The Origin of Hanukkah and Why It Matters Right Now
Jerusalem, more than 150 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. You are a Jewish resistance fighter opposed to the rule of the hated King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Greek Seleucid kingdom that controls Israel. Against all odds, your ragtag militia of devout Jews has defeated the Greeks and kicked them out of the Temple. For three and a half years it’s been controlled by foreigners, during which time your traditional religion and culture were almost completely wiped out by decree of the King.
You enter the Temple and see devastation: mangled bodies in death poses, rotting animal carcasses, orgy dens, altars covered in pig blood – an act of profanity ordered by Antiochus to mock you and your zealous people by sacrificing an unclean animal on your altar. Instead of a house of God, the Temple has been turned into a gymnasium and whorehouse dominated by an immense statue of Zeus.
You are a Maccabee, the resistance fighters empowered by God to defeat Antiochus, led by the greatest Jewish warrior of all time, Judah Maccabee, youngest son of the original rebel Rabbi who rallied the people against King Antiochus. You’ve witnessed miracles on the battlefield that could only be from God. You’ve attacked the enemy a thousand different ways, usually when least expected, and won almost every time. Judas led the charge into battle and became Samson before your eyes, slaying great swaths of well-armed-and-trained Greek soldiers with immense strength, cunning and courage.
Now it is time to restore your Temple and once again make the daily sacrifices commanded by your God, Jehovah. The bodies are hauled away, pagan statues taken down, messes cleaned up, altars and relics cleansed. But there’s a problem: only one bottle of consecrated oil survived the Greek occupation. Might seem like a small matter to outsiders, but that oil supplies the menorah that burns in the inner sanctuary, a sign of God’s presence. A week is needed to consecrate more oil and you’ve got a one-day supply. You can’t wait; the people need their God now. What do you do?
And so the first day of the first Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, begins. God wants the Temple back immediately, not in a week. So the High Priest lights the menorah and you all pray for a miracle.
The next night the few priests allowed in the sanctuary watch the menorah wicks wondering how long the sacred oil will last. The faith of the devout seems unshakable that God will keep it lit as a sign to the people, but after years of subjugation at the hands of foreign rulers and civil war between traditionalists and secularists, some aren’t so sure. Antiochus had turned Jew against Jew, family against family, and deep bitterness remains. Many Jews had renounced their religion and adopted Greek ways under pain of death – “Hellenized” – and now fear the Maccabees will execute them for betrayal. The King’s decree outlawing the traditional Jewish faith is still in effect. Antiochus could return and destroy the city, as he’s done before when the Jews rebelled. People don’t know which to fear more.
But the Maccabees aren’t out for revenge just yet. They’re more concerned with reinforcing their positions, consolidating their gains and seeking a strong ally to protect them from the Greeks. Secret talks have begun with Rome, you hear whispered. As darkness swallows the ancient city, inside the sanctuary the lights burn bright, and continues the next night, and the next.
By then word has spread to the countryside that a miracle is happening in the Temple. Battered Israelis gather outside to pray. Inside, the priests beseech God and sing praises.
As the hours pass and the news spreads, the Jewish Covenant is restored. Spirits lift. Celebrations break out. Wine flows. Faith grows. The fattest calf is slaughtered. Something unheard for several years lifts over top of the clamor: the words of the holy scripture read to the people by the priests. “Remember your God, oh Israel! Remember your history and heritage! Remember Moses and David and Elijah!”
For eight days the flames burn. For eight days a flame burns inside all the Jewish faithful. New oil is consecrated to light the menorah in the sanctuary. And you know without a doubt that what you’ve witnessed was a miracle to be commemorated by all Jews, indeed by everyone everywhere who seeks God and lives rightly.
As Hanukkah 2011 approaches and the Festival of Lights begins again, remember why the Jews battled to restore the people to their faith. Remember why it is still commemorated. Oppression and tyranny are big themes going into 2012. People everywhere are rising up for their rights same as the Maccabees did 2,150 or so years ago. Empires are falling, and other rise in their place. Great institutions like the Catholic Church are in decline, and civil rights fought so hard for are disappearing into a police state. These conditions will be used to build a new world order based on value over growth, peace over conflict, and public good over personal profit. Or else the clamor we’re hearing across the globe is the swansong of the planet. Now more than ever we need the flame of faith to burn inside.
I wrote a novel that involves the descendants of the Maccabees opposed to the second coming of King Antiochus in modern day, so I know something about the subject. The origin of the Hanukkah story provided fertile material to weave into the plot. However, I stuck as closely to recorded history as possible. What I learned is that Antiochus ranks just below Hitler on the Jewish hatred meter, but he’s not mentioned a lot even though he has all of the classic traits of a villain and is a fascinating historical figure. My version of Antiochus is more complex than the conventional villain; he has the potential to save the world but has to get over himself first.
Anyway, read my novel about the Second Coming of Antiochus and you’ll learn more about him, the Hanukkah holiday, and how to affect change both personal and collective. Hint: it all begins by being at peace in the world as it is now…. Shalom.