The Hasmoneans were the ruling dynasty of Judea and the surrounding areas from 164 BC to 63 BC during a period known as the Maccabean Period of Jewish Independence. Their rule eventually extended into the regions of Samaria, Galilee, Iturea, Perea, and Idumea. Today their kingdom would include Israel and parts of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. The Hasmoneans were renowned for their leadership, fierce skill in battle, and for strictly enforcing Jewish law by forcibly converting the people in every land they conquered. Their account can be found in the apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees as well as The Jewish War by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
As background information about when and how the Hasmoneans came to power, one has to understand the history of Israel. Israel's first king was Saul, but because he turned away from God, he was replaced by King David. David's son Solomon succeeded him, but then the kingdom split in two. The northern ten tribes installed Jeroboam as king while the tribes of Judah and Benjamin submitted to Solomon's son Rehoboam. The northern tribes were eventually conquered by the Assyrians. The Assyrians were then conquered by the Babylonians who also conquered the southern kingdom of Judah as well. The Babylonians were then conquered by the Persians who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. This history is recorded in the canonical books of the Bible like 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Lamentations, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
However the Bible does not record what happened in between the Jewish return to Jerusalem under Persian rule and Jesus' birth in Bethlehem under Roman rule. In 333 BC the Greeks, with Alexander the Great in the lead, defeated the Persians. When Alexander the Great died, his empire was split between four successors. Thus Judea came under the rule of the Seleucids. In 167 BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV ordered that a pig be sacrificed to the Greek gods in Modi'in. Mattathias, the Jewish priest in that town, killed the official who brought the order as well as any Jew who would follow the king's unholy command. Thus began the Jewish War against the Seleucids. Mattathias had five sons. His son Judah was such a fierce warrior that he earned the name "Judah the Hammer" or Judah Maccabee. Thus the family became known as the Maccabees and their uprising was known as the Maccabean Revolt. However, they used the name of their ancestor, Hasmonaeus as their ruling name, the Hasmoneans.
Mattathias's son Simon went on to establish the Hasmonean dynasty after his brother Judas defeated the Seleucid army. Simon's son John Hyrcanus officially proclaimed independence from the Seleucids in 128 BC, but Judea continued to pay taxes to the Seleucids, therefore the Hasmoneans were only semi-autonomous during this period. John Hyrcanus also declared himself both king and high priest in Judea. John Hyrcanus's son Arisobulus I succeeded him and then John Hyrcanus' other son Alexander Jannaeus took the throne and priesthood. Alexander Janneaus' wife Alexandra Salome succeeded him as queen. Then their son Hyrcanus II became high priest and their other son Aristobulus II wanted to be both king and high priest. The brothers decided to call in the Romans who had conquered the Seleucids to help settle their dispute. The Romans sided first with one brother and then with the other. Finally Hyrcanus II's daughter Alexandra married Aristobulus II's son Alexander (her cousin) who then inherited the priesthood and the throne. Their son Aristobulus III succeeded them and their daughter Mariamne married Herod the Great from Idumea. Thus, through Herod, the Romans gained control of Judea and the Jewish people were once again a conquered nation. This is the political scene into which Jesus of Nazareth was born.
People alive during Jesus' day had parents and grandparents who remembered living in relative independence under the Jewish rule of the Hasmoneans. After nearly 100 years of independence, the Jewish people were eager to free themselves of Roman rule. However, Jesus' mission was not a political one at that time.
Genesis 49:10 proclaims that "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples." This prophecy came to fruition when David, from the tribe of Judah, became king of Israel. Legitimate kings of Israel would come through David's line. However, when the northern ten tribes of Israel split away from Judah and Benjamin by installing Jeroboam as king, God later declared, "They made kings, but not through me" (Hosea 8:4). It would seem that the Hasmoneans who were of the tribe of Levi, and not of Judah, would also be considered illegitimate kings over God's people. Perhaps that is why their reign lasted only about 100 years. Furthermore, God declared that the high priesthood belonged only to Aaron and those of Aaron's line: "The priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons" (Exodus 29:9). Although Mattathias and his descendants were Levites and therefore legitimate priests, they were not from Aaron's lineage and therefore were not allowed to become the high priest. When other Levites tried to usurp the high priesthood from Aaron in the Old Testament, God split open the ground and swallowed them alive (Numbers 16:32). It is only by God's grace that the Hasmoneans escaped the same fate.
Ultimately, Jesus is our rightful high priest and reigning king. "We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (Hebrews 8:1). And God's people look forward to His return when He will bring peace and justice throughout the earth (Isaiah 11:3–9). However, the Hasmoneans provided a short reprieve for the Jewish people in the midst of a long history of living as a conquered nation. Just as their escape from slavery in Egypt is celebrated today in the holiday of Passover, so too is the Jewish victory over the Seleucid army and the rededication of their temple celebrated today in the holiday of Hanukkah.
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