Do you know the origin of the phrase “a line on the sand”? Believe it or not, it’s related to the story of Hanukkah, and it refers to the beginning of the end for that story’s main villain, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
There have been several literal “lines in the sand” in history. But the original one was drawn by the Roman consul, Gaius Popillius Laenas, and, to be fully accurate, it wasn’t a straight line but a circle. The year was 168 BCE, and Antiochus was advancing on Egypt. Rome, at the time an emerging superpower in the Mediterranean, wanted to put an end to his adventure. Laenas told Antiochus to withdraw his armies from Egypt or face war with Rome. The Syrian king pompously replied that he had to consider his options, so the consul draw a circle in the sand around Antiochus and said, “Before you cross this line in the sand, I need to know your answer to the Roman Senate”. With a line in the sand, a single man stopped an entire army.
That scene is much more than an interesting prequel to the Hanukkah story. In fact, on this Hanukkah in particular, we can draw important lessons by revisiting the Hanukkah story from the viewpoint not of the Jews, but of Antiochus.
Why was Antiochus in Egypt? To understand that, we need to go back in time to the death of Alexander the Great. Following the great conqueror’s untimely passing, his successors divided the empire in four main blocks: the Antigonid Kingdom in Macedonia and Greece; the Attalid Kingdom in Anatolia (modern Turkey); the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt; and the Seleucid Kingdom based in Syria.
Israel benefitted from the tolerant and enlightened rule of the Ptolemaic kings. The Jewish population steadily increased and the interaction between the Hellenistic and the Jewish worlds was fruitful and mutually enriching. Ptolemy the Third created the famous library of Alexandria and collected there all the knowledge of the known world. It’s thanks to him that we have the Septuagint, the first translation of the Bible into Greek, still studied by Jews and Gentiles.
But Israel’s situation began to change when Judea fell to the Seleucids in 200 BCE, and changed even more drastically in 175 BCE when Antiochus IV ascended to the Seleucid throne. Antiochus saw himself as the true heir of Alexander the Great, and set out to rebuild the former, greater Hellenistic empire. In contemporary terms, he promised to “Make Hellenism Great Again”. Not content to leave any doubt about his own status, he renamed himself “Epiphanes” (“God manifest”) and “the Great”, like the leader he claimed to emulate. But where Alexander was tolerant and open minded, Antiochus was vicious and ruthless. Where Alexander was erudite and rational, Epiphanes was reckless and brutish; where Alexander was a humanist, who believed in a tolerant Hellenistic culture that was enriched by respectful interactions with foreign beliefs, Antiochus was a bigot who believed that Hellenistic culture had to be imposed by force. Thus, he started to build his dystopia of Hellenistic hegemony—one that didn’t leave space for pluralism or diversity.
At first, his attempts were mocked. Even members of his own court made a play on words and called him “Epimanes” (“the mad”) instead of Epiphanes. Many thought that the king was just posturing to strengthen himself politically, and that he’d moderate his positions after solidifying his power.
But Antiochus’s plan wasn’t just locker-room talk. He soon proved that he meant every word as he dispatched his armies to accomplish his dream, which was the nightmare of others.
His recalcitrant subjects to the South, i.e., our forefathers, resisted the onslaught. First quietly, and then with weapons, they showed the tyrant that Jews may be few in numbers but they are not pushovers. The subjugation of Judea was supposed to be a walk in the park; after all, the Jews had no army, no major fortified cities, and no allies. And it actually started like that: Antiochus occupied Jerusalem, profaned the Temple, and began to implement his vision of homogeneous Hellenism, killing all who opposed him. According to the Book of Maccabees, thousands of Jews were slaughtered in that first incursion. But the schoolyard bully of the Middle East faced surprising and stubborn resistance from the class weakling. The Jews took to the mountains and the Maccabean revolt started.
Thinking that he had nearly finished “pacifying” Judea, Antiochus moved on to Egypt. After all, he couldn’t be the next Alexander the Great without conquering the namesake city of Alexandria. There, however, he met the limits of his power in the form of a new emerging superpower confronting him. The Roman consul drew his famous line in the sand and Antiochus, who by now had heard about the magnitude of the Maccabean revolt, went back to Israel. He soon discovered, however, what his soldiers called the “Judean rain”—a hailstorm of arrows that made the narrow mountain passes of Judea impassable for an army. Little by little, the ragged band of Jews bled the Empire and drove Epiphanes even more Epimanes.
But the problems of the king were about to get much worse. In an effort to solidify his position, Antiochus had struck an alliance of sorts with another great power to his East: Parthia. He had cozied up to the tyrant Mithridates I, who proved to be an unfaithful friend. When Mithridates saw the Antiochus bogged down in a Judean quagmire, he launched an attack on the weakened Seleucids. Not one to admit failure or cut his losses, Epiphanes found himself fighting on two fronts. He sent the general Lysias to Judea with a mammoth army while he departed to fight Mithridates. The Jews, despite being grotesquely outnumbered, destroyed Lysias’s force and liberated the Temple in Jerusalem. In the East, Antiochus fought a hopeless war in the unforgiving steppes of Persia. There he died. Some sources say that an awful sickness consumed him, and others that he committed suicide when people started calling him “the Fugitive”.
It would be accurate to say that Antiochus’s obsession with the Jews cost him his Kingdom—and, perhaps, his life. After all, he could have left little Judea alone and taken Lysias’s 80,000 men Eastward with him to confront Mithridates with overwhelming force, and probably crush him quickly. The Seleucid kingdom never recovered. It languished for a few decades until the Roman Pompeii Magnus—another “Great”—conquered it without firing a single arrow.
Why didn’t Antiochus just leave the Jews alone? After all, the Jews had been loyal subjects of the Hellenistic kings. They didn’t demand political autonomy and had no pretensions of empire. The only thing they asked for was the freedom to practice their culture and their religion.
But in his dream to Make Hellenism Great Again, Antiochus had created a false past to which he yearned to return. It was a nostalgia for something that had, in fact, never existed. Alexander had never been the type of king that Antiochus wanted to be, and his Macedonian Empire had not been based on the type of imposed Hellenism that Epiphanes sought to establish. Invariably, those nostalgic searches for an imaginary past end in tragedy.
Once that dystopian dream had been crafted, the Jews’ very existence stood in its way. Jews were different, and the authoritarian mind abhors differences. The authoritarian is afraid that diversity will expose the weakness of his own beliefs. The existence of somebody different forces me to analyze critically my own ideas, and somebody who is never wrong (a claim equivalent to taking the title of a god made manifest) simply can’t open that door.
Some modern historians claim that Antiochus’s fight with the Jews was purely economic: he had to loot and ransack the country to pay for his military adventures. I don’t think so. I think that Jews represented everything that Antiochus hated: freedom of thought, pluralism, diversity of opinions, and—most important—a vision of the world that focuses on a better future for all of humankind, not in an imaginary past to be imposed by force. The struggle of Hanukkah is one of might versus right. The Seleucid king believed that power rules the world. The Jews believe that power, except God’s own, can never be absolute; that humanity is ruled by values and by moral and ethical standards; that power is never whimsical; and that a diverse and plural world is the will of God, for if every human being is made in God’s Image, then our differences are not only positive, but sacred.
The list of modern Antiochuses keeps growing. More and more leaders—in the world, and, sadly, also in the Jewish community—are bent on eradicating differences, on creating a homogeneous world in which those that don’t think like them can be demonized and attacked. More and more are dreaming to go back to some imaginary past that never existed, but the realization of which will demand the oppression or suppression of those who think differently. More and more believe that there is one particular group that has to be eradicated in order to achieve that goal.
Never in recent history has been the message of Hanukkah been more important than it is today. In this world of Antiochuses, we are called to keep a light shining: the light of hope, of human dignity, of freedom, and of respect. Our hanukkiot are a symbol that tells the world that another reality is possible—that light is not just the absence of darkness, but a positive force that topples empires and sustains lives and hopes.
Watching the world around us, from Aleppo to America, from Ankara to Berlin, and from Paris to Seoul, we are justified in facing the holiday in a grave mood. But celebrate we must, because Hanukkah reminds us that just as a tiny candle can eradicate a lot of darkness, every small act of kindness, every little gesture of respect, every little show of love, has the power to change the world. It’s easy to despair, but in our 4,000 years of history we have seen many Antiochuses rise; we have seen the tyrants and demagogues fall and we have outlived them all, with our values intact and our faith in humanity unbroken.
Now is the time to show the Antiochuses of the world, that we are not afraid, to light our hanukkiah high and bright for all to see. It’s time to be unrelenting agents of light in a world of darkness. It’s not only our obligation as Jews; it’s our privilege.