I believe it is important for Christians to have a general knowledge of and appreciation for Jewish history. We can learn much about God and His character by carefully examining His relationship with the Jews. This is why we should study and be familiar with the Old Testament. Christianity was birthed out of Judaism, and almost all of the saints we read about in the Bible were Jewish - including our Savior Jesus Christ! Many of our Christian doctrines take on a richer, fuller meaning when understood from a Jewish perspective.
This time of year, during the holiday season, many Christians falsely assume that Hanukkah is simply the Jewish rendition of Christmas. However, the Jews as a whole do not believe that Jesus was and is the Messiah. Why then would they memorialize His birth? That doesn’t make much sense. If it isn’t a variation or alternative of Christmas, then what exactly is Hanukkah?
In this morning’s message, we are going to discover the origins of Hanukkah. How did it begin and why is it recognized? We will also briefly consider a passage in the New Testament in which Jesus teaches in the temple during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.
I. THE INTERTESTAMENTAL PERIOD
There is a gap of approximately 400 years between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. We call this the Intertestamental Period. The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah originated during this era. This explains why there is no mention of it in the Old Testament, yet we see it being observed by the Jews in Jerusalem during the earthly ministry of Christ. The festival known as Hanukkah was only a few hundred years old when the Gospels were written.
At the end of the Old Testament, somewhere around 400 BC, the Persian Empire ruled over the remnants of Israel. It was the Persians who had defeated the Babylonians, and subsequently allowed several groups of Jewish exiles to return to their homeland under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah respectively. In 332 BC, the Persians were toppled by Alexander the Great and the land of Israel became subject to Greece. Alexander allowed the Jews to continue their religious practices, but forced them to adopt the Greek language, laws, dress, and other customs. This assimilation was called hellenization and it persisted in the centuries that followed.
Following Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC, the Greek Empire split between its 4 leading generals who dueled fiercely with one another for a piece of the pie. Ptolemy took control of Egypt and annexed the disputed area of Judea/Israel. Meanwhile Seleucus reigned over Syria and the surrounding regions. The Ptolemies maintained dominion over Israel for about 120 years despite ongoing attempts by the Seleucids to take it. Finally, in approximately 200 BC, King Antiochus III of Syria conquered the region and the Seleucids took control.
Up until this point, the Persians, Greeks, and Ptolemies had all allowed the Jews to continue exercising their religious customs and traditions pretty much as they saw fit. This religious freedom came to a sudden end when the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes ascended to the throne. He began severely persecuting the Jews. He outlawed their religious practices and laws, ousted their priests, installed his own priests, and desecrated the temple with pagan worship and unclean animals. In 168 BC, under the king’s order, a pig was sacrificed in the Jewish temple to Greek god Zeus.
This brazen act of defilement was too much. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his 5 sons mounted a rebellion. For several years they engaged in guerilla-warfare against the Seleucids and any sympathetic Jews who were complicit with their pagan practices. When Mattahias died, his son Judas Maccabeus took charge of the resistance. He became known as “the hammer” and is regarded by the Jews as one of the greatest military heroes of all time. When he too died a few years later, his other brothers continued the fight.
In the winter of 165 BC the Maccabees successfully regained control of Jerusalem. They cleansed the temple and held a joyful ceremony to rededicate it. In the years that followed, they gradually drove the Seleucids (Syrians) back until they finally relented and agreed to a peace treaty. In approximately 153 BC the nation of Israel became semi-independent once again under the rule of the Maccabees. This independence continued until 63 BC when Pompey of Rome conquered the entire area. The Romans were still in control of Israel (consisting of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee) when the New Testament began.
II. THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS
The Hebrew word hanukkah means “dedication”. The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates the liberation and rededication of the Jewish temple during the Maccabean Revolt. It begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The exact date changes each year on the Gregorian calendar, but always falls some time in either late November or December. For this reason Hanukkah is often associated with the Christian holiday Christmas.
According to tradition, after the Jews regained control of Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt they decided to rededicate the temple to the LORD. For about 3 years, while the Seleucids dominated the city, the daily sacrifices and other procedures had been halted. This included the continuous burning of lamps in the Holy Place. Under normal circumstances the Jewish priests would tend to these lamps in the morning and evening of each day, trimming the wicks and adding oil as needed to keep them burning.
After they had cleansed the temple by removing all pagan relics and elements that had been placed there, they began this rededication ceremony. They reinstituted the daily sacrifices, the burning of incense, and so forth. When the time came to relight the lampstand, the Jews ran into a problem. All of the temple oil had been polluted or defiled except for 1 small jar. It was only enough to last a day or so, and it would take about a week to prepare more oil suitable for temple use. Nevertheless, the Jews relit the lamps. Miraculously, the lamps continued burning despite the small amount of oil for 8 days until a new supply was prepared.
In recognition of this miracle, the celebration of Hanukkah lasts 8 days. On this holiday the Jews use a special menorah that has 9 branches, 4 on each side and 1 in the middle. The middle branch is typically offset (either higher or lower than the others) and burns continuously. It is used to light the other branches, adding one each day until the observance is over. Jewish families place these menorahs in their windows to be seen. For this reason, Hanukkah is also referred to as “The Festival of Lights”.
III. HANUKKAH IN THE BIBLE
The apostle John describes an instance during Jesus’ earthly ministry that took place during the Hanukkah season. It was winter time and the Jews were holding “The Feast of the Dedication”, which is another name for Hanukkah. Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time, and was walking in Solomon’s Portico just outside of the main temple area. His presence there seems to suggest that Jesus recognized and observed the Jewish holiday, just as He did several others including Passover, Pentecost, and the Day of Atonement.
While Jesus was there, some Jews approached Him and demanded to know if He was the Christ. Jesus asserted His deity and chastised them for their continued disbelief. He taught that His sheep know His voice and follow Him, and that they cannot be snatched from His Father’s hand. However, these doubting Jews were not of His sheep and wouldn’t believe Him despite the convincing testimony of His good works. The infuriated Jews sought to seize Him and stone Him, but Jesus escaped their grasp and retreated to the countryside near the Jordan River. Many people came to Him there and believed.
Although Hanukkah is not commanded in the Mosaic Law and is not considered a major Jewish holiday, it is still one of their most well-known celebrations because of its association with Christmas. As we have seen in today’s message, Hanukkah has nothing to do with the baby Jesus, the manger, the angels, or the shepherds. Rather, it commemorates a great military victory and highlights an amazing miracle that took place.
During the intertestamental period God sent no new revelation to the world through the prophets. He was disgusted with His people and their religious behaviors. Yet, even during this time of silence the LORD lovingly watched over His children and delivered them from the oppression of the Seleucids. To me, Hanukkah represents God’s faithfulness to us even during those times when we can’t hear His voice.