would think that Shimon could die in peace, but no. His son in-law, Ptolemy son of Habub, was not content with the post of governor of the district of Jericho to which the ruler had appointed him, and wanted to rule Judea himself – while returning it to the Seleucid fold. He invited his father in-law for a lavish feast at the Fort of Dok, near Jericho, and there he attacked his benefactor and two younger sons, murdered them and took Shimon’s wife hostage.

Ptolemy sent assassins to Gezer as well, to kill Shimon’s son Yochanan as well. But one of the Hasmonean loyalists warned him in time and Yochanan got to Jerusalem ahead of Ptolemy – who had meanwhile received reinforcements from Syria – and secured the capital. The people of Jerusalem received President Shimon’s sole remaining son warmly, and anointed him both as their leader and as High Priest – an act which cemented the hereditary nature of Hasmonean rule.

In conclusion, we see that although the Hasmonean house fought for independence and eventually won it, it did so not only by force of arms, but mostly through diplomacy. The independence as Judea, as well as the post of High Priest, were given to the Hasmoneans by foreign kings. But once the Hasmoneans achieved their goals, they acted wisely and energetically to fortify and expand their position. But beyond their skill in guerrilla warfare and diplomatic intrigue, there was a simpler, more fundamental reason for the success of the Hasmonean leaders: They acted on behalf of the majority of their people, with their blessing and support – a support without which no rule lasts for long (at least not without massive, continuous expenditure of funds and lethal force), as the Hellenizers learned firsthand.

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    1. aristeides

      I think I’m going to have to get your book.

      What strikes me about this account is the role of the High Priest. Currently, Israel doesn’t have a High Priest, but there is a significant group of Jewish extremists backed by ChristoZionist extremists who want one making burnt offerings in the rebuilt temple.

      This would not only provoke a religious war with Islam, it would certainly set off a religious war with the antizionist haredim for usurping the role of the messiah. Interesting times could come again.

      Reply to Comment