Hanukkah – The Festival of Lights
While the Christian world is preparing for Christmas, the Jewish people are busy getting ready for Hanukkah, the holiday that this year will run from the evening of 10 December to 18 December. Many of us have probably heard of this holiday and, if you happen to have Jewish friends, perhaps wished ‘Happy Hanukkah’ to them.
Is Hanukkah a Biblical holiday? Yes and no, is the answer. It is not one of the moadim (appointed times) laid out by God in Leviticus 23. In fact, it is not clearly mentioned in the Bible at all. Nevertheless, it is deeply related to the Jewish history and, as we will find out, also to our Messiah Yeshua – Jesus.
The origins of Hanukkah come from the inter-Testament period, i.e. the four centuries between the book of Malachi in the Old Testament and the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. The events that happened to the Jewish people at that time are recorded in the 1st and 2nd Maccabees – books of the Apocrypha (not included in the canon of the Protestant Bible but considered as a part of scripture in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy).
In 333 BC, the Medo-Persian Empire (Iran) was overthrown by Alexander the Great and the Grecian Empire. After Alexander’s death, between the years 175-163 BC, the area of Judah came under the control of the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He was an evil king driven by Hellenisation – spreading Greek culture by conquering and subduing other nations. He came into direct conflict with the Jewish people, especially with those who wanted to keep the Torah and the pure Jewish traditions. Antiochus attacked Jerusalem in 167 BC, killing approximately 40,000 Jews and selling another 40,000 into slavery. He banned upon penalty of death all the Jewish laws and customs. He defiled the holy Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar and did the most abominable thing by erecting a statue of the pagan god Zeus in the Holy of Holies. Antiochus was definitely an anti-Christ figure whose deeds are foretold by Daniel in his prophecy of the ‘abomination of desolation’:
“His forces will rise up and profane the fortified Temple; they will stop the daily offering and set up the abomination of desolation. With smooth words he will seduce those who act wickedly against the covenant, but the people who know their God will stand strong and prevail.”
Daniel 11:31-31 (TLV)
These events gave rise to the revolt led by the five sons of the priest Mattathias, especially his son Judah. The freedom fighters were called the Maccabees, which is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase mi kamocha ba’elim Adonai – who is like you, Lord, among the gods?
By the miraculous covering of the God of Israel, the greatly outnumbered group of freedom fighters drove out the armies of Antiochus and re-dedicated the Temple in 164 BC. The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean victory and the re-dedication of the Temple. The word Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word hanukh, which means dedication or education.
You may have seen the seven-pointed lampstand called Menorah that was used in Jewish worship both in the portable sanctuary and in the Temple. God Himself gave instructions to Moses on Mount Sinai for creating this lampstand and other utensils used in the sanctuary. Special consecrated olive oil was prepared to light the lamps of the Menorah, which were to be kept burning continually from evening till morning (Leviticus 24:1-3). The central point of the lampstand, which is usually higher than the rest, holds the servant candle – shamash, which is used to light all the other candles. The Hanukkah menorah, called Hanukkiah, has nine points, commemorating the ‘miracle of oil’ that happened during the re-dedication of the Temple. The supply of the holy oil was only sufficient for one day, however, the oil miraculously burned for eight days which was the time needed to prepare the new consecrated oil to continue with Temple worship.
In modern times, the focal point of the Hanukkah festival is the lighting of candles – one candle is added each night of the eight-day holiday, so that on the eighth day the whole Hanukkiah is brightly lit. Other traditions related to the holiday are reading stories, spinning the dreidel (a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters used for playing a children’s game), singing Hanukkah songs, and eating foods fried in oil, the favourites being sufganiyot (donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes).
This is a nice story, you may say, but is there any relation to what we believe as Christians? I would suggest that Hanukkah is a prophetic holiday full of symbolism, which is very much connected to who Jesus is and what we are called to be.
Jesus celebrated Hanukkah; we can read about it in John 10:22-30. It says in verses 22-23:
Then came the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah) at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.
We have to remember that Jesus was not from Jerusalem, but from the northern part of Israel, the Galilee region. To travel this far in winter shows us how important the festival was for Jesus. The scripture tells us that He was walking in the Temple courts having a discussion with the Judean leaders about His messiahship. In the discussion, He clearly identified Himself as one with the Father, the one who has authority to give eternal life. Jesus being the Temple of God (John 2:19), walking in the Jewish Temple during the Festival of the Dedication of the Temple speaking about eternal matters conveyed a powerful prophetic message to those around Him.
In John 8:12 Jesus says:
“I am the light of the world. The one who follows Me will no longer walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights. Jesus is the Light of the world. Jesus the Messiah is also symbolically the middle candle of the Hanukkiah – the shamash candle that lights all the other candles. The Shamash candle is the servant candle, and we know that Jesus came to the world to serve and give His life for us. Furthermore, He came to teach us to serve.
Light is a very powerful phenomenon; darkness has no power over light. When lights are turned on, darkness must disappear immediately. Light always wins. John explains that in the first chapter of his gospel:
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it.
Jesus tells his disciples, including us, that they are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). When Jesus comes into a person’s life, darkness has to flee. However, each person decides how much light they are willing to let shine.
How many Hanukkiah candles will we allow Jesus to light in our lives?
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