The Hanukkah story is found in the Book of Maccabees, a Jewish inter-testamental book. The Jews, to whom "were committed the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2), never considered Maccabees to be Divinely-inspired, authoritative Holy Scripture. Nonetheless, Maccabees is an important book in Jewish history.
The Book of Maccabees is not inspired, but it is inspiring, which is probably the reason it was included, along with a few other apocryphal books, in the original KJV Bible.
Curiously, the historical events in Maccabees, though not included in the Biblical canon, are in fact prophesied in the Bible. To understand this extra-Biblical book from a Biblical perspective requires a familiarity with the Book of Daniel and some knowledge of history.
In Daniel chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a dream in which he saw a great image of a metallic man. The head was of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet part of iron and part of clay. The prophet Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of the dream. The image represented the then-present kingdom of Babylon and the three great empires that would follow after King Nebuchadnezzar.
"Thou art this head of gold," Daniel said. "And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise. And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potter's clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided."
In Nebuchadnezzar's dream, these four great empires were represented by four different metals which decrease in value but increase in strength. This provides a historical template that perfectly fits Babylon and the three empires that followed: the kingdom of the Medes and Persians under King Darius, the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire under the Caesars.
Daniel chapter 5 tells about the mysterious floating hand that wrote on the wall, announcing to Babylon's king, Belshazzar (believed to be Nebuchadnezzar's grandson), MENE MENE ("God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it"), TEKEL ("Thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting"), UPHARSIN ("Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians"). That very night, Babylon fell. "In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Mede took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old" (Dan. 5:30f). Thus began the kingdom of the Medes and Persians, represented by the breast and arms of silver.
Later in history, the Greeks conquered the Medes and Persians, and Alexander the Great ruled the Greek Empire, the belly and thighs of brass. After Alexander died, his kingdom was divided between his four generals.
The Hanukkah story in Maccabees took place during the Greek Empire, before the rise of the legs-of-iron Roman Empire. The Jews had returned to Jerusalem shortly after Babylon fell, but Judea was not a sovereign nation. The Jews were under the rule of the Greeks. There was a power struggle between the Greek Syrians in the north and the Greek Egyptians in the south. Around 160 B.C. the Greek Syrians prevailed, and they ruled over the Jews of Judea. This is where Antiochus Epiphanes, the villain of the Hanukkah story, comes in.
Antiochus and the Greeks wanted to Hellenize the entire civilized world. To Hellenize means to turn them into Greeks. (Hellas is the Greek word for "Greece" and Hellenisti is the Greek word for "Greek.") We might say they wanted to Greekify everyone.
This was accomplished by introducing their conquered subjects to Greek philosophy, Greek sports, Greek sexual promiscuity, and Greek idols. They promoted a Greek-based New World Order. "Moreover, king Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people. And everyone should leave his laws: so all the heathen agreed according to the commandment of the king" (1 Macc. 1:41f).
Antiochus instituted laws forbidding Jews to circumcise, to keep the Sabbath, and to honor the Torah. He commanded them to eat swine's flesh and to participate in idolatry. "For the king had sent letters by messengers unto Jerusalem and the cities of Juda, that they should follow the strange [foreign, i.e., Greek] laws of the land, and forbid burnt offerings in the temple; and that they should profane the sabbaths and festival days, and pollute the sanctuary and holy people, set up altars and groves and chapels of idols, and sacrifice swine's flesh and unclean beasts, that they also should leave their children uncircumcised, and make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation, to the end that they might forget the law and change all the ordinances. And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, he said, he should die" (1 Macc. 1:44-50).
The Temple was renamed "the temple of Jupiter Olympus" and defiled. "For the temple was filled with riot and revelling by the Gentiles, who dallied with harlots, and had to do with women within the circuit of the holy places, and besides that brought in things that were not lawful. The altar also was filled with profane things, which the law forbiddeth. Neither was it lawful for a man to keep sabbath days or ancient feasts, or to profess himself at all to be a Jew" (2 Macc. 6:4-6).
Jews were forced to eat abominations on "the day of the king's birth [which happened to be 'the five and twentieth day of the month' (1 Macc. 1:59)]," and "when the feast of Bacchus was kept, the Jews were compelled to go in procession to Bacchus, carrying ivy [New Jerusalem translation, 'ivy wreaths']" (2 Macc. 6:7).
Even women and babies suffered horrible persecution for their faith. "For there were two women brought, who had circumcised their children; whom when they had openly led round about the city, the babes hanging at their breasts, they cast them down headlong from the wall. And others, that had run together into caves near by, to keep the sabbath day secretly, being discovered to Philip, were all burnt together, because they made a conscience to help themselves for the honour of the most sacred day" (2 Macc. 6:10f).
Another martyr was ninety-year-old Eleazar. "Eleazar, one of the principal scribes, and aged man, and of a well favoured countenance, was constrained to open his mouth, and to eat swine's flesh. But he, choosing rather to die gloriously, than to live stained with such an abomination, spit it forth, and came of his own accord to the torment" (2 Macc. 6:18f).
The tormentors and executioners did not want to subject such a noble, elderly man as Eleazar to torture and death, so they offered Eleazar an opportunity to live. They told him he could bring some of his own kosher food and secretly substitute it for the swine's flesh. No one else would know, and Eleazar would be free to go.
Eleazar refused this offer because of the bad example it would set for the younger Jews. It would encourage them to compromise their faith and eat swine's flesh, he said.
Eleazar's refusal enraged the persecutors and Eleazar died a horrible but noble death. "And thus this man died for an example of a noble courage, and a memorial of virtue, not only unto young men, but unto all his nation" (2 Macc. 6:31).
2 Maccabees chapter 7 tells about the martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons. It describes in gory detail the horrific tortures and deaths of these eight martyrs. Tongues were torn out, limbs were chopped off, scalps were peeled off, all while the victims yet lived. Their agony ended after they were thrown alive and bleeding onto large, hot pans and fried to death.
All these historical events—the overthrow of the Media-Persian Empire by the Greeks, the victory of Alexander the Great, the four-fold division of Alexander's kingdom after his death, and Antiochus Epiphanes' persecution of the Jews—all these things were foretold in Daniel chapter 8 about 400 years before they happened.
In Daniel 8, Daniel saw a vision of a ram with two horns, pushing west, north, and south. Then he saw, coming from the west, a he goat with "a notable horn between his eyes." The he goat charged the two-horned ram, broke his horns, cast him to the ground, and stamped upon him.
The two-horned ram was the kingdom of the Medes and Persians, who pushed west, north, and south. The he goat who came from the west and defeated the Medes and Persians was the army of Alexander the Great ("the he goat waxed very great," Daniel said). The "notable horn" (also called "the great horn") was the first king of this Grecian Empire. Daniel said "when he was strong, the great horn was broken" (Alexander died at 33 years old, at the height of his power) "and for it came up four notable ones toward the four winds of heaven" (Alexander's empire was divided among his four generals).
"And out of them [the four generals] came forth a little horn, which waxed exceeding great, toward the south, and toward the east, and toward the pleasant land." This describes Antiochus' rise to power and his invasion of Judea, "the pleasant land." The following verses prophesy Antiochus' persecution of the Jews, his stopping of the Temple sacrifices, his defilement of the Temple, and his suppression of Torah truth.
You might be thinking to yourself, How does Daniel Botkin know that's the meaning of the Prophet Daniel's vision? I know because the vision was explained by Gabriel in the latter half of the chapter. Daniel "sought for the meaning" and God said, "Gabriel, make this man to understand the vision." Because these events are now past history to us, and no longer future as they were to the Prophet Daniel, we can probably understand Gabriel's explanation even more clearly than Daniel did, if we know some history.
Gabriel told Daniel, "The ram which thou sawest having two horns are the kings of Media and Persia. And the rough goat is the king of Grecia: and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king. Now that being broken, whereas four stood up for it, four kingdoms shall stand up out of the nation, but not in his power." (The Book of Maccabees also mentions Alexander's defeat of the Medes and Persians: "And it happened after that Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came out of the land of Chettim, had smitten Darius king of the Persians and Medes, that he reigned in his stead, the first over Greece" [1 Macc. 1:1].)
Then Gabriel told Daniel about "a king of fierce countenance" who would arise "in the latter time of their kingdom." This evil king would "destroy the mighty and the holy people" but eventually be defeated. From history we know that the name of this "king of fierce countenance" was Antiochus Epiphanes. "And there came out of them a wicked root, Antiochus surnamed Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king, who had been an hostage at Rome, and he reigned in the hundred and thirty and seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks" (1 Macc. 1:10).
Of course the "holy people" whom Antiochus killed were the Jews. And from history we know that the people who defeated Antiochus were the Maccabees, a band of pious Jews who refused to submit to Hellenization.
Among the Jews who resisted Hellenization was a priest named Mattathias. Mattathias had five sons, one of whom was "Judas, who was called Maccabeus" (1 Macc. 2:4). Judas (or Judah) became the leader of an army of Jews who made attacks on the enemy army. In Hebrew a makavah is a hammer, and it is said that Judah, who was called makavah, struck the enemy armies like a hammer—quick, unexpected, smashing blows, followed by immediate withdrawal and a speedy retreat into the mountains, where the enemy could not find them.
Most people believe the name "Maccabee" is derived from makavah, a hammer. Some believe that "Maccabee" might have been an acronym from Exodus 15:11, mi-chamocha ba-elim Yahweh ("Who is like Thee among the gods, Yahweh?").
Regardless of the word's etymology, the Maccabees did indeed strike the enemy like a hammer and they did indeed have cause to sing the same song of victory that was sung in Exodus 15 after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Outnumbered about six-and-a-half to one, the Maccabees defeated their oppressors and then set out to cleanse and rededicate the Temple.
The Temple's altar had been defiled on the 25th day of Kislev. "Now the five and twentieth day of the month they did sacrifice upon the idol altar, which was upon the altar of God" (1 Macc. 1:59). It was three years to the day, on the 25th of Kislev, when the Jews were able to rededicate the altar of God. "Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Casleu [Hebrew, Kislev], in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up betimes in the morning, and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made" (1 Macc. 4:52f).
The Jews apparently saw significance in the fact that they were able to rededicate the altar on the very same date the Hellenizers had defiled it three years earlier, for the very next verse says, "Look at what time and what day the heathen had profaned it, even in that was it dedicated with songs, and citherns, and harps, and cymbals" (1 Macc. 4:54).
The celebration lasted eight days, and it was decided that the Jews should make this an annual eight-day celebration to commemorate the rededication of the altar. "And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decked also the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold, and with shields; and the gates and the chambers they renewed, and hanged doors upon them. Thus was there very great gladness among the people, for that the reproach of the heathen was put away. Moreover Judas and his brethren with the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu [Hebrew Kislev], with mirth and gladness" (1 Macc. 4:56-59).
These "days of the dedication of the altar" are called Hanukkah, which is the Hebrew word for "dedication." Hanukkah is mentioned in the New Testament. "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication [hanukkah], and it was winter. And Yeshua walked in the temple in Solomon's porch" (John 10:22f).
You might be thinking to yourself, That's a lot of interesting history, but what does it have to do with me? How is it relevant to my life?
I'm glad you asked. Consider some of the details of this story and see if it doesn't sound vaguely familiar, especially around this time of year:
God's people were pressured to celebrate a king's birthday on the 25th day of a winter month.
The celebration included wreaths of ivy.
There was revelry and feasting on swine's flesh.
Those who ignored these winter festivities, and instead celebrated Yahweh's festivals of Leviticus 23, were viewed as the weird ones.
I take no delight in bashing Christians who celebrate Christmas, but I do agree with Jim Elliot, who wrote: "The practice at Christmas has gotten to be such a commercialized hoax that I will be sincerely glad when all good Christians abandon it" (Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot, p. 113).
Jim Elliot wrote these words in 1949. Over the past 60-plus years since he wrote this, Christmas has become even more of a commercialized hoax and more of a Babylonish, Bacchanalian festival. I wonder what Jim Elliot would say about Christmas today. And I wonder what he would say about today's Christians who continue to participate in this festival that is a mixture of the holy and the profane.
There is a sad irony in the fact that Christmas and Hanukkah both fall on the 25th day of a winter month:
On the 25th of Kislev, Jews celebrate their victory over the Hellenists' attempts to force them to mingle heathen customs with the worship of God.
On the 25th of December, Christians mingle heathen customs with the worship of God.
The Maccabees refused to honor the real birthday of a temporal king on the 25th day of Kislev.
On the 25th day of December, Christians celebrate the imaginary birthday of the real eternal King of kings.
At the first Hanukkah, the Maccabees "decked also the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold and with shields" (1 Macc. 4:57). At Christmas, Christians deck the halls with boughs of holly and with ivy wreaths, like those which the Jews were forced to carry to honor the heathen feast of the god Bacchus.
There is no Temple in Jerusalem today to deck with crowns of gold and with shields. "What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Cor. 6:19f).
Rather than decking our halls with boughs of holly and with other heathen nonsense, we should deck ourselves like the Maccabees decorated the Temple, "with crowns of gold and with shields"—golden crowns made of "gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich" (Rev. 3:18) and with "the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked" (Eph. 6:16). Then after quenching the enemy's fiery darts, we will have golden crowns like the four and twenty elders who "cast their crowns before the throne." We can cast our crowns before the throne and sing with them, "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created" (Rev. 4:10f).
Somehow I believe that the Lord will be more pleased by this than by people casting tinsel, Christmas lights, and tree ornaments before the throne and singing songs about Santa, eggnog, mistletoe, and yule logs.
This winter, refuse to be Hellenized, and let yourself be Hanukkized. Follow the example of the Maccabees. Refuse to conform to the world, and rededicate yourself to the Lord.
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Image (Top): Santa Encounters Nimrod in the Village of Vitebsk by Daniel Botkin. Peruse all of Daniel Botkin's artwork galleries at DanielBotkin.com.