In 167 BCE, in a small town near Jerusalem, a Greek official ordered an old Jewish priest named Mattathias to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. It would set a good example, the official said, and he promised Mattathias a handsome reward if he complied. The old priest defiantly refused, but while he was upbraiding the official a Hellenized Jew approached the altar and began preparing to offer the sacrifice. Mattathias, filled with a blazing anger and indignation, grabbed a sword and killed both the renegade Jew and the Greek official. He then turned to the crowd that had gathered and said, “Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the covenant!”
Those who joined Mattathias, including his five sons, hid in the hills and organized a guerrilla army led by the eldest son, Judah. Judah and his soldiers were so successful that they were given the nickname “the Hammers” – in Hebrew, “the Maccabees” – because of all the hammer blows they dealt the enemy. Though vastly outnumbered, they waged a long and bitter war, which they eventually won, and the legend of the Maccabees spread throughout the empire, causing the Seleucid rulers much consternation.
Antiochus first sent a small force to stop the revolt. Judah annihilated them. Then a larger force was sent. This time, Antiochus was so confident of victory that he brought slave auctioneers with him and promised them a large supply of Jewish slaves after the battle. Again, the Maccabees were victorious.
After the third year of fighting, Judah was able to reconquer Jerusalem and chase away the Hellenist sympathizers. When the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found it desecrated, filled with Greek statues, overgrown with vegetation, and its holy implements – including the golden Menorah (the Candlestick) – stolen: in fact, much of the Temple’s wealth had been used by the Seleucid kings to pay the Romans their tributes. Judah and his followers threw out all the idols, cleansed everything, constructed a new Menorah, and rededicated the Temple on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, in 164 BCE.
But they could only find enough oil to keep the Menorah burning for one day (it was supposed to burn continuously), and it was an eight day journey to bring back and prepare a new supply of oil. Miraculously, the oil continued to burn for the full eight days.
This miracle is still commemorated by the Festival of Lights, the Chanukah Festival, when Jews light candles on a Menorah for eight days.
The word Chanukah comes from the Hebrew word chein, which means Divine ‘Grace’ – i.e., God’s Light. With God’s help, the Maccabees overcame incredible odds. The candle lighting ceremony of Chanukah is meant to remind us of God’s Grace and to rekindle Hope in the human heart during times of adversity.
Judah’s triumph, however, was not yet complete, and there would be many more years of fighting. But in battle after battle, the Seleucids were forced to retreat. Mattathias and Antiochus Epiphanes both died during this time, and four of Mattathias’ sons would eventually die in battle, including Judah Maccabee. But at last, in 143 BCE, Antiochus’ successor, no longer certain of victory, tired of the endless guerrilla warfare, and feeling weak and threatened by Rome, signed a peace treaty with Mattathias’ only surviving son, Simon.
The Israelite Nation was free.
This year, Chanukah begins at sunset tonight, Tuesday, December 20, 2011. With all the hardship and suffering that people are enduring here in America and all around the world, perhaps we can all light a candle to remind us of God’s Grace and to rekindle Hope in the human heart.