Most Jews are likely familiar with the story of Hanukkah (and if you are not, head on over to my post from last year, A HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF HANUKKAH), when Jewish rebels, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the oppressive rule of the Greek Seleucid Empire.
As children, we are taught about the miraculous victory, but from my observations, we learn about it as a stand-alone event, without exploring the deeper context of the time period. What happened after the Maccabean Revolt and who ruled Judea in its aftermath?
In terms of Jewish history, this period is actually of huge importance. The Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea — a semi-autonomous, Jewish-ruled kingdom — was the last time, except for a brief period in the seventh century, when Jews exercised sovereignty over our ancestral land (that is, until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948).
BRIEF HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
In 164 BCE, Judah the Maccabee and his army entered Jerusalem and rededicated the holy Jewish Temple to the Israelite G-d, which Jews to this day commemorate with the festival of Hanukkah.
This, however, did not put an end to the violence in Judea and a civil war persisted for several years. By 158, Jonathan the Maccabee (Judah’s brother) cleared the land of “the godless and the apostate” and the violence ceased for 5 years. Writings from the time state, “the sword ceased in Israel.” Between 110-63 BCE, the Hasmonean Kingdom operated as an independent kingdom with its own military and regional influence.
Nevertheless, the Hasmonean Kingdom, while semi-autonomous from the Seleucid Empire, was not fully politically independent. As such, it got caught in various Seleucid civil conflicts.
In the grand scope of Jewish history, the Hasmonean Kingdom was relatively short-lived, coming to an end in 63 BCE, when Judea came into the hands of the Roman Republic.
The Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea was named as such because of the ruling Hasmonean dynasty. In writings of the period, the Hasmoneans referred to the land — as well as the people — as “Judea” (Judeans) and “Israel” interchangeably.
Old Aramaic was the official language, with Hebrew used as the liturgical language (Hebrew as an everyday tongue came into decline several centuries prior, with the imperialist conquests of the Babylonians). Due to Seleucid influence, Greek was also spoken widely.
Jewish tradition holds that the Hasmonean Kingdom was short-lived because the kingship should only be held by direct descendants of the line of King David. Additionally, the Hasmonean Kingdom quickly became very Hellenised, to the anger of their Jewish subjects. Constant infighting among the dynasty and corruption also resulted in a negative view of the Hasmoneans.
As a semi-autonomous kingdom, the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea was able to exert some (extremely short-lived) regional influence. In 110 BCE, John Hyrcanus, a Maccabee leader and Kohen (High Priest), conducted the first military conquests of the newly semi-sovereign kingdom.
Hyrcanus thus conquered Samaria, Transjordan, and Idumea (a region between southern Israel and Jordan), going so far as to force the Idumeans to become Jews and practice Jewish culture, tradition, and spirituality. The Hasmoneans, however, quickly lost Transjordan to the Nabateans in 93 BCE.
Salome Alexandra, also known as Alexandra of Jerusalem and Shlom Tzion Alexandra in Hebrew, was one of the only two female monarchs to ever rule over Judea (the other being Athalia between 841-835 BCE). Salome Alexandra ruled Judea between 76-67 BCE. She was the last ruler of Judea to die as the sovereign of an independent Jewish kingdom.
Salome Alexandra’s lineage is mostly unknown, though the Pharisee scholar Simeon ben Shetah was likely her brother, meaning that she was the daughter of Shetah as well. She was the wife of Alexander Jannaeus, the second king of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the mother to Hyrcanus II, who ruled after her death. Salome Alexandra arranged the assassination of her brother-in-law by convincing her husband that he was plotting against him. She ascended to the throne after her husband’s death.
Judea prospered during her reign. According to rabbinic sources, as a reward for her piety, rain only fell on Shabbat nights, so workers didn’t suffer lost wages due to rainfall. The soil was so fertile that the sages collected specimens of grains to show future generations the reward for obeying G-d.
While the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea was short-lived, the Maccabean Revolt and the subsequent Judean sovereignty started a movement for Jewish independence and self-determination that existed in various forms until the mid-20th century, culminating in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
For instance, the Judean revolts against the Roman Empire (66-73, 115-117, and 132-135) were largely influenced by the Jewish nationalism that led to the establishment of the Hasmonean Kingdom.
In the early seventh century, the Jewish population of Byzantine-ruled Palestine revolted against the oppressive rule of the Byzantine Empire. The revolt was successful, so much so that Jews enjoyed a brief period of sovereignty and freedom over Jerusalem. This quickly came to an end in 617 and even more so in 632, with the Arab Muslim conquest of Palestine.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the Maccabees lived on for centuries. It still lives on to this day every year when we commemorate the story of Hanukkah.
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