A Rich Tradition

Jewish war lessons

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online, December 5, 2002 10:10 a.m. More by Kopel on Hanukkah.

Until sundown on Saturday, Jews all over the world are celebrating the eight-day Feast of Hanukkah. In a year when Jews are under deadly attack from Islamonazis, it is especially important to remember the lesson that the Seleucid empire learned two millennia ago, and which Yasser Arafat relearned last year: Jews fighting for their homeland are superb soldiers and military strategists.

Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish war for independence in the second century B.C. The story is told in the First Book of Maccabees, and retold in the Second Book of Maccabees. Both books are part of the Apocrypha, and considered canonical in the Roman Catholic, Greek, and Slavonic Bibles. A contemporary military history of these events is provided in the excellent book Battles of the Bible, coauthored by Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon. Mr. Herzog (1918-97) served as president of Israel from 1983 to 1993.

The Maccabean Revolt began in 167 B.C. Alexander the Great's empire had broken into several parts, and Israel was under the control of the Seleucid empire, based in Syria. Israel had lived peacefully under the Persian Empire and under the Ptolemic empire (of Egypt), both which tolerated Judaism; but the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes was a bigoted Hellenizer, who attempted to force the Jews to abandon their religion and to adopt Greek customs and worship.

Possession of a Bible was a capital offense. (1 Mac. 1:57). "[T]hey put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families, and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers' necks." (1 Mac. 1:60-61). Many thousands of Jews were slaughtered.

As with so many revolutions, the Maccabean Revolt sprang from a spontaneous act of resistance. In the foothills village of Modiin, the Seleucid army set up an altar, and ordered the local Jewish priest, Mattathias, to sacrifice a pig and eat it. He refused, as did his five sons. When a Jewish collaborator came forward to offer the sacrifice, a furious Mattathias "ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he ran and killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar" (1 Mac. 2:15-25).

So began the war, as Mattathias and his sons headed for the Judean hills, to launch a guerilla war. They spent their first year in the hills accumulating about 200 supporters, of whom about 50 were able-bodied men. They had no military training. No independent Jewish army had fought since the Babylon had destroyed the Judean kingdom four centuries before. Their only weapons were farming tools and whatever simple weapons they could construct, such as maces or slings. During this first year, Mattathias died, designating his middle son Judah as his successor.

Nicknamed "the hammer" ("Maccabee," in Hebrew), Judah constructed a superb intelligence network. He knew that his little band could not defeat the Seleucids in a fixed battle, but with the support of the people in the hills and villages, he staged increasingly daring nighttime raids on the Seleucid outposts, then melted back into the countryside. His successes attracted more supporters, several hundred men at arms. The Jews had a clear advantage in morale, for their "people's militia" was composed of "sons of the country fighting on their own soil, for their own people, and prepared to die for their religious beliefs and freedoms" (Herzog, pp. 268-69; Herzog wrote this section of the co-authored book).

As the Seleucids began losing control of the countryside, in 166 B.C., Governor Apollonius led a force of two thousand men to crush the revolt of Judah Maccabee and his 600 militia. Rather than face the Seleucids on an open plain, Judah invented a strategy which was unknown to military tacticians of the era.

As the Seleucids marched through a narrow mountain pass, Judah divided his militia into four groups; two groups sealed off the entrance and exit to the pass. The other two groups fell on the Seleucids from the hills, attacking their flanks. Deprived of the ability to maneuver and to mass force, the Seleucid army was wiped out.

Judah Maccabee "had proved that a small and weak people could fight successfully against a mighty army and that spirit can be mightier than numbers" (Herzog, p. 273). Jews flocked to Judah's cause, accepting him at their national leader.

Antiochus appointed a new governor, Seron, who marched down from Syria in 165 B.C., following the wide-open coastal plain. The militia was terrified at the approach of the Seleucid army of 4,000. Judah spoke to his wavering men: "It is not on the size the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from Heaven. They come against us in great insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us; but we fight for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them" (1 Mac. 3:17-22).

Approaching Jerusalem, Seron had to march his army through a mountain pass at Beth-horon. Seron took care to keep his forces widely separated, to avoid what had happened to Apollonius. As a result, the Israeli militia could not seal the Seleucids inside the pass. Instead, Judah Maccabee, brandishing the sword of Apollonius, led a surprise charge straight at the head of the Seleucid column and General Seron.

As the Seleucids in the rear pushed forward to meet the attack, the Jewish militia emerged from the hills on both sides above the Seleucids. After laying down a barrage of arrows and slingshot fire, the flanking attackers charged down the hills, swords in hand, for close-quarters combat. When Seron was killed and his vanguard unit destroyed, the rest of the Seleucid army panicked and fled eastwards towards the Mediterranean Sea.

A furious Antiochus decided that ethnic cleansing was the solution. The Jews would be eliminated, and Judea re-settled with aliens (1 Mac. 3:35-36). He sent 24,000 men to exterminate the Jews; preparing for battle, the Seleucids invited slave dealers to come with ready cash for captive Jews (2 Mac. 8:11).

Although the Maccabean militia had grown to 6,000, it was still heavily outnumbered. Yet in compliance with the law, Judah told newly married men, men who had recently built a house, men who had newly planted vineyards, and the faint-hearted, that they could all go home (See Deuteronomy 20:5-8.)

The Seleucids planned a surprise night attack on the Jewish camp. But Judah abandoned the camp, leaving only 200 men as decoys. As these two hundred withdrew into the hills, being sure to be noticed by the Seleucids, they lured 6,000 of the Seleucids deeper and deeper into the hills, in the misguided expectation that that they were chasing the tail end of the whole Jewish militia.

Meanwhile, Judah led 3,000 of his militia to the Seleucid camp, near the village of Emmaus. But when the Jews arrived for their surprise attack, they were surprised to find a huge force of Seleucids formed into a phalanx on a plain near the camp, ready for battle. Judah Maccabee "again revealed a flexibility of thought unusual in military leaders of the time" (Herzog, p. 280).

Rather than confronting phalanx from the front, he attacked it from the flank, which was protected by Seleucid cavalry. While a third of Judah's force took on the cavalry, the remainder hit the Seleucid infantry flank. The Seleucids were trained to fight in the front, not the side, and the phalanx began to crumble under the fierce hand-to-hand assault from the Jews.

Meanwhile, another Hebrew force, commanded by another son of Mattathias, fell upon the unprepared remainder of the Seleucids, back at the Seleucid camp. The phalanx broke and panicked, and as they ran through the base camp, the camp panicked too. Judah forbade his militia to pursue the fleeing armies or to take booty, because there was still the force of 6,000 Seleucids which had set out in a fruitless search for the Jewish camp, and which would soon return. Just then, that portion of the Seleucids did return, finding their own camp in flames and the Hebrews in arms; the last portion of the Seleucid army broke and ran for the sea. Vast quantities of advanced Seleucid military equipment fell into Jewish hands.

Except for a Seleucid garrison in Jerusalem, all of Judea was now under Jewish control. The force that began with Mattathias and his five sons now numbered 10,000 strong.

Viceroy Lysias himself marched south from Antioch, with twenty thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry. Rather than approach Jerusalem from the west, through hill country that was in the hands of Jews, he came from the south, though the territory of the Idumeans, who supported the Seleucids. Six miles north of Hebron, near the Jewish fortress of Beth-zur, the Seleucids were marching through a mountain pass when the Jews descended on their flank. Quite soon the Seleucids had lost 5,000 men, and withdrew the remainder of their army.

Judah's forces marched to Jerusalem, and were attacked by the Seleucid garrison there. While that battle continued, a portion of the militia marched into Jerusalem. The Temple had been horribly desecrated, with profanities scrawled on it by the Hellenizers.

The Maccabees built a new altar. On the 25th of Kislev, in the year 164 B.C., they lit their one-day supply of oil in the Menorah. The oil burned for eight days, and the eight days of Hanukkah celebrate that miracle, as well as the divine intervention that had led the Jewish militia to smashing victories over well-equipped standing armies far superior in numbers. "Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wants and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place" (2 Mac. 10:7).

The war, however, was hardly over. In 160 B.C., near modern-day Ramallah, Judah's forces found themselves outnumbered eight to one by the Seleucids. Most of the Jewish forces deserted. Only 800 men remained with Judah, against 24,000 Seleucids. Judah recognized that if he retreated, the demoralization of the Jewish people might end the war for independence. "Instead he believed struggle to the death against impossible odds would inspire those who followed him. His decision was a classic example of a commander...deciding that the spirit of his men was his most effective weapon in a political as well as a military context" (Herzog, pp. 295-96).

So the eight hundred men launched an audacious assault on one of the Seleucid flanks, and broke it. But they did not kill the Seleucid general, and the Seleucid numbers proved overwhelming this time.

Judah's brother Jonathan, and then his brother Simon took command of the Jewish militia, finally winning complete independence in 142 B.C. At last, "All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid" (1 Mac. 14:12.).

Judah Maccabee led the first war ever fought for religious freedom. With no training in the military arts, he became a brilliant military commander, both tactically and strategically. A father and five sons incubated a militia revolution that defeated a mighty empire and its immense standing armies. Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the improbable success of the Maccabean Revolution is that it was a miracle.

The world has sometimes forgotten that Jews are great warriors. Yet the Hanukkah light — that burning passion for freedom — shone in the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt in 1943. It shone in 1948 when tiny Israel defeated the invading armies of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt — who had, like Antiochus, announced plans to exterminate the Jews. The Hanukkah light shone in the Six Day War. And it shines today, as tiny Israel continues to defeat terrorists bankrolled by the European Union, the Saudis, and Saddam Hussein.

The terrorist premise is that Jews have lost their heart to fight and survive. But the Israelis are not like the desiccated diplomats of the EU. They are proving every day that they are among the world's bravest and most innovative soldiers. From the river to the sea, the whole land will one day be free — free of all the terrorist factions, and free for people of every religious faith to live without fear of Islamonazism, in all its perverse variations.

Hanukkah reminds us that however long the Jewish struggle for freedom takes, its outcome is certain.

Dave Kopel is a contributing editor of NRO.

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