In our last Hanukkah post. we briefly covered its history and how King Antiochus enforced Hellenistic laws in the Holy Land, forbidding Sabbath observance, circumcision, kosher diet and the study of Torah. He converted the Holy Temple in Jerusalem into a Temple to Zeus and even slaughtered a pig on the altar, profaning it.
It was a very difficult and evil time to be living in the Holy Land of Israel.
As you read through these events, ask yourself, if this were to happen in your lifetime, which side would you stand on?
Those Zealous for the Torah
But the people who know their God will display strength and take action. - Daniel 11:32
Many Jews chose to comply with the new laws. They forsook Torah to save their lives. Others stood fast to the covenant, and paid for their convictions dearly.
There are several famous stories in Jewish lore about brave men and women who resisted tyranny during the Hanukkah persecutions. There is the story of old Eliezer who chose to die rather than eat pork—or even pretend to eat pork (2 Maccabees 6:18-31).
There is the story of Hannah and her seven sons, each of whom was martyred before her eyes for their refusal to forsake the commandments of Torah (2 Maccabees 7). There is the story of brave Judith who pretended to seduce an enemy general and then slew him to liberate her entire town.
But the best known of all these stories is the story of old Mattityahu the priest and his sons. Mattityahu (Mattathias in the Greek) and his sons were cohenim (priests) who abandoned Jerusalem when the Temple was defiled. They could not, however, escape the arm of Antiochus.
The king’s officers eventually came to Mattityahu’s hometown in Modin to force them to sacrifice to an idol.
In those days Mattathias, son of John, son of Simeon, a priest of the family of Joarib, left Jerusalem and settled in Modin. He had five sons: John, who was called Gaddi; Simon, who was called Thassi; Judah, who was called Maccabeus; Eleazar, who was called Avaran; and Jonathan, who was called Apphus. When he saw the sacrileges that were being committed in Judah and in Jerusalem, he said: “Woe is me! Why was I born to see the ruin of my people and the ruin of the holy city, and to sit idle while it is given into the hands of enemies, and the sanctuary into the hands of strangers?” The officers of the king in charge of enforcing the apostasy came to the city of Modin to organize the sacrifices. (1 Maccabees 2:1–7, 15)
In the city of Modin, Mattityahu and his sons refused to comply. Instead, they revolted and took up arms against the king’s officers and slew them. They knew this act of insurrection would bring wrath down upon them.
So old Mattityahu called out to all the people of Modin, shouting, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Torah and who stands by the covenant follow after me!” (1 Maccabees 2:27).
Then he and his sons fled into the mountains.
And those who have insight among the people will give understanding to the many; yet they will fall by sword and by flame, by captivity and by plunder, for many days. -Daniel 11:33
Hidden away in the mountains, Mattityahu and his sons were not long alone. Very quickly, all those who were zealous for the Torah gathered around them. They soon formed a small army. Mattityahu himself was very old, and he died in the hills. His oldest son Yehudah (Judah) took charge of the small rebel group. Engaging in guerilla warfare against the Syrian occupation force, Yehudah and his freedom fighters came to be called Maccabees which means “Hammers.”
Judah would forever after be known as Yehudah the Maccabee: Judah the Hammer.
Early successes attracted attention, and the little army was harassed constantly. Soon enough, the Seleucids sent thousands of mercenary soldiers to root out the rebels in the hills. They must have thought it would bring a quick and easy end to the Hanukkah revolution. But a great miracle happened there.
When he reached the ascent of Beth-horon, Judah went out to meet him with a few men. But when they saw the army coming against them, they said to Judah: “How can we, few as we are, fight such a mighty host as this? Besides, we are weak today from fasting.” But Judah said: “It is easy for many to be overcome by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven. With great presumption and lawlessness they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; but we are fighting for our lives and our Torah laws. He Himself will crush them before us; so do not be afraid of them.” (1 Maccabees 3:16–22)
In a stunning victory, the Lord overthrew the massive army before the small band of rebels. It was clearly a miracle from heaven. Yehudah and his brave Maccabees fought many battles for many years. They suffered defeats but also achieved many miraculous victories.
In battle after battle, the few overpowered the many, the weak overturned the strong.
They pushed forward despite overwhelming odds. Miraculous intervention shifted the battles until at last they were able to take back Jerusalem.
Next post, we will look at the Rededication of the Temple.