Nearly twenty-two centuries ago, during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the events took place that the Jews memorialize each year at Hanukah time.
The Jewish people had returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian Exile, and had rebuilt the Holy Temple, but they remained subject to the reigning powers: first, the Persian Empire, then later, the conquering armies of Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great was a kind and generous ruler to the Jews. He canceled the Jewish taxes during Sabbatical years, and even offered animals to be sacrificed on his behalf in the Temple. After the death of Alexander, his kingdom was divided among his generals. Judea was caught in the middle and ended up under the system of the Seleucid Dynasty, Greek kings who reigned from Syria.
The Jews Under Syrian Rule
A Syrian tyrant, Antiochus IV, was the new king who ruled Judea. He worshipped the Greek gods, but he did allow the Jews to worship YHWH. During the years of Greek power, many Jews started to embrace the Greek culture and its Hellenistic, pagan way of life. These Jewish Hellenists helped Antiochus’s goal to abolish every trace of the Jewish religion.
Desecrated the Temple
Eventually, King Antiochus decided to go into Jerusalem and take the treasures in the temple and forbid the Jews from keeping their holy traditions, such as the Sabbath, kosher laws, studying their holy books, and the practice of circumcision. To prove his point he desecrated the Holy Altar by sacrificing a forbidden, unclean pig on it. The Temple was dedicated to the worship of Zeus Olympus. An altar to Zeus was set up on the high altar. The Jews were forced to bow before it under penalty of death. The Holy Temple was invaded, desecrated, and pillaged of all its treasures. Many innocent people were massacred, and the survivors were heavily taxed. Antiochus went so far as to proclaim himself a god, taking the name Epiphanes—God manifest.
Flavius Josephus, a renowned historian who lived at the time of the Apostles recorded the horrifying event of that time in this way: (Antiquities of the Jews Book 12, Chapter 5) And when the king had built an idol altar upon God’s Altar, he slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; and made them build temples, and raise idol altars, in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day (254).
He also commanded them not to circumcise their sons, and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction. He also appointed overseers, who should compel them to do what he commanded (255). And indeed many Jews there were who complied with the king’s commands either voluntarily, or out of fear of the penalty that was denounced; but the best men, and those of the noblest souls, did not regard him, but did pay a greater respect to the customs of their country than concern as to the punishment which he threatened to the disobedient; on which account they every day underwent great miseries and bitter torments (256).
For they were whipped with rods and their bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified while they were still alive and breathed: they also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses. And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed; and those with whom they were found miserably perished also.
A Wicked High Priest
Some Jews drifted into the Greek Ways, changed their names from their Hebrew names, and followed the Greek “modern” practices, giving up the “old” ways of their ancestors. One hellenized Jew’s Hebrew name was Joshua, but he changed it to the Greek name Jason. He offered King Antiochus a bribe so he could take over the position of the High Priest.
The “High Priest” Jason constructed a gymnasium near the Temple, and demoralized his fellow Jews with pagan customs and licentious behavior.
Another Hellinized Jew came along and offered a bigger bribe and Jason was replaced. Jason then gathered an army and attacked Menelaus in the Holy City, slaughtering many of the Jews. Antiochus interpreted this civil squabble as a revolt against his throne, and sent his armies into Jerusalem, plundering the Temple and murdering tens of thousands of Jews. Altars were erected with statues of the Greek gods and goddesses in every city and town. Soldiers forced Jews to make offerings, to eat forbidden foods, and to engage in other immoral acts.
Many other Jews resisted, and refused to follow Greek practices, and would not bow down to the Greek’s pagan idols. The Greeks tried to get Jews to abandon the Torah and commandments, but God was in charge. Many times God had fought the Jewish battles, against all odds, delivering the evil to the righteous and the outnumbered. God helped the Jews to organize the common people, farmers, workers, and servants, and they began to fight the Syrian persecutors.
This small group of Hasmoneans, under the leadership of Judas Maccabee, employed guerrilla warfare and drove the Syrians out. The Maccabees regained control of the Holy Temple, and began the task of purifying it. The altar which had been defiled by the sacrifice of a pig upon it was torn down and rebuilt. All new holy vessels were crafted. A date for the rededication of the Temple was set–the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which occurs approximately in the Roman month of December (A.T.O.M. 1995).
Taking unhewn stones, as the law commands, they built a new altar on the model of the previous one. They rebuilt the Temple and restored its interior, and consecrated the Temple courts. They renewed the sacred vessels and the lampstand, and brought the altar of incense and the table into the Temple. They burnt incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lamp-stand to shine within the Temple. They decorated the front of the Temple with golden wreaths and ornamental shields. They renewed the gates and the priest’s rooms, and fitted them with doors. When they had put the Bread of the Presence on the table and hung the curtains, all their work was completed (Killian 1996). The Temple was then rededicated to God with festivities that lasted eight days.
When the Jews cleaned out the temple idols, they found only one small cruse of oil with only enough oil for one day to light their holy lamps. They decided to light the Menorah (the Temple candelabra) even with the small amount of oil. To everyone’s amazement the menorah miraculously burned for eight days until new oil was available!
The congregation of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness at the same season each year, for eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. The light of the menorah is the symbol of the light of Yahweh. The fact that the light burned even when no supply was left is a perfect symbol of the eternity of God’s Word. The heart of the celebration, is not only the Rabbis retelling of the saga of revolt and renewal, but also the retelling of the divine experience of the miracle of the oil.