By Chad – Jews for Jesus
When we light the candles for the first night of Hanukkah, my wife recites a very traditional Jewish prayer:
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the Chanukah lights.
Interestingly enough, there is no record in the Hebrew Scriptures of such a commandment by God. In fact, you won’t find Hanukkah mentioned anywhere in the Tanakh. It comes as a surprise to many Jewish people to find out that the sole mention of Hanukkah in the Bible is in the New Testament. So, if it’s not in the Hebrew Scriptures, how can we know what the celebration of Hanukkah is all about, and why we’re thanking God?
To find out what Hanukkah commemorates, we have to look into the inter-testamental period, a 400-year period between the closing of the Hebrew Scriptures and the writing of the New Testament. Biblical scholars sometimes call this a “silent period,” and since the events of Hanukkah took place during this inter-testamental period, we must turn to extra-biblical sources to learn about them. What we know about the history of Hanukkah can be gleaned primarily from I & II Maccabbees, two apocryphal (or non-canonical) books, and also from the Talmud, a collection of the oral lore of Jewish sages and rabbis.
During the inter-testamental period, there was no king in Israel. The Jewish people had returned from exile in Babylon under the leadership of Nehemiah, but they were ruled over by a succession of foreign empires. Malachi contains evidence that it was written while Israel was ruled over by the Persian empire, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his empire was carved up by his four top generals. Israel lay in between the kingdoms of Egypt (ruled by the Ptolemic dynasty) and Syria (ruled by the Seleucid dynasty), and was ruled by both at different times. The Greek, or Hellenistic, culture of Alexander was continued by both of these empires.
In 198 B.C., Israel was under the rule of the Syrian empire. These Syrio-Greeks had forced their own Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish people. In 175 B.C. Antiochus IV ascended the throne of this empire, and took upon himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, meaning “the visible god.” Antiochus truly believed that he was a god. His contemporaries may not have shared this view, since he is often referred to in writings of the day as “the madman.” Antiochus forbid the Jewish people to keep the Sabbath, to read or study the Torah, or to circumcise their sons. He commanded that the temple in Jerusalem should become a temple dedicated to worshipping the Greek god Zeus, and even erected a statue of Zeus at the Temple – a statue bearing a suspicious resemblance to Antiochus himself! The final insult to the Jewish people came when Antiochus entered into the Temple and slaughtered a pig on the altar, then splattered its blood inside the Holy of Holies. I don’t have to tell you that this was definitely not kosher – in fact, it was a complete desecration of the Temple, and you can imagine the effect on God-fearing Jewish people!
I Maccabees tells us that living near to Jerusalem was a priest named Mattathias who, full of righteous anger at the abomination that had taken place, killed the priest who had slaughtered the pig. Mattathias then pulled down the altar before fleeing to the surrounding hills of Judea, along with his sons. As he fled, Mattathias cried out, “Whoever is zealous for the Law and maintains the Covenant, follow me!” With his sons, Mattathias formed a band of guerilla fighters who made frequent sorties against the Syrio-Greek enemy. When the priest died, leadership passed to his son Judah, who soon began being called Yudah haMakkabi, or “Judah the Hammer,” because it was said that he was the hammer of God, sent to smash the enemies of Israel. Judah’s followers were referred to as Maccabbeans.
The Maccabeans grew in numbers, and after 3 years of fighting, miraculously defeated the Syrio-Greek army, which was vastly numerically superior. After routing their enemies, the Maccabbeans marched into Jerusalem to rescue, restore, and rededicate the Temple. The Talmud records that the rededication took place on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, exactly 3 years to the day after it had been defiled by Antiochus. Hanukkah means, “dedication” in Hebrew, so the holiday is known as the Feast of Dedication to commemorate the miracle of the rescue, restoration, and rededication of the Temple by the Maccabbeans. It’s a celebration of the faith that Judah Maccabee and his followers had that God would keep His promises to preserve the Jewish people, a faith that was amply repaid in the defeat of their Syrio-Greek oppressors.
However, today when most Jews think of Hanukkah, they do not think of the miracle of the Maccabees defeating a much larger, better equipped army. They associate a very different miracle with the holiday, one which is mentioned only briefly in the Talmud. According to the Talmud, once the Syrio-Greeks had been driven away, Judah Maccabee ordered that the Temple be cleansed and rededicated. As they cleaned out the rubble, built a new altar, and crafted new holy vessels for the Temple, a terrible discovery was made. There was only a single container of consecrated ritual olive oil, which was required in order to keep the menorah (the seven-branched candelabra) in the Temple burning through the night. This lamp was known as the Ner Tamid, or the Eternal Light, and God had commanded it should never burn out. To allow that to happen would be like another desecration. The problem was that it would take eight days for more oil to be pressed, prepared, and consecrated. With a sense of helplessness, the Maccabees and the priests offered their prayers and pleas for forgiveness up to God as they lit the oil they had. Miraculously, this one container of oil, enough only to last one night, burned for all eight days! Jewish sages hence instituted an eight-day holiday commemorating this miracle, customarily celebrated by lighting candles for eight days.
This is the miracle that most Jews think of as they celebrate Hanukkah, and the reason that it is referred to as the Feast of Lights. If you’re first learning about Hanukkah, you can now understand the significance of the Jewish tradition of lighting candles in the menorah for eight nights. We add a candle each night, symbolizing each of the eight nights the oil burned in the temple. The rabbis teach that as each candle is added to the menorah, the blessings increase, and by the final night, the room is awash with light, a symbol of the glory and presence of God.
When I was a kid growing up in synagogue, I can remember our rabbi talking to us kids about Hanukkah and about Christmas. I remember him telling us that the two holidays were to have nothing to do with us. “This Christmas is for the goyim, the Gentiles, because it celebrates this Jesus, and that is not for Jews.” I have many fond memories of my rabbi but today, as a Jew who believes that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, I think that the rabbi missed the boat. You see, there is a connection between Jesus and Hanukkah. I’ve already mentioned that the single reference to Hanukkah in the Bible is found in the New Testament.
“At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. “But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. “I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” ” John 10:22-33
We know from this mention of the Feast of Dedication that it was Hanukkah, and during this particular Feast of Lights, Jesus would reveal a couple of things about Himself: His Messiahship and His deity. It’s interesting that He would choose Hanukkah as a time to do this. You see, on Hanukkah we rejoice over the defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes, a madman who thought he was a god. But as followers of Jesus, we believe Him to truly be God. He is the Light of the World, and He chose the Feast of Lights to reveal that.
The text tells us that Jesus was walking in the Temple in an area known as “the portico of Solomon.” This was an area of the Temple with covered walkways, and it was something of a public gathering place. Some people would gather to talk, others would gather to listen. It was a public forum. As Jesus is walking, some of the Jewish people there gathered around asked Him, “Are you the Christ?” In other words, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus answers this question in the affirmative, saying:
“I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.” John 10:24 Jesus didn’t just stop at proclaiming Himself as Messiah. He went on to proclaim His deity, His Godhood, in no uncertain terms:
“I and the Father are one.” John 10:30 The Jewish people gathered there understood Jesus’ meaning quite plainly. They understood Him to be claiming to be God, and their reaction was to pick up stones to stone Him for blasphemy. The Jewish people of the day – much like our Jewish people today – were not prepared to accept a Messiah who was also God.
Within this account in John’s Gospel is a fascinating historical convergence. You see, according to rabbinic sources, when Judah Maccabee and his followers began to clean the Temple, they ran into a dilemma. Judah’s father, Mattathias the priest, had pulled down the desecrated altar on which Antiochus Epiphanes had slaughtered a pig, and the stones of which the altar was built had to be removed. Since they had been used for holy purposes they couldn’t be merely tossed away; yet they were impregnated with the blood and grease of the unclean sacrifice that had been offered upon them. The rabbis record that, not being able to find any better solution, the Maccabbeans stored the stones in a pile in the portico of Solomon – where they remained in the time of Jesus!
Those stones were a physical reminder of a madman who claimed to be God in the flesh, and who forced idolatry and oppression on the Jewish people. What irony that those same stones might be used against a man who truly was God in the flesh, and who came to free the Jewish people from the oppression of sin. Yet when they asked Jesus who He was, the Jewish people at the Temple that day were not prepared to accept the answers Jesus gave them. So it is even today. Very few of our Jewish people will even ask if Jesus might be the Messiah. Jesus is God in the flesh, though; the fulfillment of all that is written in the Law and the Prophets, and the future hope that our Jewish people continue to long for. On the festive occasion of Hanukkah, Jesus invited people into a relationship with Him that would free them from sin and from death. While there were many who thought Jesus as much a villain as Antiochus Epiphanes, there were some who believed.
I want to close by pointing out something of symbolic importance. The Hanukkah candles are traditionally lit by a special candle called the shammash. Shammash is Hebrew for “servant.” In the shammash candle, we can see a symbol of our Messiah Jesus, for as the Gospel of Matthew says,
“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28
The shammash serves the other candles by bringing light to them. In the New Testament, Jesus is frequently referred to as “the Light,” and Jesus Himself once said, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
Just as the shammash gives light to the other candles, Jesus came to give the world His Light. As we celebrate Hanukkah, it is good for us be reminded of that light each night as we light our menorahs. As believers in Y’shua (Jesus), Hanukkah should hold precious meaning to us. The miracles we celebrate at Hanukkah – the defeat of an enemy army, the oil lasting for eight days – show how God keeps His light burning in the hearts of His people, even when they face what seem to be impossible odds or situations. With God, all things are possible. His light cannot fail, or go out.
May you be blessed this Hanukkah season, and beyond.