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A Tragic, Shameful End

Throughout the past week, we thanked God for the improbable defeat of the powerful Seleucid forces by a small, untrained band of Jewish fighters. We also celebrated the story’s one open miracle, when the menorah’s lights burned for eight consecutive days following the Temple’s rededication.

For the uninformed, the Chanukah story is understood in a narrow context. From our youth, we are taught that at one point in our history a sworn enemy (Antiochus IV, a Seleucid ruler) passed a series of heartless decrees against our nation and threatened our spiritual survival. We were then told that a hoary hero (Matthias) emerged and defiantly challenged the monarch’s cruel decrees. Following the hero’s death, his son (Judah Maccabee) completed the uprising and led the Jews to lasting victory.

While much of that description is true, some of it is not. Moreover, it fails to present the true context of the spiritual challenge to our nation, as well as the aftermath of the Jewish uprising. In fact, relatively few are aware that the story of the illustrious Hasmonean family ended in tragedy and shame, just a few decades following their heroic stand.

Judah, Matthias' third son, died in battle some years after the Temple’s rededication. He was succeeded by his younger brother Jonathan, who deftly led the Jewish forces through the next stage of battles and began the process of expanding Judea’s boundaries. Following Jonathan’s abduction and murder at the hands of a former ally, Simon, Matthais’ last living son, assumed the reigns of leadership.

Simon would complete the process of ridding the Seleucids from Judea and obtained complete autonomy for the Jewish people. In response, he was proclaimed “leader and High Priest” of the Jews (I Maccabees, 14:35, 47) and the Hasmonean Dynasty officially began (though Simon stopped short of accepting the title “king.”) After a lapse spanning roughly three centuries, a Jewish state once again reigned supreme in the Holy Land. However, like his brothers before him, Simon met his death in an untimely fashion, murdered by a scheming son-in-law who sought to expand his own locus of power. Simon was succeeded by his son Johanan Hyrcanus.

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The collective fate of the five Hasmonean brothers is nothing less than tragic. Each of them died an unnatural death. Three (Elazar, Judah, and Johanan) perished in the act of war. Two others (Jonathan and Simon) were victims of deceit and treachery from former allies or relatives.

The biblical commentator Nachmanides, in his commentary to Genesis 49:10 (“The scepter shall not depart from Judah”), describes the Hasmoneans as “saints of the most high, without whom the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel”. In spite of such greatness, he writes that their tragic fate was sealed for ruling over the people despite not being from the tribe of Judah. They went against the will of their forefather Jacobin removing “the scepter” from its rightful heirs.

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As sad as the demise of Mattihas’ sons was, it would pale in comparison to the moral degeneration that would be exhibited by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Following his ascension to the throne, Johanan Hyrcanus set his eyes on restoring the Jewish commonwealth to its biblical borders. The Hasmonean leader first turned north, to the center of the country. Soon thereafter, he embarked on a campaign in Transjordan. Sizable territory was brought under Hasmonean control from this area as well.

Johanan then conquered Idumea from tribes in the Negev. Concerned that these tribes might later join sides with invading forces, he made a decision that would have dire consequences for his people: forced conversion of the Idumeans. From this time onward, the Idumeans became inseparable from the Jewish people. Out of this nation would come Antipater, a scheming advisor in a subsequent Hasmonean civil war. Of even more significance would be Antipater’s son Herod, who would rule the people for an extended period with oppressive force.

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Throughout much of our nation’s history, internal groups have challenged the spiritual status quo of the people. During the early Hasmonean years, this group was the Hellenists. The Hellenists saw no need in the continuation of a separate Jewish nation. Their goal was universal integration through Hellenism and pagan worship. After the success of the Hasmoneans, they were completely discredited and dissolved.

Into their absence stepped the Sadducees (Hebrew: Tzadukkim). Similar to the Hellenists, the Sadducees had secular aspirations. However, they understood the importance of presenting their aims under the pretense of preserving a distinct Jewish nation. They claimed to be loyal nationalists, bent on maintaining Jewish independence.

On the surface, the opposition posed by the Sadducees to the traditional Jews, who had become known as the Pharisees (Hebrew: Perushim), was purely religious in nature. Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees professed a belief in one God and claimed allegiance to His Torah. However, they rejected 3 core religious tenets: the legitimacy of the oral law, the existence of an Afterlife, and the notion that God rewards and punishes human behavior. These rejections were motivated more by political than religious considerations. The Sadducees consisted primarily of the wealthy class, who saw in traditional Judaism a threat to their comfortable, Hellenistic lifestyles. They regarded the lower and middle classes, almost all adherents of traditional Judaism, with contempt. They scoffed at their brethren’s tradition and loyalty to custom and viewed the sages as threats to their own cultural viability.

Hellenized and more broadly educated, the Sadducees felt themselves most capable of making appropriate decisions on behalf of the nation. Their motive was naturally self-serving, to gain power. Naturally, the Pharisees wanted nothing to do with such an arrangement. They placed primacy on the religious, rather than political, side of Jewish life. They saw the Torah as open to all, and its study to be each man’s personal responsibility, regardless of class or social rank.

For most of his life, Johanan Hyrcanus remained devoted to traditional Judaism. In his later years, however, he switched his loyalties and supported the Sadducees.

“Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death”. (Avoth 2:4) (This refers to) Johanan (Hyrcanus) the High Priest, who served as the High Priest (for most of his life), and in the end he became a Sadducee. (Talmud, Berachoth 29a)

A number of factors contributed to Johanan’s change in allegiance. They included:

  • Questionable Lineage – A rumor had circulated that Simon’s wife, the mother of Johanan, was captured during the days of Antiochus IV. It followed that, due to the lofty spiritual levels that the Torah imposes on the high priesthood, her continued marriage to Simon was sinful and forbidden. Any children subsequently born would be spiritually tainted, and could not serve as High Priest. Though this rumor was rejected by most Pharisees, a percentage continued to maintain this view, leading to Johanan’s anger and mistrust.

  • Who Will Rule Next? – None of Johanan’s three sons were acceptable in the eyes of the Pharisees. From their youth they had followed in the ways of the Sadducees, pursuing Hellenistic culture and warfare over Torah learning. Johanan was naturally desirous of having his children succeed him and so an alliance with the Sadducees as the best way forward.

Following the death of Johanan Hyrcanus, his eldest son Judah Aristobulus seized the throne. He cast his own mother into prison, as well as his brothers. He also adopted the title “king.”

Aristobulus was the first Hasmonean ruler to assume that title instead of maintaining the lesser title nasi. (prince). Simon’s own grandson did not respect the deliberate distinction that he had made years prior. The power that would accompany this new title would serve to corrupt Aristobulus and his successors for the next half century, leading to their complete demise. Aristobulus died after one year in office, leaving behind no children. His mother and brothers continued to languish in prison.

Upon Aristobulus’ death, his widow Salome released her oldest remaining brother-in-law, Alexander Janneus from prison. In accordance with Jewish law, Janneus married Salome through the process of yibum, or levirate marriage. He also became the next Hasmonean king.

At the beginning of their marriage, Salome prevailed upon her new husband to deal kindly with the Pharisees. Her brother, Simon ben Shetach, was the leading sage of the time and Janneus conferred with him in both political and religious matters. However, this peaceful, productive arrangement would not last for long. 

Foremost on Janneus’s mind was a desire to expand Judah even further. He was particularly focused on securing the Mediterranean coast and its port cities. He also aimed to expand Jewish holdings in Transjordan. Early on, Janneus was met with much success. Yet, despite his accomplishments, Janneus failed to garner the support of the Pharisees. They were unimpressed with his selfish goals of personal triumph and glory. Many also found fault with Janneus’s insistence in occupying the positions of both king and High Priest.

A sizable rift developed between Janneus and his people, one that would lead to internal violence, bloodshed, and civil war. Many sages were tortured and killed. Others were forced to seek refuge. Taking advantage of this situation were the Sadducees. Using their close relationship with Janneus, they secured practically every significant political position for their party. Even the Sanhedrin came under Sadducean control, the result of which was numerous errors in judgment and practice.

Following Janneus’s death, Salome retained her title of queen and became the country’s sole ruler. Her nine-year reign provided the Jewish people with much needed stability following the turbulent rule of Janneus. A new, improved relationship developed between the monarchy and the sages, one that allowed the Pharisees to regain their social, political, and religious strength. 

Salome and Janneus had two sons together. However, neither was viewed as a suitable candidate to succeed their father. The elder, Hyrcanus II, was a quiet and private man. He assumed the office of High Priest, and was regarded, with proper grooming, as the eventual heir to the throne. His younger brother Aristobulus II was of a vastly different temperament. He was bold, ambitious, and a fearless warrior, and deemed an inappropriate fit to assume the throne.

Salome grew old and tired. The Sadducees seized upon this to reclaim their lost power and approached the Aristobulus II for help. Viewing them as potential aids in his own rise to power, Aristobulus was all too eager to assist. The Sadducees entreated the aging Salome for increased power and recognition. They presented her with the following ultimatum: Turn over all of the Hasmonean fortresses to the Sadducees, or they will ally themselves with powerful Jewish enemies, including Aretas, king of the Nabateans. In her weakness, Salome agreed. Twenty-two strongholds were transferred to Sadducean control.

Aristobulus did not stop there. He had himself proclaimed as king in an attempt prevent his elder brother Hyrcanus from seizing the throne. The aged queen, now in her final days, was unable to move against her younger son. When she died, Aristobulus immediately declared war on Hyrcanus, and in so doing, won over most of his brother’s troops. Aristobulus promptly defeated Hyrcanus in a battle near Jericho; the latter fled to Jerusalem. There, under siege, he agreed to abdicate the throne and leave the royal palace. He further resolved to live peacefully on his new estate, without meddling in public affairs. The Sadducees had played their cards correctly, and forged their way to the top of the political heap.

The peaceful situation between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus would not last. Encouraged by his new accomplice Antipater, a scheming, power hungry Idumean, Hyrcanus reopened the struggle with his younger brother. Secretly, the two left Jerusalem to meet with Aretas in Transjordan. In exchange for military support, Hyrcanus and Antipater promised to restore to Aretas twelve cities that Janneus had captured.

Aretas agreed. He led a large army across the Jordan and marched on Jerusalem. Seeing Hyrcanus at the army’s head, his followers in the capital opened the city gates. Aristobulus and his men were forced to seek refuge behind the walls of the Temple Mount.

The siege that followed was filled with particular hatred between the sides, both of which used the people as pawns in their personal struggle. Upon seeing the manner in which these two brothers treated one another, and their complete disregard for the general welfare of the populace, many abandoned hope of a peaceful resolution and fled to Egypt.

Neither side was able to resolve this fraternal conflict militarily. At that time, the Roman general Pompey appeared in Syria with his legions, having completed an extensive military campaign in Asia. Exhausted, desperate, and concerned about what they perceived to be inevitable Roman intervention, both brothers appealed to Pompey in hope of a favorable decision. With this fateful decision, eighty plus years of hard earned Hasmonean independence would soon end.

Pompey initially ruled in favor of the younger Aristobulus; his larger bribe held sway with the greedy leader. Hyrcanus and Aretas were instructed to lift the siege and leave Jerusalem. If not, they would be viewed as enemies of Rome. Aretas duly returned home. Aristobulus pursued Hyrcanus and his men after they had left the city, killing some 6,000 soldiers.

Antipater petitioned Pompey to reconsider his verdict. Some years later, both brothers were summoned to appear in Damascus. The Roman general now decided in favor of Hyrcanus, and in appointing him as ethnarch and High Priest, fulfilled Salome’s original desire to be succeeded by her older son. Aristobulus quickly withdrew, surrendering all of his fortresses.

Such was the continued decline of the Hasmoneans. After a brief respite during the reign of the righteous Salome, this royal family continued to display the morally corrupt behavior that would eventually plunge the people into foreign subjugation and exile. Not again until the Great Rebellion of 66 CE would the Jewish people possess even fleeting political independence. By then, it would prove to be too little, and too late.

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