Beginning next Tuesday evening December 20, 2011, at sundown Jewish families around the world began celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukah, also known as the “Festival of Lights”. For the following 8 days, Jewish families gather each evening around an eight branch candle holder called a “menorah” and light candles while reciting a prayer.
In their families they will retell a story of heroism and faith surrounding an event that occurred around 165 BC. This event celebrates how the Jewish people overcame impossible odds and preserved their religion from extinction. Beginning with the lighting of one candle for the first night they will add another candle each night, one per night, until all 8 days are covered.
Have you ever wondered what Hanukah is about? Why do Jews light this menorah for 8 days? For many non Jews, their only exposure to Hanukah is from Saturday Nite Live’s Adam Sandler who composed a clever song that humorously points out the positive aspects of this Jewish celebration. Sandler says that he wrote the song for all the Jewish kids who may feel a bit left out when they see their gentile friends getting Christmas gifts.
Today Hanukah is sometimes called the “Jewish Christmas”. This is inaccurate. It is not a spin off of Christmas. It is only like Christmas in that it occurs during December and in the way it is a joyous occasion revolving around traditional foods and gift giving. It could also be equated with Christmas in the way it has become commercialized. But beyond this - it is incorrect to compare it to Christmas.
For most Jewish kids growing up, the thought of Hanukah revolves primarily around getting gifts. However the practice of giving a gift on each night is relatively new to the holiday since Hanukah originally was never about giving of gifts. That tradition came in America to help Jewish children avoid feeling left out during the Christian celebration of Christmas.
Many have no idea of the relevance of this holiday. The deeper meaning of Hanukah for many Jews as well has been lost or clouded by other traditions. This essay will attempt to shed some light (no pun intended) on the Biblical significance and spiritual implications of Hanukah for God’s people today.
Some preliminary things to understand in order to appreciate the essence of Hanukah:
1. Hanukah, the Hebrew word meaning dedication, is celebrated for eight days in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually occurs in mid to late December.
2. Hanukah recalls the struggle for religious freedom and commemorates the victory of the Jews over the Hellenistic Syrians in the year 165 B.C.E.
3. This is the only holiday that is universally observed by Jews all over the world and yet was never commanded to be observed. Jesus observed this festival (John 10:22-23). The feast Jesus is then attending is the Jewish festival of Hanukah. (the Festival of Lights) He observed it as a Jew.
4. This holiday is not mentioned in the Old Testament; its origin is inter - testamental. (The time period between the Old and New Testament.)
It is interesting to note that Daniel 8 describes historical events that eventually resulted in the story of Hanukah. These events were foretold in a vision seen by Daniel the prophet. The book of Daniel contains some of the richest prophecies regarding Israel’s future. It mentions a time when the temple would be consecrated after being desecrated. (Daniel 8:13-14). It goes into some fascinating descriptions of what would happen to the Israelites during the time period between the Old and New Testament.
Before looking at the story of Hanukah it is important to get some historical background:
Daniel was one of the young prisoners taken captive from Jerusalem and brought to Babylon as a part of the conquest of King Nebuchadnezzar around 616 B.C.
Daniel was granted a great job in the palace of the high ranking Babylonian officials. Although far away from home, Daniel remained faithful to his Hebrew convictions. He is described as a young man who was highly esteemed by the Babylonian officials. He became known as a wise man, a man of God especially known for his devotion to prayer (Daniel 6:10-13). Since Daniel lived throughout the entire 70 year captivity he also lived under the Medo- Persian rule. During that time he was very concerned about the future of his people who were still in captivity. While praying for insight into the future of his people God gives him the answers he was seeking. The answers came in the form of visions that must have appeared somewhat terrifying. I would encourage the reader to read all of Daniel 8-9. I will enclose a portion of the chapter here.
Daniel 8:1-14 describes a vision of a ram with two horn that meets up with a goat with a prominent horn. The goat charges at the ram shattering its two horns.
“The goat became very great, but at the height of his power his large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up toward the four winds of heaven.
Out of one of them came another horn, which started small but grew in power to the south and to the east and toward the Beautiful Land. It grew until it reached the host of the heaven, and it threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them. It set itself up to be as great as the Prince of the host; it took away the daily sacrifice from him, and the place of his sanctuary was brought low.” ---- Daniel 8:9-12
We don’t have to guess or wonder what the meaning of the vision is because the answer is given in the same chapter.
A messenger named Gabriel came to Daniel with this explanation:
“The two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia. the shaggy goat is the King of Greece, and the large horn between his eyes is the first king. The four horns that replaced the one that was broken off represent four kingdoms that will emerge from his nation but will not have the same power.
In the latter part of their reign, when rebels have become completely wicked, a stern-faced king, a master of intrigue, will arise. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause astounding devastation and will succeed in whatever he does. He will destroy the mighty men and the holy people. He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed but not by human power. The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true, but seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future.” ---- Daniel 8:20-26
History bears out the fulfillment of this vision with amazing accuracy. It began in 338 B.C.E. when Philip of Macedon invaded Greece. Athens and the Greek states, along with their pagan customs, became part of the Macedonian empire. Two years later, Philip died, and his son, Alexander, assumed the throne.
Alexander the Great, as he was known, conquered territories from Macedonia and Greece across the Persian empire to the borders of India. Included in this empire were Egypt and Israel, then considered part of Syria.
When Alexander’s army reached Jerusalem, the Jews, already under Syrian occupation, did not resist. It was Alexander and his forces that first brought Hellenism to Jerusalem and the Jewish people. However, the Jews did not rush to adopt the Greek religion and culture. For all its beauty and accomplishments, especially in the fields of athletics, theater and philosophy, Hellenism had a dark side.
In ancient Greece, behavior that is today considered deviant, such as infanticide, pedophilia, adultery and institutionalized prostitution, were routine and even encouraged. To Jews, who valued the Torah and purity of family life, these aspects of Hellenistic culture was incompatible with their own.
When Alexander died, his empire was divided between his generals: Antigonus ruled Macedonia and Greece; Seleucus ruled Babylonia, Persia and Syria; and Ptolemy ruled Egypt and Israel.
Like Alexander, Ptolemy was a great champion of Hellenism. The empire he established dominated Israel for almost 100 years. It was under Ptolemaic rulers that many Jews began to adopt aspects of Greek culture. These Jews were referred to as Hellenists. For them, Greek culture represented the way of the future and the fastest way to succeed in Greek society.
In 199 B.C.E, The Seleucid dynasty that ruled Syria took control of Israel from the Greek Ptolemies. It was under the Seleucids that anti-Jewish decrees were first issued against the practice of Judaism. Sabbath observance, the study of Torah, and male circumcisions, for example, were forbidden on pain of death. In addition, Greek Gods and other symbols of Greek culture were put inside the Holy Temple, desecrating the center of Jewish ritual life in Jerusalem.
In the year 167 B.C.E. the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes began a campaign to force the Jews under his rule to formally adopt Greek practices. One Jewish family, five sons and their old father, took a stand and this is where the story of Hanukah begins.
One day Greek forces arrived at Modin ( a village 17 miles from Jerusalem), the home of Mattityahu ( Mattathias), an elder and religious leader of the prestigious Hasmonean family. There, the army established a Greek religious altar and ordered Mattityahu (Mattathias) to offer a sacrifice to a pagan god. Mattityahu (Mattathias) refused, but while he stood firm, another Jew offered to make the sacrifice. Enraged, Mattityahu killed him and attacked the Greek soldiers. His action sparked a Jewish rebellion, which he and his sons led. They became known as the Maccabees, which in Hebrew, means Men Who are as Strong as Hammers.
Led by Judah Maccabee, the most famous of Mattathias’s five sons, the Maccabees, a force much smaller than the powerful Greek armies, finally triumphed in 165 B.C.E.. On the 25th of Kislev, the Maccabees reclaimed the Jewish Temple, which was, at that point, almost unrecognizable as a place of Jewish worship.
The Talmud says that when the Jewish army wanted to rededicate the Temple, they were unable to find enough specially prepared oil to light the Menorah, a holy lamp, or candelabra, used in the Temple service.
Finally, in one Temple chamber, the Maccabees found a single bottle of oil, which normally would have lasted only one night. However, by a miracle, the one bottle of oil lasted eight nights, until new oil, fit for Temple use, could be produced.
This is the miracle Jews commemorate to this day. By lighting the eight Hanukah lights of the Menorah, Jews everywhere recount the triumph of their ancestors against immorality and idolatry. Hanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the miracle that a one day supply of oil lasted eight days. Judas Maccabeus was responsible for inaugurating this festival. It was a time to be observed with joy and gladness for eight days.
Now we turn to what relevance does Hanukah hold for us as disciples of Jesus Christ?.
So what is the value of understanding this history and tying the holiday of Hanukah into our life today? What is the connection to our faith if any? I propose these 7 life-changing lessons be considered:
1. Hanukah focuses on God’s power to provide victory of the few over the many.
The history of the Jewish people is one of suffering and near extinction. The existence and survival of the Jewish people is a clear display of God’s power in history. His preservation of His people is a phenomenon. The tiny land of Israel has always been surrounded by hostile nations. Even before the Maccabean victory over the Greek army, and many times after, the Jewish nation has defied the odds.
According to all the calculations of military experts and against all rules of logic, the Jews should never have had the ability to defeat their enemies, especially when it came to the Greek empire. And even when Jews were expelled from their lands, they have always returned. The Maccabees were outnumbered, poorly trained and hardly equipped, but that did not discourage them from fighting.
Hanukah is an opportunity to take time to reflect and thank God for the miracle of deliverance, and for the spirit that enabled the Maccabees to fight and the power of God that provided them with an amazing victory.
2. Hanukah focuses on celebrating freedom from tyranny not only for the Jews but for all people.
At a time in our American history when our liberties and our national tranquility have been threatened, the holiday of Hanukah has special relevance. It points out that our greatest need is to realize where our true strength lies - in our faith in God our need for reliance upon Him. (Proverbs 14:34)
3. Hanukah focuses on the need to take a stand in order to not be in bondage.
Sometimes we are fooled into thinking the path of least resistance will make us happy when actually it makes us slaves. The Maccabees took the path of most resistance. They took on an empire rather than compromise their convictions. Hanukah teaches us that taking a stand for what is right is necessary in order to truly have freedom. Taking the path of least resistance results in bondage. If the Maccabees had said the Syrian rule and the Hellenistic pressures will just blow over - they never would. The temple would have been destroyed by the Greeks and the Jewish religion for all practical purposes would have been wiped out.
4. Hanukah reminds us that without Hanukah there would be no Christmas.
The survival of the Jewish people was necessary in order to bring Messiah into the world. It took faith, courage and sacrifice on many people’s part to preserve the nation. Without Hanukah there would not have been a temple, priesthood, or a Bethlehem and a Jewish baby born there who would be our Saviour. In a true sense- without Hanukah there would not be a Christmas.
5. Hanukah focuses on the need for God’s people to retain their identity. Throughout the ages God’s people have always needed to carefully incorporate modern influences while maintaining their unique identity and unfaltering mission. The same forces that caused Jews to compromise convictions and assimilate in the times of Judah Maccabee are still alive today
(The same temptation remains today for disciples of the Messiah - We must resist the temptation to be “conformed to this present world but be transformed by the renewing of our mind”. (Romans 12:1-2). Hopefully this study will encourage us to take a stand against idols and have a heart to protect God’s people from losing their distinctiveness.
For 2,000 years, the eight branches of the Menorah have stood as a triumphant symbol of the Jewish will to live and worship in freedom. The Jewish struggle between the forces of darkness and light, Hellenism and Judaism, still has relevance today.
Hopefully this study will instill an appreciation for the gutsy action of Mattathias and his sons and instill that same courageous spirit within us today.
6. Hanukah reminds us of that there is always a price for Freedom. Freedom is never really free. It takes everything to obtain it. There is always a price to obtain freedom. Many men and during the Revolutionary war paid a price for our national freedom. Many men in the Civil War paid a price for the freedom of slaves. But the ultimate price came for our eternal freedom from slavery to sin. That required a willingness on the part of the Messiah - the suffering servant who would become our atonement by the giving up of his life. (As foretold in Isaiah 53)
The Messiah also took His stand so that we might be out of bondage
This is a festive holiday that we as disciples of Messiah can get behind - Its all about freedom from an oppressor against impossible odds - the story of the Jewish people could also be titled “Against All Odds” Like Passover it is a celebration of freedom and miracles. It is a reminder that God saves not by man’s might but by His power.
7. Another tremendous lesson of Hanukah: The Need for Dedication
Hanukah focuses on the need to take an inventory on the state of my life and consider the need for rededication. Just like Judas Maccabee found the temple full of weeds, neglected, and polluted, our personal lives can often time become polluted by sin and the world. In the same way, it requires rededication to clean our temples and relight our lamps- so that our lives can once again be the light of the world.
One word of warning in closing. Hanukah runs the risk of becoming an empty, watered down, commercialized, routine, religious holiday like Christmas in which we simply go thru the outward motions. It is so easy to lose the meaning of an event when the focus is on simply traditions. Let us understand and appreciate the real meaning of Hanukah.
--- Phillip Lester 12/16/2011