Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hanukkah: History, Observance and Prophetic Implications - Part 1

The minor Jewish Festival of Hanukkah begins at local sunset December 20th.  When we think of Hanukkah, we think of the eight branched candlestick called the hanukkiah and playing dreidels. We might even think of the modern practice of giving a gift on each of the eight days of Hanukkah. As we approach the days of Hanukkah, what is this Festival all about and what are the reasons to celebrate it? What does this festival really mean to the Christian? How should we celebrate it? So our goal with this 4 part series is to answer these questions. We’ll start with part 1 by looking at the history of Hanukkah.  Part 2, we will look at Yeshua’s observance, answering the question “Are you the Messiah?” Part 3 will examine Yeshua’s warnings about false Messiahs and false prophets.  And part 4 we will examine Yeshua’s 2nd coming in relation to Hanukkah.

The actual holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple after it desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The word Hanukkah means dedication. Some words we can associate with Hanukkah are rededication, renewal, courage and hope. Keep these words in mind as we move through this series and learn more about Hanukkah, its history, observance in the time of Yeshua and its prophetic implications.

A. History:
The events giving rise to the festival of Hanukkah began after the fall of the Grecian Empire under Alexander the Great. His kingdom was split into four parts two of which are of interest prophetically. The first was the Ptolemaic dynasty which mainly ruled over Egypt but had interests in Asia Minor. The second was the Seleucid Empire which ruled over Syria and the heart of the old Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Daniel prophesies about these two empires in the book of Daniel chapters 8 and 11. The King of the South is the Ptolemaic Empire and the King of the North is the Seleucid Empire. Right in between these two empires is the land of Israel. The Ptolemy’s wanted access to their interests in Asia Minor and the Seleucids wanted to reestablish Alexander’s Empire. The traditional Jews preferred the rule of the Ptolemy’s because they allowed those under their rule to practice their own religions and traditions. The “modern” Jew of the day, like much of the ancient world, were enamored of the Greek or Hellenistic philosophy and wanted to be like the rest of the world. They preferred the Seleucids who forced those under their rule to worship the Greek gods. This tug-of-war continued from 312 B.C. until 163 B.C. when Judah Maccabees defeated Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the leader of the Seleucid Empire at the time. 

The story of Hanukkah begins when Antiochus IV Epiphanes finally begins to win against Egypt. Egypt, however, had enlisted the aid of Rome who arrived just in time to kick Antiochus out of Egypt. In his rage on his way back north through Israel, he uses the dissension of the Jewish people as an excuse to attack Jerusalem, massacre 80,000 people and set up an altar to Zeus on the altar of God in the Temple. There the priests were forced to sacrifice swine to Zeus. This is the abomination of Desolation spoken of in Daniel 11:31-31

Daniel 11:30-31 MKJV 30 For the ships of Kittim shall come against him. And he shall be grieved and return, and have fury against the holy covenant. So he shall do; he shall even return and give heed to those who forsake the holy covenant. 31 And forces will stand from him, and they will profane the sanctuary, the fortress, and shall remove the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the desolating abomination.

The first sacrifices of swine on the altar of Zeus happened on 25 Kislev, 167 B.C. which is in the middle of December. It is very likely that this event happened on the winter solstice which was a major pagan holiday. It is certain that this event happened when physical darkness was greater than light. The moon was waning, on its last sliver by the 25th of the month. The sun was at or near its winter solstice and the hours of daylight were at the fewest of the year. Spiritual darkness was also at its peak with many of the Jewish people embracing Hellenism and the gods of the Greeks.

Antiochus left his generals in charge and returned to battle against parts of Asia Minor. The generals set up altars in the towns of Israel and forced the people to sacrifice swine on the altars and eat the meat. In the town of Modein, a priest named Mattathias had five sons. They slew the Jewish priest who was selected for the honor of sacrificing the swine and then killed the general. Mattathias and his sons fled into the wilderness encouraging those who followed the God of their fathers to flee also and join them. Those who fled into the desert were pursued by Antiochus’ troops who found them hiding in caves. On the Sabbath, they were given an ultimatum to either come out and surrender and eat pork or be killed. Being devout Jews and since it was the Sabbath, they didn’t fight back. Antiochus’ troops slaughtered over 1,000 men, women and children that day. Others managed to flee to join Mattathias.

It was at that time, that Mattathias, acting in his role as a priest, ruled that it was okay to defend oneself on the Sabbath. This rule holds to this day.

Mattathias died after the first year of the fight leaving his son Simon in charge of government operations and Judah called Maccabees, the Hammer, in charge of the army. Judah and his brothers defeated Antiochus’ armies and drove them out of Israel. They put those of their own countrymen who colluded with Antiochus to death and purified the Land. On 25 Kislev exactly two years after its desecration, Judah Maccabees and the Jewish people rededicated the temple to God. Arthur Waskow, in his book Seasons of Our Joy, comments on their choosing the exact same date for the dedication.

“And it is a short leap to surmise that the Maccabees, when they took the anniversary of that day as the rededication, were rededicating not only the temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism.”

The desecrated altar of God was torn down and a new one built. They restored the broken menorah and prepared to light it. The Bread of the Presence was set out. According to later Jewish tradition, there was not enough of the sacred oil found to keep the menorah lit for the seven days required to rededicate the Temple. The priests chose to light the menorah anyway and it stayed lit for the seven days of rededication plus the one additional day needed before new holy oil could be ready. Thus, we have the miracle of Hanukkah.

But the miracle is not just of the oil; it is of the miraculous victory of Israel over Antiochus. Judah and his brothers faced overwhelming odds in their battles. There was no human way that tiny Israel could defeat the armies thrown against her. Just like in the time of Judges, God acted on the side of His people.

In the book of Maccabees chapter 4, the eight days are decreed as being a reprise of the Feast of Sukkot and its eighth day Shimeni Atzerat.

“The joyful celebration lasted for eight days; it was like the Feast of Huts (Sukkot), for they recalled how, only a short time before, they had kept that feast while they were living like wild animals in the mountains and caves; and so they carried garlanded wands and branches with their fruits as well as palm fronds, and the chanted hymns to the One who had so triumphantly achieved the purification of his own temple.”

Additional detail of the War of the Maccabees can be found in Josephus’ The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12 and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Today, Hanukah is celebrated for eight days with a special nine-branched candelabrum called a hanukkiah. The victory of Judah Maccabees over Antiochus’ forces is down played. We don’t have to look far for the reason; the early Rabbis wrote during the first to third century when similar revolts led to the destruction of the temple and exile from Jerusalem. Also, the Maccabees themselves became corrupt fighting over the kingship which ultimately brought in the Romans to decide the issue. Today the Jewish people emphasize the spiritual with the eight branches of the hanukkiah representing the eight-day miracle of oil. The ninth candle, called the “shamash” or servant candle, is used to light the other candles.  The lighted candles symbolize bringing light into a darkened world. On the first day of Hanukkah, one candle is lit with the shamash. Each day one more candle is lit until, on the eighth day, all candles are lit. The hanukkiah is not to be hidden; it is displayed on a porch or in a window to proclaim the miracle to all who pass by.

We can celebrate Hanukkah as a rededication of our own lives as a living temple holy to God.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 MKJV 16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If anyone defiles the temple of God, God shall destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which you are.

We can celebrate Hanukkah as we anticipate God’s final victory over the forces that come against Jerusalem in the last days. Though it looks like certain destruction for Jerusalem, God acts on the side of His people.

Zechariah 12:8-9 NKJV 8 "In that day the LORD will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; the one who is feeble among them in that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the Angel of the LORD before them. 9 "It shall be in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.

שלום ברוך
Shalom and be blessed
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

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