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Pompey and the Jews

Max R. Miller
Gospel GleanerĀ Volume 18 Number 2 (2001)

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey the Great (106-48 B.C.) was one of the most distinguished of many of the great Roman soldiers and statesmen. His military exercise, his eloquent and persuasive oratory and his strict honor and personal integrity marked him as a man destined to success and to be joyously received by the people.

Pompey had a meteoric rise to fame and glory. He was a general of the Army at the age of twenty-three. He was amoral, a pagan far removed from Divine law. He married five times, casting aside a wife, or taking a wife, purely as political expediency demanded. He warred against nations from political motivation and often for the booty of victory. It was his vanity that finally drove him to assault Julius Caesar at Pharsalus and meet defeat-a defeat he expected.
Pompey had a day with the Jews. It was little more than an insignificant incident in the long and bloody career of the noble Roman. To the Jews, Pompey’s invasion was an insult to them and their God and the end of Israel’s independence. One turns to the Apocryphal The Books of the Maccabees and Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews and his Antiquities of the Jews for the most complete record of the fall of Judah. Josephus, Jewish historian, records the assault, the siege itself, and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem.

Israel had returned to their homeland after seventy years of Babylonian bondage. Under Zerubabbel, Ezra and Nehemiah, a new nation was formed. The Temple was rebuilt, the law was restored to the people and national glory was in the offing. But-again an alien nation, Syria, floods her borders and subjugates the land. But there were saviors in Israel. The Maccabees arose to meet the Syrian’s threats and secure freedom and liberty to Israel. The age of the Maccabees was the most brilliant political period for Judah since the days of David and Solomon.
Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Seleucid, king of the Hellenistic Syrian kingdom reigned (175-164 B.C.), encouraged Greek culture and sought to impose it in his domain. In this, his purpose was to destroy the religion of the Jews. He sent pagan priests to the village of Modin to offer polluting sacrifices on the altar of God. The old priest Maccabeus Mattathias arose on this occasion, slew the first apostate Jew that dared approach the idolatrous altar, and then, turning upon the king’s commissioner, dispatched him and all his attendants. Then he and his family fled to the hills and began a long and bloody war with superior forces of the Syrians. This was the beginning of the Wars of the Maccabees.

Mattathias had five sons who, with their followers, came to be known as the Maccabees. One after another they led Israel in her struggles for independence. First old Mattathias, then Judas, Jonathan, and finally Simon the Jewel (167-135 B. C.), each gives their life for the cause of Judah. On Simon’s assassination his son John Hyrcanus succeeded him. He then passed the rulership to his Hellenistic son, Aristobulus (104-103 B. C.) who was the first member of the Hasmonaean family to take the title “king.” Aristobulus’ widow, Salome Alexandra, then married Aristobulus’ half-brother, Alexander Jannaeus, thus enabling him to take his late brother’s place as king and high priest. Under this cruel and treacherous ruler Judah had, when he died in 76 B.C., won control of the territories claimed in earlier days by the twelve tribes of Israel. At his death, he bequeathed his kingdom not to a son but to his wife, Salome Alexandra, who began to reign in her sixty-fourth year and reigned well until her death nine years later.

Salome had borne two sons to Alexander Jannaeus, Hycranus and Aristobulus. Alexander names Aristobulus, the younger of the two, as heir apparent to his throne. After Alexander’s death Salome appointed Hycranus the high priest. Aristobulus becomes a strong right arm in the administration of the Queen’s affairs. He, on prodding of certain factions in Judah, pressured Salome to surrender to him the regal power of the kingdom. Hyrcanus was the legal heir to the throne. Aristobulus feared the mild Hyrcanus could not withstand the intimidation’s of the Pharisees. Aristobulus began to gather support from men of prominence and power throughout Judah.

With the queen’s death, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus warred with each other. Hyrcanus soon surrendered to him the kingship of the nation. After a time, a rich and influential Idumean, Antipater, a friend of Hyrcanus and at the same time at enmity with Aristobulus, persuaded Hyrcanus that his brother sought his life and that he should go with him to Aretas, the king of Arabia, for assistance in overcoming Aristobulus. The newly formed alliance proceeded against Aristobulus and quickly reduced his forces with Aristobulus shutting himself in the Temple with only the priests and a few others for support. In this time (c. 66-65 B.C.) Asia Minor and Armenia had submitted to Pompey and Roman rule. The last remnant of Selecuid power had collapsed in Syria. Pompey sends his lieutenant, Scaurus, to secure the area and add it to Rome’s spreading empire. Scaurus, arriving in Damascus, learns of civil strife at Jerusalem and inquires as how he may take advantage of it for Rome’s glory.

Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, neither being able to stabilize their power and position, seek the favors of Scaurus. Scaurus favored Aristobulus, took his tribute money, and expelled Aretas and his Arabian soldiers from Judaea. Quickly Aristobulus gathered an army and marched on the retreating army of Aretas. The balance of power between the brothers had shifted again.

Pompey came to Damascus. Each of the brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, appeared before Pompey, seeking his favors. The irreconcilable brothers were told to live in quietness until he came into Judaea and then would he make his judgments of their affairs. Aristobulus, impatient, musters an army and marched into Judaea. Pompey was angered by the obstinate disposition of Aristobulus and put him in prison. Aristobulus’ party within the walled city of Jerusalem chose to close the gates to Pompey and resist him. However, the party of Hyrcanus favored Pompey’s intercession and opened the city to him as well as the king’s palace. Pompey, with little difficulty, gained the lower city. He lay siege to the Temple. The siege proceeded with patience. Earthworks were raised; a path was laid to bring in battening rams from Tyre. Pompey took exceptional advantages of the Jewish custom of keeping the Sabbath day holy. With “the ox in the ditch,” Israel rested on the seventh day and Rome built the assault approach to the city. The battering machine quickly broke open the great towers and a portion of the fortifications. Roman legionaries pour through the breech. A great slaughter followed with the Romans killing many and also Jews, in panic, falling on one another. Some of the Jews committed suicide by jumping from the walls and towers. Others fled to their houses and burned them and themselves. Josephus credits 12,000 Jews to the Roman sword and spear. The Temple fell on a Sabbath day while the priests faithfully performed their services, being distracted not at all by heathen Gentiles or by the blood dripping swords by which they would soon perish. Again, the streets of Jerusalem swirled in the blood of her citizens-and that not for the last time.

Pompey surveys his conquest: another city in a far off place; the dead and dying litter the ground; heroic deeds done by both defender and assailant, again he experiences the stillness and quietness that follows the clash of battle. Pompey’s gaze rested on the Holy Temple. His curiosity led him to enter into the very Holy of Holies where no Gentile had ever stood. He was impressed by its simplicity. There were no icons of either gods, spirits or angels. There was the golden table for the shewbread, the candlestick, vessels for sacred services, spices and two thousand talents of money. Pompey touched nothing and defiled only the ground on which he stood. He went away wondering at a religion which had no visible God.

Pompey proved himself to be a gracious conqueror and reconciled the people to himself more so by benevolence than by terror. The day after the Temple fell into his hands, he provided means for its purification and established Hyrcanus as the high priest. Jerusalem, once again, in 63 B.C., had fallen to her enemy.

The discord between the brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II cost the suffering Hebrews much more than 12,000 dead. Pompey exacted an immediate indemnity of 100,000 talents ($36,000,000). All the conquests of the Hasmoneans were transferred from the Judaeans to Rome. The independent monarchy was ended, and Judea became a part of the Roman province of her age-old enemy, Syria. Aristobulus and his family soon found themselves captives, marching in Pompey’s victory parade at Rome.

Pompey had brought an end to the glory of Israel. Her glory was never in herself but had always been in God. Now, for future glory, she must await her King, the Christ of God. He would give her glory eternal. But, alas, “He came unto his own, and His own received Him not.” He was despised and rejected and the glory of God in Israel departed from them forever. “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:38).

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