Hanukkah: Part I—The Military (Game of Thrones)

By Jean Gerber

Was Game of Thrones written by someone who knew the entire dramatic story of Hanukkah and the Hasmoneans? It seems possible because the entire saga of Hanukkah concerns one aspirant to the throne of Judea after another, fighting many bloody battles.

After Alexander the Great died, his eastern Mediterranean kingdom was divided between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Circa 200 BCE, the Syrian Greeks took over the little state of Judea from Egypt. That is when Antiochus entered the picture. A keen Hellenist, he expected all his possessions to become “Greek” in civil organization (the Greek polis), as well as in language and most importantly, in religious ceremony. This included the worship of pagan gods and the emperor.

It is unclear whether he imposed his draconian demands on the Jews resulting in the revolt, or if some faithful Jews began to resist Hellenization leading to the terrible decree that all must worship the Greek gods. Yet another theory posits that the Maccabean uprising was, in fact, against Jewish Hellenizers among the priestly and political elites whose influence spread from Jerusalem to the provinces.

When the High Priest Menelaus, his extended clan, and other wealthy Jews who had enthusiastically embraced everything Hellenistic allowed the Temple to be desecrated and dedicated to the worship of Zeus in 167 BCE, Judea seemed on its way to becoming just another, rather insignificant, Greek colony. The Torah, circumcision and observance of Shabbat were also forbidden.

An early group of pious Jewish rebels, the Hasidim, mounted the first defence which proved futile. Because they refused to fight on Shabbat, slaughter ensued. Then soldiers came to Modi’in intent on forcing villagers to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. Mattathias, patriarch of the priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, killed the Judean who was about to perform the abominable deed. Mattathias then led his five sons and others into the forest to begin the real revolt. These are just some of the opening moves in this ancient ‘game of thrones.’

Judah the Maccabee or Hammer became the military leader and chief strategist. With his rather sparse army he finally drove the Hellenizers out of the Temple. Despite this success, it can be fairly stated that the Judean armies succeeded largely due to the turmoil back in Syria caused by the various claimants to Antiochus’ throne. Greek armies had to be withdrawn, allowing Hasmonean fighters to push in.

On the 25th of Kislev in 163 BCE the Maccabeans cleansed the Beit Hamikdash, replaced the defiled altar, and relit the menorah. They declared an eight-day rededication of the Temple which comes down to us today as Hanukkah.

But the war was not yet over and in the next few years, one by one, Judah and three of his brothers were killed. This left only Simon standing.

Jewish rebellion, battles for control, Temple cleansed and rededicated by a small band of guerrillas—mission accomplished!? There is what Israeli author David Grossman would call an understory percolating beneath our well-known tale: the strong current of Hellenization which began with Alexander’s conquest of the eastern Mediterranean remained a strong influence in Judea. Although the Hasmoneans were not in line for the position of High Priest, the “priests and people, and leaders of the nation and elders of the country” (I Macc. 14:28-47) declared that Simon should ascend to the position of Kohen Gadol. Next, he was declared King—yet another step away from tradition, since only a descendent of the House of David could sit on that throne.

Slowly, the Hasmonean court became very much like any other court. Hebrew names gave way to Greek ones: Antigonus, Alexander Jannai, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus. The final act in this Game was civil war between two brothers—Hyrcanus and Aristobulus—which brought in the Romans. Rome shouldered both aside and appointed Herod as ruler. He married the last Hasmonean, Miriamne.

The Hasmoneans had annexed large portions of land outside the Judean borders, including the province of Idumea, from whence Herod came. That turned out very badly for Miriamne and their children, all of whom he murdered. Thus ended the Hasmonean dynasty which had endured for less than 100 years, brought land as well as suffering to portions of the Jewish people, and ultimately—Game of Thrones redux—resulted in Judea as a province of Rome, ruled by Herod the Monstrous.

Next, in Part II, the miraculous…