Avot 2:3 Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their
own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they
do not stand by someone in their hour of need.
Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit…
At the time of the Sages this caution would have applied to the oppressive Hellenistic rulers. The Jewish state was a monarchy from the reign of King Saul until the Babylonian exile. The Hebrew Scriptures record that this included many bad kings as well as the relatively few good ones. After the return from exile, the only interruption to Graeco-Roman rule was the reign of the Hasmoneans after the victory of the Maccabean Revolt in 164 BCE. Unfortunately, after the leadership of the righteous priest Mattathias and his sons – initially Judah, followed by Jonathan and finally Simon – the ‘kingship’ became corrupt and ungodly.
Eventually this led to civil war, at which time the Temple leadership was divided between the two camps of (1) the Sadducees, supporters of the more physically powerful but corrupt Aristobulus, who had declared himself High Priest and king, and (2) the Pharisees, who stood with John Hyrcanus his brother. Aware of the internecine conflict in Judea, Pompey, the Roman general located in Syria after successful campaigns in Armenia, sent Roman legions under Marcus Scaurus to offer bribes and support, which were accepted by Aristobolus. Without encountering much opposition, the Romans later marched on Jerusalem and finally took over power on Yom Kippur, 65 BCE.
The Romans promptly designated Hyrcanus as ethnarch of the Jewish people and he was reinstalled as High Priest. This system of governance led to the appointment, in 40 BCE, of King Herod [the Great], son of Antipater an Idumean, who had little regard for the spiritual authority of the Sanhedrin. As the historian Josephus notes, “For we lost our freedom and became subject to the Romans…and the royal power which had formerly been bestowed on those who were high priests by birth became the privilege of commoners (i.e. Herod)” (Jewish Antiquities 14:77-78).  The birth of Jesus, set in 6 BCE by many scholars, occurred during Herod’s rule, which extended until his death in 4 BCE. Three of Herod’s sons were appointed in his place, Archelaus (Herod II) as ethnarch over Judea, Idumea and Samaria, Herod Antipas, who governed Galilee and Perea, and Herod Philip, who oversaw lands in the North East of the region.
When the Roman government tired of the Jewish resistance and rebellion against the Hellenization of the culture and the oppressive measures of taxation, Rome launched a final series of military assaults against them. In 70 CE/AD, at the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the majority of the Jewish population was exiled to many quarters of the then known world. The remnant in Israel, as well as those who were dispersed, continued to regulate their own community affairs through the local synagogue leaders and, indeed, remained wary of their foreign rulers.
…they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in their hour of need.
It is likely that Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, was referring to his father’s personal experience. Rabbi Yehudah had established a good working relationship with the Roman governors who often turned to him for advice. Yet, at a time he needed their help it was not given. Caution became the keyword and all unnecessary contact with government was avoided.
Yeshua also advised prudence when he said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant… just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Lk. 8:21). The bottom line is, as the Psalmist reminds us, “Do not put your trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no help” (Ps.146:2). Rather, we need always turn to the Almighty and to place our trust in the Creator and Ruler of the universe. “Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11).
1. Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge, Carta, Jerusalem, 2006