A Dark Time in History
The year was 167 BC and it was a very dark time in the land of Israel. Since Israel was the linchpin of three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, the main trade corridor to all destinations had always passed through Israel making it prime real estate for surrounding kings. (It is still Prime Real Estate!) During the Second Temple Period, the governorship of Israel changed hands many times. Mithradates was a Greek king of the Seleucid Empire. When he took the throne in 175 BC, he changed his name to Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In Israel, many Jews were taking on Greek ways (this was called Hellenization). Antiochus had replaced the High Priest, Jason (note the Greek name) with Menelaus. Jason and 1,000 soldiers attacked Jerusalem and when Antiochus found out, he thought it was a full revolt. The book of the Maccabees gives the awful details: “Raging like a wild animal, he [Antiochus] set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery. …Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God; also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus…They also brought into the temple things that were forbidden, so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws.”
The golden Menorah (Hebrew: מְנֹרַ֖ת זָהָ֣ב) that was in the Holy Place in the Temple is first mentioned in Exodus 25:31-40. The Hebrew word ‘menorah’ is translated as ‘candlestick’ in the KJV, but it is important to remember the golden menorah was not a candlestick in that it did not burn candles. From the artists rendition above, the golden Menorah had six branches, three off of each side of the main stem. Each branch along with the main stem held a ‘lamp’ for a total of seven lamps that burned olive oil. Leviticus 24:1-2 says, “Command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamps to burn continually.” This olive oil had to be pure, today we would say ‘kosher’, and it had to be from the first pressing or ‘extra virgin olive oil’ as we say today.
The Eternal Light
The phrase in Lev. 24:2, “to cause the lamps to burn continually” is from the Hebrew, לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד (l’ha-ah-lot nir tamid) which literally means ‘to go up an eternal light’. The Hebrew phrase ‘nir tamid‘ (eternal light) is often a synonym for the Menorah. The golden Menorah was the only light inside of the Holy Place and was never to go out. It was the priest’s duty to daily replenish the olive oil and to trim the lamps so they would always burn brightly. The Menorah was a constant physical reminder of the spiritual truth that Israel was God’s light of truth to the world concerning the one true God.
Dark Days – Religious Freedom Lost
During the reign of Antiochus, Israel was stripped of her freedom of religion and was not able to worship the one true God. However, just one person can truly make a difference. A aged priest from the rural area of Modiin named Mattathias the Hasmonean, sparked the revolt against the Seleucid Empire by refusing to worship the Greek gods. In 166 BC, his son Judas Maccabee led an army of Jewish soldiers to victory over the Seleucid dynasty by using guerrilla warfare tactics. After the victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and ritually cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship there and installing Jonathan Maccabee as high priest.
Miracle of the Oil
Antiochus had desecrated the holy Temple so the priests had to first cleanse it and then re-dedicate it to God. The word Hanukkah ( חנוכה) is from the root meaning ‘to dedicate’ and Hanukkah is also called the ‘feast of dedication’. The Temple Menorah had to be rekindled. Jewish tradition tells us that only a single container, basically a one day supply, of the kosher oil with the seal of the High Priest, was found. However the Menorah was re-kindled anyway. It took eight days for the priests to make more of the kosher olive oil and during those eight days, the Temple Menorah miraculously burned using the oil that was supposed to only last one day. I liken this miracle to that performed by Elisha for the widow in 2 Kings 4.
A Big Miracle Happened Here! Hanukkah commemorates this great miracle of the oil lasting for eight days – hence the eight days of Hanukkah. A special Menorah with nine branches (instead of the normal seven), called a Hanukiah, is used during Hanukah. One of the nine candles is called the shamesh – שמש – from the root of the Hebrew word meaning “to use”. It is set off from the other eight by either being taller or shorter or to the side. For each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the shamesh candle is lit, and then used to light one candle the first night, two candles the 2nd night and so on until on the 8th night of Hanukkah, all the candles on the Hanukiah are lit.
Children spin tops called
a dreidel (Yiddish: דרײדל ). The Hebrew word is סביבון – sevivon from the root meaning ‘to spin’. Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet:
נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which are the first letters of the Hebrew phrase “נס גדול היה שם” (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – meaning “a big miracle happened there”). Dreidel’s from Israel are inscribed with the letter פ (Pei) instead of (Shin) making the phrase: נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Hayah Poh -“A big miracle happened here” referring to the miracle occurring in the land of Israel.
Hanukkah points to God’s faithfulness to preserve His ancient people Israel by raising up a hero, in this case the Maccabes, to save them. Without God’s preserving hand, the Jewish nation would have ceased to exist. In the spirit of the Maccabees, let us re-dedicate our lives to serve God in these darkening days of vanishing religious freedom.