"Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light."
There are many ideas and narratives surrounding the question "What is Hanukkah?" For example, some people might think that Hanukkah is a Jewish replacement for the Christian’s Christmas - after all, they're usually celebrated around the same time with gifts and merriment. There are many traditions around this 8-day celebration. The lighting of the Hanukkiah, or 8-candle menorah, the eating of oily foods like donuts and latkes, the spinning of a dreidel. Most think about a miraculous story of oil lasting for 8 days in the temple. As with everything, traditions have been developed to teach and enable future generations to relate to their culture and impart a certain set of values. But I'm after the true story of Hanukkah. Let's take a Scriptural approach to learning about this minor holiday.
What Does the Word Hanukkah Mean?
For us to understand the context we must start with the basics. Where is it first mentioned?
When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. (Gen. 14:14)
The English translation uses the word "trained" instead of "dedicated" but the original word here in Hebrew is "chaniyk" which means dedicated. Long before Abram had his promised son, he was teaching and instructing others about the One True G-d. Remember, at this time the nations had already moved away from worshipping their Creator and were immersed in idol worship. Abram knew the importance of being dedicated, or set apart, to the LORD. This same root word is used in Hanukkah, which means Festival of Dedication. What do we celebrate at this Festival of Dedication? The story of the miracle oil doesn’t do justice to explain the truth of what really happened.
Daniel's Prophecy and It's Fulfillment
Our journey takes us long before the actual events of Hanukkah and goes back to the prophet Daniel, who had been carried away to Babylon as a youth, along with the rest of the Israelites. His generation experienced firsthand the consequences of their father’s rebellion against the G-d of Israel. But from the start, Daniel took a stand to not defile himself in this foreign land by eating foods offered to idols. Daniel and his faithful friends refused to assimilate into the pagan culture of Babylon.
It was there in Babylonian captivity that Daniel received a series of prophecies foretelling of times to come. The time was approaching for Jeremiah’s prophecy to be fulfilled, that is, the 70 years of their captivity to come to an end. Daniel was earnestly seeking to understand how the LORD would return his people back to their Promised Land.
In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. (Dan 9:2)
G-d gave Daniel much more than a simple answer to his earnest prayer. G-d provided extraordinary details on future empires that would rise and fall. The prophecies were so exact that many skeptics have questioned whether or not the prophecy was truly given 500 years before some of the events unfolded. But Daniel’s precise revelations were true. He served under numerous Babylonian kings and experienced firsthand the fall of that empire. He served under the Persian-Medes empire when sent to the lion's den. He prophesied about the Maccabean revolt as follows:
Forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate. He shall seduce with flattery those who violate the covenant, but the people who know their G-d shall stand firm and take action. And the wise among the people shall make many understand, though for some days they shall stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder. When they stumble, they shall receive a little help. And many shall join themselves to them with flattery, and some of the wise shall stumble, so that they may be refined, purified, and made white, until the time of the end, for it still awaits the appointed time. (Dan 11:31-35)
After the sudden death of Alexander the Great, his inheritance went to his four generals. It was a divided kingdom, so Seleucid King Antiochus IV planned to subjugate the Jewish people by prohibiting them to circumcise their children or read and follow after the instructions of the Torah. They were forced to sacrifice to other gods and to eat swine as confirmation of their allegiance to the foreign rule. Unfortunately, many Israelites, as the prophecy predicts, aligned themselves with the King and abandoned their faith.
41 Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, 42 and abandon their particular customs. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the king, 43 and many Israelites delighted in his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath.
44 The king sent letters by messenger to Jerusalem and to the cities of Judah, ordering them to follow customs foreign to their land; 45 to prohibit burnt offerings, sacrifices, and libations in the sanctuary, to profane the sabbaths and feast days, 46 to desecrate the sanctuary and the sacred ministers, 47 to build pagan altars and temples and shrines, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, 48 to leave their sons uncircumcised, and to defile themselves with every kind of impurity and abomination; 49 so that they might forget the law and change all its ordinances. 50 Whoever refused to act according to the command of the king was to be put to death. (1 Maccabees 1:41-50)
Disobedience of any kind to the King's commands was deserving of death. If faced in a similar situation, what would you do? Would you subjugate yourself to the commands of the Government and break the commands of G-d? This is a major challenge to a person of faith. Are we willing to live and to die for what we believe in?
Fortunately, and as the prophecy declared, there was also to be a "people who know their G-d, shall stand firm and take action". This group of people stood on what was written in the Torah, not allowing themselves to submit to any higher authority than G-d's. There was a priest, Mattathias, a father of five sons who revolted against this ruling. Representatives of the King came to his town to enforce the law:
19 But Mattathias answered in a loud voice: "Although all the Gentiles in the king's realm obey him, so that they forsake the religion of their ancestors and consent to the king’s orders, 20 yet I and my sons and my kindred will keep to the covenant of our ancestors. 21 Heaven forbid that we should forsake the law and the commandments. 22 We will not obey the words of the king by departing from our religion in the slightest degree." (1 Maccabees 2:19-22)
As Mattathias was dying the following year, he appointed his son Judah, also called Maccabeus, to continue to lead the revolt against the occupying powers. Judah led Israel into great spiritual and military victory. Following their military victory over the King's army, Judah directed his men to Jerusalem to cleanse and restore the Temple and its service to G-d. Thus, Hanukkah was born:
52 They rose early on the morning of the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight,[a] 53 and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar for burnt offerings that they had made. 54 On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had desecrated it, on that very day it was rededicated with songs, harps, lyres, and cymbals. 55 All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success. 56 For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of deliverance and praise…
59 Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, the days of the dedication[a] of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary. (1 Maccabees 4:52-56,59)
As we can see, the Festival of Dedication not only includes the House of G-d (Temple) but also the people of G-d. What brought the people together was their unity around G-d's written Word. It wasn’t their preferences or their cultural expressions but in restoring the service in accordance with what was written. We have a lot to learn from these faithful families of this time period. What traditions of our own cultures have we exchanged for the Truth of G-d's Word?
This Dedication celebration lasted for 8 days that first year, but why 8 days? This is explained in the 2nd Book of Maccabees.
Festival of Lights
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, lasted 8 days because it was celebrated in context of G-d's appointed festival of Sukkot, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. We read here:
5 On the anniversary of the day on which the temple had been profaned by the foreigners, that is, the twenty-fifth of the same month Kislev, the purification of the temple took place. 6 The Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Booths, remembering how, a little while before, they had spent the feast of Booths living like wild animals in the mountains and in caves. 7 Carrying rods entwined with leaves,[a] beautiful branches and palms, they sang hymns of grateful praise to him who had successfully brought about the purification of his own place. (2 Maccabees 10:5-7)
The joy of the appointed time of the LORD was lived out by the Jewish people as they celebrated their rededication to the LORD. Interestingly enough, historical narratives do not include any story of miracle oil. This idea was developed hundreds of years later and recorded in the Rabbinical commentary, the Talmud. Over the centuries, the miraculous oil story was enhanced and, consequently, man-made traditions further sealed this belief with oily foods such as latkes and doughnuts.
Why Should I Care About Hanukkah?
Great question! I know firsthand how hard it is to make this historical event celebration relevant to your faith walk. The History of the Church has systematically removed the Jewish people and G-d's Appointed Feasts far away from the mostly Gentile Church. It is much easier to draw divisions than to understand and be united in our faith.
The phrase "What would Jesus Do?" is often said, yet most believers don't realize that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah with His Jewish disciples as recorded in the Good News account of John:
At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. (John 10:22-24)
Why would John take the opportunity to record this piece of history connecting Jesus to Hanukkah? The story of Hanukkah took place 165 years before Jesus' birth. The Maccabees were under foreign rule and exposed to pagan practice just as Jesus and his Jewish followers were under the Roman Empire. Those brave believers in Judah Maccabee's time chose to trust in the God of Israel, refusing to abandon their faith, and remained steadfast to the promises of God’s Word. They would rather die, and many did die, than lose their identity and follow strange pagan practices. Similarly, Jesus' disciples and many in that 1st-century body of believers were willing to live and to die for what they believed in. Both groups greatly impacted the Kingdom of G-d. Both took a stand against the Enemy of our souls. They chose to take God’s Word at face-value, reminding themselves of the faithfulness of the God of Daniel in the midst of the lion's den, of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when thrown into the fiery furnace, of David and the odds against him when facing the giant, Goliath. During this Hanukkah season, do we have the same kind of faith as our predecessors? If we say we are followers of Christ, we should look to Jesus as our example. Jesus celebrated this miraculous victory because it was a picture of a greater deliverance yet to come. The Greater Maccabee, Jesus, will return to save the remnant of Israel out of the hands of their oppressors, thus fulfilling the promise of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-40). Paul said the following:
For if their (Israel) rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (Rom. 11:15)
We have an obligation to teach the next generation the truths of what is yet to come, and the beautiful mystery Paul speaks of with both Jewish and Gentile believers becoming ONE body. (Eph. 2:11-22) This celebration of Dedication depicts the lives of believers, Jewish and Gentile: set apart, working together and dedicated for the purposes of our LORD and Savior, Jesus!