This matchless series of feasts were called holy convocations; they were chosen by the God of the Universe. Recorded in Leviticus 23, they were to be times when—by His instigation, at His invitation, and only on His terms—He would meet with man. These holidays have been a critical part of the fabric of Jewish life since the days of Moses, an ongoing celebration of the covenant relationship that defined the Jewish people. This cycle helped to mold the very foundations of the Jewish nation, and throughout history, these holidays would provide a continuity necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, as they were dispersed throughout the world.
Today, there are some additions to the cycle, days not commanded in Leviticus but added through the course of time to insure that the full story of the Jewish people is told for each succeeding generation. One of those additional set times is Hanukkah.
“Unbiblical” but Important
Also known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the Jewish people over their Assyrian oppressors. The holiday also acknowledges the miracle of the oil, one small cruse with enough for one day, burning brightly instead for eight, as more oil was consecrated for the dedication of the Temple. As Christians have become increasingly interested in the biblical feasts, many have disregarded Hanukkah as “unbiblical” and therefore of little importance. Just the opposite is true, however; this holiday should actually be given great credence by Christians for three reasons.
1. It secured the historical and spiritual environment into which Yeshua (Jesus) would be born. The events that surround the story of Hanukkah happened just prior to the first-century birth of Yeshua. Antiochus Epiphanes, king of the Seleucid Empire, ascended the throne in 175 BC. His reign demanded that all peoples within his kingdom adopt the ideals, customs, and forms of idolatry that were part and parcel of the Greek empire. For other nations that fell under their control, this was not a particularly difficult request since they were polytheistic to begin with. However, for most Jewish people, such a demand was out of the question. As the bearers of monotheism, they could never submit to such an edict.
At first, under Antiochus’ reign, little changed and the Jews in Judea practiced their faith unhindered. But eventually, an all-out effort began to totally eliminate the Jewish people, either through death or assimilation. The Temple in Jerusalem was looted and desecrated, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was effectively outlawed. In 167 BC, Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. Had it not been for the actions of a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons, who led a miraculously successful rebellion against the Assyrian overlords, history would look much different, not just for Jews but for Christians as well.
If Antiochus had accomplished his goal, first-century Israel would have held no covenant community of Jewish people from which God could choose a Joseph and a Miriam (Mary) to parent Yeshua on this earth, no Temple in Jerusalem where they could have their infant son dedicated, no living link to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and no Judaism out of which Christianity could grow.
2. It’s mentioned in the Bible. Although Hanukkah is not part of the official cannon of Scripture, but appears in the Apocrypha and other ancient writings, its identity as a religious holiday is secured by, of all things, the New Testament. We are told in John 10:22–23 that Yeshua traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem for “the Feast of Dedication in the winter.”
3. It’s a reoccurring theme throughout Jewish history.The events that precipitated the celebration of this holiday were not confined to one period. The rabbis have said, “Hanukkah teaches us that the sanctity and purity of Jewish life must be preserved at all costs.” This battle of self-preservation has been fought repeatedly, as the enemies of God have tried in nearly every generation to destroy His chosen ones. From its most ancient enemies, to the Greeks, and then the Romans, every empirical civilization in that ancient world attempted to be rid of the Jews.
Communism would deal with the Jews of the Soviet Union with eerie parallels to Antiochus. Nazism would create the “final solution” in a twisted attempt to bring Antiochus’ dream to fulfillment. Unfortunately, the Jewish people would eventually find themselves fighting this battle again, only this time…against Christians, the very ones who claimed to be followers of the same God. Through forced conversions, the Crusades, and the Inquisition, the Church would lend its support to the world’s attempt to be free of Jews.
And throughout it all, each generation of Jewish people worldwide has lit the hanukkiah (nine-branched candlestick), eaten foods fried in oil, and sung songs celebrating the few who had secured freedom for the many. As Christians, Hanukkah should remind us of our historic arrogance against God’s people and cause us to reaffirm our commitment to the building of sincere and respectful relationships with them.
A Testimony to God’s Faithfulness
Despite oppression, persecution, and even wholesale slaughter, the Jewish people have proclaimed the faithfulness of God to make sure that the light He kindled through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not extinguished. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells the story of a young boy who had the courage to make sure that light continued to shine even in a Nazi concentration camp. Coming to the age of bar mitzvah (religious ceremony when a 13-year-old Jewish boy becomes a man) in Auschwitz, the boy saved potato peels and crumbs, which he carefully pressed together to form makeshift Hanukkah candles. At the appointed time, he reverently lit them, only to be discovered by a German guard who fiercely ordered him to blow them out. The boy replied, “Sir, as Jews, we don’t extinguish light; we bring light to this dark world.” The guard, hesitating only for a moment, turned and walked away.
A survivor of Bergen Belsen concentration camp tells the story of a selection which took place on the eve of Hanukkah. Throughout the day, hundreds of men were randomly pulled from their barracks, tortured, and killed. Their cries filled the air as each hour passed. And then evening came, time to light the candles, acknowledging God’s faithfulness. A wooden shoe became the hanukkiah, strings pulled from uniforms became a wick, and black camp shoe polish became the oil. The light was lit, and standing but a few feet from heaps of bodies, an imprisoned rabbi sang the blessing: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive and has preserved us and enabled us to reach this season.”
Later, the rabbi would relate that he struggled momentarily with the decision to say such words in the midst of horror and death. But in that instant, he saw a throng of Jews, living and dead, old and young, all with faith and devotion on their faces, all who had witnessed in one way or another the death of their fathers, brothers, sons, and daughters, all who had faced persecution and terror. Despite all of that, light shone from the countenance of each one as they blessed the God “who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.”
This Hanukkah, Jews all over the world will relight those lights and recite those same blessings. In so doing, they will proclaim to the world that there is but one God whose ways are unsearchable but whose faithfulness is certain. Each light twinkling in windows around the globe will declare that, despite the best efforts of Antiochus and others, the people of Israel live, lighting the way on mankind’s journey to redemption. How grateful we should be.
By Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director
Photo Credit: Photo: Johan Schutte
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