“In Your abundant mercy, . . . You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, . . . and the wicked into the hands of the righteous,” reads the traditional Hanukkah prayer thanking God for the Hasmonean victory over the Syrian Greeks. But, asks, Allan Arkush, “were the Maccabees actually underdogs?” The Israeli historian Bezalel Bar-Kochva has argued that the reality is a bit more complicated:
Bar-Kochva distinguishes between the period prior to the purification of the Temple in 164 BCE, when the Maccabees were indeed outnumbered but achieved impressive success in guerrilla warfare, and the period that followed, when Judah’s forces, having proved themselves to Jews who had previously been sitting on the fence, grew considerably stronger and acquired much better equipment. In some of their later battles they outnumbered the Seleucid forces and, for that reason, were able to enjoy victories over them in conflicts even on level terrain. . .
Bar-Kochva’s Hebrew book on the Maccabees, published in 1981, served as the basis for his Judas Maccabaeus: The Jewish Struggle against the Seleucids, which was published by Cambridge in 1989. . . . Among many other things, it provides an illuminating account of the battle of Elasa, where the badly outnumbered Judah met his death in 160 BCE.
That Judah, the great victor of the Hanukkah story, ultimately died fighting the Seleucids is something that surprisingly few Jews know. But it is a fact that should not tarnish his memory. As Bar-Kochva puts it at the end of his book: “Judas Maccabaeus lost his last battle, but paved the way to the victory as a whole by developing a large and well-equipped army, which, though defeated at Elasa, later on by its very existence forced the Seleucids to come to terms with, and concede to, the Jewish demands. The real test of military leaders has always been in the endurance of their achievements rather than in brilliant one-time strategies.”