“I will say to the prisoners, ‘Come out in freedom,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Come into the light.'” (Isaiah 49:9)
Last night was the first night, of the eight-day “Festival of Dedication” known as Hanukkah.
Hanukkah means dedication.
This wonderful holiday commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple by the Hasmoneans, also known as the Maccabee family, and according to Jewish tradition, the miraculous single-day supply of oil lasting a full eight days in the process of that rededication.
The first Hanukkah on the 25th of Kislev in 164 BC heralded freedom from Greek rule, the purification of Jerusalem from pagan influence, and the restoration of God’s House—the Temple in Jerusalem.
With the Temple recaptured from the Greeks and newly restored, the family of Judah Maccabee reestablished the seven-day autumn festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) and the extra day of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah, which concludes the annual cycle of Parashiot). The Greek ruler Antiochus IV had forbidden its observance earlier in the year, so when the Temple was recaptured in December, they celebrated this eight-day festival.
As a result, the keeping of Torah once again freely commenced. Hanukkah, therefore, represents the renewed ability to study the Torah, which is compared to light.
Darkness Descends on Israel
“Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.” (Micah 7:8)
The Greek Empire had risen to power under Alexander the Great after Judah had served as a vassal state to Persia for two centuries. After Alexander’s death, the state of Judah would be wrested back and forth by two of Alexander’s generals seven times.
All the while, clashing starkly with the unique holiness of the Hebrew religion, the pagan culture of the Greeks was wildly offensive: naked wrestling, immodest dress and a preference for homosexuality, writes Richard Hooker in The Hebrews: A Learning Module.
However, while the Greeks’ influenced the language and culture of Jerusalem and the state of Judah (Judea), “they allowed the Jews to run their own country, declared that the law of Judah was the Torah and attempted to preserve Jewish religion,” writes Hooker. Such was the case, at first.
Two Greek monarchs, Ptolemy and Seleucus, battled for Judea until 198 BC, at which time Antiochus III, a Seleucid Greek, won the prize. He allowed the Jews autonomy until “a stinging defeat at the hands of the Romans began a program of Hellenization that threatened to force the Jews to abandon their monotheism for the Greeks’ paganism,” writes Mitchell G. Bard in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Middle East Conflict.
After Antiochus III raised idols in the Jewish Temple, the Jews rebelled, forcing back the Greeks. However, Antiochus IV took the throne in 176 BC and did not accommodate Jewish customs as his father had. The son outlawed the keeping of Shabbat as well as the circumcision covenant, and carried out a cruel campaign against the people of God.
Antiochus IV gave himself the last name “Epiphanes” (meaning “the visible god”) and destroyed every copy of the Scriptures he could find, selling thousands of Jewish families into slavery and murdering anyone who had a Scripture scroll in their possession.
Antiochus IV defiled the Jewish Temple by offering a pig on its altar, erected an altar to Jupiter, and prohibited the Jews from Temple worship.
But the reach of that defilement extended further than the Temple.
“Women who insisted that their sons be circumcised were killed along with their babies. Brides were forced to sleep with Greek officers before they could be with their husbands. Jews were required to eat pork and sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods. The teaching of Torah became a capital crime,” writes Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf in a Torah blog.
Although a great darkness had come over Judah and Jerusalem, “most Jews did anything and everything to remain Jewish,” Apisdorf adds, including studying Scripture and getting married in secret.
The Rise of Righteousness
“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place.” (Ephesians 6:14)
The Hasmoneans were a Jewish family with a seemingly impossible calling: to stand up for righteousness under the weight of an oppressor trying to eradicate their identity as well as empty the Temple of its holy purpose—and of its eternal light.
The head of the family, Mattisyahu (Mattathias), was serving as a priest in God’s Temple in 167 BC when a Greek official tried to force him to sacrifice to a pagan god. Mattisyahu resisted and killed the official, which triggered reprisals by Antiochus IV against the Jews.
Nevertheless, Mattisyahu—and after his death, Judah, one of his five sons—took charge of the fight against the pagan Greeks and earned the name Maccabee (possibly from hammer in Hebrew) because of their hammer-like blows against their enemies.
Three years after the Maccabee uprising, in 164 BC, the Hasmoneans had taken back Jerusalem and purified the Temple.
It took another 20 years before the Hasmoneans pushed the Seleucid Greeks out of the Land of Israel with the defeat of the Acra citadel, a stronghold uncovered in 2015 (after a decade of excavations) just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
That the many were defeated by the few is heralded as the main miracle of Hanukkah: Judah and the Hasmoneans succeeded in defeating the pagan Greeks who had so offensively defiled the Temple of God, the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land given to Israel.
The Maccabees served as a light that pushed back the darkness; by faith, their “weakness was turned to strength; and [they] became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” (Hebrews 11:34)
While the Greeks devastated the Jewish community at the time, they did not succeed in destroying the Hasmonean conviction to worship the God of Israel alone.
And while the Greeks defiled the Jewish Temple, they did not succeed in eradicating its means for purification—oil.
Despite the pagan altars within her and impure animals that were offered to idols on the Temple’s holy ground, a day’s worth of purified oil remained hidden on the Temple grounds with its seal intact.
This jar of oil, sanctified to the God of Israel, would help push back the spiritual darkness that had overcome the Temple.
According to Jewish tradition, while it was only enough for a single day, it miraculously burned for a full eight days. By the last day, the Jews had prepared enough sanctified oil to keep the light shining perpetually.
Let Your Light So Shine
“Open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” (Acts 26:18)
During the years of His ministry, Yeshua (Jesus) walked the Temple Courts during Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication, and told those gathered around him: “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me.” (John 10:25)
Yeshua pointed to His own deeds, which were all good, as a testimony of His identity and of His Father’s character.
In the context of the Festival of Lights, another name for Hanukkah, Yeshua may have had in mind His Sermon on the Mount, where he said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
The term “good deeds” is idiomatic for the commandments of Torah.
Yeshua told His disciples that if they kept the commandments of Torah according to His teaching, they would retain their saltiness and their light would shine before men and bring honor to God.
The half-brother of Yeshua, Yaacov (James), elaborated on this point, saying that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)
Good deeds done by those faithful to God allow His Spirit to shine from within them, illustrating “the light of the world” and giving glory to Adonai’s Name.
For the Festival of Lights, this image of God’s light shining through His people is emphasized further by noting the basic components of fire—a spark and a source of fuel—as well as by contemplating that God Himself provides both our Spiritual Light and Oil.
Oil is understood to be a symbol of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit). It has had an important role in Jewish life for millennia as a means of anointing. In Judaism, anointing was performed for kingship, for the priesthood, for prophets, for the healing of the sick, and for purification.
Where the anointing sanctified the priests and treated the sick, “anointment conferred upon the king ‘the Spirit of the Lord,’ [that is to say], His support (1 Samuel 16:13–14), strength (Psalm 89:21–25) and wisdom (Isaiah 11:1–4),” states the Encyclopedia Judaica.
Of the Messiah (Anointed One) to come, the Prophet Isaiah announced, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:1–2)
Messiah Yeshua announced His anointing in a synagogue in Nazareth when He read from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19; see also Isaiah 61:1–2)
The Messiah’s light shone throughout His life and continued to burn brightly even when confronted with the darkness of death. Death could not hold Him and extinguish His light.
“In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4–5)
With the oil of Adonai’s Ruach upon and within Him, the Messiah is an Eternal Light. By living out His anointing He brought “a crown of beauty,” “the oil of joy” and “a garment of praise” to the mourners of Zion.
As Isaiah prophesied, the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners in darkness, the mourners, and the grievers of Zion—having received the freedom and favor of the Lord “will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated.” (Isaiah 61:1–4)
Just as promised, through the Messiah those covered in ashes and a spirit of despair would receive the oil of joy and “be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendor.” (Isaiah 61:3)
Through Adonai’s life-giving work, the once-devastated children of God would be re-activated to rebuild the ancient ruins and renew the ruined cities; His people would stand as oaks of righteousness for “the display of His splendor,” a calling that radiates light.
Miraculous Oil for the Poor in Spirit
Having come “to bring good news to the poor,” Yeshua said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
To be spiritually poor is to recognize how destitute and needy we are of God’s great mercy and goodness.
This spiritual poverty is reflected in the single flask of oil found in the recaptured Temple. While enduring the unspeakable darkness of Greek oppression, that flask did not hold enough oil to fulfill its purpose in the House of God to keep the Menorah lit while more oil was made.
Only with a miracle could this oil be multiplied, and it took the intervention of God Himself.
According to Jewish tradition, the Almighty intervened In the Temple to make the flask of oil last for eight full days—as if adding the oil of His Spirit to sanctify and renew the devastated Temple.
Likewise, when we are poor in spirit, humbly acknowledging our reliance upon God, we can praise Him for sanctifying and renewing our spirit with His, as David did when He wrote, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (Psalm 23:5)