The story of Alexander the Great and the Jews is intimately intertwined. However, its after-effects shook the Jewish world to its roots.
The Book of Daniel (Daniel 7:3-7) begins with a frightening vision: four beasts, one more frightening than the other, emerge from the sea. According to Jewish tradition (Midrash, Leviticus Rabbah 13:5), each beast represents one of the four major empires that would exile the Jews: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.
We tend to think of Greece as a nation of poets and philosophers, which they were. However, they were also an empire, a terrifying predatory beast, and embodied all the traits that empires embody: violence, oppression and terror.
For the longest time in world history, Greece was a side-show, a small, divided country at the extreme western end of the known world. They were a seemingly insignificant player in global events that saw the Babylonians and Persians rise and become masters of the world. How did Greece come to take center stage and supplant major, world-crushing empires?
A Brief History of Greece
The first thing to know about Greece is that, romantic as it sounds, it is a difficult land to tame. Great rivers and impassable mountains dominate its topography. Thus, for centuries the communities of Greece were disparate and antagonistic toward each other.
Unable to ever successfully put up a united force or government, the Greek tribes developed as city-states. The most famous were: Athens, Sparta, Thebes (not to be confused with the Thebes of Ancient Egypt) and Macedonia. For 500 years, Greek history was characterized by a series of conflicts such as the Peloponnesian Wars, as well as many other nameless wars between Athens and Sparta, and everybody against everybody else.
In the last Peloponnesian War, which happened in about 420 BCE, Sparta made an agreement with Persia to use part of the Persian navy to bottle up the Athenian fleet. Athens always had a great navy, which often was the decisive factor in victory over land-locked Sparta. However, in the last Peloponnesian War, the Persians bottled up the Athenian fleet and the Spartans won the war.
However, the victory came at a great price: the Persians were now in Greece for the first time.
The Persians also made a great mistake, because they were now in a place people came to resent them. The resulting hatred toward the Persians created a common enemy and thereby laid the groundwork for a great leader to step in and do what no one before him was able to do: unite the powerful and industrious Greek peoples.
Philip of Macedon
At the beginning of the fourth century BCE, in about the year 370 BCE, a king arose in Macedonia known as Philip of Macedon. Macedonia is in the northwest corner of Greece. It is basically a Balkan country, and the Macedonians were part of the general Greek nation. However, they were looked down upon and despised by the Athenians and Spartans because they were boorish and uncultured.
Philip was a great warrior and organizer. Most of all, he had the dream of empire in him. In seven years he was able to subdue all the Greek city-states and unite them, something that had not happened in almost five centuries. Of course, he united them at the point of the sword, but he united them.
He even threw the Persians out of Greece. However, his dream of empire included taking Persia away from the Persians! It was an audacious thought. Persia ruled the world. No one dared challenge them.
However, Philip took his battle-tested army into Asia Minor, near what is today Constantinople, and in one of the classic battles of history defeated the Persian army. Unbelievably, the Persian Empire fell apart.
As he turned to conquer the rest of the world, he died, which often happens. Just when someone thinks he has it made it turns out that he made the reckoning without taking God into consideration.
Alexander the Great
Philip died but left a son, who would become one of the single greatest forces in history, Alexander the Great. He called himself that modestly, but the truth is that he was great.
Philip did not want Alexander to grow up to be a coarse and boorish Macedonian. So he gave him a tutor: the renowned philosopher Aristotle. It was Aristotle who implanted in Alexander the philosophic ideals of the Greeks.
Alexander was not a pagan because Aristotle was not a pagan. Aristotle’s concept of God was that a Creator exists. The Greek philosophers referred to God as the “First Cause.” He pushed the button, so to speak. However, once He did so He did not do anything more. What happened on Earth did not interest him. Therefore, there was no interference from Heaven as to what happened on Earth. It was another way of unburdening themselves of conscience – except now with the stamp of belief in God.
Nevertheless, the Greeks believed that God existed, which is very important because it will help explain one reason why Alexander was able to tolerate the Jewish religion, whereas many of the Persian emperors were not. Aristotle knew that all the stories of the gods – from Apollo to Zeus – were made-up. Alexander, as Aristotle’s student, also believed that. Thanks to Aristotle, therefore, the ideas of the Jews were much more acceptable to Alexander.
Alexander’s Encounter with the Jews
Alexander took over his father’s leadership position when he was yet a teenager. He would be dead by the time he was 29. In that short period he conquered the entire civilized world.
One of his campaigns brought him to the Land of Israel. He arrived during the reign of the great High Priest, the last of the Men of the Great Assembly, Simon the Just. Most historians say that he came in about the year 329 BCE. (He was dead by 323 BCE.)
The Jews were terrified of the now victorious Greeks, because they had backed Persia in the war. There were two choices. We will see this story repeated over and over again in the time of the Second Temple. One was to fight, which is what the Jews did later with the Romans. The second was to somehow come to an accommodation with the enemy.
Simon the Just chose the second course. The Jews were not about to defeat Alexander in battle; therefore, the correct way to deal with the matter was to come to an accommodation with him.
The Talmud describes the drama of that first encounter (Yoma 69a). Simon the Just came forth with other members of the priesthood, as well as the sages of the Sanhedrin, to greet Alexander at the gates of Jerusalem as he strode in on his famous white horse, which he rode all over the world in his conquests. According to the historians of the time, it was an enormously tall horse and Alexander was an enormously tall person. Plus, he always wore a plumed helmet. Combined, Alexander stood about 13 feet high on the horse. He was an awe-inspiring sight to behold.
When Alexander saw the Simon he dismounted and bowed to him. When he was questioned by his advisors, he told them that whenever he went into battle he dreamed of an angel leading him to victory. The face of the Jewish High Priest, he said, was the face of the angel he saw in his dreams. That was why he bowed down to him.
Alexander the Great and the Jews
Because of Aristotle, Alexander was positively disposed toward the Jews. Instead of destroying and subjugating them, he made an arrangement with them. As long as they would be his loyal vassals and pay their taxes they could remain autonomous. That was an enormous concession because Alexander was rarely that accommodating to anyone.
Out of gratitude to Alexander, the Jews did a few things. First, they agreed to name every child born the next year “Alexander.” That is why the name Alexander, or Sender for short, became a common Jewish name even to this day.
At the same time, it also opened the door for Jews to give their children other Greek names such as Antigonus Tarphon, among other names of Greek origin one finds in the Talmud. Ironically, through showing Alexander their gratitude by naming their children after him they unwittingly opened the door to the Greek language. And with the Greek language automatically came the Greek culture.
The Jews also agreed to install a system of tax collection that would lead to terrible corruption. Indeed, it was so inherently corrupt that the Talmud held that anybody who was a tax collector was presumed to be a thief. This terribly pernicious system destroyed the morale of the Jewish community in the time of the Greeks long after Alexander was gone.
Alexander did not plan to die at an early age, but his death left the world in chaos. The man who had controlled it was suddenly not there.
His entire empire could have fallen apart at that moment, but split into two. The northern empire was ruled by Seleucus and became known as the Seleucid Dynasty. He was headquartered in the city that is today Damascus. The southern empire was ruled by Ptolemy and was headquartered in the city of Alexandria, which had been renamed in honor of Alexander.
The two generals agreed upon virtually everything — except the line that divided the northern empire from the southern. That put the Land of Israel smack in the middle of their disagreement. The Jews were caught in this tremendous power struggle. The story of the next 130 years would be the balancing act of the Jewish people between the two giants. Sometimes the Jews teetered to the south and sometimes to the north. The south attempted to win the Jewish people by persuasion and culture. The north attempted to do so by force. Both would fail.
This is also the backdrop to the story of Chanukah, because eventually the northern kingdom got tired of the game and sent their army in. The Jews resisted and thus the stage was set for the dramatic events of Chanukah.