The History of Hanukkah EXPLAINED
Read or Listen to a dramatized retelling of the EPIC history of Hanukkah and why it is celebrated today!
I am going to try to answer all these questions and more in this short explanation. Hold on tight!
You are probably familiar with the story of Israel and how the kingdom split after Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, succeeded the throne in 1 Kings 12. Israel was divided into the Northern Kingdom, called Israel, which comprised 10 of the 12 tribes, and the much smaller Southern Kingdom, Judah, encompassing the remaining two, Judah and Benjamin. The two nations went through many kings, most of them ungodly; they had periods of peace and war until, eventually, they were both conquered by external nations.
The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE. The Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 580 BCE.
Israel’s Northern kingdom was assimilated into the Assyrian empire through displacement and intermarriage with Assyrians. Some of these intermarried Jewish-Assyrian captives of the conquered Northern Kingdom later became known as the Samaritans, named after the capital of the Northern Kingdom, Samaria. By the time Jesus arrived a few hundred years later, Samaritans were often looked down upon by Jewish people because of their claim that intermarriage lead to a “mixed race.”
Judah’s captivity was different because there was very little assimilation. Babylon deported nearly all of the Jewish citizens from Judah in the 580s BCE. Shortly after this, Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, and Cyrus, King of Persia, allowed the Jewish people to return to their land the following year.
Through the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah over the next hundred or so years, the Jewish people returned to the land in large numbers, though there were still those who chose to stay in Persia (today’s modern-day Iran).
And this is basically where the canonical Bible narrative stopped – around 430 BCE. After a nearly 400 year period of “silence,” the New Testament picked up with the birth of Yeshua around 4-6 BCE.
Well, what happened in those 400 years? A LOT! And the celebration of Hanukkah is one of the biggest events.
After the Jewish people returned to their homeland, they became subject to many different conquering powers over the next several hundred years. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered pretty much EVERYTHING in the Middle East.
The Greeks, under Alexander, ruled over the Jewish people with a reasonably soft hand. When Alexander died, two of his generals fought for power in the Middle East. The land of Israel was caught in the crosshairs. It was the Seleucid Empire in Syria and Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt who were at war with the “land between” – aka the Bible lands. The Seleucid Empire ultimately won the feud and began to rule over the land of Israel.
In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV ascended to the throne as the leader of the Seleucid Empire. When you read “Antiochus,” it is safe to picture an ancient version of Adolf Hitler.
Taking a step back and observing Jewish history through a spiritual and biblical lens, it is very clear that God has an ever-present adversary. The devil is constantly trying to eradicate God’s chosen, the Jewish people. Three hundred years before Antiochus, Haman tried to murder all the Jews in Persia, but was thwarted by a heroine named Esther who stopped the genocide. Then in 175 BCE, the enemy attempted a different plan – not exterminating God’s people through murder, but destroying their culture and eradicating everything that made them Jewish.
Antiochus IV implemented laws to force Jews to worship and sacrifice to Greek gods and forbade circumcision of Jewish babies, the physical sign of the covenant God made with Abraham and all Jewish people thereafter. Antiochus also kept people from observing the Sabbath and outlawed the study of Torah. He also seized the temple and dedicated it to Zeus, sacrificing swine (an unclean animal) on the altar of God.
The enemy’s plan, through Antiochus, was not to simply kill all the Jews, but to eradicate the Jewish religion, culture, and identity.
Enter the story and miracles of Hanukkah.
During this Jewish oppression, our story shifts to a small village named Modin, where a devout Jewish high priest named Mattathias lived with his five sons. When Seleucid soldiers visit Mattathias in the town of Modin, they are commanded to offer a pig sacrifice to the Greek gods. Mattathias and his sons refused. When a fellow villager offered to make the sacrifice (which would mean renouncing his Judaism and disobeying Torah), Mattathias burned with anger, killed the soldiers, destroyed the pagan altar, and fled to the hills for the gathering of a resistance (aka he becomes a “man on fire”).
Judah Maccabee (literally Judah the Hammer), one of Mattathias’s sons, was chosen as the military leader of this group of Jewish rebels. He led what is now known as the Maccabean Revolt. You may have heard of 1st and 2nd Maccabees; these books are not in the canonical Bible, but ARE rich pieces of Jewish history documenting this revolution.
The story of the Maccabean Revolt is much akin to David and Goliath, where no more than 12,000 religious Jews took on the most significant military superpower the world had ever seen.
The Maccabees waged war against the Seleucid Empire and miraculously defeated the Greeks in 164 BCE. The Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and liberated the temple from foreign hands and foreign gods.
When rededicating the temple to the Lord, they planned to light the candelabra, or menorah. The menorah was one of the most crucial objects in the holy temple as it represented the “eternal flame of God.” However, there was a problem: The Greeks had defiled the temple, and the Jewish victors only had enough oil to light the flame for one night.
Leviticus 24:1 says that olive oil must be brought to the temple so the lamps can be “burning continually.”
A trip for oil may have taken a week or more to retrieve. The Maccabees lit the candle by faith, and the oil that was supposed to last only one day miraculously lasted eight! The miracle of the oil lampstand was seen as a sign that God was faithful to His people and passionate about His temple.
Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication, as they rededicated the temple on that day.
The menorah in the temple would have had seven candle stands to represent the seven days of creation, but menorahs used now during Hanukkah have nine. One candle in the center lights the other eight candles in remembrance of the eight days the menorah fire burned in the temple that day.
Hanukkah is one of the most recognized Jewish holidays in the world. Whenever you see people celebrating it, you can remember the bravery of the Maccabees, who refused to bow to other gods. Remember the miracle of the lampstand showing God’s hand over His people. And recall that despite the enemy’s best effort to wipe away the Jewish people and Jewish identity, they are still here. God calls the Jewish people His “Firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), “The Apple of His eye” (Zechariah 2:8 ESV), and “His special Treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Antisemitism is nothing new, and the Jewish people need our prayers and our support now more than ever.
During Hanukkah this year, take time each day to pray for our Jewish brothers and sisters. Jewish hatred is once again rising all over the world. As believers in the Jewish Messiah, who himself observed Hanukkah (John 10:22-24), we can uphold the Jewish people with our prayers and love.
By David Blease
Gateway Center for Israel