As I unpacked our Christmas decorations this week, I found our menorah and dreidel. Pete and I both have Jewish blood (his father, my grandfather) and while he was raised in an evangelical home, and my parents were atheists, I’ve always been a bit curious about our Jewish heritage.
Reading the Old Testament explains many of the Jewish celebrations and holy days, but Hanukkah, which starts this Saturday at sundown, commemorates an event that came after the Hebrew Bible was written. As I set out the menorah, I realized I didn’t have a clue about its significance. So I looked it up.
According to Wikipedia,
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE.
I had never noticed before that Hanukkah is mentioned in the New Testament! John 10:22-23 reads, “Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” A footnote mentions that the Festival of Dedication is the same as Hanukkah. This is a festival that has been kept for over 2,000 years.
So, what actually happened? Who were the Maccabeans? Why did they need to revolt? History isn’t my area of expertise, so I read further. It was pretty complicated. I’ll try to summarize; hopefully I get this straight:
We pick up the story in 200 BC. The Jews had been conquered by Egypt, and were ruled by Ptolemy V Epiphanes. In 200 BC, the Greek-Syrian emperor Antiochus defeated the Egyptian king and gained Judea in the process. Still, the Jews were left to themselves, largely ignored and allowed to continue their religious practices, including the daily temple sacrifices.
After a while, dissension arose among the Jews. Some favored Egypt while others favored Greece, currying favor with their overlords. The pro-Egypt Jews were mostly in control, and the pro-Greek Jews didn’t like that. They appealed to the Syrian ruler for help. As a result, the Greek-Syrian army invaded Jerusalem in 175 BC, killing many of the pro-Egypt Jews and looting the temple. The daily sacrifices were stopped, and Judaism was outlawed.
That was bad enough, but then something even worse happened. The conquerors built an altar to Zeus inside the temple and sacrificed pigs on it! The Jews had had enough. Led by Judas Maccabeus, the son of a Jewish priest, they revolted. It took several years, but the Maccabeans eventually won. They celebrated their victory by cleansing and rededicating the temple and throwing a big party that went on for eight days. That was the first Hanukkah.
How do the candles fit in? It’s a bit confusing, but some scholars believe that, with the freedom to finally practice their faith, the eight-day festival was actually a delayed celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. This apparently included the lighting of ceremonial oil candles. Or maybe the candles served a different purpose.
The important part is that, when they went to light the candles, it was discovered that most of the candle oil had been profaned. There was just a tiny bit left—enough for one day. Amazingly, this tiny bit of oil lasted for the entire eight day celebration. This miracle is remembered by the lighting of the menorah (more properly called a chanukkiah) candles.
There are all sorts of rules and traditions surrounding the lighting of the candles. For example, the candles are supposed to be placed either outside near the front door or in a street side window, where everyone can see them and be reminded of God’s miracle.
This is such a good idea! Maybe Christians could decorate the outsides of their homes with lights to remind everyone of the miracle of Jesus’ birth! Oh, wait…
And what about the dreidel? Stay tuned….