Chapter III, To the End of the Asmonean Dynasty

John Hyrcanus, son of Simon, succeeded to the place and honor of his father, in accordance with the decision of the great council. His first act was to attempt the relief of his mother, who was held captive by her unworthy son-in-law Ptolemy. In this he was unsuccessful. The aged woman was murdered, and her assassin could not be apprehended. Antiochus Pius again invaded the land, determined if possible to crush the independent spirit of the Jews, but he was once more outwitted, though the cause of much suffering for weary months. At the feast of tabernacles of that year a treaty was signed which rather gave the advantage to the Syrians, and Antiochus returned to his own land, after having sent a costly sacrifice to the temple at Jerusalem as a sop to Jewish pride.

Antiochus did not hold his sceptre long, for in the year 130 B. C. he fell in battle with the Parthians, and his ill-starred brother, Demetrius, came out of captivity to succeed him, reigning a little over four years, and being himself slain, 126 B. C.

John Hyrcanus renewed the league with the Romans, in order to strengthen himself against the Syrians, whom he attacked in several cities with varying loss and gain; in the main successful, however. He introduced a new policy (too often followed since, alas, even by what professes to be the Church), namely, compelling the conquered peoples to abjure their systems of worship and conform to Judaism by becoming circumcised, and thus be added to the Jewish people, or giving them the alternative of a violent death. But forcible proselytizing could only result in disaster. Converts by coercion were ever an element of weakness.

It must be evident to the most cursory reader that the Jews had allowed themselves to greatly decline from the spirituality of the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, or even the zeal for the covenant of the days of Judas Maccabeus. Formality and rationalism were eating the very life out of them. They gloried in their past history, but were far from present subjection to the law of God. Thus has it ever been when the twin evils of either narrow party spirit or broad latitudinarianism have been allowed to do their deadly and soul-destroying work. The one makes bigoted fanatics, who imagine that all divine counsels centre in themselves, and become intolerant, formal and exacting. The other produces careless, pleasure-loving “broad-churchmanlike” professors, who are indifferent to all that is vital in religion, content to have a form of godliness while denying its power.

Such were the opposite characteristics of the two great parties that for years had been forming among the Jews, and which had in the times of Hyrcanus become definitely separated and designated as the sects of the “Pharisees” and “Sadducees.” The Maccabees were ever of the former company, until now, when John Hyrcanus made it manifest that he had decided leanings towards the more liberal Sadducees. For a time he remained nominally a Pharisee, until at a certain feast, a leader of the “most straitest sect” demanded of him that he resign the priesthood, which had been held by the Asmoneans since Jonathan, in plain disobedience to the letter of the law. Hyrcanus indignantly inquired the reason for this request; and the one who had made it, not daring to be frank, said it was because it had been bruited abroad that the mother of the high-priest was a Gentile, one who had been taken captive in the war. This story, palpably false, enraged Hyrcanus, who demanded that the calumniator be severely punished. The latter was declared to be guilty of an offence punishable only by bonds and stripes. The lightness of the sentence seemed to convince Hyrcanus that the Pharisees really upheld the man, and he ended the matter by turning away from them altogether and openly joining the Sadducean faction. Edersheim very properly designates this act as “the beginning of the decline of the Maccabees.” Henceforth they sank by quick changes to the level of the company they kept.

Hyrcanus rapidly lost his influence with the mass of the people, and being both secretly and openly opposed by the Pharisees, his after years were full of trouble and distress. In 107 B. C. he died, having accomplished little that could be said to be to God’s praise or the blessing of the Jews, though Josephus (evidently a partial critic) says he possessed the gift of prophecy. He appointed his wife to be “mistress of all” after his death; but she was set aside by her son Aristobulus, who succeeded to the dignities and authority of his father. This man added nothing to the decaying glory of the family, though he was the first of his race to assume the title of king of the Jews—a title which Zerubbabel, of the royal family of David, would not take in the days of the restoration.

The young king left a brief but blood-stained record behind him. He became the murderer of his mother—imprisoning and starving her to death, and slew or imprisoned all his brothers. Within a year he had gone the way of all flesh, dying in 106 B. C.

His widow, Salome, then released his living brethren, and made the eldest king. He was known as Alexander Janneus. The Greek names of these sons of Hyrcanus show how far from the Maccabean spirit their degenerate children had drifted. Alexander slew one of his brothers, permitting the other to live, and occupied himself in wars of conquest; his sister-in-law, Salome, acting as regent of the kingdom during his campaigns.

The Pharisees were still the dominant party in Jerusalem, while the king was openly a Sadducee. He detested the strictness of the separatists and publicly defied them on one memorable occasion by pouring the water from the Pool of Siloam upon the ground instead of the altar, at the feast of tabernacles. This was a ceremony prescribed, not in the law, but the ritual, and referred to by our Lord in John 7:37, 38. A terrible uproar was precipitated by what the Pharisees regarded as a sacrilegious act, and Alexander called in his foreign troops to quell the riot. So fearful was the disturbance, that ere it was put down six thousand people had been slain. But this was only the beginning. Rebellion and insurrection broke out everywhere, and before peace was established some fifty thousand persons were killed. In their desperation, the Pharisees and their followers intrigued with their ancient foes, the Syrians, who sent an army to help them, hoping thereby to recover Palestine for themselves. At their first battle Alexander was defeated, and the victorious foreigners began to overrun the land. This changed matters somewhat; it caused many who previously had either opposed or been noncommittal, to rally to the standard of Alexander. His army was so strengthened that the Syrians felt it would be hopeless in the then state of the inflamed populace to pursue their plans; so they withdrew. In the party strife that followed, Alexander carried all before him, and crushed out the last spark of insurrection in a most barbarous manner, following the heathen custom of crucifying and mutilating vast numbers of men, women and even children, thus rendering his throne secure and his name infamous! His cruelty won for him the title of “the Thracian.”

His reign was somewhat lengthy (twenty-seven years), and in his later years he vigorously carried on his policy of subjugating and proselytizing by force the surrounding nations, who were given the alternative of submitting to circumcision or being put to death. He died in 79 B. C, and in his will directed that his body be given to his old opponents the Pharisees to do with it as they would. This unexpected submission of the grim warrior so surprised and pleased them that they buried him in great honor.

It was during his reign, about 88 B. C, as pointed out by Prideaux, that Phanuel, the husband of Anna the prophetess, died, according to Luke 2:36, 37, for she had been “a widow of about fourscore and four years” at the time of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. Allowing for the difference of four years between B. C. and A. D., this would place her husband’s death as mentioned. Thus we come now to the first link with the New Testament. Anna was a wife and a widow in the reign of Alexander; through all the turbulent years that followed, she ever waited for the consolation of Israel, and she was in the temple to welcome the promised Messiah when His mother and His foster father first brought Him up to the house of God to carry out the legal ritual regarding the birth of a male child. Simeon’s age is not given, but he too may have been living ere Alexander Janneus died, or else he must have been born shortly afterward.

Two sons were left by “the Thracian,” named Hyrcanus and Aristobulus; but he directed in his will that his wife Alexandra should succeed him; and as the Jews generally regarded her as opposed to the policies of her late husband, the nation concurred in his choice. She was accordingly acknowledged as queen-regent, though Josephus declares, “the Pharisees had the authority.” She appointed her son Hyrcanus high-priest, but he was a weak, vacillating man, who had little interest either in matters of religion or affairs of state, and readily acquiesced in the will of the dominant party. The Pharisees repealed the decrees of John Hyrcanus and “bound” and “loosed” whom they would. So active and offensive were they that many who would not conform to their wishes fled from Jerusalem, or obtained leave from the queen to settle elsewhere, as it was impossible for them to live in peace in the capital unless they accepted the dogmas and followed the usages of these extreme legalists, who then dominated the state.

These non-conformists, on the other hand, were as far removed from subjection to the law of God as to the traditions of the elders. They were of the Sadducean caste—loose in their lives, liberal in their religious views, and Gentilizers in politics. They entrenched themselves in fortresses at various points, and secretly plotted the downfall of their enemies, the Pharisees.

Aristobulus, the brother of Hyrcanus, sympathized with these men. He despised his indolent brother, hated the stern, puritanical principles of the Pharisees and coveted the crown and kingdom. But he bided his time, until at last a serious illness attacked the queen. Upon learning this, he hastened from Jerusalem and rallying the exiles, soon had some twenty-two strongholds and a very respectable army at his command. Too late, Hyrcanus realized the folly of inaction, and urgently sought to have the queen proclaim him the heir; but she died before anything could be done.

Thus the two brothers found themselves at the head of rival factions. Hyrcanus led out an army to meet Aristobulus and his troops, but no battle was fought, for most of the high-priest’s soldiers deserted to his younger brother, and Hyrcanus fled in terror to Jerusalem. Finally, terms of peace were arranged whereby Aristobulus was proclaimed king and Hyrcanus confirmed in the priesthood.

Each seemed satisfied with this arrangement, and peace might have been maintained for years had it not been for the ambition and machinations of a man of whom we have not hitherto spoken, but who was destined to play a large part in Jewish history for years to come.

This man was an Idumean, named Antipater. He Was the father of Herod the Great who, by a strange combination of circumstances, was to be “the king of the Jews,” in whose reign the long-expected Messiah was to be born.

Antipater was not a Jew, but of the hated Edomite race, the descendants of Esau, though a proselyte, outwardly at least, of Judaism. Under king Alexander he had been appointed governor of Idumea, and had become possessed of great power and authority. He was retained in that position by Queen Alexandra. Hyrcanus and Antipater were close friends, and the latter was not at all pleased to see the regal authority given to the younger brother. He evidently feared his own aspirations might be blighted by the downfall of the high-priest. So he determined to act at once, and act vigorously, to thwart this. Persuading Hyrcanus that his life was in danger through the plotting of Aristobulus, he finally prevailed upon the easy-going priest to flee to Aretas, king of Arabia, who was also in the plot and one of Antipater’s friends. An arrangement was made whereby the three allies, Hyrcanus, Aretas and Antipater raised an army of 50,000 men, with which they set out to overthrow Aristobulus. “Biting and devouring one another,” the Jews were in grave danger of “being consumed one of another”—a lesson to all religious controversialists since!

The king of Judea, utterly unable to cope with such a host, dared not give battle, but fled to Jerusalem and shut himself up there for safety. He was besieged by the Arabians and the discontented Jews, who both by might and trickery sought to have him delivered up by the people. The mass were in favor of Hyrcanus, but the priests, who were largely of the Sadducees, generally sided with Aristobulus. Their influence was strong enough to keep the populace from opening the gates to the besiegers, and so the investment of the city dragged on for weary weeks and months.

Among the priests was an eccentric character of some influence and piety, named Onias, who was declared to be a remarkable man of prayer. It was told of him that on one occasion, during a season of prolonged drought, causing great suffering and distress, he had drawn a circle round himself with his rod in the sand, and declared that he would never cross over it until his prayers were heard and rain was given. How long he remained thus enclosed we do not know, but he did not move out of the self- imposed limits until the welcome showers began to fall. The enthusiastic people called him ever after Onias Hammeaggel: that is, Circle-drawer Onias. In some way this man fell into the hands of the besieging forces, who took him to their camp and commanded him to pray for the success of the cause of Hyrcanus and against Aristobulus and the priestly Sadducean faction. The Jews in the beleaguering army were insistent, and would brook no refusal. After pleading in vain for liberty, Onias at last arose and prayed: “O God, King of the whole world, since those who stand with me now are Thy people, and those who are besieged are Thy priests, I pray Thee harken Thou neither to the entreaty of those against these, nor bring to effect what these pray against those.” The multitude rushed upon him in a rage, and he was mercilessly stoned to death. The incident shows the prevailing temper and affords a melancholy view of the condition of mind in which the people were found at the time. A passionate, factional spirit was withering up all piety, save in “the poor of the flock” who waited for the shining forth of the Sun of righteousness.

As the siege dragged on, it came near the sacred passover season, and there were no beasts in the city for the sacrifices. This obliged the priests to come to some terms with the besiegers, and the latter agreed to supply cattle and sheep at the exorbitant price of a thousand drachmas for each beast. The money was gathered, and passed over the walls to those appointed to receive it, but no beasts were given in return, and the priests were in despair.

Relief at last came in an unlooked-for way. Pompey, the noted Roman general, sent forces under Scaurus and Gabinius into Syria to restore order there. Each section of the Jews sent emissaries to Damascus to seek the aid of the Romans against the others, and at last through bribery the party of Aristobulus won, and at command of the Romans the allies retreated and were pursued and utterly routed by the priestly party. As a reward for timely aid, the Jews presented a golden crown to Pompey who had come to Damascus.

But the troubles of the Jews were far from a settlement. Antipater determined to carry his cause in person to Pompey, and was graciously heard by the latter. Aristobulus then determined to do the same, but offended by his rude, insolent bearing. A third party also appeared, and declared that both Hyrcanus and his brother were unauthorized upstarts and disturbers of the commonwealth, and the people asked that both be set aside and other rulers appointed in their places. Aristobulus feared his was a losing cause, and hastily leaving Damascus, fled to Alexandrium, where Pompey pursued him. Allowing the town, which was a fortress, to fall into the general’s hands, the king fell back and retreated to Jerusalem, which he sought to put in condition to stand another siege. Upon the appearance of Pompey before the walls, however, Aristobulus changed his mind, offered to surrender and to pay any required indemnity. To this Pompey agreed; and holding Aristobulus as a hostage, sent an agent into the city to collect the promised money.

But the Jewish soldiers were not disposed thus tamely to accede to the demands of the Romans; the deputation found the city guarded and the walls manned for defense, while the request for indemnity was refused. All in the city were not agreed as to the policy of the soldiers, but they carried the day, and the siege was renewed.

Eventually the lower part of the city surrendered, and the Temple Hill alone held out, despite the efforts of the invaders to take it by assault and casting military mounds, from which missiles of various kinds were projected into the fortress. Learning by experience that the Jews refrained from all offensive tactics on the Sabbath, the Romans did the same, and spent each seventh day strengthening their earth-works and putting themselves in a better position to storm the walls. In this way a decided advantage was gained, but nevertheless the desperate little band of zealots held out for over three months. Finally, a Roman battering-ram demolished one of the largest towers; through the breach thus made, the besiegers pressed their way, and a fearful scene of carnage followed.

It is said that twelve thousand persons perished by sword and fire on that fearful day, the horrors of which no pen could describe, and indeed it would be but soul-harrowing to attempt it. Many of the priests were cut down in the temple itself as they officiated in holy things; for through all the siege and final fall of the city the service had been kept up, while the cries of the distracted people were in vain addressed to God who in accordance with the prophecy of Hosea, given some centuries earlier but still unrepealed, had cast them off as not His people. Individuals indeed were owned and saved, but the nation as such He would not own, and in deepest woe they reaped the bitter fruit of years of evil sowing.

This was the end of Jewish independence. Henceforth Judea was but a Roman province. How little had Judas Maccabeus foreseen what the result of his treaty with Rome would mean to his people! Better far would it have been to have depended alone upon the Lord of Hosts than to have placed confidence in Rome.

Pompey deprived Hyrcanus of all kingly honors, but confirmed him in the high-priesthood and ordered the temple service continued. He had polluted the holy place by entering it himself, but afterwards gave orders for its purification, thus pacifying the Jews. Aristobulus he carried as a captive to Rome, together with his son Antigonus; another son, Alexander, was also a prisoner, but escaped before reaching the Imperial City. He afterwards made a futile attempt to revive the Jewish state, but Gabinius, the Roman general, left in charge by Pompey, defeated him in 57 B. C. A little later Aristobulus escaped, and making his way to Palestine, endeavored to stir up revolt, but in vain. He was re-captured and returned to Rome in chains. In 55 B. C. Alexander tried once more, but could get no following of any moment, and was defeated at Mount Tabor.

Gabinius governed Judea under Scaurus, who was appointed over all the region once ruled by the Seleucidae. He restored order in the desolated land, established a firm and able government, respected the rights of the Jews so far as was compatible with Roman policy, and really gave far more satisfaction than had the degenerate sons of the Maccabees. Hyrcanus submitted peaceably to the yoke and was befriended by Antipater who, on his part, had the confidence and good-will of Pompey.

Thus for a season a measure of prosperity succeeded the hard and difficult years that had been the lot of the Jews for so long. The next year it was rudely disturbed by a visit from Crassus who was now consul in conjunction with Pompey in Rome. Being in need of money, Crassus marched to Jerusalem determined to lay hands on the temple treasure, the vast extent of which had aroused his cupidity. In vain Eleazar, the priest in charge, sought to divert him from his impious purpose by offering instead a large ingot of gold which had been hidden away. Crassus took the gold and the treasure also, and carried away to Rome a quantity of money, jewels and plate, estimated at some ten millions of dollars.

This so aroused the Jews, that many rallied about Alexander, and he, for the third time, raised the standard for revolt. Crassus returned in 52 B C and forced him to terms of peace. Two years later Scipio was made president of Syria, and in Rome Caesar and Pompey were at strife. In order to gain an advantage over Pompey, Julius Caesar liberated Aristobulus and aided him to return to Judea, with two legions of soldiers. His son Alexander was to raise a force and join his father. But Scipio, as a friend of Pompey, nipped the plot in the bud by apprehending and beheading Alexander, while other agents of Pompey contrived to poison Aristobulus ere he reached Judea.

Thus Antigonus alone remained of the sons of Aristobulus. Of him and his unfortunate end we shall hear later. He never regained the crown save for a very short time, though he fought desperately for it. The Asmonean princes by their profligacy and godlessness had lost all that their noble fathers had gained.

The glory had departed and Shiloh had not yet come! Was the word of God to be discredited at last, and the hope of Israel go out in darkness? Not so; the tribal sceptre should not depart from Judah till Messiah appeared, though it was preserved in such a way as “to hide pride from man” and to give exercise for faith. God would preserve a light in Jerusalem and maintain His People in their land till He should come whose advent had so long been foretold, but it should be under the fostering care of the hated Edomite, whose object should be but his own glory and exaltation.