What is it? Where is it in the Bible? How does it relate to Christianity?
Christians observe December 25 as a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Jews also have a celebration during the same time period that commemorates God’s deliverance of them from a period of terrible oppression 165 years before the birth of Jesus.
This feast or celebration is called Hanukkah, a Hebrew word that means dedication. Accordingly, in the Gospel of John it is called “The Feast of Dedication” (John 10:22-23). And, for reasons that will become apparent, it is also referred to as “The Feast of Lights.”
An Extra-Biblical Feast
Unlike the seven major feasts which God commanded the Jews to observe annually (Leviticus 23), Hanukkah is not found in the Tenach (the Old Testament). The feast is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures because it is the result of events that took place in what is called “the inter-testamental period,” that being the 400 years between the Old Covenant writings and those that came to constitute the New Covenant.
The feast does appear in historic writings that are referred to as “the Apocrypha” (non-inspired). The specific books are First and Second Maccabees. These writings, although not inspired of God, do contain true historical facts which reveal to us the events and people of this unique time period. The Talmud (the written Rabbinic tradition) contains only a few brief statements about Hanukkah, but as we shall see, what it says is very important.
The Central Figure
One of the main characters in the Hanukkah story is a man by the name Antiochus IV, a Syrian king who had Greek blood flowing in his veins. Deluded by vanity, he considered himself to be divine and demanded that he be addressed as Antiochus Epiphanes (meaning “Antiochus the Visible God”). Greeks had no difficulty with this because their religion was pantheistic in nature, and one more god was no problem.
But it was a different situation with the Jews who were monotheists. They were outraged by Antiochus’ claim of deity, so they gave him a derogatory title that was a play on words. They called him Antiochus Epimanes, which meant “Antiochus the Madman.”
These were troubled times for the Jews. They were under this madman’s jurisdiction and suffered greatly from his edicts. Antiochus sought to completely Hellenize the Jews — that is, he tried to impose Greek culture upon them. He forbid them to practice their religion or their culture. The Jews were not allowed to circumcise their new born sons nor were they allowed to observe the Sabbath.
He placed a statue of Zeus, the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon, in the Temple in Jerusalem and then demanded that a similar statue be erected in every Jewish town and village. He also demanded that each town build an altar on which to sacrifice swine. Not surprisingly, the statue of Zeus had a face that looked like Antiochus. His desecration of the Temple provoked a national outrage.
The Maccabean Revolt
With this background the story of Hanukkah begins in a small Jewish village called Modi’in, located near the site of Ben Gurion Airport today, just outside of Tel Aviv. Syrian soldiers were sent to the village to test the people’s loyalty to Antiochus. The soldiers gathered the villagers, together with their priests, and ordered them to sacrifice a pig on an altar to Zeus. An elderly priest by the name of Mattathias refused. But a turncoat Jewish priest offered to comply with the order.
At this point, Mattathias was seized by a holy rage. Taking a sword, this elderly priest killed the traitor and then turned on the commanding officer. Following their father’s lead, Mattathias’ sons joined him. They drew weapons and killed all the soldiers present.
The first blow of armed Jewish revolt against Antiochus had been struck. The elderly priest Mattathias, who unwittingly became the revolts leader, guided his ever growing rag-tag army in a series of night time guerrilla warfare skirmishes. However, his old age and the rigors of war caused his health to fail. Mattathias died about a year after the revolt started. Before he died he passed his leadership on to his son Judah.
Judah the “Hammer”
Judah quickly exhibited his skill as a military tactician and earned the title “Maccabee,” a name derived from the Hebrew word for “hammer.” During the next three years, while living in caves, the Maccabees, as they became known, gradually wore down the might and the will of the Syrian army. They were especially effective with their night time search and destroy missions. They became experts in guerilla warfare.
With their confidence affirmed in the God of Israel, this now formidable Jewish military unit decided to take on their enemy in traditional open combat. In the process, they dealt the Syrian army two crushing “hammer blows” at Beth Haron and Emmaus. These victories gave the Jews access to Jerusalem, and they once again found themselves in control of the holy Temple Mount.
The Maccabees were horrified by what they found in the Temple. The Syrians had set up an idol of Zeus and had defiled the altar by sacrificing swine on it. The Temple was in much disrepair and in need of ritual cleansing. This was done quickly. They tore down the existing altar and erected a new one. They rededicated it on Chislev 25, in the year 165 BC. This was exactly three years to the day after it was first desecrated by the Syrians.
The Hanukkah Tradition
At the time of this dedication, a miracle occurred that became the basis of the Hanukkah tradition. According to the traditional story, when the Maccabees filled the Temple lamps with oil, they only had enough for one day’s time. It would take eight days to secure more of the oil that had to be specially prepared. Miraculously, the one day supply of oil lasted the entire eight days.
This miracle of the lights is not recorded in the books of the Maccabees. It appears only in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b). Since the Talmud consists of oral traditions and was compiled long after the events, many Jewish scholars believe the story of the mirace of the oil was made up after the fact. They believe this was done to stir up a sense of nationalistic pride.
Here’s how the story reads in 2 Maccabees 10:1-8 (The Jerusalem Bible):
“Maccabaeus and his companions, under the Lord’s guidance, restored the Temple and the city, and pulled down the altars erected by the foreigners… They purified the sanctuary and built another altar; then striking fire from flints and using this fire, they offered the first sacrifice for two years, burning incense, lighting the lamps and setting out the loaves.
When they had done this they threw themselves flat on the ground and implored the Lord never again to let them fall into such adversity…
This day of purification of the Temple fell on the very day on which the Temple had been profaned by the foreigners, the twenty-fifth of the same month, Chislev. They kept eight festal days with rejoicing, in the man-ner of the feast of Tabernacles…Then, carrying branches, leafy boughs and palms, they offered hymns to Him who had brought the cleansing of His own Holy Place to a happy outcome. They also decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate those same days every year.”
Hanukkah in New Testament Times
Hanukkah is mentioned specifically in the New Testament in John 10 — “At that time [when Jesus was in Jerusalem] the Feast of Dedication took place… it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple…” (John 10:22-23).
It’s interesting that the Jewish people were celebrating their liberation from the oppression of Antiochus while they were still under the oppression of the Romans. They were looking for a Messiah — another Mattathias — to deliver them from Roman rule. This is why they asked Jesus,“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).
Jesus used the opportunity of this question to clearly assert that He was the long awaited Messiah. “I and the Father are one,” He declared (John 10:30). But that was not the answer they were looking for, so they “took up stones again to stone Him” (John 10:31). They wanted a military deliverer, not a spiritual one.
Since the Jewish people use a lunar-solar calendar un-like the purely solar calendar which the Western world uses, the dates of Hanukkah vary from year to year, ranging from late November to late December. This year Hanukkah will be observed from December 24th through the 31st.
Hanukkah is a time of joy and celebration for being delivered from oppression, so the feast is celebrated with games, singing, and plenty of food. Traditionally some of the food is fried in oil to symbolize the miracle of the oil. Two favorites are potato pancakes called Latkes and jelly filled sugar donuts called Sufganiyot.
As you shop for Christmas decorations this year, you will probably find a small section containing Hanukkah decorations and cards. There you will see a nine candle Menorah or lampstand. In Hebrew it is called a “hanukkiyah.” There should also be some old fashioned four-sided spinning tops called “dreidels” that the Jewish children play with. You may even see coins called “get” in Yiddish that are chocolate with gold foil covering them. They are used when playing the dredge game.
The Hanukkah Menorah
The menorah or lampstand used during the celebration of Hanukkah is different from the regular seven branch menorah that serves as the official symbol of the modern state of Israel. The Hanukkah menorah has nine branches for candles to symbolize the eight days that the Temple lamps burned on a one day supply of oil. The ninth candle usually stands taller or apart from the rest and is always lit first. After lighting this candle, which is called the Shammash (meaning “the servant candle), it is used to light the rest of the candles.
The same lighting sequence is followed all over the world in Jewish homes. On day one, the Shammash is lit, and it is then used to light one candle, starting from the left. Each day thereafter, the Shammash is used to light an additional candle until all eight are lit on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah. Every time the candles are lit, the following traditional blessings are said over them:
“Blessed art Thou our God, King of the Universe, Who has given us life, and Who sustains us and has privileged us to reach this season.
Blessed art Thou our God, King of the Universe, Who hallows us by Thy commandments and allows us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.
Blessed art Thou our God, King of the Uni-verse, Who worked miracles for our fathers of old during this season.”
Following the recitation of these blessings, the family will sing a song called “Maoz Tzur” which refers to God as “Israel’s Mighty Rock.” It is the Jewish version of “Rock of Ages.”
The Spiritual Significance
Hanukkah traditions may vary some in different parts of the world but the spiritual focus is on deliverance and dedication. Sadly, in Israel the majority of Jews don’t believe in God. The 20% who are Orthodox, Conservative or Reformed observe the holiday. Some non-believers do it as a cultural thing, but it has no spiritual effect on them. World-wide, religious Jews are still waiting for their Messiah. Hanukkah is thus a bittersweet celebration because the Jews are still looking for their persecution to cease.
Spiritually, Hanukkah is significant in another way, for it is a reminder that the Bible prophesies that another terrible period of suffering lies ahead for the Jewish people. It will be a time of persecution like the one that produced the feast of Hanukkah.
For you see, Antiochus is a prophetic type of the Antichrist who is to come. Like Antiochus, the Antichrist will profane the Jewish Temple yet to be built (Daniel 9:27). He will seat himself in the Temple and declare himself to be god (2 Thessalonians 2:4). He will then launch an unparalleled persecution of the Jewish people (Revelation 12:13-17) that will ultimately result in two thirds of them being destroyed (Zechariah 13:8).
But, praise God, the remaining third will come to the end of themselves and turn to God and proclaim His Son to be “Yeshua Ha Mashiach” — Jesus the Messiah (Zechariah 12:10). When that happens, Jesus will return, fulfilling His prophecy, “I say to you [the Jews] from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'” (Matthew 23:39).
In these end time days, the Lord has already started moving in a mighty way on Jewish hearts. In 1967 when the Jews reconquered the city of Jerusalem for the first time since the days of Jesus, there was not a single Messianic Jewish congregation on planet earth. Today, there are more than 350 worldwide, with over 50 in Israel. More than 200,000 Jews in America today profess to believe in Jesus as Messiah.
This year during Hanukkah, take time to pray for your Jewish friends and neighbors. Pray that they will come to know Yeshua as their Messiah. Pray that as they light their Hanukkah candles, their hearts will be opened to Yeshua as the light of the world. And express your love and concern for them by sending them a Hanukkah card.
Hanukkah for Gentile Believers
And what about those of us who are Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah? Does Hanukkah have any meaning for us? I think so.
For one thing, the story of Hanukkah should remind us that God has called His modern day people, the Church, to be separate and apart from the world (1 Peter 2:9). Just as the Maccabees resisted the attempt of Antiochus to destroy their cultural and religious heritage, we must stand firm against the modern day pressures for us to conform to the pagan standards of the world. We must be in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16). We must stand against the subtle pressures to assimilate ourselves to “modern ways.”
Second, the feast of Hanukkah should serve as a reminder to us of an even greater miracle of light than the one that Hanukkah celebrates. I refer, of course, to Jesus of Nazareth. He is “the light that shines in darkness” (John 1:5). He is “the true light who can enlighten all those who receive Him” (John 1:9). Jesus Himself proclaimed, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5), and He added, “While you have the light, believe in the light, in order that you may become sons of light” (John 12:36).
During the Christmas and Hanukkah season, let’s thank God for the Light He has sent to deliver us — both Jew and Gentile — from the ravages of sin. Let’s remember the glorious words spoken by Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, when he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied about the Messiah:
“The Sunrise from on high shall visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”