Seleucus, another of Alexander’s generals, ruled the eastern part of the empire. His successors were called Seleucids, after their founder, or Syrians because Syria was the hub of the eastern empire.
In 198 BC, the Syrians defeated the Egyptian army and took control of Palestine. That was a time of great tribulation for the Jews.
King Antiochus Epiphanes was the small horn in the Book of Daniel that grew exceedingly great towards the south, the east, and the land of Palestine a.k.a. the Beautiful Land. He attempted to Hellenize Judeans by abolishing their religion. Observance of the Sabbath was forbidden, temple sacrifices were banned, and circumcision was outlawed.
Antiochus appointed a High Priest loyal to the Hellenizing program. A statue of Zeus, called the abominable idol of desolation, was placed in the Holy of Holies. Swine were sacrificed to the Greek god on the temple altar. Women who had their children circumcised were put to death with their babies hung round their necks. Copies of the Mosaic Law were burned. To the pious Jew, the desecration and sacrilege were appalling.
When a delegation from the king arrived in Modin, seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem, they requested the services of an elderly priest to perform a pagan sacrifice on the village altar. Mattathias, the Levitical priest, refused to take part in the heathen ritual. When a frightened Jew prepared to take his place, he killed both the cowardly Jew and an envoy from the king. Then he and his family fled into the mountains.
Not long after that event, Mattathias died and his son, Judas Maccabeus, took over as leader of the revolt. Using guerrilla warfare, he defeated three Syrian generals and Lysias, Syria’s chief minister. In 165 BC, he marched into Jerusalem to cleanse the temple which had been desecrated by pagan rituals. Devout priests tore down the original altar, defiled by heathen sacrifices, and built a new one in its place. The temple was rededicated during an eight day festival and the temple sacrifices that had been banned by Antiochus were resumed.
Judas’ victory gave him a two year reprieve but further war with Syria was inevitable. After the death of Antiochus, Lysias seized control of the throne. Shortly thereafter, he locked horns with the Maccabean guerrillas about ten miles south of Jerusalem. This time he deployed 100,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, and the terrifying, Seleucid, war elephants. Judas’ younger brother was trampled to death by an elephant and the Maccabees were on the verge of defeat. However, providence intervened and Lysius was forced to return to Syria to quell an attempt by a rival to seize his throne. Before retreating, he granted Judea full religious freedom in return for their allegiance.
By 160 BC, the Syrian throne had changed hands again and the Maccabees were back at war. Bad fortune prevailed and Judas was killed in battle about ten miles north of Jerusalem.