Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Miracle or the Victory?

If anyone thinks of the Maccabees, or the Hasmoneans, they think of the soccer team (if they are Israeli) or the festival of Hanukkah.  With a little more knowledge, people may realize that the Hasmonean era (roughly 164 BCE to 63 BCE) was one of the three times that Jews have excised autonomy over the land of Israel.

The lesser known of the three, Hasmonean rule has always been viewed by the rabbinical tradition as suspect.  The Hasmoneans were just too realpolitik for the rabbis.  They exercised power and control in the world in military and religious matters, combining them to a dangerous degree.  Rabbinical Judaism, by and large, worked to keep political matters out of Judaism, at least in all but a mythological form.  The Hasmoneans were up to their knees in politics, and worked with gentiles to secure their power, fought against fellow Jews when they were against them, and in general, did all the things people in power do to maintain their power. 

Joseph Sievers shows this and more in The Hasmoneans and Their Supporters: From Mattathias to the Death of John Hyrcanus I.  He explores the problem of sources at our disposal for understanding the Hasmoneans.  He tackles the thorny problem of just how independent the Hasmoneans were, and when they finally achieved complete independence from the Seleucid-Greek  rulers they revolted against (and often worked with).

John Hyrancus comes across as the most fascinating figure in this study, since he did things that are not widely known to people who do not study this topic.  He expanded the Hasmonean empire across the Jordan; he forced non-Jews to convert to Judaism or be forced with expulsion (most notably the Edomites, or Idumeans).  He destroyed the Samaritan temple (never to be rebuilt) and subjugated this people completely.

As we said, these accomplishments were never much touted by religious Judaism.  All we get is Hannukah.  And that holiday celebrates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory of the Hasmoneans in capturing Jerusalem and its Temple.  The supernatural wins out over the natural. 

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