Antiochus IV was the evil Seleucid king of the Chanukah story.
This Hellenistic Syrian despot reigned from 175 to 164 BCE. According to the first Book of Maccabees, in 167 (3594/95 on the Jewish calendar) Antiochus IV issued terrible decrees on the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea, targeting the very core of Jewish practice.
He outlawed Temple sacrifices and circumcision. He ordered his Jewish subjects to violate Shabbat and chagim, to defile consecrated objects, and to build illicit altars, temples and idolatrous shrines at which they were to sacrifice (and eat) non-kosher animals. He turned the Beit Hamikdash into a temple dedicated to Zeus. He ordered the burning of Torah scrolls and made it a crime to possess a Torah.
Disobeying any of these decrees was punishable by death. Many Jews martyred themselves rather than obey, while many others chose to obey rather than be killed.
The question is, why did Antiochus do such a terrible thing?
Historians and careful readers of the two books of Maccabees find evidence for three possible answers: (1) Antiochus used Hellenism as a way to unify his empire and standardize the practices of its disparate nationalities; (2) he was following the advice of leading Hellenistic Jews (I would call this the “We are our own worst enemy” explanation); (3) he was quashing a real or imagined Jewish rebellion.
The first explanation is strengthened by sources that indicate Antiochus was keen on spreading Hellenism throughout the empire. On the other hand, his harsh anti-Jewish decrees were not extended to Jews under his dominion outside the Land of Israel.
The second possibility, sorry to say, isn’t all that far-fetched. Before the Syrian Seleucids took over in approximately 198 BCE, the Jews of Judea has been under Ptolemaic Greek rule for about 100 years. By the time Antiochus IV ascended to the throne, many Jews had adopted a Hellenistic lifestyle. One source claims Jerusalem’s kohanim were spending more time in the gymnasium than in the Temple. So perhaps these movers and shakers encouraged Antiochus to force all Jews to Hellenize.
(Fortunately, a faithful kohen in Modi’in named Matityahu didn’t agree; he organized his sons and other fighters in the ultimately successful Maccabean revolt against these decrees – without which we could not be celebrating Chanukah!)
Mitch First, himself a Jewish historian, suggests that the most likely motivation was (3), quashing rebellion.
According to the second Book of Maccabees, while Antiochus was off fighting in Egypt in 168 BCE, the deposed (and thoroughly Hellenized) Kohen Gadol Jason gathered fighters and launched an ill-fated attack to win back the high priesthood from the equally Hellenized Menelaus, who was firmly in the pocket of the Seleucids.
When word reached Antiochus about the battle in Jerusalem, he assumed it was the beginning of an all-out rebellion.
The author of II Maccabees records that Antiochus promptly returned from Egypt. “With the fury of a wild beast, he took the city, treating it as enemy territory captured in war. He ordered the soldiers to slay mercilessly whomever they met and to butcher those who withdrew into their houses…[F]orty thousand fell by the sword and an equal number were sold as slaves. Unsatisfied with these atrocities, Antiochus had the audacity to enter the holiest temple in the whole world…With polluted hands he seized the sacred vessels and swept up the gifts deposited by many other kings.”
This fierce reaction may also have been stimulated psychologically by Antiochus’ humiliating encounter with the Romans in Egypt. Perhaps, historians speculate, he directed his rage on the Jews because he was helpless against the Romans. Jason’s revolt gave him a convenient opening to do so.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what may have happened and why, I would like to step back and draw the following conclusion:
We and our leaders are free to make decisions that may be right or wrong, good or bad, tragic or heroic, choosing from the options Hashem puts before us.
Alll our decisions have consequences determined by Hashem. If we make decisions that go against the Torah, we will suffer consequences to set us back on the correct course – as the Torah clearly tells us.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what motivated Antiochus to enact his terrible decrees. What matters is that we learn the appropriate lesson from what happened.
Many Jews of the time had taken a dangerous wrong turn. Antiochus – by virtue of his own wicked proclivities — was merely an instrument facilitating the grave consequences of taking that wrong turn. And the consequences could have been even worse had not one righteous kohen and his family bravely decided to help steer the Jewish people back in the right direction, even if it cost their lives.
When we kindle our chanukiyot, let us remember that we can choose to bring light or choose to bring darkness through every decision we make.
This Op-Ed/Analysis is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of JerusalemOnline.com.