In which Mattathias hates his state and enjoys his family: Part Three


The taking of Jerusalem was a high point in the fortunes of the Maccabees and indeed of the people as a whole. As a symbol Jerusalem was of great importance and even though the Seleucid troops had not completely evacuated the city, those that were left were walled up inside a citadel, virtual prisoners of the Maccabees. There was great rejoicing and for good reason. But for anyone who hoped that the struggle was over, the future was likely to disappoint. That did not take long.

A major army under the regent of the Syrian empire, Lysius, poured into Judah, tens of thousands strong. There was very little that the far smaller Maccabee army could achieve against such overwhelming odds. Battle was bravely joined at Bet Zur in the Hebron hills and much heroism was displayed. However, it was more than the Maccabees could cope with. Losses were very heavy. One of the younger Maccabee brothers, Eliezer, lost his life in one of the attacks. The defeated Jewish forces were pushed back into Jerusalem and the Syrians besieged the city.

At a certain point, however, Lysias heard that a military threat had arisen in the north of the Seleucid empire and realising that the situation was too complicated and that he could not afford to open up too many fronts at once, he decided to sue for peace. The terms that he offered seemed quite generous.

  • All laws against Judaism would be withdrawn.
  • Syria would refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Judah.
  • Menalaus, the corrupt High Priest who had presided over the pagan temple was to be executed.
  • Judah Maccabee and the rest of the rebel Jews would be unpunished.

But on the other hand there were some conditions.

  • The walls of jerusalem were to be pulled down.
  • Syria was to remain the sovereign power in Judah and would retain the right to appoint the High Priest (the head of the Jewish autonomy since the return from Babylon).

Judah convened a meeting of the governing council of the revolt to discuss the proposal. Should the offer be accepted? Could the Syrians be trusted? This proposal guaranteed religious freedom, and that after all was the reason that the whole revolt had broken out. On the other hand, having come so far, and having tasted a certain amount of independence, should they settle for a return to the previous situation or should they go on to attempt to secure independence?


The proposal offered freedom for Judah and his followers but it gave them no role in the new order that was promised. The government would revert to the moderate Hellenists who had been the object of suspicion and disdain all along to Judah's followers because of their seeming lukewarm attitude to Judaism. The questions were difficult and the discussions must have been long and hard. The decision to accept or reject the proposal was a crucial one.

A rejection might lead to the crushing of the entire enterprise and the beginning of the end for the Jews. To accept, however, would be to recognise the Seleucid's right to rule indirectly. It would give them more than a foothold in the country. Once they finished dealing with their own internal problems they might turn right round and use their foothold, which would be both legal and physical, to resume their plans for Judah.

The truth was that under the Hasmonean banner were diverse groups with different aims and different agendas. Some of Judah's strongest supporters were a group called the Hassidim ('the pious') whose interest had always been only the securing of religious freedom. They, for example, now sensed that the proposal gave them what they wanted.

The result was a split in the hitherto united camp. The majority of the council voted to accept the peace treaty and a moderate Hellenist by the name of Alcimus was imposed by the Seleucids and accepted by the Hassidim. Judah and some of his men rejected the treaty and left Jerusalem to continue the fight with diminished forces. They presumably hoped that Alcimus and the Seleucids would sooner or later make mistakes that would alienate those who had now accepted them and cause them to rejoin the rebels. If that is what they hoped, the hope was justified; within a short time the new rulers had made some clumsy moves that sent the Hasidim and their supporters right back into the heart of the nationalist camp.

The war would last for many years.

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We suggest an exercise to examine the price of independence.

  • The group is brought together and Judah Maccabee (one of the madrichim) surveys the situation and reviews the events of the last few years. The time is after the battle of Bet Zur in the Hebron hills. The Jewish forces have been driven back into Jerusalem.
  • Suddenly a messenger bursts in with an offer of peace. The terms of the suggestion are put forward.
  • Judah asks for one supporter and one opponent of the peace proposal to come forward and to put the case for and against. These should be madrichim or well-rehearsed chanichim and they should be guided among other things, by the sort of questions and ideas mentioned above.
  • As they speak, the arguments for and against are listed on a board or on wall charts for all to see.
  • Once that has been done, the group breaks into small groups which have to come up with a suggestion to accept or reject the treaty.
  • Reconvening in the big group the arguments of the different groups are heard, and discussed.
  • Finally a vote is taken.
  • Immediately after the vote, the 'play' is broken and the story of what really happened is explained, followed by a discussion on the question of the relative importance of religious and political freedom for the Jews.

It is suggested that elder groups should analyse the story as a case study and follow it with the discussion mentioned above.

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Chapter Five of "Jerusalem Journeys", Dreams, Dilemmas and Decisions of Jewish Leaders by Steve Israel, Published by the Division for Overseas Training and Educational Material, Youth and Hechalutz Department, Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1995.





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16 Jun 2005 / 9 Sivan 5765 0