Monday, September 30, 2013
The Maccabean Hanukkah
But Israel’s exile had left them weak and exposed. They were constantly exposed to the ambitions of the stronger nations of the region. The land of ‘milk and honey’ was always an object of desire for those national leaders that had aspirations of domination. As the book of Daniel prophesied (chapter 2), control of the territory and people of Israel would pass from the Chaldeans (the head of gold in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision) to the Persians (the breast and arms of silver) to the Greeks (Alexander the Great) (the middle and thighs of bronze) and then to Rome (the legs of iron). Between the third (Greek) and fourth (Roman) kingdoms there was a period when others vied for supremacy. Amidst the confusion that followed the death of Alexander, Israel was dominated first by the Egyptians, and later by the Syrians.
While the Babylonian captivity left the greatest mark on the nation, the policies of Alexander the Great also left a lasting legacy. Alexander was militarily acute and politically aware. He understood that controlling such a vast empire was an enormous task, so he instituted a policy of ‘Hellenisation’. This meant they tried to bring the population to conform to a common lifestyle and culture, that is, to be good citizens of its empire. To promote this he encouraged colonists and traders to follow in the wake of his army and settle in the conquered territories. They brought the Greek language, Greek values and the Greek way of life with them. As a result Greek became the language of business and government throughout the empire. All nations under his control were affected, at least to some degree. Certainly, the main cities were required to embrace ‘Hellenisation’ although away from the heaviest populated areas many ethnic groups maintained their ancient way of life holding fast to the language of their fathers.
It was at the beginning of the second century B.C. Antiochus the Great succeeded in securing the land of Israel for Syria. He had three sons and five daughters. His sons ruled after him, the third of them, Mithridates took the title ‘Antiochus Epiphanes’ and reigned from 175 to 164 B.C. He was a despot who indicated that he wished to be considered a god himself, hence the title ‘Epiphanes’ (god manifest).
While Antiochus the Great seemed to show some sympathy towards the Jews, his sons travelled a different road. Part of their strategy was to imitate Alexander and bring the population to conform to a common lifestyle and image. Following Alexander’s example, they imposed Greek values and Greek culture on nations under their control. They re-enforced the use of the Greek language, built gymnasiums in the main towns and instituted the Greek games. To accomplish it fully they needed to eradicate any peculiarities that individual nations might have. For the Hebrew nation this involved their religion.
In Israel there was a significant group called ‘the pious’ (the Chasidim) who were faithful to the Hebrew Scriptures, traditions and culture. They resisted, but generally the population took the easier course and accepted the changes.
When Antiochus ascended the throne, the head of the population in Judea was the High Priest, Onias III. He was attached to the old faith, but his brother Jesus (better known under his Greek name Jason) was the leader of the party who were friendly with the Greek faction. Jason attempted to obtain the government of Judea for himself and offered Antiochus a great sum of money along with other inducements if he could be granted the office of High Priest. Antiochus accepted the bribe and Jason was installed as Israel’s High Priest. He fully committed himself to the process of Hellenisation and pursued it with energy and vigour. Initially the Temple and its activities were free from interference, but in every other direction he put down “the institutions that were according to the law, and brought up new customs against the law” (2 Macc.4:11). A gymnasium was constructed in Jerusalem and young Jewish men exercised themselves in the gymnastic arts. Even the priests left their duties in the Temple to participate. From 174 BC to 171 BC Jason administered his office promoting ‘Hellenisation’. Then he fell to a rival, one Menelaus who took over the office of High Priest.
In the meantime Antiochus proceeded against Egypt. After plundering that land he made his way home via Israel and found an insurrection in progress. He put down the revolt, killing some 80,000 people, including women and children (2 Macc.5:12-14). The atrocities of this evil tyrant had reached calamitous proportions. He looted the Temple with the help of Menelaus, and removed the gold furniture from the Holy Place, that is, the altar of incense, the seven-branch lampstand and the table that held ‘the bread of the presence’—but worse was to come.
Antiochus, having had success against Egypt, marched south again, but this time Rome decided to intervene. A Roman general, Popilius Laenus, was despatched to intercept his expedition and present him with an ultimatum from the senate. It demanded he give up his ambitions in Egypt or be considered an enemy of Rome. Antiochus asked for time to speak to his advisors and consider the matter. Popilius drew a circle around him in the sand and said he required an answer before Antiochus stepped out of the circle. The Syrian ruler yielded and turned back. This encounter is especially important because it is here that the fourth kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision is introduced. Supremacy in the region will pass to them in due course and it will be Rome that will hold power at the time of the incarnation.
More Next Time:
Posted by Mountjoy at 9:45 AM