Things are about to get messy – really messy. So let’s try to make some order out of the chaos. In order to do that, we need to take a step back to the days of Alexander Yannai and Salome Alexandra.
Hyrcanus II was the oldest son of Alexander Yannai and Salome Alexandra. Having such illustrious parents was probably not so easy. How do you fill the shoes of such giants? You have to make your own way, and that’s what Hyrcanus II did for his entire life. His reign and place in the Hasmonean chain was complicated. Despite the complexity, however, Hyrcanus II was able to carve out leadership roles spanning over 45 years.
When his father, Alexander Yannai, died, Hyrcanus II was not named king as one would expect. We don’t know for sure why he was passed over in favor of his mother; we do know that he is described in the sources as weak – a moniker which will follow him for his entire life. Although the role of political ruler went to his mother, she couldn’t hold the other title generally held by Hasmonean kings – she couldn’t be High Priest because she was female. Salome, instead, gave that job to Hyrcanus II in 76 BCE. Hyrcanus II served in that role and did not attempt to push away the Pharisees as his father had, but rather allowed them to control the Temple.
When his mother, Salome, died in 67 BCE, Hyrcanus II was named king. Shortly after Salome’s body was cold in the ground, a mere 3 months later, his younger brother Aristobulus II rose up to revolt against him. The brothers met in war outside of Jericho and many of Hyrcanus II’s soldiers defected to his brother’s army. Hyrcanus retreated to the Temple citadel, but when Aristobulus captured the Temple complex, Hyrcanus II surrendered and after ruling for only 1 year, lost both his titles of king and high priest.
Hyrcanus II was afraid his brother would kill him, but luckily Hyrcanus had a good friend – Antipater the (former) Edomite. Antipater, Herod’s father, who decided to convert to Judaism under John Hyrcanus, was savvy and had connections everywhere – especially with the Nabateans. Antipater suggested to Hyrcanus that they go hang out for a bit in Petra, while Antipater continued to malign Antigonus in a ploy to convince Hyrcanus to retake his (rightful) role as king. Antipater, as the king’s friend, had his own motives, as well. He also lobbied the Nabatean king to join Hyrcanus in the struggle in exchange for the return of some Nabatean towns that had been captured by Alexander Yannai. When all was in place, Hyrcanus and his expanded international army confronted Antigonus. This time it was Hyrcanus who came out on top with many of Antigonus’ soldiers defecting to Hyrcanus’ side in 63 BCE.
Victory was not complete, however, so Hyrcanus turned to the Roman general in Syria, Pompey, for help. Unbeknownst to Hyrcanus, his brother had also turned to the Roman general, who happily took bribes from both brothers. Pompey decided that since Hyrcanus was weaker (and therefore more likely to be loyal to Rome), he would support the older brother, but not grant him kingship.
Hyrcanus returned to serve in the Temple for the next 23 years from 63-40 BCE. Secular rule was given to Hyrcanus’ friend, Antipater, who gave positions and benefits to the members of his family, including a young Herod. Hyrcanus would come to rule again on decree of Julius Caesar in 47 BCE as ethnarch.
“Whereas Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander the Jew, hath demonstrated his fidelity and diligence about our affairs, and this both now and in former times, both in peace and in war, as many of our generals have borne witness….I will that Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander, and his children, be ethnarchs of the Jews and have the high priesthood of the Jews forever…” Ant. 14:10:2
In 40 BCE, the tide will turn again for Hyrcanus. He is exiled to Babylonia by Aristobulus’ son, Antigonus where he is respected by the local Jewish community. He returns to Jerusalem in 36 BCE when Antigonus loses out to Antipater’s son, Herod. Initially, Hyrcanus is allowed to serve his people in yet another capacity, president of the state council. But Herod is fickle and begins to suspect the 80-year old Hyrcanus of insurrection. Hyrcanus’ old ties to the Nabateans and Herod’s paranoia converge, and Hyrcanus is murdered by his old friend’s son in 30 BCE.
High priest, king, general, ethnarch, president of the state council – these are all ways that Hyrcanus II, the “weak” son of Alexander Yannai and Salome Alexandra served his country. May we all be so weak….
Visit the city of Petra, Jordan, where Hyrcanus II lived between 66-63 BCE, when he was fleeing from his brother Antigonus.