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By Ken Symes
The Old Testament era closed with the writing of the prophet Malachi in about 430 B.C. From Malachi to the advent of Jesus in 4 B.C., there were about four hundred "silent" years where there is little record of God’s activities among the Jewish people. After the return of the remnant from the Babylonian captivity, the Temple was rebuilt in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. By the time that Malachi wrote, abuses in the Temple operation and among the priesthood had again developed. According to Josephus, the Old Testament Canon was completed by 424 B.C. during the reign of Artaxerxes I Longimanus. Persia was the dominant world power and continued to be so for at least another one hundred years. The Persian Empire was followed by the Grecian Empire and the rule of Alexander the Great. With Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E. his kingdom was cut up into four sections governed by four of his generals. The two eastern sections included Syria, which went to Seleucus, and Egypt which went to Ptolemy. The land between the two, Israel, first went to Syria, but by 301 B.C. had passed to Egypt. Under the Ptolemies the Jews were well treated, living at peace. Under Ptolemy II, the Jews began translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint). This was done in Alexandria where there were many Greek speaking Jews. This is the version that was in common use in the first century A.D.
During this period much effort was being put forth by the Greeks to Hellenize the then known world. Yet, Jewish worship and Jewish life resisted those efforts and remained essentially free from the Hellenistic influences. From the time of the death of Alexander the Great to the rise of Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), the Jewish people experienced a growing prosperity caused essentially by the trade between Egypt and the countries to the north of Israel.
During this time fourteen books called the Apocrypha were written. They were apocalyptic in nature and included much fantasy related to so-called visions of some well known Old Testament personages. There were other books written during this period also. The major theme of these books was the coming of the Messiah. The sufferings of the Jews in the Maccabean period only strengthened the belief that Messiah’s coming was at hand. The problem created by these writings was the longing expectation for a military and political deliverer who would bring to the Jews freedom and independence from foreign rulers, rather than a true understanding of the Messianic prophecies relating to the Messiah given by their own prophets.
Antiochus Epiphanes Comes to Power
The ensuing years were characterized by almost constant war between the Seleucids and the Ptolomies as each sought to control the other. In 275 B.C. Ptolemy II attacked Syria. But it did not go well and he was forced to retreat. A peace treaty was not concluded until 252 B.C. when Bernice, the daughter of Ptolemy II, married Antiochus II. Most Bible scholars today agree that this union was prophesied in Daniel 11: 6 and that Daniel’s vision recorded in Daniel 11: 2-45 correctly prophesied the historical events from this period.
Antiochus Epiphanes, the eighth Seleucid ruler, reigned in Syria from 175 to 164 B.C. We do not know why he hated the Jews. But he held an intense bitterness against them. The ongoing conflict between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies set the stage for Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) to move south from Syria through Israel in another attempt to conquer the Ptolomies.
In 168 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria was at war with Egypt. His armies had moved south through Israel to engage the Egyptians. Israel already was subservient to Syria, the dominant power in the Middle East at that time. However, Rome was beginning its rise to power in the area and pressured Syria to disengage from the battle while Antiochus was fighting with Egypt. Antiochus disengaged from the war with Egypt and withdrew north back to Syria. Already violently bitter against the Jews, and angered by this action on the part of Rome as he withdrew back through Israel, Antiochus Epiphanes took out his fury on the Jews, destroying much of the city of Jerusalem and slaughtering hundreds of men, women and children. In the process of his retreat, he also went to the Jewish Temple where he plundered it and slaughtered and sacrificed a sow to Zeus on the Holy Altar, desecrating it.
Many have made the connection of this event to the prophecy of Daniel found in Daniel 9: 27 and 12:11. Further, he built an altar to Jupiter. These two acts defiled the Temple. Antiochus then sought to force the Jews to abandon Judaism and adopt the worship of the Greek pantheon of gods. The practice of any Jewish religious observance was considered a political offence and thus punishable by death. This applied specifically to the observance of the Sabbath and other holy festivals. All of this was part of the process to Hellenize the Jews. Antiochus appointed Appolonius to accomplish it. The Temple sacrifices were prohibited and he also banned the rite of circumcision. Many of the Jews fled into hiding. Others cravenly complied.
Though the high priest and other major religious leaders complied with Antiochus’ orders, there was a group of faithful people who refused to obey setting the stage for a rebellion. It began in the little town of Modin, located to the north-west of Jerusalem. A Syrian official appeared and forced the people to erect an altar. He then forced a Jewish priest to offer a sacrifice to the Greek gods on the newly erected altar.
Mattathias the Maccabee, head of the priestly Hasmonean family, was faithful to the Lord.
Mattathias and his five sons attacked and killed the Syrian official and the priest who was complying with the demand of the Syrian official. They then fled to the eastern slopes of the hill country of Judea where many rebels flocked to them. This was the beginning of a war that lasted about three years.
The army, under the leadership of Mattathias, began to destroy the altars established by the Hellenists, killing the Jews who were cooperating with the Hellenists, and once again began circumcising all Jewish children who had not yet been circumcised. Mattathias died in 166 B.C. One of his sons, Judas, continued the battle against the Syrians and Hellenism. They were so successful that Antiochus sent Lysias to negotiate for peace. Another factor in this move was Syria’s ongoing conflict with Rome which was not going well for Syria.
By 165 B.C. the faithful Jews negotiated a peace with the Syrians, giving Israel control of its own destiny for a time. The peace agreement promised a complete pardon to the rebels. It also allowed the Jews to once again fully observe their religious practices. This was a major defeat for Antiochus IV and for Menelaus, the Jewish High Priest. Judas expelled the High Priest and all other religious leaders who had participated in the Hellenizing process. He also set about to remove the desecrated stones of the defiled altar, rebuild it, and to cleanse and rededicate the Temple to the one true God.
When they went to re-light the Menorah (the perpetual light), they could find only one jar of consecrated oil, enough to burn for only one day. Yet, according to tradition, it lasted eight days, long enough to press and consecrate new oil to keep the light burning. This is the historical foundation for Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication (cf. John 10: 22).
The God of Miracles
The holiday of Chanukah is firmly rooted in the history of this period. It is the celebration of an historical Divine deliverance from the oppression of the Syrians (the Seleucids) in the second century B.C. Chanukah falls on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. This is the ninth month of the year on the Jewish calendar. It generally falls in December on the Julian calendar. Thus, Chanukah is not a biblically mandated holiday. It is the celebration of an incident in the history of the Jews into which God inserted a miracle.
This is so like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! It was Abraham’s God who gave Sarah the capability to bear a child many years beyond her childbearing time. It was the same God who provided Abraham a ram to be offered and killed in the place of Isaac. It was the same God who gave Israel a great military victory at Jericho without "firing a shot." And, it was this God who promised that Israel’s ultimate deliverer, her Messiah, would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
Why is it so difficult for some people to believe that God gave a Jewish young woman, a virgin who was betrothed but not married, a child without the normal process of relations with a man? Did not the same God promise that the "seed" of a woman would bruise the head of the serpent (Satan) (Genesis 3:14,15)?
It was the God of Israel who allowed that perfect child, one without sin, in perfect willing obedience, after He had grown to manhood, to be crucified as a vicarious sacrifice for the sin of all mankind. And it was that same God who resurrected the Messiah on the third day as full and final proof that Jesus, Yeshua, was who He said He was: God’s only Son, Israel’s true Messiah, the Saviour of the world!
To celebrate Chanukah is to embrace the miracle. May we embrace also the God of miracles and receive by faith His Son, Israel’s true Messiah!
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