Last year, Christmas and Hanukkah fell on the same day and therefore we didn’t have a chance to discuss Hanukkah at length and separately: last year, my Hanukkah post on this blog was called “Hanukkah reflections for Christmas” (https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/hanukkah-reflections-christmas/ ). This year, Hanukkah starts almost two weeks earlier (December 12th), so will discuss, in a couple separate articles, the profound meaning of this special festival.
Jesus and Hanukkah
First of all, how do we know it’s important? How do we know God wants us to celebrate it? Hanukkah is not mentioned in Leviticus 23, where all the biblical feasts are described and their observance commanded. So why would we celebrate it?
We read in the Gospel of John: And it was at Jerusalem the Feast of the Dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. By now, I expect most of my readers know that, by Feast of the Dedication, John means Hanukkah. In English we don’t see any connection between these words, but in Hebrew, the connection is clear: the Hebrew word חֲנוּכָּה, Hanukkah, can be translated as “inauguration, dedication, consecration.” Hanukkat Bait, which translates as a “house-warming party,” is a very popular expression in Hebrew.
The Feast of Hanukkah commemorates the dedication (or rededication) of the Temple by the Maccabees. Jesus walked into the same Temple that had been miraculously rededicated by the Maccabees just a few generations earlier. Who were these Maccabees, and how do we know the story?
The Books of Maccabees
The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. Surprisingly, these books are not part of the Tanach, so we don’t have the story of Hanukkah in the Hebrew Bible. There are several theories explaining this strange omission: some are based on the dating of these texts, some are based on their language, and some are based on the political realities of Second Temple Jewish society. (We will not go into these details here.) The important fact is that the Books of Maccabees survived because, through the Septuagint, they became part of the original Christian canon, both Catholic and Orthodox – otherwise they would have been lost over the centuries. However, even those Christian bibles that don’t include Maccabees (Protestant bibles), still have a clear reference to Hanukkah in the New Testament, in the verse from John quoted above, unlike the Hebrew Bible, which doesn’t mention it at all. All in all, it seems important in God’s eyes that Hanukkah does appear in Christian scriptures and that Christian readers do know about Hanukkah. Why?
Before we answer this question (and in order to answer it), let us recall briefly the story of Hanukkah as First Maccabees tells it. The Feast commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire. The revolt happened in the 2nd century BCE when the Jewish people were living under the oppression of the ruling dynasty of the Seleucids and Hellenistic pagan practices. Chapter 1 introduces Antiochus Ephiphanes (Antiochus IV)—the major persecutor of the Jews, whom the Maccabees will oppose.
1:10 From them came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus;
1:14 So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, 1:15 and removed the marks of circumcision,
Let’s pause here for a moment. Starting from the solemn commandment that God gave to Abraham: “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised”, Jewish boys have always been circumcised. However, in Hellenistic (and later Roman) society, which practiced public nakedness, circumcision became a great challenge for those who wanted to become part of this society, and was an obstacle for their social advancement. That is why some Jews underwent a surgical procedure known as epispasm—an operation that “reversed” circumcision. “From references and allusions to the procedure in classical and rabbinical literature, it appears that epispasm reached its peak of popularity in the first century C.E.” (If this is correct, it definitely sheds new light on the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians: Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised.”) We can understand how bad this was in the eyes of God, and God’s people, when we read a sentence from the Jewish ethical tractate Pirkei Avot: “The one who voids the covenant of Abraham has no portion in the world to come.”
The book then goes on to speak about the hardships of the Jews under the Seleucids. Antiochus Epiphanes required full assimilation: everything was to conform to the Greek way of life. In 164 BCE Antiochus had even desecrated the Temple – the altars, the utensils, and the golden Menorah, were all defiled.
1:21 He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils…, in order to defile the sanctuary and the priests.
Jewish lifestyle and Jewish worship were completely forbidden; observance of Sabbath, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death, and Antiochus enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews.
1:60 According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, 1: 61 and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.
Antiochus’s men went from town to town and from village to village to force the inhabitants to worship pagan gods. One day they arrived in the village of Modein where an old priest, Mattityahu, lived (priest of Modein and father of the five Maccabee brothers: Johanan, Judas (the main warrior), Simon, Eleazar and Jonathan. Thus, in Chapter 2, the story begins with Antiochus’s men building an altar and demanding that Mattityahu offer sacrifice to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replies:
2:22 “We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”
After that, Mattityahu left the village of Modein and fled, together with his sons, to the hills of Judea, and many loyal and courageous Jews joined them. Thus, the uprising began. At the end of Chapter 2, Mattityahu dies.
In Chapter 3, after Mattityahu’s death, his son Judas becomes leader.
3:1 Then his son Judas, who was called Maccabeus, took command in his place.
Judas was called “Maccabee” (Hammer) – a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem, “Who is like You, O God?” Therefore, the revolt is called the Maccabean Revolt. Realistically, the Maccabees had absolutely no chance of winning. The Syrian army consisted of more than 40,000 men – it was another David vs. Goliath scenario – but, as in the story of David, God performed a miracle and after a series of battles the Maccabees miraculously recaptured the Temple. What did they find there?
4:38 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.
4:39 Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes.
They set about cleansing and restoring the Temple, and finally they rededicated it—which is what we celebrate every Hanukkah:
4:52 On the twenty-fifth of the ninth month, Chislev… they rose at dawn
4:53 and offered a lawful sacrifice on the new altar of burnt offering which they had made.
4:54 The altar was dedicated… on the same day on which the gentiles had originally profaned it.
4:55 The whole people fell prostrate in adoration and then praised Heaven who had granted them success.
4:56 For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar, joyfully offering burnt offerings, communion and thanksgiving sacrifices.
In memory of this celebration, Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration, was established. However, there are some intriguing and often overlooked details connected to this description: next time, we will dig deeper in order to understand the prophetic significance of this Festival of Lights (Chag Urim in Hebrew).
CHAG URIM SAMEACH!
HAPPY HANUKKAH TO ALL MY WONDERFUL READERS!
 Hall RG. Epispasm: Circumcision in Reverse. Bible Review 1992; August: 52-7.
 1 Cor. 7:18
 Pirkei Avot, 3:16