The Seleucids Get Serious
Initially, Antiochus dismissed the revolt as a minor irritation but the humbling defeats at Ma’aleh Levona and Beth Horon forced him into a rethink. The irate monarch decided to destroy the threat once and for all by sending an enormous force and three of his best generals, Nicanor, Gorgias, and Ptolemy, to Israel. This large force marched down the coast to avoid further ambushes and set up base camp at Emmaus which is around 15 miles southwest of Jerusalem.
Gorgias was apparently the senior commander and he decided to launch a surprise attack on the Jewish camp. The Seleucids were so certain of victory that when they arrived, Nicanor spread the word around cities and seaports that he would be selling Jewish slaves for 90 talents apiece. Gorgias made his move with 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry with the aim of preventing a Jewish retreat into the mountains. However, Judah’s spies told their commander of the imminent assault so he led his army away with a view to launching a surprise attack of his own.
In the meantime, Gorgias was searching for the Jewish army but all he found were burning fires at the camp and no soldiers. He decided that the Jews must be in the mountains but had no success in finding them there either. What he didn’t realize was that Judah had left behind a group of men who harassed the Seleucids and kept them away from the main Jewish force. Upon arriving at Nicanor’s camp, the poorly equipped Jewish army came across a well-armed enemy that probably outnumbered him 2:1. Rather than panic, Judah turned the tables on the Greeks and inflicted a humiliating defeat.
Unorthodoxy Wins at the Battle of Emmaus
Judah set up a fortified camp near the enemy at Emmaus and divided his men into three columns, each one was ordered to attack a different part of the Greek Phalanx. He also divided the men into groups of 1,000, 100, 50, and 10 so that they resembled a normal army. Before launching the attack, Judah addressed his troops and said it was better to “die in battle than to see the evils of our nation, and of the holies.” Despite these words, the commander was only interested in victory rather than seeking martyrdom.
Nicanor was completely unprepared for an attack and was utterly confused by the unusual tactics adopted by the enemy. Although there were at least 5,000 Seleucids against perhaps 3,000 rebels, Judah’s men quickly routed the enemy. Things got even worse for them when another small force attacked from the rear. Confusion reigned and an estimated 3,000 Greeks died at Emmaus while the rest dispersed and were picked off as they retreated.