Chanukah – “A Dedication” or “A Celebration”

A Celebration of the Temple oil lasting for 8 days or was it about Religious Freedom? Was it one or the other, neither or a combination of both? You may be familiar with the story around Chanukah, or a version of it. It has been my experience when having a conversation about Chanukah, most of my friends will refer to it as a time of lighting the eight candles in reference to the days representing the Temple Menorah burning only from the oil that was to last for one day. But is there more to why Chanukah is celebrated?  Following is a very short recap of the events preceding, during, and  succeeding, the Maccabees revolt. Join me as we investigate the events around the time of the Hasmonean Dynasty that may present a fresh perspective about Chanukah.  

Setting the stage –

Around 597/598 BCE Judah is taken into captivity by Babylon under the rural of King Nebuchadnezzar II.  The King of Persia, Cyrus the Great, overthrows Babylon around 539 BCE. The Jews are allowed to return to Israel under Persian rule. Nehemiah is sent to Jerusalem, as a Governor by Darius, Cyrus’s successor. Alexander the Great is conquering the then known world. Historians point out that his intentions wasn’t to be as much as a dictator, but more towards bringing order. He established trade routes, accompanied with his soldiers guarding these routes against vandalism. The areas he  conquered become Hellenized, followed by self governance, with freedom of religion. Part of the Hellenization was the Greek language. The countries he conquered could keep there own language, but interstate commerce was done in Greek as a common language throughout all of the land. Persia became part of Alexander the Great’s conquest, and he ruled over Persia from 330 to 323 BCE. Shortly after his death, in 323 BCE his kingdom was eventually divided among his former generals. The kingdom was divided as follows:

  • Ptolemaic Egypt
  • Seleucid Mesopotamia and Central Asia
  • Attalid Anatolia
  • Antigonid Macedon

Seleucid Mesopotamia and Central Asia, included the area of Israel. The new Seleucis dynasty was founded by Seleucis I.

Judah under new rule –

Several generations after Seleucus I, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a decedent, rose to power to rule over the kingdom in 164 BCE. After winning a battle with Ptolemaic Egypt, he was laying the strategy on how to conclude the battle for a victory. Rome sent an emissary to meet with him, and persuade him to go no further in battle. He knew that he was no match for the Romans, so he agreed to do as they requested, but he decided to go directly to Jerusalem on his return route. Anyone who was sympathetic with Ptolemaic Egypt was put to death. He quickly established new laws governing the Jews. These new laws were harsh and very restrictive concerning freedom of religion for the Jewish people.  The penalty for breaking these new laws was harsh and cruel. Temple worship was changed to include pagan ritual, the position of High Priest went to the highest bidder, the Sacrificial system was defiled. Torah Scrolls were destroyed, circumcision was abolished. If a mother circumcised her baby boy, the baby was murdered and strapped permanently to the mothers back. For a Jewish person to violate these laws would put yourself in danger of death.

Taking a stand –

A Levite Priest Mattathias, living in Modi’in was on duty at the Temple when he was told to offer a sacrifice to a Greek god on the Temple Mount Alter. He decided that this was enough and it was time to take a stand. He refused, and subsequently killed the Priest that was willing to to comply and the Kings messenger delivering the demand.  It was time to take the Temple back! He gathered his sons and formed a band of warriors that were of one mind and one heart. This band of guerrilla warriors took on the mighty army of the Seleucid Kingdom in 167 BCE. They were known as Maccabees. They fought with the striking force of a hammer, thus the name Maccabee (Hebrew for “Hammer”).  Their leader was Judah the Maccabee, son of Mattathias of Modi’in the Priest. They fought hard and with tactical strength. They won the war, took back the Temple, and reestablished freedom of worship and Temple worship once again. The Israeli people were now free, to worship God however they desired. Like today there was a spectrum of ways the Jewish person could exercise their belief in God. Some were classified as Hellenistic Jews, speaking and reading only in Greek. These people were usually in the larger populated areas and were involved in the trading business. It is believed that the Sadducees had become Hellenistic. There were the Orthodox communities, that spoke and read only Hebrew and were strict Torah followers. These were referred to primarily as Pharisee or “set apart”.  Groups like the Essene’s lived in a small commune and had their communal beliefs. Israel was now free and had a King once again. The kingdom was known as the Hasmonean Dynasty, with King Simon the Maccabee as their leader, Judah’s younger brother. There are a variety of different understandings on the origin of picking “Hasmonian” for the name of the dynasty. The one I like the best is that the name is from a great grandfather of Mattathias.  Another version of the dynasty’s origin says that the name is linked with a village of Heshmon mentioned in Joshua 15:27. The dynasty was established by Simon in 141 BCE and lasted until 37 BCE.  To commemorate Israel becoming a free nation and the freedom to exercise their religious beliefs again, Judah declared that the people would light bonfires in the streets all throughout the nation on the 25 of Kislev every year. The Hasmonean dynasty was followed by the Herodic dynasty, established by Herod the Great, a representative of the Roman Empire.  Herod the Great was a puppet King of Rome.

Post Temple period –

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 ACE, the Jewish people were not allowed to enter Jerusalem. Many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were killed, those that weren’t were taken to Roman occupied Egypt as slaves. Jews that were fortunate to not be murdered by Titus’s army, and possibly were located far enough away from his murderous path had to make several decisions on how to live the Jewish life without access to the Temple. The Temple was the center of Jewish worship for centuries, with the exception of the Babylon exile. The Prophets new that there would be a time when Temple worship would no longer be accessible. The rabbis of the diaspora turned to the writings of the Prophets, and implemented what the Prophets had recorded in the Holy Scripture. The question came about how to celibate Chanukah. They could no longer burn the bonfires in the streets. It was at this time that the story was established about the miracle of oil needed to keep the Temple Menorah burning until the additional oil could be consecrated for Temple use. Some believed that this miracle took place, and other believed that the Rabbis saw a problem with continuing with the celebration of the Maccabee victory, while under Roman occupation. However if everybody celebrated Chanukah as commemorating a miracle of light while sharing the true message of freedom of religion being restored will live on in the story.

A final thought –

For me, when the Temple was desecrated with the pagan worship the light soon went out, but when the Maccabee Warriors brought the restoration and freedom to worship God freely again, the light was once again shinning from the Temple. My prayer is that we are a light to the world and never let it burn out. If each of us becomes a light to those around us, together we can make the world a better place for all.


Jim Behnke 

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