For over 2100 years, Hanukkah has been an important celebration for the Jewish people. But despite the misconceptions, it’s not the Jewish version of Christmas, nor is it just about dreidels and chocolate coins. Hanukkah is a historical epic of the likes of William Wallace and Braveheart. But to fully appreciate this story, we need to look at the context of what led to Hanukkah and the Jewish freedom.
Crazy Dreams and Amazing Predictions
Let’s rewind all the way back to the time of Daniel around 600 B.C. As you may recall, because of Israel’s disobedience towards God, God allowed them to be exiled and live in captivity. The Babylonian Empire, led by Nebuchadnezzar, captured the Southern Kingdom of Judah and carried the likes of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into exile. But because of their intelligence, wisdom, and favor with God, these men thrived in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Daniel became Nebuchadnezzar’s right hand man and frequently interpreted his dreams.
In Daniel 2, we read that the King had a dream about a statue. The head was made of gold, the chest of silver, the belly and thighs were bronze, the legs were iron, and the feet were a mixture of iron and baked clay. Daniel explained to the King that these represented coming empires. The Babylonian empire was the head, but it would be crushed by the silver empire.
And that’s exactly what happened. In 539 B.C. under Cyrus and Darius, the Mede and Persian empire toppled the Babylonians. They reigned some 200 years, and a number of famous Biblical events happened during this time. Under the Medes and Persians, many Jews returned back to Israel, Zerubbabel was allowed to rebuild the Temple, the story of Esther occurred, Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem and led rebuilding efforts.
Even though many Jews had the good fortune to return home and rebuild Israel, it still remained under Persian rule until the Persian Empire fell. In Daniel 8, we read about Daniel’s vision of a ram with two horns that represented the Medes and Persians. In Daniel’s vision, he saw a goat with one horn. This goat ran from the West, broke the two horns of the ram, and trampled it. God explained to Daniel that the goat represented the coming Greek empire that would trample the Medes and Persians.
Knock, Knock, It’s Alexander the Great
Sure enough a couple of hundred years later, Alexander the Great led the Macedonian Empire (sometimes this is also referred to as the Greek Empire) in a massive military campaign to conquer the world. Alexander only lived for 33 years (356 to 323 BC), but he is considered one of the most successful military leaders of all time, building an empire that expanded from Greece in the west, as far south as Egypt, through the Middle East, and as far east as India. An ambitious young man, he was a student of the famous philosopher Aristotle, and valued the classical Greek life.
Now Israel at the time of Alexander’s campaign was in a bit of a conundrum, they were paying tribute to the Persian Empire. So they had to sort of hedge a bet – to either continue paying the Persian Empire or shift their allegiance to Alexander and Macedon. Basically they had to try and predict who would come out on top. It turns out they chose incorrectly and continued supporting the Persian Empire. So When Alexander the Great arrived on Jerusalem’s doorstep in 332 B.C. after defeating the Persians, Israel feared the worst. However, the High Priest Jeduah prayed about what to do, and God instructed him to get dressed up, open the city gates, and greet Alexander.
It seems kind of insane to just open the gates to someone who is surely going to lay siege to everything, but shockingly, it worked, and it sparked a day of really odd events. First, when Alexander entered Jerusalem, he was treated like a welcomed king. The gates were thrown open, everyone was dressed up, and the High Priest came out to meet him. Alexander was stunned by the greeting, and then he did something extremely strange. He bowed down before the High Priest Jeduah. When asked why he was doing this, Alexander explained, “I didn’t pay homage to Jeduah, but to the God Who made him His High Priest.” Alexander then went up to the Temple and offered a sacrifice to the Lord.
Everyone was perplexed by this, but Alexander explained his actions by saying,
“One night several years ago when I couldn’t sleep for thinking about how I might defeat the Persians I had a vision in which I saw this man (pointing to Jeduah) and all his priests dressed and gathered before me just as I saw them today. In my vision Jeduah told me the LORD would guide my armies and would lead me to victory against all my enemies including the Persians. He told me not to delay but to proceed immediately. A short time later I defeated the Persians and today outside Jerusalem the vision became reality.”
Jeduah the High Priest then brought out the scroll of Daniel’s prophecies and pointed to Daniel 8 and showed Alexander that he was the king – the horned goat that came to conquer the Medes and Persians.
This was a very important day for Israel. Because of their willingness to surrender and their kindness towards Alexander, he treated them favorably. They were spared from certain taxes and requirements, and Alexander allowed them to continue practicing their faith.
Shortly after Alexander’s campaign, he introduced a process known as Hellenization throughout the Greek Empire. Because Alexander and the Greeks greatly valued the classical Greek way of life, Hellenization was a way to ensure that other cultures within the Empire embraced the culture and language. In fact, this is where we see some of the stark separations between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees adopted the Hellenistic way of life. The Pharisees stayed apart.
After Alexander the Great’s death, the kingdom was divided into various sections or states. The leaders of these states didn’t see a unified kingdom; rather, they’d often fight other states in order to expand their own territory. Israel was grouped into the Seleucid state – also referred to as Seleucia or Syria or the Seleucid Dynasty. This Dynasty was particularly keen on the Hellenistic way of life.
Let’s fast forward to the sixth king of Seleucia – Antiochus III – also known as Antiochus the Great. He led a successful campaign to revitalize the Seleucian state – expanding it through conquest. However, like Alexander, he also was very favorable to the Jews. It wouldn’t, however, be the same with his son – Antiochus IV also known as Antiochus Epiphanes.
Now before we talk about Antiochus Epiphanes – the tyrant and the villain in the story of Hanukkah, we have to understand a little bit about the politics that was going on. At this time, the Temple was very connected to the state; in fact the king typically decided who would be the High Priest. When Antiochus Epiphanes assumed the throne, a man named Jason took the opportunity to bribe Antiochus to become the High Priest, and Antiochus accepted the offer.
One day, Jason sent a man by the name of Menelaus to pay tribute to Antiochus. However, Menelaus took the opportunity not to offer a tribute on behalf of Jason but to outbid Jason for the position of High Priest. Antiochus accepted the offer, but in order to pay what he promised, Menelaus returned to the Temple and raided the treasury.
Jason, the ousted priest fled the city for a while. However, while King Antiochus Epiphanes was at war in Egypt, a rumor spread that he had been killed. Jason and a small army took the opportunity to lead a revolt to retake the city thinking that Antiochus was now out of the picture.
However, Antiochus though he had been defeated, was not dead. So when word reached Antiochus of what was transpiring in Jerusalem with Jason’s revolt, he became incensed. He left Egypt, came up to Jerusalem, and laid siege to the city. He killed men, he sacrificed women on the Temple altar, and he butchered children and infants. Antiochus Epiphanes waged a holocaust against the Jews. In just three days, forty thousand Jews were violently executed and another forty thousand were sold into slavery. The Jews were kicked out of Jerusalem and the prominent city was turned into a Greek colony.
Antiochus with the help of Menelaus raided and defiled the Temple. He stole sacred artifacts and turned the Temple into a den for idol worship. It’s here that Daniel’s prophecy about the abomination of desolation is fulfilled. Daniel 11:31 explains, “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation.”
2 Maccabees 6, records just how far Antiochus took the Jewish persecution.
“Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God; also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus, and that on Mount Gerizim to Zeus the Hospitable, as the inhabitants of the place requested…They also brought into the temple things that were forbidden, so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws. A man could not keep the sabbath or celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit that he was a Jew. At the suggestion of the citizens of Ptolemais, a decree was issued ordering the neighboring Greek cities to act in the same way against the Jews: oblige them to partake of the sacrifices, and put to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks. It was obvious, therefore, that disaster impended. Thus, two women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall. Others, who had assembled in nearby caves to observe the sabbath in secret, were betrayed to Philip and all burned to death.”
It’s Hammer Time
Now while many of the Jews rebelled against their own faith and turned towards Hellenization, there was a man by the name of Mattathias the Hasmonean who refused. In fact, when a Hellenistic Jew volunteered to offer a sacrifice to an idol in Mattathias’ place, he killed the man. Afterwards, Mattathias and his five sons fled to the wilderness where he died about about a year later in 166 B.C. It was then that his five sons, led by Judah Maccabee (or Judas Maccabeus), began the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire.
Not only was Judah’s aim to destroy the Seleucid Empire, but he also executed the myriads of Hellenizing Jews who were unfaithful to the Jewish way of life. The Maccabees (a term which means hammer) went into cities and destroyed pagan altars, forced boys to be circumcised, and rallied troops to fight with him. Even though the Maccabean bandits were outnumbered, they managed to destroy entire military companies loyal to Antiochus.
The climax of the Maccabean revolt occurred when they successfully captured Jerusalem. This event is central to the Hanukkah story, as the Maccabees retook the Temple. They tore down the foreign gods, and restored some of the lost sacred artifacts. As the Temple was being cleansed, they debated about what to do with the altar, which Antiochus had used to sacrifice people and unclean animals. Instead of destroying it or washing it, they decided to dismantle it, set the stones aside, and wait for a prophet to instruct them on what to do. In its place, they erected a new altar.
Once the Temple was restored, Maccabees declared an eight day feast of dedication, which is what the word Hanukkah means – to dedicate. According to the Talmud, pure olive oil was necessary for the Temple menorah. Since the seven-branch menorah represented the presence of God, it was required to always stay illuminated. However, according to tradition, there was only one flask available with enough oil to only burn one day, and the priests needed eight days to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil. Miraculously, the one flask of oil kept burning for eight days. To commemorate this miracle, the Jewish sages established the eight-day festival of Hanukkah.
Just as we think of the dedication of the Temple as the end of the story of Hanukkah, many people saw the redication of the Temple as the end of the war. Israel had regained their religious freedom, which for many was the ultimate goal. But some people, including Judah Maccabee, saw how successful they had been and wanted to go further.
The war did continue for sometime. Judah Maccabee eventually died in battle and his brothers took over the leadership of Israel. They set up the Hasmonean Dynasty and their descendants led Israel. For the first time in a long time, Israel was able to free itself (for the most part) from a foreign entity. But that all came to an abrupt end when Daniel’s prophecy once again came to fruition with the expansion of the Roman Empire expanded its power.
Herod, the Romans, and the End of the Jewish State
Eventually Herod the Great became the King, ruling over the land of Israel. And as a way of securing his power, Herod married a Hasmonean princess by the name of Mariamne, thus bridging the gap between the Romans and Hasmoneans. Herod the Great built an empire filled with amazing architecture (including the Temple Mount) but also was ruthless and paranoid. As a way of ensuring that no Hasmonean would uproot his authority, he plotted to kill every last Hasmonean relative. And of course, he’s infamous for ordering the death of male children two and younger around the time of Jesus’ birth.
Herod died in 4 A.D., and the Herodian Dynasty continued while becoming more united with Rome. By the time Jesus began his ministry, Herod’s son – Herod Antipas was now the king. Most scholars believe that this Herod was responsible for both John the Baptist’s death and was still in power during Jesus’ crucifixion.
The increase of Roman control over Israel would not bode well for the Jewish people. After they revolted against the Romans beginning in 66 A.D., the Roman Empire under the leadership of Nero, Vaspasian, and Titus, crushed the Jewish people and decimated their land. They destroyed the Temple, took sacred artifacts back to Rome, slaughtered thousands of Jews, turned Jewish people into refugees, and dissolved the Sanhedrin. In essence, the Jewish State had ceased to exist.
A Nation Without Land or Independence
While this has covered a history much larger than the story of Hanukkah, there’s something very important to think about. Beginning around 600 B.C. Israel lost its independence. Then after Judah Maccabee and the Maccabean revolt, Israel had a brief period of independence for the first time in nearly 500 years. But that was short lived, as the Roman Empire came to power. After that, Israel would not see independence again for close to 2000 years. It wasn’t until May 14, 1948, that Israel finally became an independent nation – nearly 2500 years after the Babylonian invasion. That’s absolutely staggering. Nations that lose their independence tend to lose their identity. This is why it has been said that the Jewish people are one of the strongest evidences for the existence and truth of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No people has experienced as many attempts at genocide, has been without independence, and has been so scattered and has still retained their identity. Judah Maccabee represents the resilience and persistence of a people who have struggled for freedom. But more importantly, in the epic story of Hanukkah, we see a God who remains present and faithful to His chosen people.