The Message of Hanukkah
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 14 December 2016; Revised 17 December 2018
Sources: Bibliographic data for scholarly publications cited may be found at the end of the article. References to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, are from The Works of Flavius Josephus (c. 75-99 A.D.) trans. William Whiston (1737); online. References to tractates of the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); online.
Vocabulary: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Hanukkah is the name given to a Jewish 8-day winter celebration that generally occurs in December. Parsons summarizes the meaning of Hanukkah,
"Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple after a small group of Jewish believers defeated the forces of assimilation at work in their world. As such, Hanukkah represents the victory of faith over the ways of speculative reason, and demonstrates the power of the miracle in the face of mere humanism."
Hanukkah often occurs in close proximity to Christmas, but is usually overshadowed by the national holiday. Christians and churches give little attention to Hanukkah, but it is worthy to be counted among the appointed times of the Lord (Lev 23:2).
Hanukkah is not mentioned among the sacred days of the Lord anywhere in the Tanakh, but no one should assume that it's therefore non-biblical. The festival was anticipated by the prophecies of Daniel who was given visions of the conquest of the world by Alexander the Great (324 B.C.) and after his death the efforts of his four generals to impose Greek culture on the nations they conquered (Dan 8:2-25; 9:24-27; 10:18-20; 11:11-45). The forced assimilation impacted every aspect of life, including language, the arts, and even religion. Eventually, the Hellenistic empire was divided into two parts. The Ptolemies took control of the South, which included Egypt, and the Seleucids took charge of the northern area around Syria. This left Judea caught between these two factions that often fought for supremacy.
The story of Hanukkah—recounted in the apocryphal books, First and Second Maccabees—occurred during a time of Syrian oppression of Israel by Antiochus IV, who reigned 175—164 B.C. The Syrian king rigorously enforced the Hellenization policy. Most nations did not object to Greek culture, but in Judea it became a flashpoint for strife between Jews. Antiochus had forbidden circumcision, observing the Sabbath and keeping a kosher diet. Kasdan notes that many Jews converted to the Hellenistic way and openly advocated adherence to it (108). However, there were a significant number of traditional Jews who were appalled at the changes in their society and steadfastly refused to comply with the decree of Antiochus, even in the face of executions for simply obeying God.
Stern summarizes what happened next (186-187). Antiochus, recently defeated in Egypt, expressed his frustration by attacking Judea, ruthlessly slaughtering men, women and children, and invading the Temple. There he carried off the golden altar, menorahs and vessels. To show his contempt for the God of Israel he sacrificed there a pig to Zeus and decreed that only pigs be sacrificed in the Temple. He himself cooked a pig in the Temple and poured its broth on the holy Torah scrolls and on the altar.
The brutal attack on the Jewish people and traditions did not go unanswered for long. One day when a Syrian officer commanded Mattathias the Maccabee (or "Hammer"), a head of a family of priests, to sacrifice a pig, he and his five sons killed the first Jew to comply and then killed the officer and his soldiers. This was the start of a rebellion. After Mattathias' death his son Judas Maccabeus assembled a number of courageous Jews and led them to victory over the Syrians, first in guerilla warfare, then later in open battle. Finally, Jerusalem was freed from the Syrians.
On the 25th of Kislev priests rededicated the Temple and consecrated a new altar. The priests then ordered an annual commemoration of the victory over the Syrians and rededication of the Temple.
"Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev." (1Macc 4:59 RSV)
The celebration of Hanukkah was patterned after Sukkot (Feast of Booths, 2Macc 1:9, 18; 10:6-7) which had not been observed since the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. The original Feast of Hanukah had nothing to do with a menorah miracle, where supposedly one day's ration of oil burned for eight days (Shab. 21b). In the first century the festival was called "Lights," but not because of the Talmudic legend. Josephus says, "I suppose the reason [for the name] was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival" (Ant. XII, 7:7). Eventually the principal Jewish observance focused on kindling lights for the eight days and singing hymns of thanksgiving, such as the Hallel (Psalm 113-118).
Hanukkah and Yeshua
Most Christians are probably unaware of the significant connection between Yeshua's life and ministry and Hanukkah.
First, as I have stated in my commentary on the nativity (Matthew 1; Matthew 2; Luke 1; Luke 2), Yeshua was likely born during the festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths) in September of 3 BC (Heb. Cal. 3759). when God chose to "tabernacle" among us (John 1:14). This would mean that Yeshua had been conceived 40 weeks previously during the festival of Hanukkah.
Second, the Magi arrived in Bethlehem during the winter of 2 BC (Heb. Cal. 3760) during Hanukkah, which took place 22-29 December that year. The Magi had come to worship the King of the Jews. Since they did not find him in Jerusalem the humble home of Joseph and Miriam in Bethlehem became a temple for their worship. Jewish gift-giving during Hanukkah has its basis in the generosity of the Magi.
Third, the apostle John recorded that Yeshua observed Hanukkah in Jerusalem as he walked in the Solomon's portico of the temple (John 10:22). In one respect the choice to walk in the portico of Solomon during Hanukkah was a divine appointment and an acted out parable. Yeshua was walking in a structure built by Solomon based on plans prepared by David who received them from ADONAI who is Yeshua (John 8:58). In essence the Maccabees preserved the temple whose design had come from Yeshua.
Then in his short sermon on that occasion Yeshua offered two allusions to the historical event. First, the expression "my sheep" (John 10:26-27) alludes to the Maccabees who chose to be faithful to the God of Israel and reject the Hellenistic syncretism imposed by the Syrians. Second, Yeshua's promise of security (John 10:28-29) alludes to the threat of extinction Israel faced from the Syrians had the Maccabees not been successful. The truth is that without the success of the Maccabees the coming of the Messiah would have been in jeopardy.
The Lessons of Hanukkah
Hanukkah, like all the biblical feasts, reveals important spiritual and theological truth about God and His Messiah.
Since Hanukkah was the time when Yeshua was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Miriam, Hanukkah declares the virgin birth and celebrates his Incarnation. To deny the virgin birth implies that God can't perform miracles and if He can't do it then not only is the case for Christianity undermined, but also for Judaism and any other kind of theism. The Hebrew Scriptures record that God brought about miraculous pregnancies with Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah, for example. So, it is not impossible that God, who can do far more than we can imagine, could take on human flesh in the womb of Miriam with the power of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, he would be the "son of God," not merely in the sense of a Davidic king and deliverer, but because he would be begotten of God.
Similar to the Maccabees Yeshua cleansed the temple in Jerusalem, twice in fact (John 2:14-17; Mark 11:15-17). The Syrians had polluted the temple with idolatry and unclean sacrifices. The Sadducean priests of Yeshua's time had polluted the temple with the idolatry of greed. In the spiritual sense the heart of each true believer in Yeshua is the temple where the Spirit of God dwells. Too often believers endanger their temple by allowing idolatry into their lives. Paul exhorted disciples in Corinth, "do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" (1Cor 6:19-20 ESV).
Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights because of appearance of liberty that expelled the darkness of Syrian tyranny. Yeshua is the Light of the world, that having entered the world enlightens every person with the true knowledge of God and in so doing brings liberty from the darkness of sin (John 1:5, 29; 8:12). Hanukkah is about redemption and restoration, which is the mission of Yeshua. Moreover, the light shining forth from disciples (Matt 5:14) emanates from Yeshua. Hanukkah represents the light of Messiah burning brightly in our hearts so that we might provide his light to the world.
The imagery of using the center candle of the Hanukkah menorah, called the "Servant Candle," to light the other eight candles illustrates that Yeshua is the Servant of Israel. He said that he came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28). Moreover, the servant candle represents fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah,
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isa 49:6 ESV)
Hanukkah echoes the message of the New Covenant promised to Israel and Judah, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer 31:33 ESV). Hanukkah represents a spiritual revival to embrace and obey the commandments of God. Christians often think of the New Covenant as the cancellation of Torah commandments, but Yeshua affirmed categorically that he did not come to abolish the Torah (Matt 5:17). The Maccabees called Israel back to obedience of the Torah and Yeshua likewise enjoined his disciples to keep the commandments (Matt 5:19; 19:17; John 14:15, 21; 15:10).
Finally, the story of Hanukkah represents the age-old war of Satan to destroy God's people. During the time of the Maccabees the Syrians were the agents of Satan. Yeshua warned that the abomination of desolation (Matt 24:15), an allusion of Antiochus Epiphanes, would bring renewed tribulation for God's people. Hanukkah is a testimony that even in the midst of Satanic opposition God's people can be victorious through Yeshua (Rev 12:11). Moreover, at the present time the story of Hanukkah illustrates the importance and validity of the use of military force to defend the land and the people of Israel from their enemies.
Traditional Jewish Observance
Every year the Jewish community throughout the world begins the Hanukkah celebration on the 25th of Kislev. (See the current Jewish calendar here.) Since the Jewish day begins and ends with sundown, Kislev 25 begins the evening preceding. Among Jews Hanukkah is celebrated in the home with many meaningful customs.
The lighting of the menorah is the center of the Hanukkah celebration. Unlike the usual menorah, the Hanukkah menorah has nine branches for the eight days of the festival and commemorates the miraculous supply of oil that kept the holy flame burning for eight days in the Temple. The menorah is placed where it is safe from accidental disturbance. Once lit the menorah remains burning for at least 30 minutes.
On the first night of Hanukkah only two candles are placed in the menorah: the shammash, or "servant" candle, which has its own designated spot in the center, and another candle. Each night, another candle is added so that on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, nine candles are lit. The candles are placed in the menorah from right to left, but are lit from left to right. The shammash candle is always the first one lit, and is used to light the others, starting with the left-most one.
Special ritual blessings are recited before lighting the candles.
"Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights."
"Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who performed miracles for Israel in days long ago at this time of year."
"Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this Hanukkah season."
All three blessings are recited the first night after placing the candles in the menorah but before lighting. The rest of the nights only the first two blessings are recited.
The lighting of the menorah is usually followed by a festive meal. Because of the miracle of oil, it is customary to eat fried and oily foods, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (Israeli donuts).
Another reminder of the Hanukkah miracle is the game of dreidels (spinning tops). The Syrians outlawed Torah schools, so the children would study in the forests, posting sentries to alert them of enemy patrols. When the alert came, the children would hide their texts, bring out the dreidels and pretend playing a game of tops. When the soldiers left the Torah study would resume. The dreidel has different Hebrew letters on each of the four sides: Nun, Gimel, Hey and Shin, standing for the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham "A Great Miracle Happened There." In the modern celebration each Hebrew letter has its own value for keeping score. Children use candy to wager and make the game interesting.
During Hanukah it is customary for adults to give gelt (money) to children, so that they can be taught to give some of it to charity—and just to keep things festive and happy. The amount may be 25¢ for each year of age. Some engage in gelt-giving each weeknight of Hanukah.
The Value of Hanukkah for Christians
Christians sometimes ask whether (or why) they should observe this Jewish festival, since it is not included in any church calendar. The neglect of Hanukkah came about as a result of the decision of church leaders during the Second Council of Nicea (A.D. 787) to ban Christian observance of Jewish festivals. Christians should take note of the biblical prophecies that when Yeshua returns and establishes his millennial kingdom, he will oversee the restoration of key festivals that God ordained, such as Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (Isa 66:22-23; Ezek 46:1-11; Zeph 3:18; Zech 14:16; Matt 26:29). Remember that Hanukkah is the winter version of Sukkot.
The example of Yeshua is worthy of emulation (1Pet 2:21), and there is no question that Yeshua observed Hanukkah, as he did all of God's appointed times. Christian recognition of Hanukkah does not have to imitate Jewish practice, but including it on the Christian's calendar serves to give due emphasis to the lessons of Hanukkah. In addition, observing Hanukkah says to the Jewish people and Israel, "We stand with you against all the forces of evil seeking your destruction."
Suggestions for Christian Observance
While there is no specific requirement in the apostolic writings that Gentile believers celebrate Hanukkah, I believe that Christian churches and believers can benefit from giving attention to this special time of the year. There are a variety of ways this can be done.
1. Highlight the days of Hanukkah on church and personal calendars.
2. In anticipation of the sacred festival provide teaching on the institution of the feast and the New Covenant meaning for disciples. A Messianic Jewish leader could be invited to give the instruction.
3. It is fitting during this season for believers to honor Messiah by self-examination, cleansing our lives from whatever inhibits our devotion to the Lord and rededicating our lives anew to the service of the Lord.
4. Observe the festival at home. The manner of observance is a matter of personal choice (Col 2:16). The celebration could include:
● Creating a Hanukkah menorah display. Then each night light candles and offer blessings to God.
● Sharing devotional readings from Scripture each night of Hanukkah:
Night 1: Psalm 113; John 1:1-14, 29, 49
Night 2: Psalm 114; John 2:13-25
Night 3: Psalm 115; John 3:16-21
Night 4: Psalm 116; John 8:12; 9:1-7, 39
Night 5: Psalm 117; John 10:22-30
Night 6: Psalm 118:1-9; John 12:35-36, 44-46
Night 7: Psalm 118:10-18; John 15:18-27
Night 8: Psalm 118:19-29; 1 Peter 2:1-11
● Praying that unbelieving Jews would recognize their Messiah in their celebration of the feast.
5. Join with a Messianic Jewish congregation in their observance of the festival.
6. Since Hanukkah is a season of gift-giving, send a donation to a Messianic Jewish ministry engaged in evangelism or charitable works in relation to Jews or Israel.
Ant.: Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.), Antiquities of the Jews. Online.
Kasdan: Barney Kasdan, God's Appointed Times. Lederer Publications, 1993.
Parsons: John J. Parsons, The Festival of Chanukah. Hebrew4Christians.com, 2003-2016.
Stern: David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 5th ed. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1996.
Copyright © 2016-2018 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.