CHANUKAH, THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
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!
Chanukah and Redemption Light
by Mark Robinson
The glow of the light from the Temple Menorah, piercing through the windows of the Temple, illuminated the court-yard of the Temple area. The crowds mingling in the courtyard this winter day were reminded by the menorah light of the ever present reality of the God of Israel. The light was a physical brilliance that all could see, but, perhaps more importantly, a reminder of the spiritual truth that God is present.
Tensions were high in Jerusalem and the surrounding environs. The Seleucid Empire was now controlled by Antiochus Epiphanies and he was intent on bringing Jerusalem and Israel, as well as its Jewish citizens, into Greek culture and its world.
Many of the Jewish citizens of Israel had already capitulated to the Hellenization process. They enjoyed the “enlightened” Greek ways and the abandonment of the restrictive practices of Judaism. Others, the religiously committed, were aghast at what was taking place in their Holy City of Jerusalem.
Suddenly, Antiochus’ soldiers, upon his orders, entered the Temple. The light of the Menorah was extinguished, a pig was offered on the holy altar to the Greek god Zeus. Pandemonium resulted. People scattered everywhere. This act of defiance against, ultimately, the God of Israel was swift, profound, and challenging. Worship the Greek gods, or perish!
Uniqueness of the Temple Menorah
The extinguishing of the Menorah light cast the people of Israel into more than just a physical darkness in the Temple area. All that was holy, all that was sacred, all that was Jehovah’s was now engulfed in the spiritual darkness of pagan idolatry. It was as if the god of this world was declaring his triumph and the God of Israel’s demise.
The ultra-orthodox today understand the special place of the Temple and the Menorah light. The menorah can be seen as occupying the most central role of all the sacred vessels, for it is the symbol of light – and the sages refer to Jerusalem as “the light of the world” (B’reishith Rabbah 59). One reason for this is the light of the Menorah, bursting forth from within the sanctuary. For the menorah’s light was a spiritual, as well as physical, illumination. Thus the sages teach that the windows in the walls of the sanctuary were constructed differently than any other windows in the world. These were just the opposite of ordinary windows, for what is the normally considered the function of windows? To let the light in. But these windows were in order to let the light out – to disseminate the spiritual light emanating from the Temple menorah out into the world. The Sanctuary’s windows allowed the special ethereal light coming forth from the menorah to burst out to the world from within the hallowed hall.
Many saw the Temple as an old relic. It was seen as quaint and historic, but out of touch with the age of enlightenment that had come to Israel through the Greeks. Times have not changed much through the years. People today consider themselves enlightened, progressive, and certainly not in need of ancient religious rituals and practices that are too archaic for our 21st century world. How wrong they are. The holiday of Chanukah reminds us how our world is still in need of the light of redemption.
Lighting of the Menorah
The celebration of Chanukah revolves around the lighting of the menorah, properly called chanukia. For eight nights, mom, dad, and children gather around the chanukia for the lighting of the candle(s). The shamash, servant, candle is lit and then, on the first night, starting from the right, one candle is lit. On the second night, two candles are lit. This is continued until the final night, when eight candles are lit. The story of Chanukah is shared, reminding the listeners of the faithfulness of the God of Israel in providing deliverance for His people.
The story of Chanukah shares how the brave Hasmonean family, Mattathias and his five sons, stood against great odds to resist the evil of the day and defend the honor of their God. When Antiochus’ men extinguished the flame of the Temple Menorah and desecrated the altar and Temple, most of the people had little change in their daily activities. Not so for the Maccabees, as Mattathias’ family became known, as they were convinced that someone needed to stand up for God.
When the battle for Jerusalem was won, and the victorious Jewish followers of Jehovah returned to the Temple, the desecration was heart-rending. Immediately, they started cleaning the Temple to get it ready for use. One problem confronted the lighting of the Menorah. It took seven days to consecrate oil for use in the burning of the Menorah. All that could be found was one cruse of oil which would last one day.
The Levitical priests immediately prepared oil for the burning of the Menorah. They took the one consecrated cruse of oil and lit the Menorah. Miraculously, this one day supply of oil lasted for eight days. God extended the burning of the one day supply until further oil was consecrated. Chanukah celebrates the miracle of God bringing light back to the Temple.
A recurring theme through the Scriptures is the contrast of light and darkness. In the very beginning of creation God separates light and darkness (Genesis 1:1-4). We are pointedly told that light is good. What is unsaid, but certainly inferred, is that darkness is bad.
We are told that “…God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Additionally, we are told in Psalm 27:1, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
When the eternal kingdom (heaven) is established we are told, “And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there (Revelation 21:23-25).
Many other scripture passages could be addressed that teach the same basic truth. Light is good. Darkness is bad. God is the ultimate light that all in this world need.
The picture of mankind is that we are in spiritual darkness. Our sins have brought this condition upon ourselves, and we have no remedy for our condition. Of all the prophets, Isaiah paints the most vivid pictures of man’s spiritual darkness. In chapter 59:2 we are told, “our iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.”
This is man’s basic problem. We have sinned and are separated from God. Later in this chapter we are presented a striking portrait of actually how blind we are because of our sin. “Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men” (Isaiah 59:9-10).
Light of Redemption
In revealing man’s darkness and need for light, the Scriptures don’t leave us hopeless. The promise of redemptive light to Jew and Gentile alike shines forth in both Old and New Testament.
Again, Isaiah, now giving us hope, says, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:1-3). Darkness may surround us, but the Lord, and His light, is available.
Jesus came into a world engulfed in spiritual darkness. Blinded by religion, self-righteousness, pride, and a host of other besetting sins, people don’t see their need, nor God’s provision. Jesus made it clear that there is no way out of the darkness except through Him. “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Jesus is the only way out of the darkness, and into the light. “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46).
Light or Darkness?
The light of the Temple Menorah, the lighting of the Chanukiah candles, and the darkness of this world call us to choose. God has always graciously held out his arms of love to us. He has asked us to choose. When Elijah confronted the darkness of the prophets of Baal with the light of the God of Israel, a choice was offered. “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” is God’s plea in Isaiah 45:22. And in Romans 10:13 the offer is, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The servant of God has brought light into this world. The people have “seen a great light” and “upon them the light hath shined” is not only the prophet Isaiah’s refrain (Isaiah 9:1-2), but the teaching of Matthew in the fourth chapter of his book. The coming of Jesus is the basic provision for us, so we might be delivered from darkness and brought into God’s light.
The choice is simple. Light, or darkness? Jesus, or not? What is your choice?
 The Temple Institute website: http://www.templeinstitute.org/menorah.htm