top of page

Maccabees, again…

I realized that my last entry on Afghanistan might have been a little unclear. You’ll recall that I said that the Taliban’s victory there might be a problem for the Talibani themselves, and perhaps even for all of Islam, in that it might give Jihadists too great a confidence in their affairs.

The thing is, God isn't always on your side...

I should explain that. There are multiple historical precedents. For example, Prussia and then, later, Germany had known nothing but military success since Bismarck, and so assumed that it could easily take-on the French, the British, and the Russians at the same time in the First World War. This proved, of course, not to be the case. Or, too, there is our own sacrosanct selves, the United States of America. We came out of the Second World War very much a victor, and suffered from the delusion that we could intervene anywhere we wanted around the world…and, of course, learned the hard way we couldn’t, particularly in places like Vietnam, and now Afghanistan.

But the real analog, and the best one, is actually much older. About 2000 years older, to be precise. I mean, the Jewish state of the Maccabees.

Just in case you haven’t been following Jewish military history lately, let me provide a little background. Alexander the Great had taken over a big chunk of the known world. He then had the good timing to die before he suffered any really significant defeats, unlike, say, Napoleon, who always regretted not catching that cannon ball on his way into Moscow. Alexander’s empire was then taken over by his generals, collectively known as the Diadochi, “the successors.”

At first, Israel went to Ptolemy, who was ruling Egypt. But, then, around 200 BCE, the Ptolemaic kingdom lost a war to the Seleucid Empire, which had been founded by yet another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, and which was based in what is now Syria. Israel then got Greco-Syrian overlords.

At first, nothing much changed, but then the Seleucid Empire got a new Emperor in the form of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. For a variety of reasons, some of which seem to have been economic, Antiochus was eager to more closely incorporate Israel into his own dominions. There were several Israelites who considered this to be a Very Good Thing, and rather liked the idea of being Greek, or at least Greekish, in an age when being Hellenic conveyed status and commercial connections pretty much everywhere.

However, there were other Israelites who saw this as a Very Bad Thing, and thought that being Greekish was positively treasonous.

One thing led to another…there was a revolt…and Antiochus came in with an army to support the Hellenizers…and, well, you get the picture.

Okay, now, Antiochus won the battle and then seems to have then set out to stamp out Jewish customs… or, at least, that’s what he’s accused of doing. For instance, he was supposed to have tried to turn theTemple in Jerusalem into a temple of Zeus. Maybe he did. On the other hand, maybe he didn’t. Historians aren’t quite clear on it, these days.

Anyway, Jewish Traditionalists took to the hills and fought a long, devastating guerrilla war which finally forced Antiochus to back down. The leaders of the revolutionaries? A family by the name of Maccabeus. Hence the Book of Maccabees. Oh, and then there’s Hanukkah, but that’s another story.

Now, what actually happened in the Maccabean Revolt, and just after, remains kind of unclear. Religious tradition says that, aided by God, the Maccabeans drove out the dreadful Greeks and established a reformed Jewish Kingdom under their own lineage, the Hasmonean dynasty. In actual point of fact, it doesn’t seem to have been quite so cut and dry. For quite a long time, it seems that the Maccabees ruled as clients of Antiochus and his heirs. In other words, they had autonomy but not quite real independence.

Real independence didn’t come for several years, and when it did come arrived because the Seleucid state had much bigger problems to worry about than what was happening in Jerusalem. The “empire,” which wasn’t much of an empire any more, was being ground to bits between Rome in the West and Persia-Parthia in the East. When the Hasmoneans announced that they were full-fledged kings, and not just clients, the Seleucid rulers probably didn’t even notice.

But, be that as it may, the Hasmoneans ruled for a while, during which they built up their own small empire (they took over Idumaea, the former kingdom of Edom, for instance. They then forced the Indumeans to adopt Judaism, an unfortunate sign of intolerances to come). They also tended to be rather harsh with rebels and domestic critics. Supposedly, one of them, Alexander Jannaeus, 2021ied 800 Pharisees and murdered their families for supporting a rebellion against him. Or, anyway, that’s what is said of him.

But moving on with my story…

The Hasmoneans gradually lost their power and Israel lost its independence as Rome moved forcefully into Middle East. Israel became a Roman client, and once again the scene was set for a showdown between Hellenizers and Traditionalists, this time with Rome supporting the Hellenizers. And, once, again, there was a rebellion by the former. Once again, militants took to the hills.

The Traditionalists figured they couldn’t lose. After all, God was with them, wasn’t He? And, besides, hadn’t the Maccabees shown the way? Hadn’t they demonstrated that with faith, ferocity, and fury …plus a little terrorism…any small band of right-thinking revolutionaries could defeat the flabby armies of decadent infidels?



This time it didn’t go that way. The Romans weren’t the Seleucids. They weren’t facing much bigger problems elsewhere. And, more, for them, Israel wasn’t just a sideshow they could afford to abandon. They were in a serious Cold War, and sometimes a hot one, with their only real rival at the time, Parthia, which is to say, Persia. And Israel was a strategic asset in that contest.

So, the Romans came in and they came hard.

In three major wars, beginning in 63CE and not ending until 136CE, the Romans basically destroyed Jewish society. They very nearly exterminated the Jewish people.

It was only by something like a miracle that Judaism survived at all. And, even with that miracle (assuming one believes in such things), Jews would not establish their own state again for nearly 2000 years. It is also an interesting question as to whether or not today’s Jews have much in common with those of pre-Revolt Israel. Oh, yes, a few genes here and there (but always in combination, I’m sure, with those of converts and Others), and some religious practices are still current, but …really….how much else is the same?*

My point is that there are wars, and there are wars…and God isn’t always on the side of the “right,” even if the Right maintains ritual purity and does what the holy books say and doesn’t allow women to go to school and grows a beard the size and general fuzziness of a Ponderosa Pine.

And that’s where my predictions for a possible future come in…

To wit, that eventually, one way or another, the Talibani and/or their imitators will encounter enemies far more dangerous than ourselves. We could and did walk away from Afghanistan. Someone else may not have that option. Maybe China…or Russia (which, unlike the USSR, doesn’t have a direct border with Afghanistan, but is still uncomfortably close)…or India…or, even, Iran, which has its own, rival version of an Islamic Revolution to export.

And when that day comes…

Maybe…just maybe…we’ll see things go very badly, indeed.

Maybe as badly as they went for Israel all those centuries ago…

When the religious pure and the fearlessly militant discovered the hard way that Rome was not Antiochus and that God, for all His wonders, does not always…

Reward His believers.


Until next time….

Onward and Upward.


*Note: this is in no way to suggest that modern Jews aren’t really descendants of the ancient Israelites and so don’t really have a right to homeland in the Middle East. They are and they do. I’m simply saying that not much culturally survived the Roman wars. You can make a similar argument, I’m sure, about any society. Today’s Egyptian doesn’t have a lot in common with the builders of the pyramids. And I, a modern American, am pretty much revolved from George Washington. For which I thank goodness. I’d look awful in a wig.

Copyright©2021 Michael Jay Tucker

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page