Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):

Judah Maccabeus -- Ideal Biblical Hero!

The recent passing of WWII hero Major Richard "Dick" Winters (subject of the TV mini-series Band of Brothers) prompted the inclusion of this article on our website. Major Winters -- like the heroes of old -- was a man of great inner strength and character. While a man amongst men, he was a teetotaler who craved peace and solitude -- and looked forward to the time when the world would be at peace. If Major Winters had lived in Biblical times, he would have surely been an ideal Biblical hero.

HOIM Staff

The books of I and Il Maccabees are classic accounts of warfare in the Judahite tradition. Like Joshua and David before him, Judas Maccabeus' war for freedom was inspired by a desire to serve his people and was led by a divine light. In his campaign against the occupying Seleucid armies, he never failed to take the time to praise YEHOVAH for his victories -- and in so doing ensured further victories for his people.

What is provided for us in I Maccabees 3:38-4:25 is an account of how one latter day Israelite hero, Judas Maccabeus, lived up to the ideals set forth by the Biblical heroes of yore. Pressed hard by the enemies of YEHOVAH's religion, Judas Maccabeus assumed the role of liberator and defender -- much like Joshua, Saul and David before him.

lf we take the writing at face value, the actions Judas Maccabeus took in preparing for his first battle echoed the actions of those very same leaders, casting Judas Maccabeus as an almost wholly appropriate successor to their legendary feats. Whether his actions were taken out of genuine sincerity or as simply a desire to be remembered in such a light, or whether these actions were the exaggerations of a later writer, cannot be accurately determined.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the actions he took were deliberately intended to mimic the preparations of the great leaders of old Israel, so that he might be counted among them. Building such a mythos would certainly draw support from the Hebrews who fought under him. What his overall motive in creating an echo of the past may have been, however, is not the concern of this article. The question this article seeks to explore is why Judas Maccabeus took each specific action, and what effect it had on his overall image as a warrior of YEHOVAH God.

In l Maccabees 3:38-4:25, the author describes in detail the preparations made by Judas Maccabeus as he prepared his army of religious vigilantes for a defensive campaign against the Seleucid army of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In the previous passages, we learn that the land of Israel had come into the hands of the Seleucid Greeks after the break up of the empire of Alexander the Great (I Macc. 1:8-10). Furthermore, the current king -- Antiochus Epiphanes -- ordered his subjects to adopt his pagan religion on penalty of death (I Macc. 1:44-50). "These measures included a prohibition on male circumcision, forced sacrifice to Hellenistic deities, worship of Antiochus IV as the god JeZeus, and a prohibition on worship on the Sabbath. In addition to these decrees, Antiochus IV ordered that an image of Zeus be installed in the Hebrew Temple at Jerusalem as well as instituting ritual prostitution" (Godfrey).

This forced conversion to a new faith was largely unprecedented in the ancient world. It was, according to some scholars, the first recorded religious persecution in history. "The goal of the king and his supporters was to remove all the peculiar features of Judaism that made it different from the other religions of the world. The religious persecution that accompanied this 'Hellenization'...provoked Judah the Maccabee and his followers to rebel against the state." (Cohen 30)

Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabeus, organized a resistance to this forced apostasy, destroying the pagan altars and forcibly circumcising Hebrews who had given in to the king (I Macc. 2:44-46). Following his father's death, Judas Maccabeus took the reins of leadership over these vigilante defenders of Israel. As might be expected, Antiochus Epiphanes was less than pleased with the course of events in Judah, and an army was dispatched under the general Gorgias to deal with the rebels.

It has been argued that warfare was not a part of the religion of ancient Israel, but that warfare was the religion of ancient Israel. Some scholars of the Old Testament are quick to point out the importance of warfare to ancient Israel. In his introduction to Gerhard von Rad's Holy War in Ancient Israel, Ben C. Ollenburger states, "Ancient Israel as the people of Yahweh was a military camp, and its God was a warrior" (Von Rad, 3). Millard C. Lind is even more explicit in his study Yahweh is a Warrior. "The study of warfare in the Old Testament reveals that Yahweh is a God of war" (Lind, 1). While warfare was indeed a large part of the lives of an unconverted people (as it is today), YEHOVAH God is a God of love who looks forward to the day when His people will live in peace.

Throughout the Old Testament, warriors take the field against the enemies of Israel. Success and defeat in battle are not portrayed as dependent on tactics; rather, it is faith in YEHOVAH that wins battles. Armies are not often counted in Joshua's wars of conquests, nor are their armaments described in any detail, because it is not important who they are or what they carry, so long as they have faith in YEHOVAH. Perhaps the most common event in accounts of Old Testament warfare is the utterance by the military leader of the cry, "YEHOVAH has given [enemy nation] into our hand," or some derivation thereof (Von Rad, 42). As Von Rad understands it, this cry is not meant to indicate future success. It is written in the present perfect, and thus is a statement of fact; essentially, it states that YEHOVAH has given Israel the battle before a single soldier has begun to march. Success is thus shown to be best assured through the nation's faithfulness to YEHOVAH God and belief that YEHOVAH will deliver them a victory. Judas Maccabeus himself expressed just such faithfulness when he said of his enemies, "For they trust to arms and acts of daring, but we trust in the Almighty YEHOVAH, who is able with a single nod to strike down those who are coming against us, and even, if necessary, the whole world" (II Macc. 8:18).

The stated goal of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers in I Macc. 3:43 reads, "Let us restore the ruins of our people, and fight for our people and the sanctuary." These words echo the cry of Joab, general of King David's army, when he says, "Be strong, and let us be courageous for our people and for the cities of our God" (I Chr. 19:13) The Harper Collins Study Bible includes an interesting footnote to this particular comparison: the number of enemy soldiers confronted in the battle which ensues after Joab's cry is exactly the same as the number of troops sent to confront the Maccabees -- 40,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry (Compare I Chr.19:18 and I Macc. 3:39). Though the enemy army was camped at Emmaus, Judas Maccabeus first led the Maccabees to Mizpah. Despite being several miles out of the way, there was a reason behind this side trip.

According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Mizpah is mentioned in forty-four separate verses of the Old Testament, many of them dealing with times of crisis just prior to battles. Perhaps the most prominent of these references is the tale of the trial of Gibeah, related in Judges 20:1. Mizpah was a place of gathering for the congregation of Israel when the tribes came together to pass judgment on the crime of Gibeah. Shortly thereafter, the tribes of Israel went to war with their brothers, the Benjamites. (Further reading in the footnotes of The Harper Collins Study Bible reveals that the name Bethel in Judges 20:18, translated literally as "House of YEHOVAH," may actually have referred to a sanctuary at Mizpah rather than the town of the same name.)

While at Mizpah, Judas Maccabeus ordered his men to fast, wear sackcloth, and sprinkle ashes on their heads -- all traditional Judahite expressions of mourning and piety. To further their proof of dedication, they brought "the vestments of the priesthood and the first fruits and the tithes" to the shrine at Mizpah. The judge Samuel had also ordered the Israelites to assemble at Mizpah and fast before judging them in the eyes of YEHOVAH (I Sam. 7:6).

The prayer of the Maccabees at Mizpah is a short example of Judahite lamentation poetry, as found in the Psalms and in the Book of Lamentations. It begins by asking YEHOVAH about the fate of the Nazarites, "What shall we do with these? Where shall we take them?" At the end of the Nazarites' period of consecration -- according to Numbers 6:13 -- "they shall be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting." This "tent of meeting" was the Temple in Jerusalem, which was by this time in the hands of the Greek army and had been made into a Temple of Zeus. By making the purity of the Temple a primary concern, Judas Maccabeus assured himself the support of the Nazarites, whose vows required the Temple to be pure so that they might complete their dedication to YEHOVAH.

The verse following the Prayer of the Maccabees makes a totally unveiled reference that should be obvious to anyone familiar with war in the Old Testament. The verse reads, "Then they sounded the trumpets and gave a loud shout" (I Macc. 3:54). One hardly need point to out the similarity to Joshua's army at Jericho: "And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, "Shout! For YEHOVAH has given you the city" (Joshua 6:16).

Following the time of prayer, mourning, and celebration at Mizpah, Judas Maccabeus organized his army by "thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens" (I Macc. 3:56). Despite the overwhelming numbers of the enemy army, "Those who were building houses, or were about to be married, or were planting a vineyard, or were faint­hearted, he told to go home again, according to the law." The law Judas Maccabeus acted in accord with is Deuteronomy 20:5-8. This law lists those who are to be exempted from battle. It was felt that a man should, who had built a house, be there for its dedication; that a man engaged should not take the risk of dying before his wedding night; and that a man who had planted a vineyard should be the first to taste its fruits. Furthermore, those who did not have the heart for the battle were not to fight, because their fear could be contagious and cause other soldiers to lose hope. Although Judas Maccabeus had comparatively few soldiers to begin with, he did not want to risk those few being made weak by obligations at home and the fear of cowards, and thus he carried out the law of exemptions.

There was another reason why this law was given to the Israelites, however: As shown by the story of Gideon and the Midianites, YEHOVAH was well aware of the Israelites' habit of taking more than their fair share of credit for their victories. Gideon did not initially seem to enforce this law out of Deuteronomy, but YEHOVAH made a point to explain the importance of the law to his chosen warrior. "YEHOVAH said to Gideon, 'The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take credit away from me, saying, 'My own hand has delivered me"" (Judges 7:2). Besides its practical application as insurance against morale failure, the exemption from battle served to keep Biblical heroes firm in their belief that victory came only as the result of their faith in YEHOVAH God. Because the Israelites were able to obtain victory against overwhelming odds, it remained clear to them with each victory that their most valuable military asset was their faith in YEHOVAH God.

As Judas Maccabeus marched the remaining soldiers of his army to Emmaus to fight the Gentile army there, he made a speech that seems mainly to have been a call-to-arms. He called on his men to be brave, and to be ready for battle in the morning. Perhaps the most important part of this speech is Judas Maccabeus' final statement. "But as his will in heaven may be, so shall he do" (I Macc. 3:60). Here, Judas Maccabeus reminded his men once again that their victory depends entirely on the favor of YEHOVAH God.

From this point onward, I Maccabees becomes an account of the war, telling the tales of battles fought and won in the classic style of the Books of Joshua, the Kings, and the Chronicles. There is, however, one important difference between the earlier books and this one. In Joshua, the Kings, and the Chronicles, the tactics by which Israelite generals won battles nearly always seemed to be independent of the actions of the enemies. Even when they lay an ambush -- as in Joshua 8 -- the story was always propelled by the actions and desires of the Israelites -- while the enemy was generally consigned to being merely a puppet for the will of YEHOVAH.

In I Maccabees, however, Judas Maccabeus' tactics were somewhat more opportunistic than the tactics of the Israelite generals of antiquity. Rather than meeting the enemy head-to-head, or laying an ambush and drawing him out, Judas Maccabeus waited for his enemy to take action, and responded as appropriate.

Judas Maccabeus knew that his major advantage lay in his army's familiarity with the land and mobility. The Seleucid army, on the other hand, had made a large camp at Emmaus and was preparing to attack what they believed to be the camp of the Maccabees. In order to do this, Gorgias took a division of 6,000 of his best troops and left his camp by night (I Macc. 4:1).

An oft-quoted maxim when dealing with a large and well-organized enemy is, "cut off the head and the body will die." The separation of Gorgias' elite from the main body of the Seleucid army was key to Judas Maccabeus' strategy. Because Gorgias had taken his best troops out of the camp, Judas Maccabeus was safe in the assumption that an attack on the large reserve force would be successful; the lesser troops who were left behind were now without elite troops to lead them.

Passing the Seleucid army in the night, Judas Maccabeus and his men prepared for an attack at daybreak. The Maccabees appeared at dawn to find the camp of the Seleucids filled with well-armed professional soldiers. The rebels, on the other hand, were poorly armed and had little more than faith to guide their strikes.

Judas Maccabeus is not the first general in the Bible to face overwhelming odds in battle. Gideon had only 300 soldiers with him at the battle with the Midianites (Judges 7:6). The Israelite generals knew, of course, that they could not defeat much larger forces in hand-to-hand combat. They had to find ways to turn their enemies' strengths into weaknesses. When Gideon led his attack on the Midianites, "Each warrior was given a trumpet, jar, and a torch. At the signal they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Thrown into confusion, the Midianites fled before Gideon's men" (Luther Seminary).

Judas Maccabeus and his men played on the Seleucids' sense of superiority over them. Rather than packing up their camp, they simply left it, as though in a hurry. When Gorgias entered the camp that night, he was convinced that the army of Judas Maccabeus had fled before him. "[H]e looked for them in the hills, because he said, 'These men are running away from us"' (I Macc. 4:5).

"At daybreak Judas appeared in the plain with three thousand men, but they did not have armor and swords as they desired" (I Macc.4:6). Seeing that his men were concerned about the disparity between the Seleucid armaments and their own, Judas Maccabeus made one final speech before entering the battle. In this speech, he called on his men to remember the rescue of their ancestors at the Red Sea; and reminded them of the covenant their nation has made with YEHOVAH God. He reminded them yet again that their victory lay in the hands of YEHOVAH -- not in their own.

In I Macc. 4:12-15, the army of Judas Maccabeus attacked the camp of the Seleucid army, chasing out the enemy soldiers and pursuing them as far as Azotus and Jamnia, some fifteen miles distant (Times, 35). Despite this victory, the battle was not yet over. Judas Maccabeus said to his men, "Gorgias and his force are near us in the hills" (I Macc. 4:18).

As is often the case in battles of Biblical heroes, however, the battle was won before the enemy arrived. When the detachment under Gorgias returned from the hills to find their camp burning and rebel soldiers outfitted for battle in captured Seleucid armaments, they flee towards the coast as well.

What made the Seleucid detachment so afraid of the Maccabees? According to the footnotes in The Harper­Collins Study Bible, the burning of the camp meant that the battle was already over, and suggested that the rebel force was much larger than it actually was. It was traditional to burn the enemy camp once everything of value had been taken out of it, but the Seleucid camp was apparently too large to have already been plundered by a small force. Thus, it was to be assumed that the Maccabee army was much larger than anything the Seleucid detachment was willing to deal with.

As the army of Judas Maccabeus returned to their camp, "they sang hymns and praises to Heaven -- 'For he is good, for his mercy endures forever"' (I Macc. 4:24). Their song was taken from Psalm 136, a record of YEHOVAH's greatest actions (Harper-Collins,1658). The Maccabees now counted themselves among YEHOVAH's heroes, believing that He had brought Israel a great deliverance that day.

Now that we have seen all of the actions of Judas Maccabeus in his first great battle with the Seleucid oppressors, what can be gleaned from his story about the nature of the holy warrior? As shown by the time of preparation at Mizpah, the holy warrior is one who prays before battle. As shown by Judas Maccabeus' speech during the march to Emmaus, the holy warrior is one who is willing to accept that YEHOVAH God's will may not always be in his favor. As shown by Judas Maccabeus' speech before the battle, the holy warrior is one who believes that his faith wins his battles before he ever raises his hand against an enemy. As shown by the use of psychological and guerilla tactics, the holy warrior is one who fights with intelligence rather than brute force. In all these ways Judas Maccabeus provides a superb example of the holy warrior of Israel. He has more than proven that he deserves to be counted among the great Biblical war heroes -- right alongside Joshua, Gideon, and David.

 

Hope of Israel Ministries -- Proclaiming the Good News of the Soon-Coming Kingdom of YEHOVAH God!

Hope of Israel Ministries
P.O. Box 2186
Temple City, CA 91780, U.S.A.
www.hope-of-israel.org

Scan with your
Smartphone for
more information