I have been criminally negligent in not mentioning that Hanukkah began last Saturday and will continue until this Sunday. The only excuse I have is that all of the holidays seem to have been passing by quickly this year. I wrote about Hanukkah last year and I think I will tell the story again. It is a story worth remembering, not just by Jews but by anyone who values religious freedom.
The history goes back to the time of Alexander the Great. He conquered the Persian Empire in one of the most remarkable military campaigns in history. Unfortunately, when he died in 323 BC, he left no provision for any successors and so his generals fought among themselves and eventually Alexander’s empire was divided among them. One of these successors was named Seleucus and he gained control of what is now Iran and Iraq. His kingdom is known to historians as the Seleucid Empire. This time is known as the Hellenistic Era.
Around 200 BC the Seleucids defeated the Egyptians and gained the territories of modern Syria and Israel. During this time the Jewish religion was tolerated and respected by the Ptolemies of Egypt. During this time, also, the Greek language and culture spread far and wide among the conquered peoples. Greek culture had become “cool” and everybody wanted to be a part of it. People who adopted Greek culture could be said to be “Hellenized” from Hellene, the Greek word for Greek. This caused no little consternation among the more traditional Jews. They were afraid that in the rush to embrace Greek culture, many Jews would fall into the worship of the Greek gods and so to idolatry. So, to some extent, the events which followed were as much a civil war as a war between the Jews and the Seleucids.
In the year 175, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucids. Unlike previous Hellenistic rulers he seemed to believe himself a god and was eager that everyone in his realm pay divine honors to the Greek gods. For most of the people in the Empire this was no great burden as a few more gods didn’t matter all that much. For all but the most Hellenized Jews, this was an impossible demand. There was only one God. When fighting broke out between Hellenized and traditional Jews, Antiochus sided with the Hellenized Jews and in 167 sent an army to capture Jerusalem and compel the worship of the Greek gods. A statue of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple and the Jewish religion was banned.
This sparked a rebellion and a guerilla war which was led by a priest named Matthias and his five sons. The most prominent of these was Judas Maccabeus. Antiochus IV had many other problems, especially with the Persians to the east and the rising power of Rome to the west and could never spare the forces necessary to crush the revolt. By 165, the Maccabees were able to retake Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple of the defilement of the pagans.
According to legend, there was only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, and yet miraculously, they were able to keep it lit for eight days, until more oil could be procured. These eight days became known as the Festival of Lights and to commemorate this victory and miracle, a nine branched menorah is lit. A more prosaic explanation for the origins of this holiday is that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of Sukkot.
There have been no shortage of rulers since the time of the Maccabees who have demanded their subjects worship them as gods. One would think this sort of nonsense would have ended with the rise of monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam but it hasn’t. Byzantine Emperors declared themselves the Vice-regent of God on Earth and the Thirteenth Apostle. The Caliphs called themselves the Shadow of Allah. If kings and emperors couldn’t be gods themselves, at least they could pretend to be God’s personal spokesman.
This habit has only gotten worse in our more secular age. No Pharaoh or Caesar of ancient times was ever a more jealous and demanding god as our modern Hitlers and Stalins. It is, as if, an age that no longer believes in the One God, is all the more willing to worship god-kings. Even in democratic countries there can be leader cults.
However, the example of the Maccabees shows us that freedom is worth fighting for, even if there is not much hope of winning, and if we do not give up the fight, we might end up winning despite the odds.
- Hanukkah’s Rich History (everydayfamily.com)
- How to explain Hanukkah to Gentiles (matadornetwork.com)
- Editorial: A miracle of freedom (ocregister.com)
- The real story of Hanukkah (halfsigma.com)