After Ezra and Nehemiah the Judean province, at the extreme end of the Persian empire, lived on the fringes of history for three centuries. Those with greater initiative dedicated themselves to trading and left their country to settle in all the urban centers around the Mediterranean. Yet, one hundred years after Nehe miah, in 333 B.C., Alexander the Great began to chart the Middle East countries, defeating all the enemy armies and overthrowing the kings. Although he died when he was thirty years old, his triumphs opened the way for the spread of Greek culture with its longing for growth, its confidence in human potential and its open spirit which surpassed national individualism.
Alexander’s generals parceled out his huge empire among themselves. The Ptolemies, who dominated Egypt and Palestine, were understanding and did not disturb the Jews for the sake of their religion and customs. But when the Antiochians of Syria defeated the Egyptians in 197 and took Palestine away from them, they began to impose their pagan religion on the Jews.
This fierce persecution caused the uprising of the Jews headed by the Maccabean family. The first book of Maccabees – acknowledged as one of the most perfect books of ancient history – relates the events in the war and the deeds of the five Maccabean brothers, from the year 170 to 130 B.C.
Holy War, Liberation War
The book of Maccabees shows us a people who desire to live but for whom faith is more valuable than even life itself. When all have become accustomed to living without conflicts, persecution begins. Many are convinced they can do nothing against such a great power and that the risks are too great to overcome. Then the Spirit of God engenders new heroes through whom people recover their sense of dignity, fighting for those rights that make them fully human and true believers.
The Jewish people found themselves alone against their oppressors, and their Roman allies were not much help. They relied on their own strength and God helped them in their efforts.
The Maccabean wars are models of holy wars. They also proved that holy wars do not solve everything. Caught up in military problems and in political games, the Maccabees’ descendants soon became materialistic and were despised or opposed by true believers.