Judah “The Maccabee’s” battle plan is still studied in military colleges all over the world, including West Point and Sandhurst. It was ingenious in its simplicity and yet devastatingly effective in its outcome.
Initially the Seleucid King Antiochus IV attempted to crush the Jewish forces, led by Judah, by military might. The Seleucids had the most powerful military machine in the world outside of Rome. They could deploy in the legendary and much feared phalanx formation, which had enabled Alexander to conquer much of the known world on the open field of battle. In addition, they had crack infantry troops, trained war elephants and a seasoned cavalry.
The Jews were fortunate that Antiochus was unable to deploy the full might of his army on the Judean front due to both external and internal threats throughout his empire. Initially, he tried sending in local commanders to quell what he thought was a small rebellion. But Judah realising that his untried soldiers were no match for the seasoned Greeks in open warfare chose to rely on the strategy of ambush, thus exploiting the Jews superior knowledge of the local terrain and conditions. These tactics were extremely successful and allowed Judah to defeat both Apollonius the governor of Samaria and Seron, a Seleucid General, and their troops whose surviving remnants fled in disarray. Apollonius fell in battle and Seron was defeated by an extraordinarily successful ambush on the slopes of Bet Horon. Judah took the dead governor’s sword and continued to fight with it until his own death.
After the defeat of these two forces Antiochus realized that he had a serious insurrection on his hands and pulled out all of the stops. He sent a massive force commanded by three of his top generals Ptolemy, Nicanor and Gorgias to put down the Jewish forces. This advancing juggernaut seemed unstoppable, yet Judah and his men once again defied the odds and won a historic victory on the fields of Emmaus.
The Battle of Emmaus
The massive Seleucid army marched down the coast avoiding the steep and narrow passes of the Judean hills that had led to the defeat of the two previous armies attempting to quell the rebellion. The three seasoned generals then set up their base camp on the plains of Emmaus about fifteen miles (25 KM) west of Jerusalem, next to present day Modiin. Gorgias, one of the experienced commanders, then led a force on a surprise night attack towards the Jewish camp. Judah, alerted by his spies, force-marched almost his entire army through the night in order to lead a surprise dawn counter-attack on the Greek base camp. He did however leave many fires burning at his camp to leave the impression that his army was still encamped. When Gorgias arrived at the Jews almost deserted camp he was ambushed by a small rear-guard force that Judah had left behind. The small rear-guard lured the Greeks away from the camp and continued to harass the massive column for many hours in order to keep them away from Judah’s main force.
Meanwhile, the Greeks had been alerted that the main Jewish force was on the way. Rather than surprise an unsuspecting encampment, imagine Judah’s surprise when he was met with his worst nightmare—a fully armed and prepared Greek phalanx supported by cavalry on an open field of battle. Rather than withdraw in panic, Judah once again turned the tables on the Greeks. He divided his men into three columns, who each proceeded to attack a different flank of the Greek phalanx.
The Greeks, unused to such unorthodox tactics, began to panic. Their panic was compounded when another force of Judah’s sallied forth and attacked their base camp behind them. Gorgias returned in time to see a full-fledged route. The cream of the Seleucid army beat an inglorious retreat and fled in disarray back to the coast pursued by Judah’s army. Judah, by thinking on his feet and adapting his strategy as events warranted, won a famous victory. In the words of IDF General Chaim Herzog, former President of Israel:
Far from rooting out the Judean irregulars and destroying the Jewish people, the empire of Antioch had been handed a humiliating defeat. The Jews, for their part, had ensured their survival and taken a giant step on the road to religious and political freedom. They were a fighting people again, after a pause of nearly four centuries.”