The Other Hanukkah Story & What It Might Mean To Us Today
by Lonnie Lane
The traditional story of Hanukkah is about rededicating the Temple in 165 B.C.E. after it had been overrun by Antiochus, a pagan king and his troops. Antiochus defiled the temple by turning it into a temple for Zeus and then sacrificing a pig on the altar. As the story goes, the Jewish priests cleansed the temple and wanted to relight the “eternal” lamp. There was only enough oil found for one day, but miraculously, the oil lasted for eight more days until more of the special ritual oil could be produced. Therefore, we light Hanukkah menorahs (lamps) for eight days, one candle per night to commemorate the great miracle that happened there in Jerusalem. Hanukkah, therefore, is seen as a time of “rededication.” Yeshua evidently considered Hanukkah worth a trip to the temple. “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication and it was winter.” (John 10:22). It is also possibly when Yeshua declared, “I am the light of the world…” (John 8:12).
“The Hanukkah story is really one of a family of priests leading an only-God-could-have-done-it victory over an invading Syrian army.”
The Hanukkah story is really one of a family of priests leading an only-God-could-have-done-it victory over an invading Syrian army. The 4,000 ill-equipped Jews were greatly outnumbered by 47,000 well-trained, well-armed Syrian warriors. With faith in their God, they persevered so that, in a greater miracle than the oil, they won back sovereignty over Jerusalem and over their temple. It has been said that the Jews were the first nation to go to war for their God. But unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. It wasn’t a happily ever after ending and the strife with their enemies went on and on. You know the old adage: If we don’t know history, we are bound to repeat it. Well, here’s a piece of history we might want to be aware of today.
The attempts of Israel’s enemies to take over Jerusalem is not a new one. It’s been going on for a very long time. So this wasn’t the first time they had to put things back together in the Temple. They had a much greater challenge upon returning from Babylon some three hundred years before when Zerubbable, Ezra and Nehemiah led the reconstruction of the Temple between 538-430 B.C. They certainly had their difficulties and it took years, but the Jews were back in the land, just as Jeremiah had prophesied: “For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10). The temple was rebuilt and God’s plans were being fulfilled. The culmination of the rebuilding of the Temple was finding the Torah and reading it to all the people. The words had great impact upon them so that once again the word of God was given primary place in the lives of God’s people. Now they would again be a beacon of light for the truth that God had made Israel to be, as they continued to obey His commands. They had learned the lesson well through being deported to Babylon that to stray from God’s Word would mean disaster for them. They were committed to obedience.
This causes me to wonder what God’s adversary, satan, was doing to counter act what could only have been portentous for him. Perhaps he thought that once the Jews were out of the land they would never return, that they would never again be a people of influence for God. Wrong! They were back, according to God’s word. And they were now making changes in their lives to align themselves with God’s word to the point of putting away their foreign wives with their children in order to remain pure unto God. No being “unequally yoked” for them. Though these words wouldn’t be written for many years, the principle still applied: “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14). With the Jews heeding the Word of the Almighty, I can’t imagine satan just letting that go without some counter-plan of his own. So as I look across the globe to see what he might have been up to in order to undermine what God was doing, I find something new emerging in the earth – the golden age of Greek philosophy and culture. If ever there was something to challenge the word of God, it is to get men to think in ways other than God’s ways.
The cultural revolution that took place in Greece, in Athens in particular, was unprecedented. The Greeks put a great emphasis on beauty and value of human beings. Before this, most cultures saw people as weak, and subject to the gods and nature. Aside from the Israelites whose God protected and provided for them and gave them laws that taught them to value every member of their community, just about every other people’s paradigm of life was the they were helpless against the forces that impacted their lives. Their gods were attempts to understand and appease those forces. You can see then, how unique Israel’s God was, making Israel unique among men as well. Not only was their God the Creator and Ruler of the universe, but as both Melchizedek and Abraham identified Him, He is “the LORD God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19, 22). Needless to say, not everyone saw it that way.
I would be doing a disservice to the brilliance of the Classical Greek world if I belittled it. It was truly a superior attaining of virtue and beauty. History has been greatly influenced by the development of the Greek “mind” in which the importance of the individual and a rationalistic spirit were paramount. It is, however, not the way God thinks. Much has been written in recent years about the difference between Greek thinking and Hebrew thinking in our attempt to understand Scripture. I’m sure I could be accused of coming up with something far flung to think that satan was behind the beauty and intellect of Greek Classical culture. But if we consider that the spiritual world is behind all that takes place in the physical or natural world on some level, and if we consider that satan brought about the Fall by influencing Eve to think that God was not enough and that she could become more on her own, why is it unreasonable to think that the same ploy wouldn’t work at a more sophisticated level?
On the whole, what the Greek’s brought to us was the foundation of humanism. The emphasis on human accomplishment is summed up in the statement made by one named Protagoras which carried down to fuel humanism even today. That is the idea that “man is the measure of all things.” This concept would influence world history more than any other military or political achievement. It ultimately says that man is capable of accomplishing all that he wishes and can conceive of and that the rational mind of man will overcome all obstacles. That which man cannot comprehend cannot exist. It is the ground in which atheism is spawned. If we cannot define or rationally explain God, then God must not exist. This is what was being birthed around the time that Israel was restoring their temple and reconnecting with the Word of God and the God who gave them the Word.
Hellenism is the term used meaning to be Greek speaking or to cause one to think like a Greek. While some Jews saw in Hellenism the advancement of Judaism, others recognized that you can’t improve on God and to attempt to do so is rebellion. When Hellenism began to infiltrate Judea, it caused a polarization within the Jewish community. Many Jews were attracted to what appeared to them to be the sophistication and advancement of the ideals of Torah with an emphasis on integrity, intellect and virtue. No faith in God was mentioned, at least surely not Israel’s God. The draw of intellectual and sensual entertainment in the theater where issues of murder and betrayal and yes, reconciliation were portrayed, but again, with no inclusion of God or His ways. Torah-loyal Jews saw all this as a dangerous threat to their relationship with God and therefore their sovereignty in the land. The memories of being carried off to Babylon for turning away from God and His Word remained fresh in their minds.
Eventually the inevitable came to pass as God will not have any rivals. The short story is that Alexander conquered the known world, including Judea, and when he died, the kingdom was divided into thirds and given to his three generals who fought over Judea, which the Romans had named Palestine, the same name as the Philistines (Plishteem) who had once been their enemies. (It is the same name in Hebrew for Palestinians today.) One of the generals was Antiochus, a Selucid from Syria. He desecrated the temple and took over Jerusalem. He had his soldiers carry a statue of Zeus Olympius into the Holy of Holies and demanded the Jews worship it. When they refused, 80,000 Jews were slaughtered. He sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple; he broke down walls and set up a fort in Jerusalem. Baby boys were not permitted to be circumcised and any mothers who had their sons circumcised were killed with their babies tied around their necks.
“They were willing to give their lives for God and the covenant. How many of us would be willing to do that today?”
Many cities of Judah were ordered to sacrifice unclean animals on altars to be built in the cities. This drove the faithful into hiding while others were driven to align themselves with the Greeks. A priest named Mattathias of the Hasmonean family and his five sons left Jersualem to move to Modi’in, a small town within ten miles of Jerusalem. When the Greeks forced the Jews in his town to sacrifice unclean animals, he refused. When one Jewish man agreed and did it Mattathias was furious. He killed him and the Syrian soldier who ordered them to sacrifice. Knowing this would have disastrous results, he fled to the hills with his sons calling out, “Everyone with a zeal to serve God, follow me.” And follow him they did. This began an army which for many years fought for a purified Judea against Hellenism. This small army tore down the idolatrous altars and circumcised the boys and defended the land. It was a dreadful time of violence and a fury of zealousness, all for the Word of God. They were willing to give their lives for God and the covenant. How many of us would be willing to do that today? Do we have that keen sense of the infiltration of “other” ways of thinking into our Biblical mindsets that we are willing to take our stand for God and the the (New) Covenant?
When Mattathias died, his son Judah took over. He became known as the Maccabee (Hebrew: M’cob-ee) which means hammer, as in one blow and it’s done. He and those who fought with him were willing to pay the ultimate price for their right to worship, study, and live as their faith and tradition dictated. Time and again they won over greater armies than they were. Intrigue also went on. Sometimes the leaders of Syria would come and offer to establish treaties with them, promising peace, and the Jews would believe them and then they’d be attacked again by those who pretended to want peace with them. Does that sound familiar? Is this one of those history repeating itself episodes we have going on today, the breaking of peace agreements?
There came a time when the Israelites assembled in Mitzpah, their traditional place to pray. They were battle weary. It had all been going on too long. In sackcloth and ashes they opened the Torah (their enemies had tried to find their gods in the Torah and couldn’t), and brought out priestly garments and offerings and tithes and cried out in a loud voice to God. Judah sent home those newly married or those building houses not yet dedicated to God whom God commanded were to be exempt from battle. They blew the shofars and began fighting. The result was they won the battle while the enemy had 3,000 casualties. In a subsequent battle 60,000 select soldiers and 5,000 horsemen marched into Judea. Judah had 10,000 soldiers. They had no recourse but to turn to God. “When he (Judah) saw their military might, he prayed and said, ‘Blessed are you, O Savior of Israel, who rendered the mighty powerless at the hand of your servant David, and did deliver the Philistine camp into the hands of Jonathan the son of Saul and of his armor bearer. Let this army be surrounded by your people Israel, and let their many soldiers and horsemen becomes confused. Strke them with fear and undermine their confidence in their won strength. Give them fear for their own destruction. Let those who love you overcome them with their swords so that your followers may praise you with hymns” (1 Maccabees 3:30-33).
They won the battle and Judah and his men went up to restore the temple. They chose “blameless priests” to clean the holy places. They took the stones which had been defiled away to an unclean place and brought in new ones to rebuild the artar. They celebrated for eight days on the beginning on the 25th of Chislev. Since Solomon dedicated the Temple for eight days, it was thought it would be wise to do the same. There is actually no mention of the miracle oil for eight days in the books of the Maccabees.
Still the battles went on and on at terrible cost. The Greeks still threatened to put them in servitude. Meanwhile the Romans had trumped the Greeks along with everyone else. Though Rome had captured many nations, making many slaves, if a nation’s leaders were Rome’s friend, they would be treated as friend’s. Judah heard that the Roman Senate was set up to maintain equality, to honor one another and their compatriots. This was before it became a dictatorship under Caesar. They ruled with a quorum of one hundred men, with one man ruling as the head for only a year. They honored those they liked and entered into covenant with them. Judah sent a delegation of two men to befriend the Romans with the hopes that Rome would offer protection for them against the Greeks who continually battled against them. The proposal pleased the Romans who knew of the Israelis military prowess and so they formed a treaty with the Jews. The Romans sent a letter to Greeks saying Don’t touch the Jews or else. This seemed to cause the military threats to cease, but the infiltration of Greek thought still continued to increase.
This treaty opened a door that was not to be to Israel’s advantage. In looking to the Romans for help, they were no longer looking to God. Did this change things from a spiritual standpoint? You bet. Previously always brave anointed-for-battle Judah and his army were suddenly fearful. 1 Maccabees reports: “When they saw the size of the enemy army, they were seized with great fear and many deserted the camp until no more than 800 men remained. Judah saw that his army had diminished and the battle was upon him. He was sad and discouraged” (8:6,7). They entered the battle rather than flee and the result was that Judah was killed and the rest fled. Such was the cost of turning away from God and looking to men for protection. Makes me want to step back in time and shout at them, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,‘ says the LORD of hosts” (Zech.4:6).
After Judah died the wicked surfaced in Israel and a great famine occurred. The ones who fled were those who had forsaken the law and commandments of God and sought a place of refuge with Israel’s enemies. The others remained faithful to God. When Judah died, his brother Jonathan took over. He was given much acclaim and was able to restore much of Jerusalem. When asked how he got so rich, he said, “We just took back what was ours.” His military prowess was honored by Rome and he was given a gold belt only given to Royal born. He was appointed by Rome as the High priest. While He was of the lineage of the priests, this was the first of a Roman appointment of what had become a political position. The high priesthood had ceased to be a righteous man serving God and the people.
After Jonathan, another Hasmonean relative, Jason, paid a great sum for the High priesthood and a license to set up a gymnasium and youth center for the young men of Jerusalem. He forced Greek lifestyle on his countrymen. He obtained permission from Rome to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem and Jewish men endured a procedure that rendered them uncircumcised in order to participate with the pagans as they did, in the nude. This alone was a direct rejection of the covenant with God. He brought in perverse fashions and destroyed the traditions. He sought to introduce all other foreign and pagan ways. The office was now being held by an evil man who lacked every virtue to be a true high priest. The priests neglected the sacrifices and instead took part in unlawful games. They looked down on the values esteemed by their fathers while holding Grecian customs in high regard. But for those whom God has called, to forsake God’s ways does not go unpunished.
Having gained the favor of Rome, it was not long before Jason was made King as well as high priest. For one thing, Israel’s king was to be a descendent of David, from the tribe of Judah. Jason was a Levite. Priests were never called to be king as well. That kind of centralized power is entirely unbiblical. What is taking place here, is that the very Hellenism that Mattathias and his sons initially fought so hard to overcome and gave their lives for, was what his descendents fell prey to. The very reason for giving their lives to preserve Israel was the very thing that now led to Roman domination. If you ever wondered how the Romans got such possession over Israel, this is how. They were invited in. They became allies just when Rome was consolidating her power and expanding her territory. The Alliance with Rome was helpful to the Jews for a few decades but then Rome moved into Palestine and took control in 63 BC.
This is the state of affairs when Yeshua enters the scene. That there were two high priests, Annas and Ciaphas, was a sign something was amiss. The law only called for one man. This father and son in law had Roman sanctioned power; they were selling sacrifices, with money changers as a very lucrative side business. When Yeshua showed up challenging the status quo, and bringing reality back to revealing how the Word of God should be interpreted, and giving evidence that God was real and He was there for them, and calling out, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”(Matthew 4:7), He had to be done away with. There was too much at stake to allow Him to remind the people about God. The Sadducees had most of the power in the temple, being among the elite and Roman-inclined, Annas and Ciaphas included, and were also the most instrumental in having Him crucified by the Romans.
History reveals not just events, but the hearts of men. Sometimes a long string of unfolding circumstances weave together to a crises point. For a nation that has been founded on God to turn from God, they are likely to find themselves losing the power and sovereignty they had, and not winning the wars they once won. They may find their nation divided if they look to another nation with another culture or religion for help in their new weak state. They may even find themselves invaded by the very nation they looked to for help. It would take great courage to take a stand for God under those various circumstances, especially for leaders who might have much to lose…. or much to gain. May God give us godly and wise leaders who will take some lessons from history so that we might not repeat them. May we each have the courage to stand for what we believe is truth and for our God.
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Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.