Just who was this hotheaded man who just killed a fellow Jew and started a war, this Matityahu ben Yonatan?
First and foremost, he was a Kohen, a member of the priestly line, tracing his lineage all the way back to Pinchas, the third High Priest of Israel. Pinchas was grandson to Moses’ brother, Aaron, and whose painful devotion to principle, in order to stave off the anger of G-d, gave birth to the duties of a Kohen.
Since the Exodus from Egypt, and subsequent Revelation at Sinai, the job of a Kohen is to carefully and scrupulously conduct the prayer and sacrifices in adulation, praise, thanksgiving, and as pleas for the forgiveness of sin, before Hashem Elokeinu, the G-d of Israel.
Along with their tribal kinsmen, the Leviim (who are in charge of the facilities and ritual objects) these duties have been passed from father to son since the time of the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle).
The Mishkan was, after Sinai, the special place where G-d dwelled on Earth with his Jewish People. It traveled with them in the desert and for nearly four hundred years sat at Tel Shiloh. King David then established his capitol at Yerushalayim, but the permission from G-d to build the Beit HaMikdash, a fixed and permanent Temple, was withheld from King David and given to his son, Shlomo (Solomon).
Although the obligations were great, and generally the Kohanim and Leviim earned the great respect accorded them, just as with Kings, they were subject to human frailties, and on occasion a Kohen was simply corrupt.
As an example, the Prophet Eli, High Priest at Shiloh, sadly concluded that both of his sons were such evil men, that they could not succeed him. They were so bad that when they led the Ark of the Covenant in a military campaign against the Philistines, G-d provided a harsh lesson and withdrew this favor in battle. Many died and the Ark was carried off by the enemy. Fortunately, G-d had provided a righteous young man, a Levi placed in Eli’s care and instruction, by his parents. He was Shmuel ben Elkanah (Samuel), the last of the Biblical Judges.
Up until this time, the Jews had lived as a confederacy, with spiritual leadership by the Kohanin / Leviim, and secular affairs run by the Tribal Elders. In time Samuel learned to his dismay that he too had two bad sons. Seeing this, the Elders, lacking in emuna (faith), and envious of the foreign nations, then begged Shmuel to anoint a King to judge (rule) over them. G-d plainly declared this as a rejection not of the Prophet but of G-d Himself. G-d told Shmuel to leave them to their folly (a very hard lesson from a stern, but loving father), but to warn them of what would come of it. He did so, saying:
“This will be the manner of the king who will reign over you; he will take your sons, and appoint them to him for his chariots and for his horsemen, and they will run before his chariots. And he will appoint them to him commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and to plow his plowing and to reap his harvest, and to make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. And he will take your daughters for his perfumers, for cooks, and for bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive trees, and will give them to his slaves. And he will tithe your grain crops and your vineyards, and he will give them to his officers and his slaves. And he will take your male and female slaves, and your handsomest youths and your asses, and put them to his work. And he will tithe your flocks, and you will be slaves to him. And you will cry out on that day because of your king, whom you will have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not answer you on that day.”
The Tribal Elders, nevertheless insisted. Shmuel went to anoint Saul ben Kish as the first earthly King of Israel, and subsequently King David. All subsequent, legitimate, anointed Kings of Israel are from the House of David, as will be, it is believed, the final (earthly)King; Moshiach ben David (see 2 Shmuel, Chapter 7: Verses 3-29)
And therein lies the rub…
Initially, Matityahu ben Yonatan, High Priest at Modi’in, and his sons; Yehuda, Elazar, Shimon, Yochanan and Yonatan enjoyed the favor of G-d. They demonstrated pure faith in Him, and were rewarded with many truly amazing victories. Recapturing the Beit HaMikdosh, cleaning it of the filth and degradation, restoring it to its purpose was a tremendous victory. Matityahu died in battle in the first year. Driving out the Syrian-Greeks and their assimilationist Jewish allies from the immediate neighborhood took four years. Their true mission had been accomplished.
Then, Yehuda Maccabee’s brother Shimon assumed the throne as King. He was not of the Davidic Line. Neither was he of the tribe of Yehuda. The Hasmoneans could certainly continue their duties as Kohens, but Kingship was improper. Nonetheless, a reign of Hasmonean monarchs followed from 140 BCE to 27 BCE, concluding with Antigonus II Mattathias.
Jewish land was retaken. Other revolts against the Seleucid Empire as far away as Persia were inspired. Palace intrigues were executed. Alliances were made. The trappings of Kingship and Empire ate away at the nobles, the people, and even the land. A civil war was afoot. Once again, a very harsh lesson from G-d was brewing… at the hands of the Roman Empire.
And, this time the lesson would last two thousand years.