Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

The Jewish Holidays; Hanukkah: Dedication & Celebration (Sept – Dec 1994)

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by Terry Seufferlein
September – December, 1994

When God calls a people, he expects them to live according to his rules. When he made a covenant with Abraham to bless him and his descendants, he decreed that every male child should be circumcised as a sign of the covenant. When he led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, he gave them guidelines about how they should live, including instructions about how they should dress, and what they could and couldn’t eat. Moreover, certain things were declared holy: The Sabbath was a holy day, holy festivals were to be observed, and the place of God’s dwelling was exceedingly holy.

For the most part, the Israelites took this covenant relationship seriously, and generation after generation tried to demonstrate their faithfulness by obeying God’s commands. Such faithfulness, however, did not always come easily.

In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great conquered all of the Near East, including Palestine. But Alexander’s policy was to let the conquered peoples maintain their customs and religion, therefore Alexander’s conquest made little difference in the daily life of a Jew. When Alexander died (about 323 B.C.), his empire was divided among his generals. Seleucus received Syria, and Ptolemy received Egypt and Palestine. Again, the Ptolemies did not meddle in the domestic affairs of Israel, being content to receive tribute.

However, at the beginning of the second century B.C., Antiochus III became king of the Seleucid empire, and the peace in Judea came to an end. After a period of upheaval, Antiochus III gained control of Palestine. Antiochus III was followed by his son, Seleucus IV, then by another son, Antiochus IV, in 175 B.C. Antiochus IV was no lover of the Jewish people or their ways. He took for himself the name Epiphanes (God manifest), but many of his contemporaries referred to him instead as Epimanes, which means “madman.”

During this period some of the Jewish aristocracy favored abandoning Jewish customs in favor of Greek culture. One of those supporting Hellenization, Jason, gave Antiochus Epiphanes a large sum of money, in return for which Antiochus appointed Jason as high priest in the place of his brother, Onias. As high priest, Jason set about introducing the Jews to Greek culture. A Greek gymnasium was built in Jerusalem, and many Jews adopted the Greek custom of performing athletic events in the nude. Greek education and dress gained in popularity, and some Jews even went so far as to have their marks of circumcision surgically disguised.

It wasn’t long, however, before Jason was usurped by Menelaus. Menelaus was not from the proper lineage, and had no right to the high priesthood, but Antiochus Epiphanes granted the position to the highest bidder, and Menelaus became high priest. Under Menelaus, the process of Hellenization was accelerated. As high priest, Menelaus went so far as to steal some of the golden items from the temple.

The conflict between Jewish factions intensified, and while Antiochus was in battle against Egypt, Jason made a failed attempt to regain the position of high priest, killing hundreds in the process. Antiochus Epiphanes returned from battle and entered Jerusalem in a rage. He slaughtered several thousand innocent Jews, and sent others into slavery. To add insult to injury, Antiochus Epiphanes broke into the temple and removed all of its sacred treasures.

Soon thereafter, Antiochus issued a decree forbidding any Jewish practices. Observing the Sabbath and participating in religious festivals and sacrifices were outlawed, as was circumcision. Copies of the Hebrew Scriptures were destroyed. Further, pagan practices were forced upon the Jews. They were forced to participate in pagan celebrations, and eat unclean foods. Pigs and other unclean animals were sacrificed to pagan gods. Antiochus had officials scattered throughout Palestine to enforce his policy, and any Jew who refused to obey the king’s edict was put to death.

In an ultimate act of humiliation and desecration, Antiochus ordered an altar to the Greek god Zeus to be built over the altar of burnt offerings in the temple, then, on the 25th of Chislev (mid-winter), Antiochus had a pig sacrificed on the altar. The temple itself became a place of prostitution and immoral practices. It seemed that Judaism was on the verge of extinction.

Nevertheless, not all Jews gave in to the pagan practices. Many paid the price for their faithfulness, yet they followed God’s instructions to the best of their ability.

One famous story concerns a mother and her seven sons. This family refused to eat the flesh of pigs, preferring to obey God rather than men. When news of this reached the ears of the officials, the family was brought in and beaten with whips. One of the sons defied the king, saying, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.” The king became furious, and had pans and cauldrons heated over a fire. The king ordered the son’s tongue cut out, his hands and feet cut off, and his scalp torn off. He then had the son cast into a pan, still breathing, to be cooked to death in front of his mother and brothers. A second son was brought forward, scalped, and ordered to eat the pig’s flesh. He refused, and was likewise thrown over the fire. When they came to the third son to cut out his tongue, he boldly stuck his tongue out, and offered his hands as well, saying, “It was Heaven that gave me these limbs, and for the sake of His laws I disdain them, for I hope to receive them back again.” The soldiers were amazed at his bravery, but they tortured and killed him, too. The fourth, fifth, and sixth sons were likewise tortured and burned alive.

Nevertheless, the mother urged each to remain faithful, and with their last words each proclaimed his faith in God to raise them again.

Antiochus, realizing he was being made the fool, turned to the seventh son and offered him great riches and power if he would abandon the practices of his fathers. The son refused. The king, enraged and desperate, implored the mother to talk some sense into her son. She agreed, but, leaning close to her son, she whispered that her son should fear God and bravely accept his death. Thus encouraged, the last son proclaimed his faith in the power and righteousness of God, acknowledging that God would reward the righteous and punish the evil. Antiochus, stinging from this rebuke, tortured this boy more severely than the rest before he was thrown over the fire. Finally the mother, after seeing her seven sons tortured and killed, was also abused and murdered.

Such was the spirit of the Jewish people. While some succumbed to the pressure of the king and his soldiers, others vowed to follow God at any cost. One such family was Mattathias and his five sons. Mattathias was an elderly priest from Jerusalem who was distressed at what was taking place, so he moved to Modin with his five sons. It wasn’t long, however, before the king’s officials came to Modin to force the Jews to offer sacrifices according to the king’s decree. Many complied, but Mattathias  refused. The officials implored him, pointing out that he was a respected leader, and if he obeyed the decree, he would receive honor and riches from the king. Mattathias held fast, saying, “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers…. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or the left.”

No sooner had he finished saying these words when another Jew came up to offer sacrifice according to the king’s decree. Like Phinehas (Numbers 25:6-15), Mattathias burned with righteous indignation, and he killed the offender, leaving him on the altar, then killed the king’s official. Mattathias ran through the town, yelling, “let everyone who has a fervor for the Law and takes his stand on the covenant come out and follow me!” Then Mattathias and his five sons fled into the hills, with many others following.

Thus began the Jewish revolt against foreign control and influence. Mattathias and his followers ran throughout the countryside, destroying the pagan altars, enforcing the covenant, and killing those who sided with the Hellenizers. As news of their exploits spread across the country, others joined the small band of rebels.

Before Mattathias died, he appointed one of his sons, Judas, to lead the revolt against the pagans. Judas was also called Maccabeus (which means “hammer”), thus the revolt has come to be known as “the Maccabean revolt,” and the books which record these events are called First and Second Maccabees. Many righteous people united under Judas’ leadership, and the revolt gained momentum. Slowly the Jews began to reclaim their people and their land.

For several months Judas and his band of rebels fought against the Syrian armies. Although the Jews were greatly outnumbered, Judas encouraged his men: “It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from heaven.” With each battle the Jewish army emerged victorious, and they gave thanks to God.

Finally, Antiochus Epiphanes gathered all the troops he could muster, and charged Lysias with destroying the Jewish rebellion. Judas and his troops were vastly outnumbered, but they prayed and fasted, imploring God for his help. The two armies met in battle, and the Jews put the Syrians to flight.

With his enemies temporarily out of the picture, Judas led his men into Jerusalem to restore proper worship. When they reached the temple they were shocked by what they saw. The area was covered with bushes and weeds, the sanctuary was desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. They tore their clothes and mourned, falling on their faces and crying aloud to God.

Faithful priests were then chosen to cleanse the sanctuary. They tore down the defiled altar and built a new one in its place. The temple was restored, and new vessels were crafted. Finally, everything was in order according to the Law.

On the morning of the 25th of Chislev the people dedicated the temple, three years to the day from the time that Antiochus Epiphanes had defiled the altar. Sacrifices were made on the new altar, and songs and prayers were offered to God. For eight days the assembly celebrated the dedication of the temple.

According to tradition, there was only enough oil to light the temple lamps for one day. Nevertheless, the lamps were lit, but the oil was not used up, and the lamps continued to burn for the eight days of dedication. This is the miracle of Hanukkah.

Why eight days? Two reasons: First, eight days is the period of dedication. Firstborn animals were consecrated to God on the eighth day. Jewish boys were circumcised at the age of eight days. The celebration of Solomon’s temple lasted for eight days.

Second, while the temple was occupied by the Syrian army the Jews were not able to observe the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles was an eight-day festival ordained by God which involved celebration and sacrifice at the temple. Since they could not observe the festival during its proper time, they celebrated it once the temple had been regained, much like the second Passover (2 Chronicles 30).

Hanukkah, then, is a celebration of the dedication of the temple. In fact, the word Hanukkah means “dedication.” This event was so significant to the Jewish people that they decided to celebrate Hanukkah for eight days every year, beginning on the 25th of Chislev.

So what? What does the dedication of the Jewish temple have to do with Christians more than 1000 years later? An understanding of Hanukkah is important for several reasons.

First, the events surrounding Hanukkah help us have a greater understanding of certain passages in the New Testament. John 10:22 tells us that Jesus was in the Jerusalem temple during the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah. It seems likely that Jesus was celebrating this Jewish festival, as he did the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7) and other Jewish holidays.

In Hebrews 11, the author tells of people who have remained faithful under persecution. Included among these are “women (who) received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” It is likely that the writer is referring to some of those persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes, perhaps the tradition of the woman and her seven sons.

As much as this aids our understanding of the New Testament, however, it seems the greater significance is the meaning behind the festival. What is the message of Hanukkah? The traditional message is that God’s people will ultimately be victorious, no matter the odds. Like Abraham, Joseph, and Daniel, Mattathias and his supporters remained faithful to God regardless of the consequences. They followed God’s commands to the best of their ability, even if such faithfulness meant death. And, like Moses, Joshua, and Gideon, they fought for their beliefs, even though they were greatly outnumbered, and they were given the victory.

Hanukkah, then, is a call to faithfulness, and a reminder that the faithful will be victorious in spite of overwhelming odds. This is demonstrated by the way one lights the Hanukkah candles. The followers of the Rabbi Shammai said eight candles should be lit on the first day, and the number reduced by one each day thereafter, following the sacrificial pattern of the Feast of Tabernacles (Numbers 29:12-28). The tradition that gained acceptance, however, came from the followers of the Rabbi Hillel, who argued that one candle should be lit on the first night, and the number increased on successive nights, because light is not overcome by darkness, but overcomes the darkness.

God’s people of every century have had to learn that following God may put one in the minority, and it may even draw severe persecution, yet one is to remain faithful, regardless of circumstances. God’s people are like lights shining in the dark.

The Christian, however, finds further significance in Hunukkah, for this holiday recalls a period of political turmoil, in which the struggle for God’s kingdom took the shape of murder, political maneuvering, and a struggle over a certain area of land. Yet in this context of upheaval, contention, and military battles, came one who established a new kingdom, a kingdom which is not of this world. This Prince of Peace taught that God does not live in a temple, but in human hearts.

The birth of the King was proclaimed by an angel who appeared to some shepherds and announced, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Suddenly the sky was filled with angels saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men.”

Terry Seufferlein

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