Gateway: Living

The great history behind Hanukkah

Every year on the calendar our family celebrates the festival of Hanukkah. Many of my Christian friends give me a blank stare when I ask them if they know about Hanukkah. In fairness, I didn’t know anything about Hanukkah growing up except that it appeared on my calendar around the latter part of November or sometime during December. I want to explore with you the background and significance of Hanukkah in hopes that more fellow Christ believers will examine and embrace more of this festival.

Hanukkah means “dedication” or “re-dedication,” but we’ll talk about that later. Our three primary historical documents that recount Hanukkah are I and II Maccabees and the Jewish historian, Josephus. Much later the rabbinic writings of the Mishnah also comment on this event. In the middle of 300 B.C., Alexander the Great conquers the known world and begins the spread of Hellenism (Greek culture) around the world. Hellenism gave the world theater, gymnasiums, philosophy and stadiums, to name a few. In 313 B.C., Alexander died, leaving his empire to be divided among four prominent generals. Israel, as a nation, was a buffer state between the Ptolemaic peoples in the north (Syria) and the Seleucids in the south (Egypt). Being a buffer state simply meant that Israel was often caught in the middle of warring factions. Over time the Ptolemy’s conquered the Seleucids, and in 169 B.C., Antiochus IV marched on Jerusalem, killing more than 40,000 Jews.

With the Syrian army behind him, Antiochus told the Jews they must not outwardly practice any form or religious belief. Things like eating kosher, circumcision, Sabbath observance, and Torah scrolls were strictly forbidden. Many Jews bowed to the pressure of Antiochus but many secretly resisted. In 167 B.C., Antiochus entered the Temple in Jerusalem and profaned the altar by offering a pig to Zeus. Antiochus had his army go from town to town forcing Jews to offer pigs on local altars as way of showing alliance with the Syrian regime. In the little town of Mo’din a man named Mattathias (a priest) rose up and killed a fellow Jew who was ascending the altar to slaughter a pig. Mattathias had five sons, the most famous of which was Judah, known as the Maccabee (the Hammer). Jews from all over joined the guerrilla band of soldiers that Mattathias and his sons had started.

For three years the small army of Judah waged war against the much larger Syrian army, but the Syrians were no match for the fighting style of the Maccabees. In 164 B.C. the small Jewish army had driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, and on the 25th of Chislev, the Temple in Jerusalem was cleansed and rededicated (Hanukkah) for official service. The miracle of Hanukkah is that a small army was able to defeat a vastly larger army with G-d’s help. The celebration of Hanukkah became an eight-day celebration to commemorate/correspond the eight days that Solomon dedicated the first Temple in I Kings 8. Solomon had based the eight-day celebration of the first Temple on the eight-day celebration of the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles/Leviticus 23).

Now many of my Christians friends might be saying, “This is all wonderful history, but why should I care what happened in Jerusalem to a few Jews”? If you are “Jesus person,” Hanukkah should interest you for at least two reasons. First, in John 10:22 we find Yeshua (Jesus) in the Temple during the time of Hanukkah. We are not given any specifics on how the festival was observed but Yeshua’s presence there speaks to His view of this festival. Second, the festival of Hanukkah is the time when Yeshua was conceived and the festival of Sukkot is the time period when Yeshua was born. Both of these festivals speak of the importance of the Temple and of G-d’s dwelling with us. I don’t have the space to demonstrate this last point but if you write me (torah4today@comcast.net), I will will provide you with proof from the Biblical text.

Today, the symbol of Hanukkah is the nine branched menorah lamp-stand. Each night of Hanukkah it is traditional to light one candle until the eighth night when all the candles are lit. In the Mishnah we have the myth/legend of a jug of oil that was found with the priestly seal intact. This jug only had enough oil to last for one day, but when it was used it miraculously lasted eight days. All three of our earlier sources fail to mention anything about this miracle jug of oil so we must conclude that this myth was added later to enhance the story. The menorah that was taken from the Temple by Titus in 70 A.D. was the seven branched menorah that we also find mentioned in the Torah’s description of the menorah. I mention these two “additions” to show that over time the festival of Hanukkah morphed and changed in ways its original observers never imagined.

Hanukkah has many lessons to teach us but we can only learn these lessons if we go back and relive this amazing story. For believers, let me distill it down for us. The culture will continue to make us compromise our faith beliefs. G-d is on our side and will fight for those committed to Him. A little light can dispel a great amount of darkness. G-d desires each of us to make a place in our lives for Him. These and more are the lessons of Hanukkah.

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