The Profound Connection
Last time, we spoke about Christmas – but also about the profound connection between Hanukkah and Christmas. Even though for many people in the diaspora—both Jews celebrating Hanukkah and Gentiles observing this celebration— Hanukkah seems to be all about dreidels and latkes, the most important thing about Hanukkah is that this is a Festival of Lights (Chag Urim in Hebrew)! The message of Hanukkah is basically the same as the message of Christmas: the Light of God shines in this dark world, and the darkness cannot overcome it!
This connection, between Hanukkah and Christmas, becomes even more obvious if we recall that the story of Hanukkah is preserved in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees – and 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, but we will not go into these details here. The important fact is that the Books of Maccabees survived only 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 John 10:22,23 —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 briefly recall 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. Jewish lifestyle and worship were completely forbidden; observance of Sabbath, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. Antiochus Ephiphanes (Antiochus IV)—the major persecutor of the Jews, whom the Maccabees will oppose—enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews. His 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. 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. After Mattityahu’s death, his son Judas becomes leader. 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?
The Legend and Beyond
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…
4:56 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. First of all, where is the miracle of oil and menorah? Every Jewish child today knows the story of Hanukkah: the Maccabees wanted to light the Temple’s Menorah; they found only a one-day supply of oil that was not defiled; by faith they lit the menorah and miraculously this one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days. This is the miracle of Hanukkah that we celebrate today – but it is not in the text. First Maccabees is the oldest and the only eye-witness account of the story of Hanukkah, and to our great surprise, we don’t find the miracle of oil there. The text only tells us about the military victory and the rededication of the Temple; the dedication does indeed go on for eight days, but there is no explanation why, no single word about the miracle.
From the description in First Maccabees, it is clear that the original celebration was about the military victory and the rededication of the Temple. Even if the miracle of the oil did occur, First (and also Second) Maccabees doesn’t mention it at all. However, the essence of the Hanukkah celebration was changed during the Rabbinic period (we find this explanation in the Babylonian Talmud): instead of celebrating the military success of the Maccabees, the Festival of Hanukkah has become a celebration of the Divine Miracle and the Divine Light. This is Hanukkah as we know it today—the Festival of Lights—Chag Urim.
The Light in the Darkness
One would expect that the recapture and rededication of the Temple would constitute the culmination, the climax of the story – its “happy ending” so to speak. However, the book has sixteen chapters and the rededication of the Temple occurs at the end of chapter 4— so what happens in the rest of the book?
Surprisingly, these 12 chapters are full of military actions—of battles, of victories and defeats. It is not commonly known that the Maccabees did not win their independence with the recapture of the Temple. Antiochus was still their ruler, and Syrian troops still occupied Eretz Yisrael and even most of Jerusalem. The light of the first Hanukkah truly shone in the midst of darkness! That is why Hanukkah is all about light overcoming darkness. Often enough, Hanukkah celebrations begin in full darkness, then the light of a candle – the first Hanukkah candle – pierces the darkness, and then – more candles and more lights! It’s very beautiful and very impressive! One of the central songs sung during Hanukkah is called Banu Choshech Legaresh – “we came to drive away the darkness” – and this is indeed the overwhelming feeling one gets during these celebrations: the Divine Light overcomes even the darkest of darkness! And as we light our Hanukkiah, we identify ourselves with this solemn message! I do hope you will join us in lighting the candles this year. Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration (which makes it, once again, even more prophetic, because of this amazingly profound eighth day – the day “beyond”) therefore you still have time to join in – and become part of the Light that drives away the darkness.
I would like to remind you, dear friends, that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, where you can learn from Parashot Shavua commentaries along with their New Testament interpretation. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information!
Excerpts from my books are included in many posts on this blog, you can get my books from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/ . Also, my last book “Unlocking the Scriptures”, with the Hebrew insights into the Torah and Jewish Background insights into NT, is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11