December 19, 2014
The Spirit of Chanukah
You will get the fullest picture of the origin of Chanukah by reading the First and Second Books of Maccabees. You will not find these books in our modern Protestant Bibles. They were, however, part of the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language. This was accomplished in the third and second centuries B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. Because Israel was under the authority of Greece for several centuries, the Greek language became more and more common. By the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., most people in Israel spoke Greek as their primary language.
As to why the Books of the Maccabees are no longer part of the Biblical canon, and have never been part of the Hebrew Bible, I have no definitive answer. I am not a Torah scholar, and I am far from all-knowing when it comes to Bible history. Suffice it to say that for centuries the Books were lost to both the Christian and Jewish faiths due to politics, religious squabbles, and man's interference. But now there is renewed interest in them for their historical value by both faiths. Although not considered canon, they are a major contributor to our understanding as to the origin and significance of the holiday Chanukah. I think you will find fascinating parallels to what we are experiencing today.
So what do these compelling Books have to say about the time period in which the celebration of Chanukah first began? Remember, that most people in Israel spoke Greek as their first language. And there lies a big problem. How did this happen? In the wake of Alexander the Great's conquering of the known world, he wanted to "Hellenize" all the vanquished people. In other words, he wanted to make them as Greek as possible, destroying their native religions and traditions. After his death in 323 B.C., his empire was split between four of his generals. Two of the ensuing kingdoms (the Ptolemies in Egypt, and the Seleucids in Syria) would greatly influence Jewish history, as the land of Israel found itself situated between these two rival kingdoms.
Antiochus Epiphanes would become the Seleucid king in 175 B.C., and he was able to take advantage of the division within the Jewish community; between those who wanted to become "more Greek", and those who wanted to maintain "traditional" values and practice their faith according to their covenant with God. But Antiochus became extremely arrogant, demanding that all peoples unite in a common religion (his), and abandon their traditions and practices according to the Law (teachings) of Moses.
Not only did the Hebraic Jews, who were faithful to God, find an enemy in Antiochus Epiphanes, but also adversaries among the Hellenized Jews. To show just how devastating were the policies of the Greek tyrant, Epiphanes, the Jewish religious practices were forbidden; dietary laws were not to be observed; objects associated with Jewish worship were destroyed; the observance of sabbath and feast days was made illegal (punishable by death); circumcision was forbidden; and the Jewish sacred books were burned. In essence, he attempted to destroy the Jewish people and their faith.
But a recurring theme in the Bible is the fact that God always keeps a remnant who are faithful to Him -- even amidst persecution and apostasy. At the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, that faithful few can be found in Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons. They revolt against the Hellenizing policies of the Greek tyrant, as well as the Jewish collaboration of their own people. When Antiochus orders a pig to be sacrificed on the altar in God's Temple, Mattathias slays the heretical priest who would do so, and flees with his sons to the hills outside of Jerusalem. With his ragtag army, he vows to defend his nation and his covenant with God.
For nearly 25 years, a civil and religious war is waged -- Jew against Jew; between those willing to defend God's covenant against those who would compromise their faith to be "politically correct". In addition, the maniacal rage of Antiochus Epiphanes against the Jews who dared to revolt against him resulted in massive persecution. "There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery." (2 Maccabees 5:11-14).
1 Maccabees 4:56-59 says, "For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise ... Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days ...". 2 Maccabees 10:7 says, "they lighted lamps and celebrated for eight days in the manner of the festival of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles)".
This is the origin of the eight-day celebration of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Part of the modern story of Chanukah includes the legend that when the lamp stand (menorah) was lit, the appointed priests discover that there is only one vial of pure lamp oil with the special seal still intact. They use this vial to light the menorah, and miraculously, it stays lit for eight days, by which time fresh pure oil has been pressed and delivered to the Temple. It is this "miracle" that is also celebrated during the Chanukah festivities.
Whether or not this "miracle" actually happened is not for me to say. I would point out, however, that when you read the First and Second Books of Maccabees, you will find no mention of oil being required for the lighting of the "lamps". And there are some Jewish scholars who will point out that this part of the story didn’t become significant until hundreds of years later. Having witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD (by the Romans) and two failed rebellions, the Rabbis of the day wanted to de-emphasize the notion of might and fighting – which wasn’t working so well. They added the miracle of the oil to the Oral Tradition to shift the focus toward faith in God.
I do not wish to take issue with the veracity of the Chanukah "miracle". It doesn't really concern me or diminish the importance of this holiday. Much of our Christian "traditions" and holidays have no Biblical foundation, yet can be observed in a way that honors God's Word. And as I have grown in my desire to know God's Truth (rather than man's interpretation and embellishment), I find myself shunning the commercialization and myths associated with our own Christmas holiday and choosing a "simpler, more honest" celebration of God's great love in sending His Son into our fallen world.
I know that Yeshua was not born on December 24th, but I can celebrate the fact that He came as an innocent child to bring us salvation. I do not disparage those who choose to enjoy the lights and glitter and displays of the Christmas holiday; I just look upon those displays differently now -- enjoying them, but without assigning them a heavenly significance. My emotional response to the holiday is now centered on the "miracle" of my Savior's birth.
So, too, does the holiday of Chanukah retain it's foundational importance. I can look upon it as historical fact; when everything that Evil could manifest against God's Holy Temple was washed away; when the Temple was rededicated and created anew. I can honor the fact that Chanukah mimics an eight-day celebration just like the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrates when God's presence was with them amidst the Tabernacle in the desert. I can appreciate it being the "Festival of Lights", noting that the tradition of lighting the menorah celebrates the dedication of a group of faithful Jews to restore their faith, and to protect it against the schemes of the world that would compromise it. I can celebrate the victory against Evil that Chanukah represents. Perhaps most importantly, I can celebrate that Chanukah represents religious freedom; to pursue your faith as established by God's holy covenant with all believers. And I can be thankful that God is connecting the dots for me, and opening the doors to greater understanding of His ways. There is much to celebrate ... Happy Chanukah!
Revelation 14:12 "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus."