The Story of Hanukkah

The Story of Hanukkah

I.  Historical Background

   A. Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE) – at 20 years old (336BCE) succeeded his father, Phillip II, on the throne. Most of his reign was spent on unprecedented military campaigns. He was undefeated in battle and conquered lands extending from Greece to northwestern India. 

     i. He was tutored by Aristotle as a youth and strongly believed that the Greek way of life was superior. He wanted the whole known world to be influenced by Greek culture. He never forced Hellenism but was very successful in spreading Greek culture primarily by shifting the languages spoken from indigenous languages to the Greek language. Hellenism is a polytheist practice of worshipping the Greek gods, the Olympians, nature divinities, and underworld deities.

     ii. He died of a fever at 33 yrs of age. His empire was divided between 4 generals: Lysimachus, Cassander, Ptolemy, and Seleucus. This was all prophesied in Daniel 11:3-4 “And a mighty king will arise; and he will rule with great authority and do as he pleases. But as soon as he has arisen, his kingdom will be broken up and parceled out toward the four points of the compass, though not to his own descendants, nor according to his authority which he wielded, for his sovereignty will be uprooted and given to others besides them.”

  B. Seleucids (Syria) and Ptolemies (Egypt) – alternated in ruling over the land of Israel and continued to spread Hellenism.

     i. Antiochus III – was a great conqueror and expanded the Seleucid Empire to include Israel in 200 BCE. Prior to his conquest of Israel, the Jews were ruled by the Ptolemies and were largely left alone to freely worship Yahweh. Antiochus III also allowed the Jews to worship freely. 

     ii. Rome began to rise in power in 215 BCE to rival that of the Greek power in the West. The Romans defeated Antiochus III in 190 BCE and took his son, Antiochus IV as hostage to Rome. It’s not clear how long Antiochus IV remained a hostage but likely for at least 2 yrs until the Treaty of Apamea in 188 BCE between Rome and Antiochus III.

     iii. Antiochus IV – returned from Rome to lead the Seleucid Empire in 175 BCE. It is likely that while being held hostage in Rome, he experienced unpleasant, if not torturous circumstances. Undoubtedly this had a negative impact and could be why he became the most brutal of the Seleucid kings. He was considered by ancient historians to be “insane”. He sought to create a united Seleucid empire politically, culturally and religiously. He forced everyone into Hellenism but not all the Jews were willing to give themselves to Hellenism. He considered the Jews to be a threat so in 169 BC, he attacked the city of Jerusalem and looted the temple.

          1. In his efforts to enforce Hellenism, the Jews were forbidden to practice any of their religious practices such as keeping the Sabbath, the feasts, reading the Torah, making sacrifices etc. If any Jew participated in these, they would be killed. To prove his point, in 167 BCE he marched into Jerusalem again, this time on a Sabbath and killed the male children while enslaving many Jews. The city walls were demolished and a military garrison was established. He defiled the temple by erecting an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering. He performed a pagan sacrifice to Zeus by sacrificing a pig. This is the desecration mentioned in Daniel 11:31 as the “abomination of desolation”.

          2. Antiochus IV regarded himself as the manifestation of Zeus thus he gave himself the title Antiochus IV Epiphanes which means ‘God manifest’.

  C. Hasmoneans/Maccabees

     i. Shortly after Antiochus IV desecrated the temple (167BCE), Mattiathias, a rural Jewish priest from Modiin (19 miles west of Jerusalem) sparked a revolt by refusing to worship the Greek gods. He was ordered by a Greek official to offer a sacrifice to a pagan god. He refused to do it, so another Hellenistic Jew stepped in to do it, but Mattiathias killed this Jew before he could offer a sacrifice to an idol. Then he turned and killed the Greek official. He and his 5 sons fled to the wilderness of Judah. About a year later (166BCE) , Mattiathias died and his son Judah “Maccabee” led an army of Jewish dissidents in guerilla type warfare. “Maccabee” meant hammer and was an acrostic for “Who is Like You, among the gods, Oh Lord.” This was their battle cry as they came running down the mountains into battle.

     ii. The Maccabees fought numerous battles and were generally outnumbered 3 to 1 but they relied on their knowledge of the terrain and surprise attack to defeat the Syrian/Greek armies. After their 4thbattle, in 164 BCE, they were able to recapture Jerusalem. On Kislev 25, they cleansed and rededicated the temple to the glory of Yahweh.

     iii. As they went to light the Menorah, they discovered that there was only enough purified oil for one day. The process of purifying oil takes 8 days, but rather than wait 8 days until they had enough oil, they took the small vile of sealed oil and lit the Menorah. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the Menorah stayed lit for 8 days until they could replenish the oil.

II. Spiritual Significance of Hanukkah

  A. Hebrew meaning of the word Hanukkah is ‘dedication’. It is a celebration commemorating the rededication of the temple, a celebration of restoration.

  B. The story of Hanukkah is one of great victory. It’s a story of the remnant rising up against the practice of syncretism. Many Jews had incorporated Hellenism into their daily lives and faith practices. It’s a story of war, fighting against the oppressive rule of someone claiming to be the manifestation of God.

  C. A special menorah is used during the Feast of Dedication and is called a hanukiah. It has 8 candles instead of 7 and the candle in the middle is slightly higher than the others and is called the servant candle, this represents Jesus. He came as the light of the world, as a servant. Lighting the menorah is a celebration of His miracles.

  D. The message of Hanukkah

     i. God protects His people – John 10 talks about Jesus being the protector of His sheep. God gave the remnant a supernatural victory over a great army

     ii. God wants to restore His temple – Judah removed all the idols and impurities, rebuilt and restored all that was lost and rededicated it to the Lord.

     iii. It reminds us that we serve a God of miracles. This was part of Jesus message in John 10.

     iv. Celebration of lights – light overcomes the darkness. Jesus is the light of the world.

  E. The celebration of the Feast of Dedication is one that Jesus participated in and is found in John 10: 22-39. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Feast, walking in Solomon’s Colonnade in the temple courts “The Jews gathered around him saying “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus revealed to them that He is the Son of God and that He has the authority to give eternal life. It’s significant that Jesus chose to reveal that He is the Messiah while in the temple during the Feast of Dedication. It was this very place just a few generations before that the Jewish people experienced deliverance from a false ruler who declared to be a god. Jesus chose to confront the cultural, political and religious leaders with the truth that He is the Messiah.

III. When was Christ born?

  A. Jesus was most likely not born on Dec 25th but instead may have been conceived during Hanukkah.

     i. While there isn’t direct Biblical reference to when Jesus was born, there is biblical evidence that suggests it may have been during the Feast of Tabernacles rather than Christmas.

     ii. Luke 2:8 “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” In the book “Daily Life in the Time of Jesus”, written by Henri Daniel-Rops (1981), a celebrated French Academian, notes “flocks liven in the open air from the week before Passover through mid November. They passed the winter under cover”.

     iii. Luke 1:5, 8, 11-13 (NASB) “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah, and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him “Do not be afraid, Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.”

          1. I Chronicles 24 describes the rotation of priestly duties. Verse 10 says “the eighth for Abijah”

          2. The priests would serve from Sabbath to Sabbath which was 8 days, they would overlap each other on the Sabbaths. Every priest was called to service during the 3 weeks of the feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Given that Abijah served the 8th week, it would have actually been the 9thweek because adding Passover. The 9thweek would have been Iyar 28 – Sivan 5. He would have also stayed to minister during the 10th week because it was Pentecost. So in total, Zacharias was in the temple from Iyar 28 – Sivan 13.

          3. It’s probable that Elizabeth conceived the week Zacharias returned home which was Sivan 14 – 19. She would have been 6 months pregnant in Kislev right around the time of Hanukkah.

     iv. Luke 1:36-38 “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God. And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”

          1. This provides us with the clue that Mary conceived Jesus in Kislev around the time of Hanukkah. 

          2. Nine months from Kislev would be the month of Tishri. Jesus was most likely born in Tishri around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.

  B. More clues that point to Jesus being born in the Fall or the month of Tishri

     i. The census of Quirinius that required Joseph to travel from Galilee to Bethlehem would most probably have taken place after the fall harvest when people were more able to return to their ancestral homes (Luke 2:1-5). Besides, it was customary in Judea to do their tax collecting during this period, as the bulk of a farmer's income came at this time.

     ii. “It was a custom among the Jews to send out their sheep to the deserts [wilderness], about the passover [sic], and bring them home at the commencement of the first rain: during the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As the passover [sic] occurred in the spring, and the first rain began early in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to part of our October and November, we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole of the summer. And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light on this disputed point.” (Clarke's Commentary, vol. V, p. 370)

     iii. “Another point is that Joseph and Mary had to find shelter in a barn or some other kind of animal shelter like a cave or grotto because the inns were full (verse 7). This indicates that the pilgrims from around the world had begun to arrive in Jerusalem and surrounding towns. Thus, the fall festival season had already commenced. There would have been no similar influx of pilgrims in December.”

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