For this former homeschooling mom, moving to Israel has been a history geek’s dream-come-true. The place is jam-packed with historical sites from ancient to modern times. I’ve always been interested in the origins of some of the Bible stories I grew up hearing(especially around the festival of Chanukah). I was familiar with the exploits of Judah Maccabee and his band of ragtag fighters; of the valiant heroine Judith; of the high-drama tragedy of Channah and her seven martyred sons, but couldn’t locate any of them in the Scriptures. Aha!!! I discovered them in the Catholic Bible and in the writings of Josephus (Matityahu Josephus Flavius).
John and I have been spending the last couple months pouring over the First and Second Books of the Maccabees and subsequent historical accounts by Josephus. It’s not that the Jews and the Protestants erased these books, per se: it’s just that they don’t rely on them as Canon. Maccabees and Judith are books in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible written by the Hellenistic Jews in exile. They are classified as Apochryphal books by some theologians. Yet these stories have been passed on as an important part of the Jewish oral tradition, and Josephus, a Jewish Israeli historian who wrote for the Romans in the first century, corroborates these accounts. Archeological finds substantiate the rest.
Anyway, that said, it was time for a road trip, our first in months. It would have to be very special – just for Chanukah. Last year we went to Tsfat to find the burial tombs of Channah and her sons, as well as the high cliff dwellings and fortress on Mt. Arbel where the Hashmonean resistance fought off the Greco-Syrian army (see 5 December, 2020 post). This year, it would be Modi’in, site of the battlefields and of the burial place of the Maccabees. Modi’in is now a large, modern city halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Let me take you back in time a couple thousand years.
It began around 167 BCE, when the Greek army under Antiochus arrived in Israel to quell the Jewish forces and colonize the land. Conquering their way to Jerusalem, the Greeks commanded Matityahu, the High Priest, to sacrifice a pig (forbidden meat) upon the Temple altar to their Greek gods. He refused. Antiochus Epiphanes mandated that the Jews would not be allowed to keep their religion. No Sabbath. No Torah study. No circumcision. No weddings or Bar Mitzvahs. Gymnasia would be built. Academia. Pagan temples. Statues of Greek gods erected in the town squares and now-desecrated holy Temple. The elderly priest fled with his sons and the Resistance to the hills and fields of Modi’in to begin their guerilla campaign. After the death of Matityahu, his son, Judah took over as the Jewish leader. They marched into battle against the world’s largest army of the time, carrying flags emblazoned with the words, ”Who is Like Our G-d?” In Hebrew, the phrase is ”Mee camokha ba’alim Adoshem,” and the first letters spell out the nickname ”MaCaBee,” the rulers of the Hashmonean Dynasty. There were many, many battles between the Greco-Syrian army and the Jewish Hashmoneans. The entire war lasted decades after the Temple Mount was reclaimed, cleaned and rededicated. The Books of Maccabees are exciting reading and recount the entire history. Highly recommended!
We decided to make our own personal connection to the narrative and visit the sites. Several surprises awaited us. Following the roadsigns off Highway 433 near Modi’in, we followed a dirt road. Lots of cars were parked on either side, so we knew we’d arrived. John and I were perplexed by what sounded like rave music coming from the woods. Tents. Pop-up campers. Old sofas. Intensely religious Haredi Jews. Hippie families. And in the middle, a large stone structure with a domed top. It was a wild scene. A happening.
We were all here for a special Chanukah experience. The hub of it seemed to be this building, the tomb of the High Priest Matityahu the Macabee. It was a hive of activity, with people going in and out and milling about. A fitting place to start. I lit a candle and said some prayers, prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for protection of this land and her people. Prayers for the wisdom of today’s leaders. It was so moving.
All around were small groups of campers, much like the Macabee band, I thought. Some were praying, a few were studying Scripture. Families were cooking over campfires. Kids were playing in the woods. People were playing instruments. It was all quite loosely organized. Next, John and I made the short drive down the mountain. There were hikers everywhere and even caravans of dune buggies out for fun. We met up with an interesting and friendly group. The men were old army buddies, and each year when school is out for Chanukah, the families all make a camping trip together somewhere in Israel. This is so typical of Israeli life.
I spoke for awhile in Hebrew with the young families.They had come from as far away as the Golan, Judea and Beersheva. And they really wanted a group picture, so i gladly obliged. They pointed us in the direction of the tombs from the Maccabean era, but first a little stop to visit the battlefields along the way. No huge monuments of historical markers as in the United States. Just open spaces with tiny deer leaping across the plains.
There was some small Hebrew lettering spray-painted on a rock alongside the road. We almost missed it, but it marked the way to something spectacular: Macabee tombs!!!
The bones had long since disappeared, but the tombs remained. Carved into the stone with huge boulders shaped to cover each opening, the rocky landscape was dotted with the ancient tombs! I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Every so often, between the hewn tombs, were little bone pits. As was the custom, a body would be lowered into the hole then placed into the carved-out slot. The boulder was then rolled over the tomb and left there for a year, after which the bones would be removed and placed into the nearby bone pit. Then the burial site could be recycled for another body.
Did i mention how rockin’ awesome this was? John had so much fun hopping from hole to hole then going exploring. It was hard to keep up. Deep in the underbrush, he found ancient walls, stacked blocks. An old fortress? A synagogue? This is where a guide or an archaeologist would have come in handy. Upon further examination, John found what appeared to be an underground shaft or tunnel. It was blocked by several large round rocks, which of course, he had to try to roll away. Whatever this structure was, had once been quite extensive, judging by the size of the foundation.
Not far from the National Forest is the Hashmonean Village/Museum, a re-creation of an ancient village. There is a fee to enter, but it includes guided tours, static displays, cases of oil lamps, ancient pottery, tools and coins found in the area from that time period.
Not only is this a historical Biblical site, but it was instrumental in the 1948 War for Independence. The Ben Shemen Youth Kibbutz was located here and surrounded by Arab villages. Several important battles were fought here in ’48. Control of the surrounding hills was essential in order to ensure freedom of action at the Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion), and to keep safe passageway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. During the operation, for the first time in history five brigades came under one central command, the nascent Israel Defense Forces.
There is a monument to the young soldiers who fell in this area. Fittingly, it ties the valiant Macabees of old to those who died to secure the land in 1948. Eight concrete flames, like the flames of the Chanukah menorah, rise to the sky. According to First Maccabees 13:28 Shimon, brother of Judah, set up seven pyramid-shaped stone markers for the graves of his family: for his parents, for his four brothers killed in battles- Elazar, Yehudah, Yochanan and Yonatan as well as his own. This modern monument is also an homage to the former.