Hanukkah: Eight Nights of Light
The time between the Old Testament and the New has traditionally been known as the silent years. But a fictional novel could not hold more intrigue or imaginative narrative than this period. Historians who have not fallen under the “spell of silence” have left us enough information to glean valuable lessons from Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is a story of survival, bravery, overcoming faith, and a sovereign God. These lessons are too rich to ascribe to a silent past. They cry out, of themselves, to be paid attention to. If they had been heeded, needless deaths might have been spared during the Holocaust.
Purim follows in the spring on the heels of Hanukkah. Purim is also a story about survival. The thread that binds both stories is God’s protection over the Jewish nation, His chosen people. One story takes place in the diaspora (lands where the Jewish people were dispersed from Israel) and the other takes place in “Greek occupied” Israel. These stories take place hundreds of years apart. Esther is dated approximately 460 B.C., and the saga of the Maccabees—Hanukkah—takes place about 160 B.C.
Both of these stories were dictated to the mind of scribes by God’s Holy Spirit, I am sure, to leave us an indelible message. The message is that in the face of enormous odds, with God, we are victorious.
When we were still living in Jerusalem I attended services at our congregation where our former British guest speaker, Lance Lambert, a Jewish believer who lived in Jerusalem many years, was speaking on “The Hanukkah Connection.” Some of his thoughts are worth adding here as an introduction.
David Ben Gurion, upon being asked to create a seal for the new State of Israel, chose two olive branches surrounding a menorah. It stands as the Israeli State Seal to this day. On each of the seven cups of the menorah (seven-branched candlestick) is one word:
“Lo B-chil, U’Lo B’Koach, Ki Im B’Ruachi,” —Not by might, nor by power, by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”
This picture is from Zechariah 4:6, at which time they were rebuilding the Temple after the Babylonian captivity. Remember the word Hanukkah in Hebrew simply means “dedication,” specifically of the Temple of God.
The menorah (candlestick) stands as a symbol in so many passages of Scripture. Revelation tells us that the seven churches of Asia were represented in the heavenlies by a candlestick. Also Israel is represented by the menorah in Zechariah. John in his Gospel records that Jesus is the light of the world and lights every man. Zechariah goes on to record something interesting in relation to this just after the “not by might” section mentioned above.
Zechariah asks about the meaning of the vision of the two branches who are pouring oil from themselves. Of course, this oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit of God, but it is interesting to note that in Hebrew it does not say that they were pouring just any oil from themselves, but it says that they were pouring “gold,” not even golden oil. The word “oil” placed in most translations is in italics, meaning it is inferred by the translator. In the context of the rebuilding of the Temple, and the power coming from the Holy Spirit, the Hebrew word picture is without rival.
In John 10:22, Jesus is recorded as walking in the area of Solomon’s colonnade during the Feast of Dedication, which is Hanukkah. As was usual with Jesus, He tied His message to the events of the people. He took that opportunity to declare that HE was the Light of the world.
It is interesting to note that the candlestick used by the Jewish people during Hanukkah, called a hanukkiah, has eight candles and one extra one called the shamash, or “servant”. The symbolism of the eight candles is discussed below, but the symbolism of the “servant” candle for us as believers is worth mentioning. Jesus, the Servant, is the light of all men. According to the rules of this holiday, all the candles of the hanukkiah must be lighted from the one called the shamash.
Hellenization of the Region
Josephus, the historian of antiquity, left important documentation of that period. The bulk of the story of Hanukkah is found in the book of Maccabees (one of the books of the Apocrypha; this collection of works was preserved by the formal church), and mention is made of the Feast in the New Testament. In the book of John, just after Jesus has declared himself to be the Light of the world, he is found walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. John tells us that it was in winter during the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22).
This holiday holds more historical resource in Christian literature than it does in the literature of the Jewish people. Actually the holiday is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament because it happened after the closing of Malachi.
This drama of Hanukkah begins with Alexander the Great. His conquest of the then-known world began in Greece in the fourth century B.C. Alexander was so highly ambitious that he conquered the world by the age of 23. The book of the prophet Daniel portrays him, symbolically, first as a leopard and later as a horned goat who charges so swiftly that he does not even touch the ground (Daniel 7:6, 8:5-7).
Thus, via Alexander the Great, began the hellenization of the world. The Greek philosophers’ ideas, the glorifying of the human body, both in sport and in fine art, and the Greek way of perceiving the universe around us, permeated the world.
Though our story of the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greeks takes place much later, Alexander’s conquest of the world is actually the foundation of those events. At his death, Alexander’s empire was split into four parts. The four major generals of his vast army divided his conquests amongst themselves. Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals, took what later became modern Syria. It was under the iron fist of this sector of the divided empire that Israel came to a time of great trouble.
Several generations from Seleucus, a maniacal ruler came to power known as Antiochus Epiphanes. His Greek name actually means “god in the flesh.” Antiochus ruled from Syria but set up a military garrison in Jerusalem. This garrison was to oversee the hellenization of the population of Israel.
Antiochus had the high priest Onais murdered. He demanded that the circumcision of all Jewish baby boys cease. He had a statue of Jupiter (Zeus) erected on the Temple Mount and the sacrifice of swine on the altar was instituted.
The Syrian-Greek military garrison met their demise upon entering a small village outside Jerusalem called Modi’in. The soldiers built an altar and demanded a “show of allegiance” by having the local elders sacrifice a pig there. An old Jewish priest named Mattathias became so enraged when he saw what was taking place that he killed the Jew who was complying with the orders. He and his sons fled to the nearby mountains to regroup and prepare to wage guerrilla warfare against the oppressive authorities.
Mattathias, being elderly, passed his leadership on to his son Judah, known as the Maccabee (meaning “hammer”) prior to his death. Judah defeated every attempt by Antiochus to end his uprising. His strategy and bravery could not be matched by the other side. In the face of astounding odds, Judah led his followers to Jerusalem where he drove the Syrian force out of the city.
Judah faced the grief of having to fight against his own Jewish brothers who had joined the side of the hellenizers. Some forsook their Jewishness for monetary gain, others for prestige. In order to participate in Greek sporting events which were conducted in the nude, some of his Jewish brothers were so determined to be hellenized that they endured painful surgery to reverse their circumcisions, thereby erasing any sign of their tie to their Jewish heritage. Many died from the dangerous operation.
On the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month Kislev, exactly the same day that three years earlier the Temple had been defiled by unholy sacrifices, the Hasmonean brothers and their followers liberated the city and began in earnest to undo what their oppressors had done. They rushed to rededicate the desecrated Temple.
Arriving at the Temple site, they began removing the stones of the defiled altar and toppling the statue of Jupiter. In the holy place inside the Temple stood the huge menorah (the great olive oil lampstand). The rejoicing Jewish conquerors found only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. The joy of the conquest of liberation was diminished due to the laws stating that the menorah must burn continually. The time it took to process enough oil to replenish the menorah was eight days. How could they possibly begin the process and let it die again? Nevertheless, they lit the menorah and began the process of procuring more oil.
The stamp of God’s approval of their deeds of valor was evident when the oil which should have lasted for only one day lasted the entire eight days until the new oil was brought. For this reason the holiday is also known as the “Feast of Lights.”
Modern Hanukkah Traditions
The traditions of the Feast of Hanukkah that have evolved over the years are the lighting of an eight-branched menorah (candleholder) called a hanukkiah. One candle is lit each night by a candle known as the shamash, or servant in English. Thus the hanukkiah candleholder has nine candles. The candles are lit in a right-hand to left-hand order, adding another candle each night.Hanukkah candles come in boxes of 44 since lighting one more each night of the eight nights of Hanukkah adds up to 44.The frying of potato pancakes in oil is traditional to commemorate the oil used the light the Temple Menorah so long ago.Games are played with a four-sided top called a dreidel. Each side of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter on it standing for the slogan:
Nes Gadol Hiyah Po—“A Great Miracle Happened Here.”
In all places outside of Israel the dreidel has the letters slightly different, standing for Nes Gadol Hiyah Sham—“A Great Miracle Happened There.”
Story-telling is Popular During Hanukkah
The book of Maccabees is read, wherein lies the story of the bravery of those zealous of God’s ways. Women played a role as well in this great drama. These stories are related concerning Israel’s women of valor.
One is about a woman named Judith who, upon seeing the desperate plight of her people, left Jerusalem and arrived at the Syrian encampment. She pleased the Syrian general and he, thinking to have her for himself, consented to her preparing him a meal first. Judith knew that serving salted cheese would make the general thirsty whereby she could give him too much to drink. He complied, drinking wine until he passed out. Judith, seizing the opportunity, killed the Syrian General. When the Syrians learned of Judith’s deed, they fled.
Another story of a woman of valor relates that the Syrian governor passed a law that every Jewish bride would be brought to his bed chamber first on the night of her wedding. The daughter of the high priest, upon hearing this, made plans for her own wedding ceremony. After her vows she stood amidst the people disrobing, almost like the prophet Jeremiah at a much earlier time, which, of course, enraged the crowd. Her brothers shouted that they would kill her, to which she replied, “Over my being disrobed you are angry, but about what the Syrian governor will do to me tonight you remain silent?” Being roused to righteous anger, her brothers stormed the palace and killed the Syrian governor, and the revolt began.
What Does This Mean for Us?
This story is a tale repeated time and time again by the Jewish people—a story of overcoming in the face of overwhelming adversity. From the book of Genesis to the Maccabees the Jews have overcome Egyptians, the desert and its dangers, felled the walls of Jericho with rams’ horns, quelled the giants of the promised land, and led three Babylonian kings to the throne of God the Almighty.
From the Maccabees to present day, there have been a string of miracles, but to answer Isaiah’s rhetorical question, “Can a nation be born in a day?” Yes, indeed it can and in the face of such overwhelming odds as to be absurd should anyone simply have penned the story as a novel.
Our lesson from this holiday is that we can overcome with Him. We will face Antiochus again in the visage of the Anti-Christ and God’s people will overcome. His empire will once again be shattered. This time God’s people will watch because it will be done without hands, according to Daniel, but it will come to an end. In all this we can take courage—God is ever present in the annals of men.
The Local Flavor
One of the best places to take an after-dark walk during Hanukkah is the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Quarter sits nestled inside walls rebuilt by Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the once powerful Turkish Moslem Ottoman Empire which ruled here from A.D. 1517 until the British brought this kingdom to an end in A.D. 1917.
Hanukkah candles are meant to be lit in a window facing outward to shed their light into the street. The beautiful architecture of the Jewish Quarter is the perfect environment. Narrow walkways between tall buildings made of creamy limestone seem to wait for candles to illuminate their soft façades. Long narrow passageways are warm and softly glowing. Bright spots punctuate the dark passageways, bringing to mind the lighting of a Rembrandt painting. Each succeeding evening an extra candle graces the Hanukkah menorah, shedding even more light.
I often would take such a walk—a lazy enjoyable Friday night — with daydreaming of what it must have been like when our Messiah walked in the same area. It seems that even Jesus enjoyed such a walk. John chapter 10 records His walking in Solomon’s Colonnade, which is in the same area. His walk is recorded to have been during the Feast of Dedication. Jesus had just finished healing a blind man’s eyes and declaring himself the Light of the world—the Light shining into darkness setting those free who are willing.Again, the Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication”. It comes from the dedication of the Temple, both in Solomon’s time and in the time of the Maccabees, who rededicated the Temple desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 B.C.
The Jewish Quarter sits very high on a hill inside the confines of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. As one approaches the Temple Mount area, the topography drops off sharply into a valley. The view is spectacular both by day and by night.
My walk would bring me to the edge of that valley to the staircase which leads down to the Western Wall plaza where the Jewish people pray today. There my daydream ended and I was brought back to reality. Riding the east wind coming from the Mount of Olives was the voice of the Moslem muezzin declaring that “allah is the great god and that mohammed is his prophet.” The contrast was almost too vivid.
City of light, city where the Light walked and healed and illumined the dark eyes of some and the dark minds of others, sits in spiritual darkness. Jerusalem is Ground Zero for future attempts of God’s enemy to usurp His authority. That enemy works through people and the stage is being set for confrontation. Jerusalem will become more and more the focus of international news’ attention. Things will never become politically acceptable here for the western world. On the contrary, Jerusalem is appointed to become a cup of trembling to the nations.
But yet there is light. The symbolism of the eight-candle menorah being lit by a ninth candle called “the servant” is a reminder of the servanthood of the Messiah. Psalm 36:12 says, “For with You is the fountain of Life, in Your light we see light.”
We are, in a manner of speaking, like the Hanukkah menorah—servants called to illuminate those around us and to ever increase the light. During Hanukkah see the candles being added nightly until the glow almost drives back the chill of winter in the limestone city. Our job is to continue to drive back the chill of winter with light.
Hanukkah is a time when God encourages us to persevere in the face of crushing pressures.
Pray for the Jewish community around the world and Israel during this time. May the Light of the world be revealed in and through us all ever brighter and brighter.
Hanukkah: Eight Nights of Light Video
Watch the video that we produced in Israel with Ron Cantrell teaching from Jerusalem:
The Feasts of the Lord
Learn more about Hanukkah: Eight Nights of Light and other Feasts of the Lord in Ron’s book: The Feasts of the Lord: The Feasts, Fasts, & Festivals of the Bible. Buy the paperback book at Amazon.com.