History of Hanukkah

Shabbat, December 13, 2014

Hanukkah for much of its history has been hidden. Though in recent times it has become in America, the Jewish alternative to Christmas, and in Israel Maccabean machismo, for Israel, for millennia it had become dark with disappointment. Yeshua warned his followers about another “appalling desolation” like the one the Maccabees cleaned up. So we must learn lessons from history. V’eemru? (And let us say?)

The history of Hanukkah begins with a struggle between traditional Judaism and secular Hellenism.

Daniel chapter 11 outlines the history of Hanukkah, prophetically. (Yes, Hanukkah is in the Bible!)  In vv. 3-4, the angel Gabriel explains that “a mighty king will arise, who will rule a vast realm & do as he pleases. But soon after he has arisen, his kingdom will be broken up and divided up.” Who was the mighty king?

Alexander the Great: though the conqueror laid waste to many cities in his path, he left Jerusalem alone. Thanks be to God!

Theatre in Caesarea

On the other hand, Alexander and his successors promoted their Hellenistic culture of god-like heroes exalted in sculpture, athletes in stadiums and gymnasiums, and elite philosophers in academies. (Are you seeing any parallels to our time?)

Against this universal culture, traditional Jews struggled to retain their loyalty to their peculiar life of Torah, circumcision, Shabbat and worship of the unique God of Israel. Mattathias bold & his five brave sons rose up to defend Jewish ways against the powerful Greco-Syrian armies of Antiochus Epiphanes—and the little guys, led by Judah Maccabee (“the hammer”) won! As Alfred Edersheim describes it in Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (vol.1, p. 480): “After a series of brilliant victories by undisciplined men over the flower of the Syrian army, Judah the Maccabee, truly God’s Hammer, had purified the Temple, and restored its altar on the very same day [the 25th of Kislev] on which the ‘abomination of desolation’ had been set up in its place.”

Antiochus “Epiphanes” (“God Manifest”)

Yet it wasn’t just a struggle of pious Jews vs. vile Antiochus: many Jews embraced secular Hellenism. When Antiochus came to power, in 175 BCE, the High Priest Onias was a pious traditional Jew. But his brother Jason (his Jewish name was Joshua, but he preferred the Greek name Jason) preferred Hellenistic culture, so much so that he bribed Antiochus to back him up in overthrowing Onias. Jason built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and largely abandoned the ordinances of Judaism.

Alas, it didn’t stop there: another Jew who called himself Menelaus (another common Greek name) outbid Jason with an even bigger bribe so he could become High Priest, in 172 BCE. Menelaus seized the sacred vessels in the Temple stores and gave them as tribute to the Syrians. According to II Maccabees, Menelaus persuaded Antiochus to outlaw Torah scrolls, circumcision, observance of Shabbat and the festivals, and desecrate the Temple by offering a pig to a statute of the Greek god Jupiter, and thereby brought about the uprising of Mattathias and his five brave sons.

So the culture war was just a struggle with outsiders; it was also a struggle within the Jewish soul.

How many of you know that this cultural and spiritual struggle continues among our people today?  Most Jews are secular: thoroughly embracing our western culture of humanism, sports and university intellectualism, while a minority struggle to remain loyal to a peculiar life of Torah. Indeed, don’t we also see this cultural/spiritual struggle among Christians… even Messianic believers? As a result, most American Jews don’t know the Bible well—let alone the God of the Bible. Many young American Jews—like many American churchgoers—are aligning themselves against Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians, turning a blind eye to terrorism, let alone what the Bible says.

If the Maccabees had just rededicated the Temple and restored pious Judaism, history might be different. But it’s a bit more complicated. Judah and his brothers had to fight a long war against the Syrians and their allies among their own people. So Judah sought the alliance of the Romans against the Syrians. Oy vey. Many an ancient prophet had warned Jewish kings against such alliances with the powers of this world.

Moreover, Judah’s brother Jonathan declared himself both High Priest and King—King Uzziah got into big trouble for usurping priestly ministry—pious Jews did recall that violation & hated it.

Though they started out with pure zeal, the Hasmonean ambition adopted Hellenistic worldliness. With the decline of morality came the decay and decadence of the Maccabean house. As Edersheim says, “It is a story as old as the Old Testament, and as wide as the history of the world. Contention for the throne among the Maccabees led to the interference of the foreigner” (p. 564).

Pompey conquers Jerusalem

“Three deputations appeared before Pompey at Damascus – those of the two brothers [Hyrcanus and Aristobulus], and one independent of both, which craved the abolition of the Hasmonean rule and the restoration of the former mode of government… [They] sealed their fate with the Jewish people.  Pompey laid siege to Jerusalem. The adherents of Hyrcanus surrendered the City, but those of Aristobulus retired into the Temple. At last the sacred precincts were taken by storm amidst fearful carnage. The priests, who were engaged in their sacred functions, and who continued them during this terrible scene, were cut down at the altar. No fewer than 12,000 Jews are said to have perished. With the taking of Jerusalem by Pompey (63 b.c.) the history of the Maccabees as a reigning family, and, indeed, that of the real independence of Palestine, came to an end” (p.1465).

Small wonder that pious Jews of the first century no longer had fond memories of the Maccabees. Co-opted by the Hellenistic culture against which they had revolted, the Hasmoneans bought into decadence leading to defeat.

Edersheim: “Looking back on the rapid rise and decline of the Maccabees, on their speedy degeneration, on the deeds of cruelty with which their history soon became stained, on the selfishness and reckless ambition which characterized them, and especially the profoundly anti-nationalist, anti-Pharisaic, almost anti-Jewish tendency which marked their sway, we can understand the bitter [disappointment] that followed their memory in Jewish tradition. The mention of them is the scantiest. No universal acclamation glorifies even the deeds of Judas the Maccabee; no Talmudic tractate is devoted to that ‘feast of the dedication’ which celebrated the purging of the Temple and the restoration of Jewish worship…. Indeed, the opprobrious designation of rebellion, and Sarbaney El, rebels against God, became in course of time identified with the Maccabees” (p. 1470).

In the Talmud, there are no stories about the victorious Maccabees; the only notice given to Hanukkah is to tell the story of the miracle of one day’s supply of pure oil lasting 8 days, & an argument about how to light the Hanukiah (Hanukkah menorah or lamp): Hillel called for a continual increase in lights, from one to eight, while Shammai said to start with eight lights and end up with one. Eventually, the Rabbis sided with Hillel.

For nearly two millennia, the memory of the Maccabees became obscure—most Jews ignored the books of the Maccabees; they were preserved in Catholic Bibles. And Hanukah was a minor holiday.

Chanukah bush

At the end of the 19th century, two developments brought about increased interest in Hanukkah. In Europe and America, secular Jews who wanted to assimilate with the wider culture, rediscovered “the festival of lights” (as Josephus had called it) as something to do while the Gentiles were celebrating Christmas. A tradition of children giving gelt–money to their teachers–became giving chocolate coins to children, then buying expensive gifts in shopping malls. Christmas trees became Hanukah bushes.

Anyone see an irony here? The Maccabees led a revolt against secular Hellenism, yet today Hanukkah for many Jews celebrates a comfortable assimilation into the surrounding secular consumer culture.

In Israel, Zionists see the Maccabees as an inspiration. For centuries Jews, outnumbered by enemies, had passively accepted persecution. Yet now, Theodore Herzl declared, “The Maccabees will rise again.”  Jews could once again gain and defend their independence in their own land. Shaul Tchernichowski, a prominent Hebrew poet of the early 20th century, wrote, “Where are they,  the holy ones? Where are the Maccabees? All Israel is holy. You are the Maccabee!”

By 1932, Zionists had begun the Maccabee Games as the Jewish version of the Olympics. Ever since the founding of Jewish state, Maccabee has become a household word in Israel, referring to such things as beer and basketball. How many of you have heard of Maccabee Beer? How many see an irony in naming a beer after the Maccabees? The Maccabee Tel Aviv Basketball Team won the Euro league championship last spring. Then their head coach David Blatt was hired to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers—he now coaches Lebron James. The champions of Jewish piety have become the champions of Nike sneakers!

Does anyone see a parallel between what has happened to the 25th of Kislev and the 25th of December? The 25th of Kislev was when the Maccabees sealed their victory of the spirit of Hellenism by rededicating the Temple. Yet for many it has become a day for beer and basketball. The 25th of December used to be about the incarnation of the Son of God as the Son of Man. Yet for many is more about Santa in shopping malls… and beer and basketball.

If anyone is going to celebrate Christmas, remember that Yeshua is the reason for the season. V’eemru? If anyone is going to celebrate Chanukah, remember that Yeshua is the Light of the World. V’eemru?

What is the lesson of this history? Head’s up! Secularism is insidious. As 2 Corinthians 11:14 says,  “No wonder, for even satan masquerades as an angel of light.” Whether it’s materialism, or the occult, or clever doctrines that appeal to the flesh through human pride or rejection, beware the deceiver, who comes to steal, kill and destroy. In Matthew 24:15, Yeshua warned that “you will see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet,” his followers should have known that this prophecy at the end of Daniel 11 had been fulfilled when Antiochus had defiled the Temple—yet something like it would happen again.

The same spirit of worldly secularism will seek to snuff out biblical faith in the one true God & Messiah. When that happens, we must not look to a merely human Maccabee, or any false prophet, no matter how many millions acclaim him as the prophet or Mahdi, but to the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven.” V’eemru?

Though Hanukah is a festival of lights, can we make sure we honor the true light rather than a fake one? Can you tell the difference?

The true light is our Messiah, the light of the world, who came to give the light of life to everyone. The false light is the spirit of the world—a dark spirit who may masquerade as an angel of light—yet it’s really a charade. Can you tell the difference?

It’s not hard to tell—if you have eyes to see the things of the Spirit. If it’s hard to tell the difference—yet if you’re find yourself more drawn to shopping malls & presents than to the presence of the Holy One, more inspired by heroes in sports or video games or glamor magazines than by the Messiah, the glory of Israel—then a veil of worldliness may be over your eyes.

Which kind of light draws you? A moth can be attracted to a light—even if it causes its destruction.

In John 8:12, Yeshua said, “I am the light of the world. The one who follows Me will no longer walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

If anyone here needs to turn away from the fake world, the world that looks glamorous or fabulous,  but which winds up in darkness and depression and despair, I’d like to take a moment to pray for you. Is there anyone here that needs prayer to turn away from deception to the delightful presence of God? Let’s pray….

This sermon may not to be reprinted in whole or in part without the express written consent of Messianic Rabbi Glenn D. Blank of Beit Simcha.  Your generous support for our ministry and building project is appreciated!




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