The Story Hanukkah
The name of the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, comes from the Hebrew word for “dedication,” “consecration” or “inauguration.”
It refers to the time in history when the Second Temple in the second century B.C.E. was rededicated after the Hellenistic Greeks of Syria had desecrated it by using it for the worship of Greek gods, and the sacrifice of a pig on the altar by the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes.
King Antiochus was a Syrian King who set about to destroy the Jewish religion, the Jewish people, and then force them to become Greeks, worshiping idols and the gods of the Greeks.
These events all begin in the month of Kislev, (December) 167 BCE. There was a retired Jewish priest named, Mattathais and his five sons who were confronted by a Syrian officer, who we will call Apelles. They all stood in a Jewish synagogue in the city of Modin, just outside of Jerusalem, surrounded by the congregation of the synagogue.The Syrian officer declared to everyone present the following decree which undoubtedly went something like this:
“By the order of King Antiochus Epiphanes, the practice of the Jewish religion will cease immediately. Any Jew found observing the Sabbath will be killed. There will be no more reading of your holy book the Torah. It is forbidden to practice the barbaric custom of circumcision on your children. All of your holy books, including the Torahs must be destroyed by fire, and the observance of any Jewish feast or holiday is forbidden. Any one who chooses to violate this decree by our King will be put to death immediately. Furthermore, I will return in one month, and you, Mattathais will publicly sacrifice a pig in the city square to our God, Zeus.”
With these words Apelles looked directly at Mattathais and asked, “Are you ready to comply?” Mattathias’ face was like flint. He answered not a word, but stared at the Syrian with unblinking eyes. Though the room was filled to capacity, there was a silence that was deafening. After what seemed like several minutes without a word from either man, Apelles turned again to the group assembled in the synagogue.
“I will be back in one month. Do not disappoint me,” Apelles said. He then turned and walked out of the synagogue.
All eyes turned to Mattathias, yet he said not a word. Seizing the moment, the only Sadducee in Modiin said, “Understand our survival is at stake here, and the survival of our children. We must compromise and accept the decree of the Syrians or we will all perish.”
Suddenly, the old Priest arose with fire in his eyes. He spoke forcefully saying, “In former times, there was only one David, but unless we have the faith of David today, we will not endure. You can choose to live by faith or live by fear. You must choose for yourself. We are the people of Moses who stood against Pharoah, Joshua who brought down great cities, Gideon who defeated the Midianites with only three hundred men, David though only a boy slew Goliath, Daniel and the king saw the mouth of the lions closed, and three Hebrews withstood the king’s fiery furnace in Babylon. We are Jews, a people set apart to God. That’s the people we are. If you are going to run from that, abandon our God and our religion then don’t call yourself a Jew. Being circumcised on the 8th day when you don’t have any choice doesn’t make you a Jew. Being a Jew is a state of mind and a condition of the heart. It’s our life. Either live the life, or leave it and become a heathen Syrian.”
The Sadducce arose from his seat and said, “What you are advocating is suicide for us and for our families. Surely we can reason with the Syrians, even though we must abandon our faith to survive.
Mattathias looked at the Sadducce, and continued as if he had never spoken a word. “When Joshua crossed the Jordan River to possess the land of Israel, and take it from the enemies of our God he gave the people a choice whom they would serve. He said, “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord!” Quiet words of concurrence were heard around the room.
Mattathias continued, “Today, I say the same thing. As for me and my house we will serve the Lord. Each man here today must decide for himself. As for me and my sons we will not comply with this decree from a pagan king. Turning and walking toward the door, Mattathias said, “Come my sons, some here aren’t worth saving, we are going to fight for those who are.”
So the stage was set for a confrontation with the Syrians by an old retired Priest and his five sons against the King of Syria with his mighty highly trained army. How could they possibly hope to stand against such a force? Only by the power and faith in the God of Israel was this possible.
Mattathias and his five sons spent the next thirty days training up those who joined them, all who were farmers, not trained soldiers in how to shoot a bow and arrow, wield a spear and a sword, along with other implements of war. These weapons had to be manufactured on the anvil of the black smith of the town of Modiin and his assistants. It had to be done in secret, as the Sadducce had spies in Modiin.
Judas, one of Mattathias sons, who would soon come to be known as the Maccabee, (the Hammer) took charge of the training and developed the battle plan for the coming confrontation with the Syrians. He tasked his four brothers with taking the newly formed army of 40 or so followers into the woods each day in small groups for training.
The Torah scrolls were taken and stored in a cave some distance from the city. Carefully wrapped and preserved for the time when freedom would reign in the land, free from oppression of the Jewish people and their religion.
Judas had stationed lookouts to signal the coming of the Syrian soldiers. One hour after being alerted, the knock came on the door of the home of Mattathias. Simon his brother opened the door, and a course looking soldier stood in the doorway with four other soldiers behind him, standing with their spears in an upright position.
You and your sons have been summoned by the honorable Apelles to come to the town synagogue where you, Mattathias will have the distinct honor of sacrificing and eating a pig to our great god Zeus and to our King. Without a word, stone faced Mattathias arose from his seat and exited the house followed by Judas and Simon, his youngest brother. He said to the head soldier, “Lead the way.”
The four soldiers with spears and swords fell in behind the group as they walked towards the synagogue. Upon their arrival at the synagogue Mattathias and his sons quickly assessed the situation. Erected directly in front of the synagogue was a small brazen altar with a figurine representing Zeus on the edge. The altar was only waist high but it was large enough to build a fire with a grill on top of it.
Judas eyes scanned the scene carefully. He glanced up at the roof tops of the houses surrounding the square where the altar was set up. He had stationed archers on each roof top, anticipating well the position of the 40 soldiers who stood in formation in front of the altar.
Apelles turned to the slave by the alter and asked, “Is it ready?” The slave gave a quick nod of his head. “Then bring the sacrifice,” he commanded. The slave ran past the soldiers to a small crate, where he extracted a squealing pig with its feet tied together. Returning to the altar the slave took up a position between Apelles and Mattathais.
Apelles motioned to the slave to bring the pig to Mattathais. Stepping forward he held the squealing pig up before Mattathais, but he did not move. The slave’s eyes were fixed on Apelles, looking for direction. Mattathais looked at Apelles and said, “I do not have a knife!”
Apelles, standing beside Mattathais reached into the scabbard on his side and handed Mattathais the dagger. Holding the dagger in his hand he turned to Apelles and said, “I cannot do this. I will not dishonor my God by sacrificing to another god. Though all the nations around us follow these false gods. I will not do this, though it cost me my life.”
“Then it will cost you your life,” shouted a clearly irate Apelles. Turning to the crowd he said, “Who among you will come forward and offer the sacrifice and honor our god and our king?”
Without hesitation, Mattan, the Sadducee stepped forward. “ I will offer the sacrifice, honorable Apelles. I want you to know that not all of us are like this obstinate old priest. He is no leader, he is a relic of the past.”
Who are you Apelles inquired? I am Mattan, of the party of the Sadducees.” Smiling, Mattan moved forward and took the dagger from Mattathais’ hand. Apelles turned to Mattathais standing at his right hand and said, “You will witness this sacrifice and know you have lost, and then you will die just like the pig with your throat cut.”
Mattan, with sinister glee ran the dagger across the pig’s throat and the squealing stopped. The slave then laid the body of the dead pig on the grill and backed away.
Mattan took the sleeve of his garment, wiped off the blood from the blade, and taking hold of the blade and extended the knife, handle first to Apelles.
In the next few seconds the entire future history of the nation of Israel changed forever. Suddenly, Mattathais screamed, “you enemy of all that is holy, die like the pig on the altar.” Incredibly, the visible character of the old priest changed from that of a priest to that of a warrior.
Mattathais suddenly grabbed the dagger handle being offered to Apelles by the hand of the Sadducce. In one swift motion he swept the blade across the throat of Mattan, and then swung around and thrust the dagger into the heart of Apelles. Mattan grabbed his throat as his knees collapsed beneath him and he fell dead at Mattathais feet.
Apelles stood for a moment too stunned to realize the pain of the knife in his heart. He turned his head in a frantic look at the captain of his troops, looking for salvation, but it was too late. Apelles then fell crumpled at Mattathais feet.
The rebellion had begun. The Syrian soldiers standing in the front line lept forward with their spears to kill Mattathais, but suddenly arrows from every direction of the roofs above penetrated the throats of the advancing soldiers, as they fell to the ground thrashing around from the pain and deadly attack that had suddenly struck them.
When it was all over, all but two of the Syrian troops had been killed by arrows, swords, and spears. The story of Judas, the Macabee as the leader of the Jewish rebellion against the Syrian army was born with his first victory.
How is it that an army of farmers could arise and defeat the entire military might of the entire Seleucid Empire, led by King Antiochus Epiphanes? The revolt itself involved many battles, in which the Macabee’s faced off against the Syrians often out numbered four or five to one, and in some cases seven or eight to one.
“Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit” says the Lord of hosts.”
What are the lessons of Hanukkah? The first lesson is when the God of Israel raises up men like Mattathais and Judas Macabee, who choose to follow Him, and to honor HIs ways no matter the consequences or odds against them, the God of Israel goes before them and fights the battles with them until they prevail.
The war lasted seven years, with Judas, the Macabee prevailing over the Syrians, freeing Jerusalem, cleansing the Temple, and restoring freedom and the worship of the God of Israel in the land.
So Hanukkah involved two specific miracles. The first miracle was the defeat of the far superior military forces of the entire Seleucid Empire, the capture of Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple, and the re-establishment of the worship of the God of Israel.
The second miracle involved the oil used to light the Menorah in the Temple. According to Rabbinic tradition, the victorious Maccabees could only find a small jug of oil that had remained uncontaminated by virtue of a seal, and although it only contained enough oil to sustain the Menorah for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days, by which time further oil could be procured.
Thus, today we celebrate this miracle by lighting candles for eight nights in honor of the miracle of God’s provision to cause one days oil to last for eight days.
As the lights of Hanukkah shine brightly in thousands of home and synagogues across Israel today, it reminds us that freedom and liberty are not free. They come with a price in the precious blood shed by the youth of Israel defending the nation against a host of nations who once again seek her complete annihilation.
Were it not for God’s eternal everlasting covenant with the Jewish people we would be like the Dinosaur, extinct. In all reality the Jewish people should be extinct, but they are not nor will they ever be.
Thus says the Lord,
Who gives the sun for light by day
And the fixed order of the moon and the stars
for light by night,
Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar;
The Lord of hosts is His name:
“If this fixed order departs
From before Me,” declares the Lord,
“Then the offspring of Israel also will cease
From being a nation before Me forever.”
Thus says the Lord,
“If the heavens above can be measured
And the foundations of the earth searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done,” declares the Lord.
To God be the Glory!
Portions of this story are taken from our late friends wonderful book, Macabee, by David C. Carson.