My ongoing series on the feasts of Israel has been concentrating on the biblical festivals of God’s chosen people. Today, though, I want to deal with an extrabiblical Jewish feast that is happening as I write this post: Hanukkah. In 2017 it runs from December 12 to 20.
THE ORIGINS OF HANUKKAH
The term Hanukkah reflects the Hebrew root khanak, “to dedicate.” This verb occurs in 2 Chronicles 7:5: “So the king [Solomon] and all the people dedicated the house of God.” The related noun khənukkah shows up at the inauguration of a worship structure about five centuries earlier: “And the chiefs offered offerings for the dedication of the altar on the day it was anointed” (Num. 7:10). The Feast of Hanukkah does not, however, commemorate the dedication of Moses’ tabernacle or Solomon’s temple. Instead it dates to the intertestamental period.
Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire initiated a period of Greek domination of the Jews. Following Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., his kingdom was eventually divided among four of his generals and later into three regions. In 175 Mithradates usurped the rule of the Seleucid dynasty over Babylonia, Upper Syria and Asia Minor. Assuming the name Antiochus IV, he had grander aspirations. Eventually he adopted nicknames that reflected a desire to be recognized as deity: Epiphanes means “The Manifest One,” and Theos Epiphanes means “God Manifest.” Some of his enemies, however, played on these titles and called him Epimanes, “madman.”
Though he ultimately failed at taking Egypt from the Ptolemaic dynasty, Antiochus Epiphanes did gain control of Judea. In 171 he launched an all-out effort to force Hellenization upon the Jews and ended up slaughtering masses of God’s people. Antiochus memorialized his rage when he desecrated the temple by setting up a statue of Zeus and offering a pig as a sacrifice.
Loyal Jews mounted a resistance, led by a family that came to be known as the “Maccabees,” after the nickname of their leader Judah: “The Maccabee,” meaning “The Hammer.” The story of their struggle is recorded in the Apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Amazingly—perhaps we could even say miraculously—the Maccabees succeeded in overthrowing Antiochus in 165.
On the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev that year, the Jews cleansed the temple, reignited its lampstand, and dedicated (khanak) the building once again to the worship of Yahweh. This dedication came to be celebrated annually as the Feast of Hanukkah. Its eight-day length seems to reflect the fact that the first Hanukkah was patterned after the eight-day Feast of Booths. Jewish tradition provides an alternate explanation: allegedly the temple lampstand miraculously burned for eight nights on one night’s worth of oil. Whatever the case, menorah-lighting ceremonies have long punctuated the celebration of Hanukkah.
HANUKKAH AND GOD’S FAITHFULNESS
Hanukkah is extrabiblical in the sense that the Bible does not record its origins nor require its celebration. Yet we do have key biblical texts related to Hanukkah. For one, Antiochus’ reign of terror is prophesied in Daniel 8:9-14, 23-26, and 11:21-35. This includes the exact duration of his desecration of the temple: 2300 days (8:14). These highly specific prophecies assured the Jewish people that Yahweh would preserve a remnant through the intense persecution and would soundly overthrow their persecutors. Such assurances continue to minister hope to the Jews as Antiochus’ brutality typifies the cruelty that God’s chosen people will yet suffer under the coming Antichrist (cf. Dan. 11:36–12:1; Matt. 24:15).
The story of Hanukkah eloquently reminds us of God’s unrelenting loyalty to the descendants of Abraham because of his covenant promises to Abraham. It unites with a whole catalog of biblical stories to portray Yahweh’s faithfulness in the face of humanly impossible odds as well as the judgment that the Israelites repeatedly brought upon themselves. Consider the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, the victories of the judges, the exploits of David, the glories of Solomon, the return from Babylonian exile, the preservation of Daniel and his friends, and the reversals under Esther. We can keep tracing the Lord’s faithfulness into modern times as we observe the Jews’ survival of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and the ongoing existence of that state despite ongoing rockets from Gaza. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle that is Israel.
HANUKKAH AND THE MESSIAH
But we can learn more from Hanukkah as we relate it to the New Testament. John 10records powerful words spoken by Jesus in the temple during “the Feast of Dedication” (v. 22). Interpreters have noted various fascinating points of connection between our Lord’s teaching during Hanukkah and the significance of the feast.
- Craig Hartman parallels the eternal security of Jesus’ disciples (vv. 27-29) with Hanukkah’s focus on the ultimate security of Israel as God’s covenanted people (Through Jewish Eyes, 144-56).
- One blogger recently highlighted a shocking irony in John 10. Jesus claims to be God (v. 30) at the very time that the Jews were celebrating their deliverance from a man who declared himself divine—in the very place where he had so brazenly put his blasphemy on display!
- D. A. Carson sees the Father’s sanctifying of the Son for his redemptive mission (v. 36) as fulfilling Hanukkah’s sanctification of the temple (The Gospel according to John, 399).
- We may also correlate Hanukkah’s lights and their associated joy with Jesus’ earlier declarations that he is “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5).
Whether or not Jesus or John intended us to make these connections, they remain natural extensions of what was being observed at Hanukkah. The delight and comfort that fill the hearts of Jews during the feast find their culminating expression in Jesus, their true if unrecognized Messiah!
HANUKKAH AND CHRISTMAS
This brings me to a final point I want to make about Hanukkah. It seems from John 10that Jesus felt comfortable participating in a religious feast that was not mandated in Scripture. Historically, this has been one of several arguments against a rigid application of the regulative principle of worship (see, for example, R. J. Gore Jr., Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle). That is, we need not limit ourselves to worship practices that Scripture directly commands. Instead, Scripture may warrantworship practices in a variety of ways.
This is the kind of phenomenon we see with Hanukkah. In the Old Testament God commanded Israel to observe several annual feasts that marked key events in their history and/or key aspects of their relationship with Yahweh. The Israelites had the liberty to develop additional celebrations that were patterned after the required celebrations. We see this in a feast that I plan to discuss when it comes around in a couple of months: Purim. This feast is described in positive terms in Esther 9, but we are not told that God commanded it.
Likewise with Hanukkah: intertestamental Jews devised a way by which they could regularly remember God’s deliverance from Antiochus Epiphanes. And Jesus appears to have thought that this was a good thing.
This is why I believe Jesus would think it is a good thing for us to celebrate annually his birth and its surrounding events (minus Santa, perhaps). The Bible does not command us to celebrate Christmas. But the patterns of Israel’s feasts teach us that God is pleased when we remember in vivid ways his great acts in the history of redemption. And apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection (which we remember through the biblically mandated Lord’s Supper and the biblically consistent Passion Week), what greater act could there be than his incarnation?
In an intriguing providence, Christians have traditionally celebrated Christmas on the same day of December as the day of Kislev when the original Hanukkah temple dedication took place: the twenty-fifth. In fact, occasionally the two holidays fall on exactly the same day of the year. So around the same time that Jewish people celebrate their deliverance from a maniacal tyrant, Christian people celebrate the self-humbling of their Servant-King (Phil. 2:5-11). Oh, that the Jews would come to see that Jesus provides the loving leadership their hearts long for!
Happy Hanukkah! Merry Christmas!
Photo credit: alex ringer, freeimages.com