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the story of hanukkah

festival of lights

festival of dedication

   Hanukkah is a celebratory Jewish festival commemorating events that took place after the Hebrew canon was completed and before Messiah walked the earth. It comes from the so-called inter-testament period, and not from the appointed festivals of God, found in Leviticus 23. It commemorates the Maccabean revolt against Greek Syrian tyranny and a simultaneous Jewish civil war.

   This story really has its roots in the legacy of Alexander the Great. During this period, Israel was a territorial prize fought over by Antiochus III, the Hellenist king of Syria, and Ptolemy, the Hellenist king of Egypt. The Syrian was victorious in the contest of pushing and pulling, and Israel was annexed into the Syrian-Greek Seleucid empire. 

   Antiochus imposed heavy taxes on the Jewish people, oppressing them also with Hellenist religious influences that saw some success as many Jews compromised their beliefs and traditions. This was especially true among the more sophisticated Jerusalemites. It was his second son, though, Antiochus IV (174 BCE) that embarked on a determined and brutal campaign to force the conversion of the Jewish people to the Greek pagan culture.  

   Under the rule of Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Epiphanes (meaning - 'the gods favored'), the oppression of his Jewish subjects reached unendurable dimensions. He believed, as he had learned from his father, that the way to establish unity among the peoples of his empire was to bring them together under one religious order, and that order would be Greek. The stubbornly defiant Jews would have to be forced to bend to the will of the Syrian Greeks. Antiochus would simply take the concept of forced conversion further than his father had ever imagined, and as a result, Antiochus IV Epiphanes would become known as a wicked mad-man, and a deranged tyrant.


   The practice of the Jewish religion was outlawed. Antiochus ordered a stop to daily Temple sacrifices, and in 167 BCE the Temple was looted by his soldiers and an alter dedicated to Zeus was erected. Under orders from Antiochus, aware of Jewish prohibitions, swine were slaughtered on the Temple alter and the blood was spread throughout, completely desecrating the Temple. Syrian soldiers began enforcing a series of decrees upon Israel, provoking riots where much blood was spilled, slaughters committed, and martyrs made. Jewish worship was banned. The scrolls of the Torah were taken from the Temple and burned. Jewish customs, such as the Sabbath observance, circumcision, and dietary restrictions were all prohibited under penalty of death. Even one of Israel's most respected elders, Rabbi Eliezer, was victimized, when they made a public spectacle of him, ordering him to eat pork, so that the people could see and be able to follow his lead. When he refused, he was put to death. Pagan alters were set up in all the towns and villages, and the people were required to make sacrifices.

   The fullness of time had come. The actions of Antiochus aroused what would develop into a large scale rebellion against Syrian rule and Greek culture. However, the revolt started small - in a little town called Modiin, with an elderly Levitical priest named Mattathias.

Mattathias

   This priest had served at the Temple in Jerusalem, but when the Temple persecutions began, Mattathias returned to his rural home in Modiin (167 BCE). Then one day he was confronted by a Syrian Greek official who demanded he perform an act of sacrifice on the pagan alter in the center of town. He had been singled out because he was a respected elder of the town, and once he had acquiesced, the rest of the town's people would more easily follow his example.

   A heated argument ensued. A Jewish man (said to be a Hellenized Jew) stepped forward and offered to make the sacrifice on behalf of the priest, which only angered Mattathias all the more. He drew a sword and struck down the Jewish man, then turned on the Syrian official, killing him also.

   This was the beginning of a new (if short-lived) era of something resembling Jewish independence, a political posture the Jewish people had not enjoyed for some 400 - 500 years. The events of the war of liberation fought by the Maccabees, forms the basis for the holiday of Hanukkah, which is celebrated by Jews on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which falls somewhere between  mid-November and late December on the Gregorian calendar.

   Hanukkah stands out among the various Jewish holy days because it is not one of the Torah's "Festivals of the Lord." In fact, it is quite modern in terms of Jewish history. It is recorded that the Messiah, Yeshua, observed this holy festival, making it appropriate that his followers should likewise, following in his footsteps (see John 10: 22,23). The account says that it was winter, and Yeshua was in the Temple during the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah). It was at this time that a group of belligerent Jewish elders confronted him in the Temple with contentious questions and hostile words. They wound up threatening to stone him, but he slipped away as they argued amongst themselves.

   The message of the Hanukkah story for the Christians of the world, is that in this present age of spiritual darkness Yahweh Almighty can take what small amount of spiritual oil we might possess and turn us into lights shining in the darkness. He can turn our weakness to strength, darkness to light, and poverty to sufficiency. It takes first, the courage of faith on our part, and will then be backed up by the power of the Holy Spirit of God, through Yeshua.

   Knowing that retribution would be swift and merciless, the priest fled into the wilderness, accompanied by his five sons, Judas (or Judah), Eleazar, Simon, John and Jonathan. After the news of what had happened in Modiin began to spread, more and more Jewish men began taking up arms, and venturing into the wilderness to find the family and join them in defiance of the Syrians. A substantial, untrained guerrilla army began to form, launching tactical hit-and-run raids on Syrian military outposts and destroying Greek alters in towns around the region. The ranks of the Jewish army continued to grow with each successful battle against the Syrians. Mattathias died in 166 BCE, and his eldest son, Judas, followed him as the leader of the revolt. It was Judas who acquired the name Maccabeus, meaning "the hammer." He became renowned for his military leadership and his skills as a field tactician. 

   Antiochus sent forth his General Apolonius to bring the revolt to an end. Though they had the advantage of superior numbers and arms, the Syrians wound up being defeated by the Maccabees. A second force was dispatched, but met the same fate. Antiochus decided to send an overwhelming force of 40,000 under the leadership of Generals Nicanor and Gorgiash, who swept through Israel in pursuit of the rebels. Following a series of bloody battles, the war was won, but it was the Maccabean army that was victorious.

   While the war to free the land of Israel from Syrian tyranny and the restoration of independence were the leading motivating factors prompting the Maccabean revolt, there was a secondary issue driving this conflict. The fight against the Syrian forces was only part of the campaign, representing the external threat, but there was also an internal threat that the Maccabees had to contend with. It was the fact that such a large percentage of the Jewish people had willingly turned to the pagan Hellenist influences and Greek culture, relinquishing their Jewish monotheistic traditions, even their Jewish identity in favor of the foreign customs. These posed an additional threat and military challenge, being in league with the Syrians the Hellenized Jews constituted the internal threat. The Maccabees were forced to fight their Jewish brothers as well as the Syrians, in order to cleanse the land of Greek influence altogether. This dual threat is thought to be reflected in the fact that Mattathias first killed the Hellenized Jew before turning against the Syrian official.


   When it was first learned the Antiachus had died (161 BCE) the Maccabean soldiers, jubilant, descended on Jerusalem from their places in the wilderness, liberating the city and the Temple. The priests returned, the Temple was cleansed, the Greek idols were removed, a new alter was constructed and a dedication ceremony was held on the 25th of Kislev in 164 BCE. The golden menorah that had previously adorned the Temple had been stolen by the Syrians, so a new one had to be constructed. It was less ornate than the original, but functional. Then, as the story goes, the problem of the oil presented itself. The special purified olive oil, used to light the menorah had all been contaminated by the Syrians except for one small container which was still sealed. Yet, it was only enough for one day, and it would take seven days to produce more, given the process of purification. By a miracle of God, however, the small amount of oil continued to burn for eight days, until the oil could be replenished. This detail of the oil is not included in either of the accounts related in the Books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and doesn't appear in writing until 600 years later in the Talmud, but the Rabbis invented a beautiful tradition, known as the Festival of Lights. In fact, the eight day festival of Hanukkah, originally, is thought to have been modeled after the eight day festival of Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Tabernacles. 

   What this Jewish army had accomplished was nothing short of amazing, but it wasn't over yet. It would take another twenty years of fighting before the Greek Seleucids would finally retreat from the land and fully grant the Jewish demands for independence. It was 142 BCE and by this time all the main characters of this story had died off. Antiochus, Mattathias and all of his sons, but for Simon, who was quite old by now. Jonathan and his sons had been assassinated in an act of treachery by the Syrians leaving only the last remaining son of Mattathias, Simon, who was elected by the people of Jerusalem to lead them as the High Priest. Simon decided to send emissaries to meet with the Seleucid king, Demetrius II, with whom he had gained some favor, requesting freedom from taxation for the country. The fact that his request was granted implied the recognition of political independence for Judea. He became the first prince of the Hebrew Hasmonean Dynasty, reigning from 142 to 135 BCE.

Amen. Hallelujah.