It’s not easy to be second. The second ruler of the miraculous independent state founded after the Maccabean revolt was Judah Maccabee’s nephew. As the third son of Simon Thassi, founder of the Hasmonean dynasty, John Hyrcanus never expected to rule. (To find out what happened to his older brothers, see here.) But upon the tragic death of both his brothers and his father, this role was thrust upon him. Because it was a new state and he had come to the throne unexpectedly, foreign powers, especially the Greeks who dreamed of regaining the route to Egypt, plotted to overtake John Hyrcanus and control Judea. The relative peace and good relations with the outside world, a big part of his father’s mission, were in jeopardy.
John Hyrcanus acted swiftly and severely. In order to preserve Jerusalem, which was under siege, the new king banished all residents of the city who were not battle-ready. The citizens of Jerusalem did not look favorably on their new monarch who instead of protecting them, left them to fend for themselves. When they rose up and cried for reinstatement because of their terrible situation wedged between Jerusalem’s city walls and the Greek Seleucid army, John Hyrcanus did let them return to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. The war in Jerusalem so sapped resources, that John Hyrcanus raided King David’s tomb for money to pay off the Greeks, angering the priests as this was the treasure earmarked for the Temple. It was looking pretty bleak for the young nation and the young ruler.
But sometimes situations change, and those who know how to take advantage of these opportunities come out on top. In the larger world, the Seleucid kingdom was also in turmoil. John Hyrcanus was able to identify this weakness to further his own goals, and those of his nation. He conquered Samaria to the north of Jerusalem and Idumea (Edom) to the south, pushing out the boundaries of his kingdom.
His expanded kingdom also underwent a religious reform. Holidays were strengthened through laws forbidding work on the intermediate days of the holidays, expanding the biblical commandment and preserving the sanctity of the holidays. He strengthened the role of priests and had prepared the ashes of 2 red heifers for purification after being in contact with a corpse. He dug in to secure his country’s Jewish character.
John Hyrcanus is also credited with building the first of the “desert fortresses”. Hyrcania, in the Judean desert, is dated to his reign. It will be followed by many other desert fortresses to protect the kingdom from its enemies to the East.
Antiquities describes the end of John Hyrcanus’s life like this:
“And so Hyrcanus quieted the outbreak, and lived happily thereafter; and when he died after administering the government excellently for 31 years, he left 5 sons. Now he was accounted by God worthy of three of the greatest privileges: the rule of the nation, the office of high-priest, and the gift of prophecy; for the Deity was with him and enabled him to foresee and foretell the future….” Ant. 13:10:7
When I think about John Hyrcanus, I’m reminded of a verse from Lamentations, beseeching God to “renew our days of old”. Radak, the medieval Jewish commentator explains that there are 3 important facets of these “olden days”: divine presence; organized, centralized religious institutions; and national status. All three of these were present in the later days of John Hyrcanus. He was a ruler who took Judea from a nascent state to a power in the region during his reign from 134-104 BCE. The road was sometimes bumpy, but he pushed out boundaries and dug his heels into the idea of Jewish sovereignty.
To visit one of the Edomite towns that John Hyrcanus conquered and converted to Judaism, Maresha, visit Beit Guvrin National Park and experience his-story there.