Hanukkah begins this year on the evening of November 27 and lasts for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates the miraculous victory of the Maccabees, a small Jewish army led by their namesake Judah Maccabee over the mighty Seleucids in the second century before the coming of the Messiah. In those days the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, attempted to consolidate his rule through the imposing of Greek culture and religion. He banned Judaism and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by erecting a statue of Zeus there and ordering that pigs be sacrificed on the altar. Many Jewish people living in Israel at that time gladly went along with his assimilation plan until Judah's father, Mattityahu the priest, killed a fellow Jewish man who was in the process of making a pagan sacrifice, thus sparking a revolt. Early in the struggle the Temple was recaptured, a new altar was built and dedicated to the Lord. The word for dedication in Hebrew is "hanukkah". Judah instituted a joyous eight-day celebration, which today is observed through the lighting of candles on each of the eight nights of the holiday accompanied by traditional prayers, songs, and foods, including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). There is even a special toy associated with this holiday, a spinning top called a dreidel in Yiddish or a sevivon in Hebrew, designed to remember the miracle of Hanukkah.
But what is the miracle of Hanukkah? The common answer has to do with a legend recounted in the Talmud (a large collection of Jewish teachings, discussions, and commentary), where it is said that when the Temple in Jerusalem was restored there was found only one day's worth of holy oil for the menorah (seven-branched golden lampstand). Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to make a new batch. The problem with this story is that the most trustworthy historical accounts of Hanukkah (the Jewish apocryphal book of First Maccabees and the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus) make no mention of the oil. The actual miracle is the amazing victory God gave the people of Israel as is recounted in the prayer Al Hanissim (For the Miracles), which contain these words:
You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.
Through Hanukkah we affirm the biblical understanding of God as the one who comes to the aid of his covenant people, giving them the power to do far more than what they could do on their own. From Pharaoh's enslavement to Jericho's walls, from David's enemies to Haman's murderous threats, the God of Israel delivered his people again and again.
Hanukkah marks the last recorded victory of this type prior to the coming of Yeshua. Hanukkah actually had a great influence upon the Jewish outlook of the first century. By then messianic fervor was gripping the nation. The oppression of yet another group of foreigners, this time the Romans, was becoming more and more intolerable. As they expected the Messiah's soon arrival, they envisioned him in the manner of Judah Maccabee, another brave warrior who would inspire the people and lead them to their final victory over paganism.
The brave warrior did come, the Deliver who would break the power of oppression once and for all. The problem is that he didn't fit the expected Maccabean mold. They didn't understand that the Messiah's tactics would be so different and more powerful than anything Israel had experienced before. Instead of a sword of steel; his would be a sword of words. For with the coming of the Messiah, no longer would God further his purposes through the military armies of Israel, but through the teaching of his followers. Nations would no longer be subdued by the spilling of their blood. Instead the spilled blood of the Messiah followed by his conquest of death through his resurrection would break the power of the sword, since the power of death itself would be broken.
We cannot underestimate the power of the Messiah's teaching. War can slay the enemy, but his Word can change his heart. Whole people groups who at one time were hostile to the God of Israel now submit to him and serve his purposes because Yeshua's followers taught them his ways.
Still, Hanukkah has much to teach us. Judah Maccabee and his army have much to teach us. They, like so many before them, who have faithfully and effectively served God, demonstrate to us the need to stand against the forces of assimilation. Paganism was ready to swallow up God's people until the Maccabees firmly stood against it. They found themselves having to oppose even their own countrymen as so many were drawn into evil, ungodly practices which threatened the whole nation. While our mandate in the Messiah doesn't include the military component of the Maccabees, it still requires great depth of courage in order to oppose the assimilating forces all around us.
Hanukkah also reminds us that faithfulness to God is not passive. On the contrary! It is a call to action. Believing in Yeshua is not about cheering his past victories, but following him to new ones. And following is not about watching his exploits from the sidelines, but fighting alongside him on the front lines of battle.
The Enemy knows the power of words. More people today are trapped by the teachings of philosophies, ideologies, and false religion than are held captive at gunpoint. Bombs and tanks cannot set free those who are entrapped by lies. That is why the Messiah gave his followers the mandate to "make disciples of all nations, ...teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20; ESV - the "everything" is far more than "love God and love your neighbor," by the way; but we'll have to leave that issue for another time). This is more than simply "telling people about Yeshua". Teaching the nations includes proclaiming what Yeshua did for us, but also confronts every area of life. Doing so takes Maccabean courage. It may even cost us our lives.