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Few Against Many

Judaism Explained

The Expression few against many is very known to Jewish people. Actually, the term is based on a theological view. Due to the fact that in battles mentioned in the Bible,  the enemy was far greater than the Israelites army that eventually prevailed. But the actual term in the Jewish collective history stems from the Hasmonean Revolt. Actually, I am referring to the battles that took place from 160-167 BCE; led by Judah Maccabee. In other words, The phrase “few against many”, originally comes from the Chanukah Story.

Like I’ve said, The Chanukah story is about Judah Maccabee and his army of rebels. And they were few on the battlefield and with little weapons, fought against the Seleucid Empire. Repeatedly the Maccabees defeated the Seleucids. Although outnumbered by soldiers and weapons, in their religious rebellion for the liberation of the Land of Israel. 

This concept of “few against many” has historical support, in the context of the Chanukah and the Maccabean Revolt. In the scholarly research, there is an agreement that during the Hasmoneans were outnumbered by the Seleucid Army.

Few Against Many: First Mentionings Of The Term

It’s in the First Book of Maccabees is where the phrase is mentioned for the very first time. Even Though the Book Of Maccabees is not apart of the Jewish Bible, but forms a part of the Jewish Apocrypha. Still, this is the very first time where we term is mentioned so clearly.

1 Maccabees Chapter 3

“When he reached the ascent of Beth-horon, Judas went out to meet him with a few men. 17 But when they saw the army coming against them, they said to Judas: “How can we, few as we are, fight such a strong host as this? Besides, we are weak since we have not eaten today.” 18 But Judas said: “Many are easily hemmed in by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few; 19 for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven.”

1 Maccabees Chapter 3

The idea behind the expression “few against many”; in other words,  the victory of the few (the Maccabees) over the numerous Seleucid Army appears in First Maccabees and Second Maccabees. So those are two books that are apart of the Jewish Apocrypha. The two books were written by different authors, each one mention the size of the Seleucid Army against the Hasmonean force. In the same fashion, they describe the Seleucid Army as far greater than those of the Hasmoneans.

Few Against Many: The View of Modern Scholarly Research

Modern scholarly research tends to reject those descriptions in the Book of Maccabees. The historian, Bezalel Bar-Kochva, states in his research that this inaccuracy by the authors meant to glorify the victory of the Maccabees. Or on the other hand, to try to explain their defeat in battles like The Battle of Beth Zechariah or the Battle of Elasa.

The authors of the Book of Maccabees wanted to emphasize the role that God had in the victory. And the inflated figures meant to emphasize this fact. In other words, without Divine Providence, the Hasmoneans could never have had been able to come out victorious in those battles. Battles that in many cases were against all odds.

But there is a difference in how scholars view the two different books. While they tend to accept what is told in First Maccabees; a book that was written by someone from the Land Of Israel and in Hebrew. Probably, he had personal first-hand knowledge about the different battles. While Second Maccabees was written probably by a north African that did not know the events from up close and had no real acquaintance of the battlefield.

“Few Against Many” In The Bible

In the Bible, there is some mentioning how the Israelites had to fight a few against many enemies. And always the Israelites were outnumbered by a far bigger army. So again there is reason to believe that this idea is mainly a theological one. For example, The War of Nine Kings; Abraham and his 318 household members against all the armies of the region headed by Chedorlaomer (Genesis 14: 1-17);

Also, the revenge that took Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi after the Rape of Dinah by Dinah’s Rape by Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite (Genesis 34). Another wonderful Biblical story is of Samson killing 1,000 Philistines (Judges 15-16). If we are already had mentioned the Book of Judges; so another relevant event mentioned there would be the Battle of Gideon against the Midianites. Of course, you will remember how God commanded Gideon to select from 31,700 fighters only 300 bravest (Judges, Chapter 7).

Few Against Many: Other Mentionings In The Bible

In the Bible, you can see this motif mentioned in speeches of Israelite leaders like the one of Judah Maccabee. For example, Joshua when he leads the Israelites into the Promised Land.

“Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses […] But you are to hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now. “The Lord has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised.”

(Joshua 23: 4-10)

That is to say that if the nation of Israel will keep the Jewish Law with the help of Yahweh one Israelite can defeat 1,000 enemies. As well as in the Book Of Deuteronomy we read that Moses is encouraging the nation, that only with the help of Yahweh he is promised great success on the battlefield even with few men and a lack of means to win.

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.”

(Deuteronomy 20:1-4)

Hezekiah King of Judea Encouraging The Israelites

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged because of the king of Assyria and the vast army with him; for there is a greater power with us than with him. With him is only the arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people gained confidence from what Hezekiah king of Judah said.”

(2 Chronicles 32: 7-10)

Few Against Many: David Against Goliath

Even though this is not a few against many par excellence. In the story of David and Goliath it one on one encounter still we have on one side David, a young shepherd, armed with a slingshot only and not experienced in battle. On the other hand, we have Goliath, an enormous Philistine war hero, armed head to toe; a man that leads his army to battle many times. It was only God’s providence that made sure David would come out triumphal.


This Motif of a few against many is strongly embedded in Jewish historical consciousness. Along with Jewish history, there are many events that describe the struggle of the few against the many.  For example, Masada,  The Battle of Tel-Hai, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the 1947-1949 War. These battles in Jewish History emphasize, more than once, the righteousness and the belief in the way of the fighters. Even when the battle was lost like in Masada there is an emphasis on the fighting spirit that is sometimes divine.

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Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history.

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