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Why Hanukkah? (part 2 of 4)

Post Title: A Few Overcame the Many

In reality, what seemed a clash of cultures was a battle for allegiance. To the Greek mind, the problem was not so much the God of the Jews; it was His exclusivity. Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. - Deut 6:4

During these trying times, the faithful remnant of Jews refused to worship any other God. Furious, Antiochus, in collusion with corrupt religious leaders, issued an edict banning all sacrifices at the temple. His wide-ranging decree also banned circumcision and teaching the Hebrew Scriptures. Judaism was on the verge of extinction.

On the one hand, the forces of Hellenism were seducing the young people. On the other hand, it was forcing itself as a way of life on the people of Israel.

The King's henchmen went throughout the country, compelling people to offer sacrifices to Zeus and eat unclean food. They found and burned Torah scrolls, and if anyone resisted, they were executed. These were days of indescribable darkness.

Then, the final outrage occurred. Antiochus looted the ark of the covenant and other sacred items and placed a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Holy of Holies. But, abolishing temple sacrifices was not enough; he also established an altar for sacrificing to the Greek gods. And on the holy Jewish altar, he now sacrificed swine. All seemed lost.

But as so often happens in history, amidst times of great evil, great grace abounds. We have seen it in our own times in places like Russia and China. In the midst of darkness, the light shines bright; out of despair arises faith and faithfulness.

What follows comes from the account given in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees (part of the Apocrypha), written about 100 years before Jesus. It is a fascinating account of what transpired.

The High Priest Menelaus, under orders from Antiochus, sent men into the countryside to make Jewish men sacrifice to Zeus and eat pork as a sign of fidelity to the king. In a town near Jerusalem called Modein lived a priest named Mattathias who was grieved by what was happening around him. He had five sons; his oldest was known as Judah Maccabee.

The king’s men, who were enforcing apostasy, came to the town of Modein to see to it that the sacrifices were made. The chief officer spoke to Mattathias and his sons, "You are a leader here, a man of influence in this town, so be the first to come forward and carry out the king’s order. All the nations have done so, as well as the leading men in Judea and the people in Jerusalem. Then you and your sons will be enrolled among the king’s friends. You will all receive high honors, rich rewards of silver and gold, and many further benefits."

Suddenly, events take a dramatic turn. Mattathias, though elderly, answers in a ringing voice, Though all the nations that are under the king's dominion obey him, and fall away, and everyone from the religion of their fathers gives consent to his commandments—yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not hearken to the king's words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand or the left. (1 Maccabees 2:19-22)

As soon as he finished speaking, a Jewish townsman stepped forward in full view of the people and offered the pagan sacrifice. Mattathias was so stirred with passion and indignation he rushed forward and slaughtered the traitor on that same altar. He then turned and struck down the king's official. After pulling down the pagan altar, he said, "Every one of you who is zealous for Torah and strives to maintain the covenant, follow me!"

And so began what came to be known as the Maccabean revolt. A small handful of peasants, in their fervency for God, decided to take on the ruling power of the day.

Don't romanticize the moment. It seemed totally suicidal, even ridiculous, that a handful of zealous Israelites without weapons or training could resist and overcome the mighty Syrian Empire. Yet, against all odds, they won four successive battles over the next three years.

In the year 165 BC, three years after they started, their leader Judah Maccabee and his band of guerilla fighters recaptured Jerusalem. They had fought bravely and cunningly against extraordinary odds and were victorious. Once they had retaken the holiest site in all of Israel, they set about cleansing it.

Not only did they rededicate the temple, but they also established the Hasmonean Dynasty. Several of these sons ruled and were all killed in different ways. The battles were intense for several generations as the struggle continued.

We find in 1 Maccabees 6 the first recorded historical instance of martyrdom. The Greek word martyr means to bear witness. Many accounts are given of Israelites who refused to eat pork and who refused to sacrifice to Greek deities resulting in execution after unspeakable torture and suffering. They voluntarily gave up their lives rather than turning their back on their religious commitment.

During the process of cleansing the temple they realized that Antiochus' looting included the menorahs (large lampstands) which were supposed to burn before the LORD continually. According to tradition, they took their spears and swords and fashioned them into the shape of a menorah.

They then searched and found one small cruse of sacred oil that still had the seal signifying it was ritually pure. Though it was just enough to burn for a few hours at best, they poured it into the menorah and kindled the flame. Miraculously, again according to tradition, the lamp burned for eight days.

Still today, over 2200 years later, the Jewish community around the world remembers these stories by celebrating Hanukkah. To commemorate the events, they created a menorah with eight candles, lighting one candle ins succession each day. Jewish tradition relates the festival is eight days because the menorah burned for eight days. Still, most scholars believe that, due to the battles for Jerusalem, they were not able to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (an eight‑day pilgrim festival that occurs in the Fall). So this historical event was, in effect, a belated observance of Tabernacles.

Psalm 30 is sung during this period. Note the inscription, A Psalm of David. A song at the dedication of the temple.

The subsequent history of the Hasmonean dynasty was far from perfect. And the murderous hatred that characterized the zealots of his day was resisted by Yeshua (e.g., Luke 6:27). What stirs my heart is how those faithful to God took a stand and resisted evil in His name. If you ask Israelis today what Hanukkah means, they will say, "A few overcame the many."

Brothers and sisters, it is true that with God all things are possible. But make no mistake about this; with God, most things will go against you. The cultures of this world, whether Hellenism or another, are fundamentally at odds with the kingdom of God. Ours are kingdoms in conflict. They are on a collision course, and you are right in the middle of it, whether you know it or not.


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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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