We are in the midst of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, which is celebrated beginning on the 25th of the Jewish month of Chislev for eight days. This year the Festival, which falls in late November to late December in our calendar, is celebrated from December 1-9. This festival commemorates the victory of the Jewish forces lead by Judah Maccabee and his brothers over the Greco-Syrian army of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple which had been plundered and desecrated by Epiphanes and his soldiers.
A passage from 1 Maccabees speaks of the rededication of the Temple after the horror experienced on so many levels by the Jewish people since 168 B.C.:
Then Judas and his brothers said, "See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven. Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken. Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. (NRSV 4:36-56)
What you do not notice in this passage is the mention of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days miraculously when there was only one day of consecrated olive oil remaining, which is at the heart of the Hanukkah celebrations today. A little more information is given in 2 Maccabees 10:1-6:
Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals (NRSV 10:1-6).
In this passage we note, as in 1 Maccabees, that the celebration lasted eight days and that it began on Chislev 25, the same day of course on which Hanukkah begins today. Neither of these accounts, which are our most ancient historical sources, note the miracle of the oil; this overt notice occurs in later Rabbinic sources (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 2.1). Yet, what is most significant for Jews, and ought to be for Christians also, is the survival and steadfastness of the Jews under persecution for their religious beliefs.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, according to 1 Maccabees 1-2, sought to destroy Judaism so that he might create a sort of “one world order,” in which a syncretistic amalgam of religious beliefs would be held by all. The vast majority of Jews refused and so they were persecuted and attempts made to destroy their religion and the people themselves, including the Temple being desecrated by impure sacrifices, the Torah being burned and even circumcised infants being killed. Unless the Jews responded to this attempt at destruction, they and their religion would be destroyed. The miracle for me as I look at the story historically is that Mattathias and his sons – Mattathias was the father of Judah Maccabee and his brothers who died before the Temple was rededicated– not only had the resolve and willingness to defend their religion, but the ability to defeat a more powerful army with the help of God. This is an important milestone for all monotheistic religions because without the continuation of the Jewish people, the first monotheists, there could have been no Christianity. I celebrate Hanukkah, therefore, not only because I like latkes, which I do very much, but because religion must always be protected and nurtured and there have been forces arrayed against Judaism throughout history, sadly sometimes from the bosom of Christianity, which must always be monitored and against which one must be willing to stand up. Hanukkah represents the light of the truth of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their celebration of freedom from the forces of those who would extinguish that light. Happy Hanukkah! I hope you do not mind if I join in.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens