“Instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause the lamp TO BURN ALWAYS. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is before the Ark of the Pact, to burn from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites FOR ALL TIME, throughout the ages.”
[Exodus (Shemot) 27. 20 – 21 Tanakh, Torah]
The following account of the Maccabean battles is primarily from the “Battles of the Battle”, by Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon. The authors state that the purpose of the book is “to narrate the military history of the Bible in terms of modern military concepts and accepted terminology.” In the present essay we will suggest some examples as to how the Maccabean battles speak to principles of warfare over the centuries with special emphasis on the subject of how volunteer militia units stack up against professional armies.
Greco-Syrian Seleucids Occupy Israel. When a people suddenly confronts a foreign occupation force, what are the sources for building the quality of morale that it takes to face a determined and well-trained professional foe?
Herzog, who authored the chapters related to Maccabees, fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as an officer in the battles for Latrun. He performed intelligence functions during World War II. From 1948 through 1962, Herzog was head of the IDF Military Intelligence Branch. He served as head of the Israeli Defense Forces again from 1959 to 1962 and retired with the rank of Major-General.
Maccabean Patriots. When the Maccabean Revolt commenced in 167 BC, it had been four hundred years since any organized Jewish force had taken up arms. Bible readers will recall that Cyrus, the Emperor of the Persians, a pluralistic society, sent the captive Israelites back to rebuild Jersusalem.
By the time of the Maccabean revolt, Alexander the Great had swept across Persia and Mesopotamia bearing Hellenistic culture in his wake.
Alexander died young and his empire was divided among four generals.
Seleucid Dynasty. Antiochus III reigned in a time when the power of Rome had not risen to the point that Judeans constituted a threat to the Seleucids. When Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BC, the Seleucid empire centered in present day Israel & Syria was faced with global threats to its trade routes running through Palestine. The Ptolemies threatened in the South, and aggressive Romans, Parthians and Persians pressured the Empire’s other borders; Antiochus determined to enforce cultural uniformity in order to stymie potential Jewish revolts.
The Seleucid authorities took over the priesthood and Hellenized the Temple worship in Jerusalem. A split occurred between Jews who compromised with the Greek culture and anti-Hellenist traditionalists, eschewing foreign culture and religion. The split became an open revolt at a time when the Syrian forces (Seleucid army troops) were retreating from a failed siege in Egypt under impending threat of Roman intervention. The irate Antiochus Epiphanes ordered strong measures in Jerusalem. Syrian troops massacred the Jewish population there.
Abomination of Desolation. What followed came to be known by Jesus and present day Bible teachers as “the Abomination of Desolation”. The Temple of Solomon was relegated to the cult of Zeus and desecrated by sacrifices of swine. This set the stage for the appearance of an amazing breed of Jewish warriors that had not been seen since the ancient days of Israel’s Judges before the advent of the Kingdom of Israel.
The Antiochus administration dispatched an officer named Apelles to the rural village of Modiin in order to suppress any Judaistic patriots in the countryside. The means of ensuring submission to Hellenistic culture was to set up an altar and order Mattathias, the local Jewish priest, to sacrifice and eat the swine flesh. Mattathias refused.
When a more compliant fellow stepped forward, Mattathias went berserk with righteous indignation (like Samson or Jesus when he drove out the money-changers in order to cleanse the Temple from corruption), killing the traitor and Appelles.
Mattathias and a handful of farmers took to the hills outside present-day Ramallah. The Judean terrain offered a mountain stronghold for the guerrilla force that was forming even as events propelled them onward.
The Maccabees organized a nationwide intelligence apparatus and emphasized Scriptural principles and practices.
In the beginning, the Maccabees may have been less than fifty able-bodied fighters out of a band of two hundred Jews that took to the Judean hills. Mattathias died in the first year of the revolt but designated Judas Maccabeus to lead Israel’s forces.
Battle Technology & Tactics. The Jewish farmers possessed weapons that were little more than slings and farming implements against a well-equipped, well-trained modern army. Veteran Syrian soldiers reputed for ferocious cavalry charges, fierce infantry troops, chariots, elephants and well trained artillery engineers with machinery for launching large boulders- all the usual instruments and engines of classical warfare.
But the Seleucid training was geared towards conventional fighting. Sword, javelin, spear and arrow in the hands of large numbers of foreign mercenaries soon gave way to a few committed Jewish patriots willing to hit their enemy, grab some weapons and then prepare to strike again. A few men operating with the advantage of surprise tied up many soldiers waiting to react defensively. The Jewish guerillas also had support from local populations and easily melted into the local landscape.
Weapons. The rebels gradually assembled an arsenal of modern weapons- swords, bows, spears, maybe even some ballistas for throwing rocks and battering rams (if they weren’t too heavy to carry them into the hills after an attack).
The Syrian troops were organized into tactical phalanx elements starting with the syntagma of 250 men, like a modern company. The conventional tactics are familiar to any student of shock troop warfare (evolved from the Grecian hoplite units) in which two armies press each other in a head on clash while skirmishers and cavalry protect the flanks.
Guerilla Warfare. The disadvantage of this kind of warfare against mountain fighters soon became apparent when Judas the Maccabee, Mattathias’ middle son, attacked Appolonius, who was advancing from Samaria to Jerusalem with 2,000 Syrian troops.
The Syrians entered a narrow passageway. Judas divided his fighters into four units that maneuvered Appolonius into a trap. Judas attacked two separate chiliarchiae of approximately 1,000 Syrian troops each from east and west. A chiliarchiae was being cut to ribbons in the defile while the other units kept pressing forward without knowing that they were about to be surprised from the rear.
Appolonius, in the second chiliarchiae rode forward and looked to see what was occurring in front. He took fire from both hillsides, thus, spilling out his life on that battlefield.
These events left the entire Seleucid force in a state of utter destruction four miles north-east of Gophna. The Maccabees’ 600 fighters added more weapons to their considerable arsenal.
The Syrian General Seron was determined to avenge the Maccabean exploit that occurred at Nahal el-Haramiah. Gen. Seron stayed near the coast and turned inland near Jaffa past the present day airport of Lod. According to 1 Maccabees 3:16, the General used a secondary route to Jerusalem that led through the same pass used by general Allenby when the British 90th Division advanced on Turkish held Jerusalem in 1917.
Sites of Modern Battlefields. Any reader that reviews Biblical history along with the accounts of modern day warfare in Palestine, especially Israeli military history since 1948, cannot help but see many events that are proof that Yahweh still has his hand on Israel. One geographical location, such as General Seron’s route through Beth-Horon, can become the scene of repeated conflicts over the centuries. The same route was chosen by Israeli forces in 1967 in order to take the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Battle of Beth- Horon comprised 4,000 troops (four chiliarchia) against 1,000 Jewish troops. Judas reminded his men that they were fighting for their homes, families and heritage- their heritage in Y-hw-h G-d (Hebrew mandates that the name of God (transliterated Jehovah in Anglo-Saxon texts) is unable to be pronounced; the exact pronunciation is consequently unknown.
General Seron was the target of choice as he rode through the narrow passage at Beth-Horon. Seron made sure not to bunch his troops and thereby considerably diminished the possibility of another ambush. As the Syrians worked their way up the hillsides toward Beth-Horon, perhaps a little more than a day’s march (fifteen miles by road from Jerusalem), Judas led the charge. He carried Appolonius’ sword and continued to do so from that time onward. Jewish militia men lay hidden on each side of the road to Jerusalem. They came out of the rocks with slings and bows and then closed in with swords chasing the surprised Syrians back toward the plains below.
Judah’s risky strategy of dividing his 1,000 men into four separate units destroyed the enemy’s plan to link up with the Syrian garrison in Jerusalem and to subdue the whole country from that command center.
Greco-Syrians Defeat Followed by Search & Destroy. Back in the command centers of Antiochus, the news of Seron’s defeat caused the leaders to quickly change their plans by reassigning forces with orders to use any and all means to search out and destroy the remnant of Judea and allot the land to aliens. This practice was a familiar experience for Israel and other conquered peoples dating back at least to the Assyrian occupation of the Northern Kingdom in 740 BC. Thus, the stakes were high when three Syrian Generals bivouacked at Emmaus (present-day Imwas near Latrun).
According to 1 Maccabee there were 40,000 Syrian infantry troops and 7,000 cavalry but the 2nd Book of Maccabee estimates that the Syrian strength was higher. Judas was busy recruiting a force that mustered out at 6,000. He organized them as battalions (1,000 strong), companies (of 100 men), platoons of 50 and 10 man units. This is similar to the way modern armies are organized, according to Herzog. Judas somehow divided these units into four groups (1500 each), three of which were commanded by his three brothers.
Judas invoked the glorious heritage of Israel and the injunctions of the Law (Torah). As things shaped up, the two opposing camps were visible to each other.
The Syrian General Gorgias led his forces into the hills for a night attack (this was evidently a first for the conventionally minded shock-troops). The Israelis anticipated the night attack. When the Syrians launched their attack, the Maccabean camp was empty but Syrian scouts observed the Jewish rearguard in retreat and gave chase.
These actions say a great deal about the importance of intelligence, usually on the part of recon scouts who are trained to move under cover and report what they see with their eyes. We can deduce such a premise because of the fact that the Maccabean retreat was an elaborate deception intended to lure Gorgias into another defile. There Judas attacked the Syrian troops with units stationed in the defile during the night.
The Syrians anticipated Judas’ next move which was to attack the Seleucid-Syrian camp at dawn. The Seleucid forces were arrayed for battle, the element of surprise was lost. Judas attacked the western flank of the enemy phalanx, penetrated the phalanx and his men engaged the shock-troops in hand-to-hand combat. Another group of 1,500 Israelis attacked the remaining Syrians who were languishing complacently in the camp. Total confusion overtook the Syrians. The phalanx formation disintegrated early in the fighting, the troops guarding the baggage in the base camp were fleeing to the coast, as elephants, horses, camp followers, slave traders and soldiers screamed, stampeded and bled in the dust.
Gorgias turned to face the valley; the sight of the burning base camp panicked Gorgias’ forces and the Jewish troops went after them in hot pursuit. The recruiting got easier for Judas who now controlled the whole country with the exception of Jerusalem.
TThe Jewish militia was now at 10,000 strong and, in addition to the great value of their other plunder, the amount of weaponry they seized put Judas’ Jewish militia volunteers in a strong position to lay siege to Jerusalem.
Lysias, a noteable within Antiochus Epiphanes’ own family, undertook to punish Judas’ audacity. The plan was to enter Jerusalem, avoid the mountains completely and operate from a secure fortress in Jerusalem called Acra. He traveled through Idumea (Biblical Edom), where the population was not friendly toward the Jews.
The Seleucid forces were at about 20,000 strong and, thus, outnumbered Judas’s men by about two to one. Again Judas picked the battle terrain, this time in an area that was carved up by wadis, the term for ravines and gully washes in that part of the world. And once again the Judean forces were divided into four groups but this time Judas had no illusions as to the possibility of splitting the enemy’s forces.
Judas’ guerilla forces disengorged from their hiding place in a ravine just as the Seleucids emerged from another defile. Jewish militia that Judas had held in reserve sealed the area along a half mile front as their brothers surprised their enemies from both sides. Imagine the dismay, humiliation and abject terror of that proud army and the carnage to which they were subjected! The Syrians lost approximately 5,000 men, mostly mercenaries of poor quality and Lysias performed a tactical retreat.
The Battle of Beth-Zur was a psychological and strategic victory for the rebels. Judas’ next objective was to rededicate the Temple. The Hellenistic-Greek society began a pogrom against the Jewish communities all over Syria.
At the same time, Judas was entering Jerusalem, removing the offensive symbols of paganism from the temple and consecrating the restored Temple after rebuilding the altar. The Acra faced the Temple Mount.
The Maccabees contained the Syrian garrison within the walls of that mighty fortress as Judah evaluated the situation that was developing into a desperate holocaust for the Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem. Fortified Jewish towns were under siege and an expedition of Israeli special forces had to go to their rescue.
Now Judas’ ability to govern was on display, not only to the Seleucids but before Rome and all the world. Could Judas rescue his besieged brothers and sisters and still hold Jerusalem?
Dathema, sixty miles from present day Amman, Jordan, was the center of Jewish resistance. The enemy already had men scaling the walls of the fortified Jewish city. Judas successfully attacked the besieging forces from the rear, defeated a counter-attack and rescued his besieged countrymen in Trans-Jordan. He punished the hostile Idumeans for helping the enemy and burned the harbor and shipping at Jaffa in reprisal for the drowning of a Jewish community that had resided there.
The fortress of Acra now confronted Judas as his next big challenge. Judas’ forces possessed siege engines and in 162 BC they invested the citadel. This led to a protracted siege and Lysias returned with thirty war elephants and 30,000 troops, not including cavalry and chariot units. Judas’ militia had never faced elephants. War elephants bore turrets containing a driver and four fighters. The Maccabees were now fighting defensively and the psychological impact of the elephants cannot be overestimated.
Eleazer, Judas’ younger brother, made a daring foray to demonstrate that the elephants were vulnerable. He fought through the forces that protected the immense battle pachyderm platforms, gored an elephant’s underbelly and was crushed when the beast fell dead on top of him.
This battle of Beth-zechariah demonstrates the principle that civilian reserve militia cannot prevail in so-called set-piece operations against the inherent strength of trained regulars. The time and place need to be selected by the resistance leader with tactics that are appropriate to guerrilla warfare.
As a consequence of fighting the enemy on enemy terms, Jerusalem lay unprotected before Lysias. The besieged population of Jerusalem was low on food when Lysias was called away due to political conflicts within the royal family. Judah and Lysias negotiated terms guaranteeing religious freedom. Judas resolved, nevertheless, to fight on for total independence. The Seleucids themselves returned to slaughtering Jews, as soon as Lycias (regent over the Seleucid Empire) defeated Philip (Antiochus’ son). The guerrilla fighting was renewed in earnest.
Judas defeated the Seleucids at Nicanor (161 BC) and negotiated a treaty of alliance with Rome, thereby establishing Judea as an independent state recognized by Rome itself.
The new state of affairs set the Seleucid’s in opposition to Judean independence more firmly than ever before. The terms of the previous cease-fire granting religious freedom had lulled the Jews into a sense of false security. Therefore Judas was able to raise less than 3,000 “picked” militia members to fight 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry.
The Jewish volunteers melted away when the battle was joined, leaving Judas to fight on with 800 men against overwhelming forces arrayed against him. Judah raised the morale of his men and fought on valiantly, turning the tide several times before he finally fell in battle. The combination of bravery, moral force and outright inspirational leadership achieved victories that still have political and military ramifications to this day.
The events related by Herzog, summarized herein, and 1st and 2nd Macc, welded together the national character of the Jewish people like few other events in the history of that unique people. Had it not been for the Maccabean revolt, many of the events that characterize the New Testament Biblical narrative would be indecipherable and the New Testament as we know it could not exist because there would have been no Jewish people.
In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, there is reference to the Feast of Dedication which was celebrated in memorial to the restoration and consecration of the temple when the Maccabees entered Jerusalem. This is the holiday that we now call Chanukkah.
The following is an explanation of the spiritual significance of Chanukkah from a Messianic Jewish teacher:
The word “Chanukkah” in Hebrew literally means “dedication” in memory of the rededication of the Temple in 165 BC by Judas Maccabeus, after it had been polluted by Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian king. In 176 BC Antiochus tried to force the Jews to give up their faith and to adopt Greek customs. He persecuted the Jews who refused to do this.
Antiochus Epiphanes converted the Temple of the Lord to the worship of Zeus, and placed an image of Zeus the dominant Greek god (the abomination of desolation) in the Holy Place. He looted the Temple and ordered all Jews to bow down to the idols placed there. Then, he brought in a sow, and placed it on the Holy Altar in desecration of Almighty God’s Holiness. He brought waste and destruction – desecrated the vessels of the LORD in debauchery and drunkenness and put out the “Ner Tomid” (“Perpetual Light”).
The Hasmoneans, the Maccabee family, led the Jews in a revolt. After several years of fighting, Judah and his men drove the Syrians out. On the 25th of Kislev (exactly 3 years after the defilement of the Sanctuary) in the year 165 BC they made their entrance into the Temple and rededicated it to the service of the Great God of Heaven.
In the Temple, the priests left a light burning in obedience to the command of the Holy One, but when they prepared to rekindle this light after the victory, they found that there was only enough oil to last one day.
This was a tragic discovery to the Jewish people for the Almighty’s command could not then be carried out. Search was made for the oil for this Lamp. The oil must be pure and prepared under the care of the high priest and sealed with his seal. No pure oil could be found nor could any be prepared before 8 days (7 days set apart to the Lord; the 8th day it became holy to the LORD). The small jug of oil bearing the seal of the high priest might suffice for only one day, but according to the Jewish people’s tradition the supernatural occurred, the oil lasted for the full eight days!
Thus, we see that military events put the hearts of a people on display before the world and before powers and principalities in heavenly places.
Effective intelligence networks along with flexibility of thought and the ability to shift tactics rapidly were important.
Taking the initiative decisively in order to decide the timing and terrain of the battle was just as important. Leadership was always an important element in the equation, of course.
“A wise man scales the city of the mighty, and casts down the strength of the confidence thereof.” Proverbs 21:22