Why Hanukkah Matters

Large hanukiah in Jerusalem

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins this evening, Tuesday, December 12, and lasts eight days. It commemorates the Jewish victory over the occupying Seleucids in the second century before Yeshua. After the reign of Alexander the Great, his empire was split into four, with the Seleucid Empire encompassing much of Alexander’s near-eastern territories, including Israel. Antiochus Epiphanes was king of the Seleucid Empire from 174-164 BC and sought to consolidate his kingdom through assimilation, by forcing Hellenistic (Greek) culture and religion upon the diverse peoples of his domain, including the Jews.

Antiochus outlawed Judaism, erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem, and defiled the Jewish altar by sacrificing pigs on it. Antiochus’s plan was working as many Jews acquiesced to his assimilation program. Things began to change, however, when a kohen (English: priest) named Mattityahu from the small town of Modi’in sparked a revolt when he killed both a fellow Jew who was willing to comply with the demand to sacrifice to Zeus and the Greek official who issued the demand. Leadership passed to Mattityahu’s son Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, the name also associated with those who joined the rebellion. The revolt soon led to the cleansing of the Temple and the rededication of the altar on the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which coincides with late November/December. Hanukkah means “dedication,” and is a reference to the restoration of the altar.

The most popular feature of the festival is most likely based on legend. It is said that when the Temple was cleansed, there was found only a day’s worth of holy oil for the menorah (the seven-branched lampstand). Apparently it took eight days to make a new batch of oil, but a miracle happened, and the small amount of oil lasted eight days. This is commemorated by the lighting of a special Hanukkah menorah (Hebrew: hanukiah) for eight nights. We also indulge in delicious items fried in oil: latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jellied donuts).

While the oil provides much of the symbol and fun of the festival, the actual miracle is wrapped up in the victory itself, as recounted in the traditional prayer, Al Hanissim which include these words:

You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.

The theme of God’s miraculous deliverance is certainly not unique in Israel’s history. Hanukkah’s recounting of great victory over the Seleucids joins earlier ones over the Egyptians at Passover and Persia at Purim, not to mention all sorts of other sensational victories recorded in Scripture. But at the same time each of these provides different aspects of the outworking of God’s faithfulness toward his ancient covenant people. The rescue from Egypt is about bondage, redemption, and the revelation of his Word. Purim demonstrates the providential work of God against the blind hatred of Israel’s enemies. Hanukkah is about the need to resist the insidious nature of the dominant culture and what a few faithful believers can accomplish if only they would take a stand.

While there is much to learn from everything that God has done for Israel in the past, the lessons of Hanukkah illumine some of today’s greatest challenges. Assimilation forces attempting to eradicate biblical faith will eventually fail. But Yeshua’s triumph over evil will not occur apart from his followers. He pledged to build a community against which the very gates of hell will not prevail (see Matthew 16:18). His kingdom will work through the world just as leaven permeates a clump of dough (Matthew 13:33). And the movement that began small in his day will grow into a gigantic tree (Matthew 13:31-32).

The growth of his everlasting kingdom (Daniel 2:44) was not and will never be dependent on the cultural climate. Yet it requires the tenacity of the Maccabees, willing to take a stand for God’s ways, no matter the cost. Unlike the Maccabees, this is not a military battle (Ephesians 6:12) but a life and death struggle nonetheless. One that will be opposed and criticized; its adherents misunderstood and ostracized (Matthew 10:22). Yet the victory is guaranteed (Revelation 11:15).

The Maccabean victory was not simply another win for God’s people. It was a necessary stand to ensure the ongoing nature of God’s plans and purposes. The divine destiny of Israel and Messiah depended on their sacrifice. Not alone as crucial players in God’s rescue operation of the creation rooted in Abraham, they certainly were true to God’s call on their lives.

May the same be said about us. It is time to stop giving in to the prevailing mood of moral and spiritual decline in our day and allow Yeshua’s kingdom power to be displayed through us. To do that requires, like the Maccabees of old, standing against the current cultural pressures to conform. But more than simply resist, we must also, like the Maccabees, engage the great powers of our day and demonstrate the superior nature of the earth’s true king.