The last Hasmonean leader for the holiday is Miriam. Although she was never a ruler in her own right, Miriam did influence greatly her husband, Herod the Great, and found her place in the annals of Jewish literature.
Miriam the Hasmonean, as she is known, was the granddaughter of Aristobulus II on her father’s side and the granddaughter of Hyrcanus II on her mother’s side. Miriam’s mother, Alexandra, realized that the Romans meant to put an end to the house of the Hasmoneans, and so looked to position her daughter to continue the line. She arranged a marriage between Miriam, who was exceedingly beautiful, and Herod. Herod’s father, Antipater, was well connected to Alexandra’s family through his lifelong support of Hyrcanus II. Herod consented to the marriage both because of Miriam’s royal lineage and because of her renowned beauty. Because of the difficulties of the time and Herod being constantly on the battlefield in order to wrest power from Miriam’s uncle, Antigonus, the marriage itself was delayed by 5 years until 37 BCE.
Although Miriam bore Herod 5 children, the marriage itself was turbulent. Miriam could not forget that Herod had been responsible for arranging the murder of many members of her family and doubted his motives for marrying her. Her mother, Alexandra, did much to destabilize the marriage. She insisted that her son, Aristobulus (Miriam’s brother), be made high priest, alerting Herod to a possible Hasmonean overthrow of his reign. Herod found the first opportunity to kill Aristobulus and remove this threat to his rule. Yet another one of Miriam’s relatives to be killed by her husband.
Herod as a busy diplomat, was often off on business. While he was gone, he entrusted Miriam to the care of his advisors. On both documented occasions when this happened, Herod left instructions with his advisors that in case he were killed, the advisors were to kill Miriam. Whether this was done out of fear of a Hasmonean takeover, or his extreme love and jealousy for Miriam, is a question of dispute. Probably, he felt a little of both. Miriam in both cases discovered this directive and when she confronted Herod, the sparks flew. How could Miriam have this information? Herod’s sister, Salome, suggested that Miriam had engaged in intimate relations with his advisors in his absence, and they let information slip in the throes of love. In each case, it was the advisor who took the fall and was executed while Miriam was spared.
The second time when Herod came back, however, he was beginning to actually suspect that Miriam was behind a planned coup. After he had his advisor killed, Herod interviewed Miriam’s most trusted eunuch, who revealed that Miriam was quite offended by the secret instructions. If Herod truly loved her, why would he order her death? Herod’s sister, Salome, fanned the flames of jealousy. She goaded Herod to put his beloved wife to trial. The trial found Miriam guilty and sentenced her to be executed. She was convicted and executed in 29 BCE having been married to Herod for only 8 years.
After her death, Herod continued to mourn her and regretted allowing her execution. He named a tower of his Jerusalem palace after her, the Miriam Tower, the most beautiful of the three towers of the palace. According to the Talmud, he even preserved her body in honey for 7 years so he could be near her. Josephus describes the depth of Herod’s remorse:
“But when she was once dead, the king’s affections for her were kindled in a more outrageous manner than before…for his love to her was not of a calm nature, nor such as we usually meet with among other husbands…but at this time his love to Miriam seemed to seize him in such a peculiar manner, as looked like divine vengeance upon him for the taking away of her life; for he would frequently call for her, and frequently lament for her, in a most indecent manner. Moreover, he bethought him of everything he could make use of to divert his mind from thinking of her, and contrived feasts and assemblies for that purpose, but nothing would suffice: he therefore laid aside the administration of public affairs, and was so far conquered by his passion, that he would order his servants to call for Miriam, as if she were still alive, and could still hear them.” (Ant. 15.7.7)
Miriam’s 2 sons would be killed by their father who suspected them of treason and Herod and his line, alongside the Romans, would become the dominant rulers of Judea for the next 100 years.
The Hasmonean era was an important, but turbulent one. It showed us what we can do when we unite, and how quickly things can fall apart when we fight amongst ourselves. Now, with the founding of the state of Israel we have independence for the first time since the dynasty of the Hasmoneans. Our course, I fear, will be determined by the same questions: can we unite? or are we doomed to break apart because of fighting between factions?
May this holiday of lights fill us with not only hope, but patience, understanding and mutual respect. Happy Hanukkah!