THE CHANUKAH STORY

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1. THE REIGN OF TERROR

 

After the death of Alexander the Great, his three generals divvied up his Empire. The Greek city-states went to Antigonus. The northern region from Persia through Babylonia and Assyria was taken by Seleucis. The southern region, including Egypt and Palestine, was taken by Ptolemy.

For 125 years, the Ptolemies (i.e., Ptolemy I, Ptolemy II[1], etc.), ruled Palestine with a generally tolerant, hands-off attitude: as long as the Jews paid their taxes, they could govern themselves and worship however they pleased.

Even so, the Greeks expected their vassals to adopt their language, manners, customs, and ideals. Among other alien ideas, the Jews had to cope with the popular philosophy of Epicureanism that encouraged a life of cynicism, in which Divinity played no role in human life, and our only purpose was to free ourselves from concerns about morality so that we could pursue a life of physical pleasure. As has always been the case, this was a very fashionable and attractive philosophy for many people, especially among the young. Between the prosperity and the pleasure, many Jews were happy to be Hellenized.

In response to this, however, there was a conservative reaction among those Jews who still revered the Mosaic Law and the religious culture of their ancestors, and who maintained a firm belief that the royal line of David would one day be restored to the throne. These Jews became members of a political group known as the Hasideans. So the nation was soon split between pro- and anti-Hellenists.

Also during these years, there was constant fighting between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, both of whom wanted control of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard which included Palestine. Finally, in 200 BCE the Seleucids, under Antiochus III, wrested Palestine from the Ptolemies. Still, Antiochus continued to allow the Jews freedom of worship and the right to govern themselves, so it didn’t make much difference and once again many people were perfectly content to be tax-paying vassals of the latest Hellenic emperor.

Antiochus soon decided that he wanted to expand his empire even further, and he marched into Egypt intending to collect more property. There, however, he ran into the latest contender for world domination, the Romans, who had only recently become the masters of all Italy and were now beginning their own expansionist policy. One look at the Roman legions and Antiochus turned back.

But he still thought he might be able to defeat these upstarts if he had the help of a truly united empire behind him. So Antiochus embarked on an intense project of Hellenization throughout his realm, including placing statues of himself, as a god, everywhere. In Palestine, of course, the Jews objected vehemently to this idol-worshipping project, and Antiochus decided to let them be — so long as they demonstrated their continued loyalty by providing taxes and soldiers. But then Antiochus III died, and the son who soon took over, ‘Antiochus Epiphanes’, was not so agreeable.

In time, the aristocratic pro-Hellenist forces in Palestine, believing it to be in their best interest to support Antiochus Epiphanes in his Hellenization program, convinced him (and very likely bribed him) to appoint one of their members, a priest named Jason, as the new High Priest. The High Priesthood, which controlled the great wealth of the Temple, had fallen into a corrupt institution. Within a year there were Greek statues and Greek rites in the Temple. In response to this, more and more moderate Jews flocked to the anti-Hellenist Hasidean party, and the divisiveness in Palestine approached a state of civil war.

Antiochus Epiphanes’ Hellenization project was successful in the rest of the Seleucid Empire, and even in Palestine he had some supporters. So, believing he was strong enough to face the Romans, he headed once again to Egypt. He was quickly sent packing by the Roman legions[2], and a rumor reached the Jews in Palestine that he had been killed. Members of the Hasidean party took this news as a signal that the time was ripe to purge the nation of traitorous Jewish supporters of Hellenism and desecrators of the Temple. Many were killed, and the Greek statues in the Temple were thrown over the wall and smashed.

Antiochus, however, was very much alive. And when news of the uprising reached him, right on the heels of his humiliation by Rome, he was enraged. He marched into Jerusalem, slaughtered thousands of people indiscriminately, installed new statues in the Temple, looted the Temple’s wealth, and invited pagans to come to Jerusalem and settle there. Still angry, he then outlawed the Sabbath, forced Jews to sacrifice pigs to pagan gods in their own Temple, and forbade circumcision.

It was a reign of terror.

 

2. THE MACCABEES

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.

 

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Find out more about this fascinating period of history in

“FROM JOSHUA TO JESUS: A Brief Chronicle of the Kings, Empires, Legends and Ideas that Paved the Way to Bethlehem”!

The perfect little Holiday Gift!
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[1] It was Ptolemy II who compelled seventy Jewish sages to translate the Torah into Greek. The translation is known as the Septuagint. Ptolemy II and his Greek subjects were pleased to have another volume of human wisdom on their shelves, but the sages grieved. They knew that without the Oral teachings, the Greek Torah was just another ‘literary classic’ that could only be read literally – as history and a description of social legislation – rather than symbolically and spiritually.
[2] In fact, the Romans declared themselves henceforth the ‘Protector’ of the Greek-speaking peoples, and Antiochus was forced thereafter to pay them an annual Tribute. So the citizens of Palestine were now, by some strange logic of politics, simultaneously the vassals of the Greek Seleucids while under the ‘protection’ of Rome.