Hanukah (December 22-30/2019 this year) is the story of two Jewish struggles: the lesser military one—a 25 year long, off and on war, ending in a historic military victory and political independence; and the longer spiritual one—an ongoing almost 2,200 year spiritual struggle to maintain Jewish trust in God, and hope for a future world of justice and peace, during frequent periods of persecution and oppression.
Hanukah (Hebrew for dedication) refers to the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it was profaned in 168 BCE (before the common era) by an idol installed in it by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV. Hanukah also refers to the dedication and valor of the Maccabee soldiers and all those who joined them in their resistance to the attempt by the ruling powers to force the Jews to abandon their God given religion and conform to Greek forms of worship and culture (abandoning circumcision for example.)
The Syrian Greek king’s suppression of Judaism was the first known attempt at religious oppression, but not the last. Other well-known attempts are the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity; and the many years of persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs in Makkah. All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, which is the religious lesson of the Hanukah lamp that, once lit, lasts longer than anyone thinks possible.
Time of Jewish Oppression
In 200 BCE, King Antiochus III of Syria defeated Egypt and made the Land of Israel a part of the Seleucid Empire. King Antiochus III wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects guaranteed their right to “live according to their ancestral customs” and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem.
However, in 175 BCE, his son Antiochus IV invaded Judea to put into power a pro-Syrian high priest. Then, as the first century Jewish historian Josephus relates, “The king came upon the Jews with a great army, took their city by force, slew a great multitude of those that favored Egypt, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple (erecting an idol in it that looked like himself), and thus put a stop to the daily offerings (to God) for three years and six months.”
The Jews responded with a boycott of the Temple because of the idol of Antiochus. The king was outraged and Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the Temple. This provoked a large-scale revolt.
By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event. The two oldest sources were written about four or five decades after the first Hanukah and can be found to this very day in all Roman Catholic Bibles.
First and Second Maccabees
The First Book of Maccabees, compiled sometime before 130 BCE. was originally written in Hebrew. Today all we have is an early Greek translation. It describes the recapture of the Jerusalem Temple, its purification and rededication (Hanukah) as follows: “They also made new sacred vessels, and they brought the lamp stand … into the Temple. They burned incense on the altar and lit the lights on the lamp stand, and the Temple was filled with light.… For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar.”. (First Maccabees 4:49-59)
This first ancient source does not mention the “little jar of oil” miracle. At that time, the miracle was the victory itself, that God had enabled the Jews in Israel to physically and militarily defeat the far mightier Syrian Greek Empire.
The Second Book of Maccabees, was compiled a decade or two after First Maccabees, and covers most of the same period, but was written in Greek for the Jewish community outside the land of Israel that was concentrated largely in the port city of Alexandria in Egypt. The purpose of Second Maccabees, clearly stated in the two letters that open the book, is to urge the Jews of Alexandria to adopt this new festival. The author states that his source for the history of the Maccabean war was a (now lost) larger five-volume history by one Jason of Cyrene.
“They celebrated joyfully for eight days, just as on Hajj Sukkot, knowing that (only two months before) on Hajj Sukkot [google my article on the Biblical holiday of Hajj Sukkot] they had spent the festival [hiding] like wild animals in the mountains and caves. That is why they now came carrying palm fronds and fruit, and singing hymns of praise to God, who had given them the victory that brought about the purification of His Temple. By a vote of the community they decreed that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these festival days every year. (Second Maccabees 10:1-8)
The Twofold Hanukah Miracle of the Oil
The story of the small jar of oil that lasted much longer than anyone expected, is not mentioned in the early sources because they focus on the physical military battle to liberate the Jerusalem temple from Greek rule and restore Jewish political independence.
However, two and a half centuries later, the Holy Temple and the whole city of Jerusalem itself were in ruins. In the generations following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE (common era) the Jewish people could have despaired and become discouraged and depressed. They might even have lost faith in God when the Romans built a new pagan city on Jerusalem’s ruins; with a Roman Temple filled with statues of Roman Gods in its center.
So, the rabbis started emphasizing the spiritual internal battle needed for Jewish survival. Everyone, even small children, needs to believe in a better future. All of us need to avoid despair, disappointment and negativity. Everyone needs to have hope, faith and trust in God.
When the Maccabees realized that it would take a week or more to produce the ritually pure olive oil needed for the lamp that must burn continually before the Holy Ark, most of them wanted to delay the Hanukah celebration; because they feared disappointing and dismaying their supporters if the light went out and spoiled the eight day celebration.
Only a minority favored using the one little jar of oil that they had found, trusting that somehow it would be enough. As the rabbis expressed it in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b): “Why Hanukkah? Our rabbis taught: ‘On the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukkah on which mourning and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil; and when the Maccabees prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one jar of oil with the official seal of the High Priest, but which was only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were decreed a festival with the recital of Psalms and thanksgiving.”
Notice that the miracle is twofold. That the oil lasted is a physical miracle. That they lit it, knowing it couldn’t last, is the spiritual miracle. To this day Jews still use one candle to ignite all the other Hanukah candles because one positive, hope filled believer, especially during a time of darkness, can ignite many others.
Believing in God’s Redemptive Powers
That God’s redemptive powers help people to survive is to be expected. That believing in God’s redemptive powers gives humans the strength and courage to endure, persevere and eventually overcome tyrants, dictators and persecutors, is the spiritual lesson of Hanukah that can be followed by all the descendants of Abraham.
In addition to the two traditional prayers said each evening when kindling the Hanukah candles, many Jews have recently added this personal pledge:
I light this flame of Hanukah remembering the time when the Jewish people in the land of Israel were oppressed because of their faith. Syrian Greek soldiers persecuted, tortured and killed us. Many of my people stood firm, and I am their descendant.
As I celebrate these Hanukah lights of freedom today, I pray that I and my fellow citizens shall not become a source of suffering for others, persecuting others because of their faith, and never become an instrument of hate. May all of us become sources of inspiring light in our world’s dark spots.