A Hanukkah Story
by Shira Sorko-Ram
This year Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication, begins on the evening of December 4 and lasts for eight days. How much do you know about Hanukkah? Why is it celebrated? What’s the story behind it? Did you know the dynasty that began with a family known as the Maccabees greatly influenced the nation of Israel for several centuries - even touching the lives of Yeshua and the apostles? The story of Hanukkah and the Maccabees is both blessed and tragic.
It was 175 years before the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Israel had a Temple and authentic, registered descendants of priests serving in the sanctuary according to the Law of Moses.
Israel had fallen into the depths of sin, forgetting just about everything connected with God, except ritual; she was about to be overrun by new enemies - this time the enemy would come in the form of a decaying Seleucid Empire - today remembered only by scholars. But the Seleucid line of conquerors were none other than the Greek descendents of one of Alexander the Great’s four generals who carved up Alexander’s enormous empire after his mysterious death in 323 BC.
An Antichrist forerunner prophesied by Daniel
General Seleucus had gone east. He set up his base in Babylon, extending his rule over Syria and began ruthlessly expanding his power. However, after 150 years of rule, the Seleucid dynasty was going downhill fast. When kingdoms begin to disintegrate, the power vacuum always generates a bloodbath as contenders for the throne kill in order to rule. In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes (meaning god manifested), the brother of the current king, killed his nephew, the heir apparent, and usurped the throne.
Immediately, he murdered the High Priest of the Lord, Onias III, who was the last of the direct line of priests from Aaron, brother of Moses. Antiochus then sold the office of high priest for money and through his puppet pseudo priest - even the form of true and holy worship at the Temple ended.
Meanwhile in 171 BC, Antiochus decided to conquer Egypt, but there he clashed with the armies of the rising Roman Empire. According to Josephus Flavius, the great Jewish historian of the first century AD, a rumor spread in Jerusalem that Antiochus had been killed in battle. Jerusalem was ecstatic; the Jews organized a revolt and threw out the puppet high priest.
But Antiochus was very much alive, and swept into Jerusalem enraged, regained the city, killed some 40,000 Jews, forced his way into the very Holy of Holies, and destroyed the scrolls of the Holy Scriptures. Then, to the horror of the Jewish people, he took a pig and offered it on the sacred altar. He cooked the sow, and with the broth sprinkled all the implements in the Temple, completely defiling the sanctuary.
The pigs he continued to slaughter on the Altar of the Lord were given to Jewish men to eat. According to the 1st Book of the Maccabees, those who refused, he cut their tongues out, scalped them, cut off their hands and feet and burned them on the Altar. Antiochus forbad Sabbath observance, study of the Bible, and circumcision, all laws which were given by God to the Jewish people to observe.
Antiochus Epiphanes is most certainly a symbol and forerunner of the Antichrist. The angel Gabriel had described to the prophet Daniel the coming abomination of a king who would put a stop to sacrifices and desecrate the sanctuary. The deeds of this ruler provided a backdrop for Yeshua the Messiah’s description of another king yet to come, who would enter the Temple, call himself god and defile the sanctuary in the last days.
In fact, the book of Daniel spoke so clearly about Antiochus as a successor of one of Alexander the Great’s four generals, that modern critics refuse to this day to believe the text was written before the time of Alexander the Great. See Daniel 8:9-27.
The Maccabees Fight for Their God
The aged priest and his five sons, Jonathan, Eleazar, Johanan, Judah and Simon, soon to be known as the Maccabees, led what we would call a spiritual revival, struggling against the secularization and growing paganism of their people, but at a great cost in human lives, as the book of Daniel forewarned.
In the many battles fought by the Maccabees, Matitiyahu and ultimately all his sons were killed, as were many thousands of Jews. Nevertheless, although greatly outnumbered, the Maccabees won battle after battle against Antiochus and actually freed the Jewish people from Syrian rule. In 164 BC, they succeeded in cleansing the Temple. Josephus describes the pathos at the site of the desecrated Temple.
And then on the 25th day of the month Kislev (November - December) - they relit the lights that were on the menorah and offered incense upon the altar, laid the loaves upon the table, and offered whole burnt offerings upon the new altar.
And so Judah and his fellow citizens celebrated what became known as the Festival of Hanukkah - meaning “dedication” and the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days, “feasting and honoring God, delighting themselves with psalms of praise and the playing of harps. And they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days.” (Ibid.) Yeshua himself went to the Temple on Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication. (John 10:22)
It was only later in the Talmud that the story about the oil miraculously lasting eight days until fresh oil could be consecrated became a legend, repeated every year until this day. However, it is a wonderful holiday that all Israeli children love to celebrate. Today, Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights. (The menorah of Hanukkah, called a hanukkiah, has nine candles so as not to reproduce a replica of the holy menorah of seven candles that God commanded be set in the Holy place.)
As a result of the Maccabees’ victory, for the first time in 400 years, Israel became again a semi-independent state, free to worship the God of Israel as the Bible instructed. Jonathan the Maccabee became high priest until he was killed in battle and then his brother Simon was chosen by “the priests and the people and of the elders of the land” to be high priest and the ruler, although many Jews did not accept him as king because he was not of the line of David. When he was murdered by his own son-in-law, his son John Hyrcanus I took on both roles he became high priest and a powerful king.
John Hyrcanus I was a pivotal character for the future of Israel. He was a brave and brilliant military leader, with an energetic and able style of leadership, together with the zeal of his forebears. But John Hyrcanus I became a full fledged Hellenist (loving the worldly Greek life style), the very thing that his grandfather, Matitiyahu and the family had fought so hard to banish.
The Pharisees and Sadducees Parties Arise
The main theological difference between these two sects was that the Pharisees followed the Oral Law of the Rabbis, believed by them to be additional laws given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, while the Sadducees accepted only the written Word. However, they began to discredit the concept of life after death.
When one does not believe in the immortality of the soul, the human heart is less motivated to keep his relationship intimate with God. And being that the Sadducees were generally wealthier, more conservative, and better connected politically than their rivals, they were more easily assimilated and prone to enjoy the luxuries of the pagan-influenced Greek way of life. Today’s language would describe such a movement as backslidden, swallowed up by the cares of this world, while the Pharisees became legalistic - their god being form, ritual, and tradition.
One single act was to radically affect the history of the Jewish people. John Hyrcanus I extended his reign eastward past the Dead Sea and demanded the Edomites convert to Judaism, forcing their sons to be circumcised! A century later, an Edomite convert by the name of Herod became King of the Jews. It is this Herod the Great who, upon winning the throne, beheaded the last of the high priests descending from the original Maccabees, thus ending their dynasty. It was Herod the Great who had no problem slaying all the babies under two in Bethlehem when Yeshua was born.
The Hasmonean Dynasty Becomes Completely Corrupt
More often than not, children murdered or dethroned their parents, and various contenders formed alliances with all sorts of foreign rulers in an attempt to become the next despot. The debacle reached its climax when two brothers - Aristobulus (a Sadducee) and Hyrcanus II (a Pharisee) - fought each other with armies. Weakened by civil war, they succumbed to Roman occupation in 63 BC and thus ended the independent Jewish state.
No wonder Yeshua’s disciples were so desirous to know when Yeshua, the true King, would restore the kingdom to Israel!
Restoring meant a King from the line of David and a worthy High Priest.
Yeshua’s direct answer to their question was, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” to preach redemption and restoration to the world.
Meaning - when there is a Hanukkah (cleansing and dedication) of the Temple of God in the hearts of all those chosen to be His followers, then the true King of the Jews will reign over all the earth.
Two Kings: Herod and Yeshua
But that was only the beginning of intrigues as Herod worked to stay at the top of the heap. Caesar was murdered, and Roman rulers came and went as they vied for the throne. Herod changed sides whenever necessary and managed to keep his throne. He ruled from 37 BC to around 4 BC.
He killed the last of the Hasmonean high priests, Antigonus, who tried to take the throne from him. Herod then married Antigonus’ daughter, Mariamme I, thereby in some sense securing the continuity of the Maccabean priestly line, and giving him, he hoped, more credibility with the Jewish people.
For all his life, Herod was paranoid that he would be assassinated and his throne taken away from him, and indeed, Herod’s position was never totally secure. Neither the Pharisees or the Sadducees accepted his Jewish credentials.
Waiting for the Messiah
To make matters worse for this king of the Jews, there was a general anticipation, an expectation that the Messiah, the true King of the Jews, was about to come. Some Jewish scribes had calculated that seventy-six generations had passed since the Creation, and there was a tradition among the Jews that the Messiah was to deliver Israel from its foreign rulers in the seventy-seventh generation. (http://www.livius.org/) Herod had reason to fear. Certainly there were many prophecies in the Holy Scriptures that interested devout Jews such as Ananias and Anna - and also Herod.
Herod’s decision to slaughter all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem was totally in character. During his entire 33 year reign he slaughtered anyone who got in his way. However, within months of the Bethlehem massacre, he himself died. But before he did, he murdered another two of his sons, next in line for the throne.
He was undoubtedly the greatest builder the Holy Land had ever known, except, perhaps, Solomon. He built impressive monuments, fortresses, palaces and even whole cities. He built Massada, the massive fortress near the Dead Sea where in 73AD the last 936 Jewish zealots committed suicide rather than be captured for slavery or execution by the Romans. Herod built the wall around the city of Jerusalem and of course rebuilt the Temple - the very building where Yeshua preached, calling it “My Father’s House.”
His grave was uncovered this year after a search of thirty years by Israeli archeologists in Herodium.
Herod’s Descendants Influence Events of the New Testament
A second son was Herod Antipas, who took his half brother’s wife and then killed John the Baptist for rebuking his adultery.
King Herod Agrippa I was a grandson of Herod the Great. Because of the favor he had with the Roman emperor, he was the first descendant of Herod given the title “king.” His grandmother was the same Mariamme I, a direct Jewish descendant of the Hasmonian dynasty, started by the Maccabee priest so far back in history. He killed James, the brother of John, and meant to also kill Peter, who escaped death by an angel who led him out of the jail.
Only months later, he received worship from his constituents and the Bible says “the Lord struck him down and he was eaten by worms and died.” Acts 12:23
His son, King Herod Agrippa II, was the King to whom Paul said, “I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies.” At the end of his speech, Paul said, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
God gave this king, the descendant of a decadent lost dynasty, the chance to receive the truth. His answer was, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28) He was the last of the Herod’s to rule.
Ari and Shira Sorko-Ram are the founders of Maoz Israel Ministries. The mission of MAOZ is: 1) To declare the Message of Messiah and make disciples in the city of Tel Aviv and throughout Israel. 2) To raise up Israeli leaders to prepare for the coming spiritual awakening among the people of Israel. 3) To educate and inform Christians world-wide of the strategic importance of Israel and the Jewish people in God's plan for world revival. The MAOZ web site is http://www.maozisrael.org/.