Hanukkah like Purim is a celebration that is outside the direct commandants of Torah. They are both celebrations of events that occurred during a time known in the English speaking world as the inter-testament period.
Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from attempts at physical annihilation at the hands of the Persians, while Hanukkah celebrates the deliverance of Judea from the blatant attempts at spiritual annihilation at the hands of the Syrian-Greek empire.
The Hanukkah account begins in a small village about seventeen miles from Jerusalem, in the year 175 BCE. We find the village elders sitting in the town gate awaiting the arrival of their priest Mattityahu ben Yochanan. He is returning from his tour of duty at the Jerusalem Temple. Unlike our world today where rural folk can get instant news, the village folk during the Second Temple period had to rely on people returning from Jerusalem or passing merchants, to give them updates of national and international news. So, the elders were keenly awaiting the arrival of Mattityahu for the latest news.
When he arrives he shares all that has been happening in Jerusalem during his tour of duty and concludes by announcing that a new king has been enthroned in Syria. This is significant news because since the days of Alexander the Great, Judea has been occupied by the Syrian-Greek empire. Mattityahu tells them that unlike his forbears the new king Antiochus IV is a tyrant who is determined to destroy the Jewish culture by turning all subjects toward Hellenism.
The news spread quickly through the village and for the next few weeks fear descends over the village community. However, as time passes every day life causes the fear to abate. That is for all besides one village elder called Sokher. Sokher as his name implies is the village trader who buys, sells and barters with travelling merchants from all corners of the Greek empire. He realises that being a Torah observant Jew in an empire ruled by an obsessive Hellenist king is going to damage his ability to trade.
Time passes and Sokher and his family make regular trips to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals and offer sacrifices at the Temple, all in accordance with Torah. Year by year he notices that the mood in Jerusalem is changing. The number of Syrian soldiers camped in and around the city is constantly increasing, new centres of Greek learning are springing up throughout the city and there are a large number of Greek speaking Jews from Alexandria teaching in the streets. These new-comers are saying that it is no longer fashionable to follow the practices of the fore-fathers. It is now time to move on from the teachings of Moshe to embrace the newly found philosophies of Hellenism. These Hellenised Jews are even luring the Priests and the Levites away from the Temple to spend their leisure time in a palatial gymnasium the Greeks have built near the entrance to the Temple courts. Sokher notices that many priests have begun speaking Greek, adopting Greek names and have started following the idolatrous practices of the young naked athletes at the gymnasium.
After his tour of Temple duty in the year 167 BCE, Mattityahu the priest returns home and consults again with the village elders. Sokher is outraged by what he has seen and heard of the practices of the ruling classes in Jerusalem, but what can he do? Mattityahu warns that the citizens of Jerusalem are becoming deeply divided. On the one hand observant Jews like himself are calling their Hellenised brothers infidels and traitors, while the Hellenised Jews are retorting that they are progressive and following the spirit of the times. They believe that anyone who holds fast to the teachings of Torah are standing in the way of progress!
Meanwhile, Antiochus while returning from a war campaign in Egypt hears about the divisions in Jerusalem and seizes the opportunity to further the cause of Hellenism. He appoints a new governor over Judea, reasoning that this governor will eradicate all Hebraic culture from an otherwise homogeneous empire. Under the direction of Phillipus the new governor, a decree goes forth that in future all Hebraic religious practices will cease. Any person found keeping the Shabbat, celebrating festival or circumcising their baby boys, will be instantly killed by the Syrian soldiers.
Philipus went on to replace the serving High-priest with a man of his own choice. A Jewish priest who had become a Hellenist. The new priest sent out a decree that in accordance with the requirements of Antiochus IV, only pigs would be offered on the Holy altar, with all sacrifices required by Torah being strictly forbidden.
Finally, on the 25th day of Tislev 167 BCE, Philipus on the orders of Antiochus IV erected a statue of Zeus in the Holy-of-Holies the very heart of the Temple. Greek guards were placed in and around the Temple and all forms of worship were stopped. The menorah was pulled down and the fire on the Holy altar allowed to go out. Worship to Adonai had ceased.
Not content with this desecration, Philipus orders his soldiers to go from village to village throughout Judea forcing the elders and priests in each town to build an altar and sacrifice a pig in the name of the King Antiochus now entitled Epiphanes. A title meaning "god manifest" because he considered himself to be divine. Hence-forth all sacrifices were to be offered to him.
When the soldiers arrived at the village where Sokher lived, they spoke to Mattityahu the priest and said - "You are the leader here, you will be the first to come forward and carryout the king's order." All national groups in the empire and throughout Judea and even in Jerusalem are making this sacrifice in honour of the king. If you lead the way, you too will be enrolled as a friend of the king, you will receive high honours and many rich rewards."
Mattityahu replied in a resounding voice: "Though all the nations within the king's realm obey him and forsake their ancestral worship, though they have chosen to submit to his commands, I, my sons and my brothers will follow the Covenant of our fathers. Heaven forbid we should ever abandon Torah and its statutes. We will not obey the commands of the king, nor will we deviate from Torah based worship."
As soon as he had finished speaking, a Hellenist Jew from Jerusalem stepped forward and in full view of all offered a pig as a sacrifice on the pagan altar. This stirred Mattityahu to intense indignation - he shook with passion and with the fury of righteous anger, he rushed forward and slaughtered the traitor beside the altar. At the same time other villagers rushed forward killing the king's officers, who were enforcing the sacrifice. Seeing what had happened Sokher and other village folk tore down the altar, as Mattityahu shouted throughout the village …. "Follow me, everyone of you who is zealous for Torah and who strives to maintain the Covenants of Adonai." They fled the village leaving behind all the worldly processions and made for the hills.
In the ensuing months Mattityahu lead Sokher and many village folk, along with local farmers into pitched battles against the mighty army of Greece. However, within twelve months Mattityahu died of old age and exhaustion, but before he breathed his last, he handed over the mantel of responsibility to his third son Judah.
Judah became a mighty warrior in the cause for righteousness and dealt many harsh blows to the Greeks. He became known by the familiar title of Maccabee. The small band of Torah faithful Jews fought heroically in battles of totally unequal numbers. It was literally a case of the few against the many. The Jews were unarmed peasants fighting a guerrilla war against a super-power with a well equipped regular army of trained soldiers. However, as we see in many passages of Scripture and also in modern Israel, when Adonai goes to war siding with His people, the mighty armies of the enemy are no match for His small army of faithful followers.
For three years Judah and his band of Torah faithful, with the full support of Adonai, out smarted the whole Syrian-Greek army stationed in Judea. Finally, on 25th Kislev 164 BCE, exactly three years to the day from when the Temple had been desecrated, they recaptured the Temple and the surrounding city. The remaining Greeks fled fearing for their lives in the presence of Adonai.
In 1 Maccabees chapter 3 - we are told how things had been in Jerusalem during the three years of desecration - "Jerusalem lay deserted like a wilderness, none of her children went in or out. Her holy place was trampled down; aliens and heathens lodged in her citadel. Joy had been banished from the people of Israel and the flute and the harp were silent."
Judah Macabee defeated Antiochus' army and liberated Jerusalem in the fall 164 BCE.
Written by Graeme Purdie - November 2001©