Hanukkah in the Bible

Tonight is the 5th night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. This is a holiday, as I’m sure most of my readers are aware, that celebrate a miracle at the time of the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, after its defilement by Greek forces. The holiday lasts eight days and each day of the holiday lasts from sundown to sundown. (Thus, Adam Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Nights”.) Modern Jewish observance generally includes the giving of gifts and the lighting of a menorah: one additional candle each night until all of the candles are lit on the eighth day.

The story of Hanukkah is one of a miraculous event: After the temple was re-dedicated, all of the holy oil had been defiled. This oil was used to keep an eternal flame lit at the altar, to comply with the commandment in Leviticus 6:6: “A perpetual file shall be kept burning on the altar, no to go out.” (Weirdly, my Christian bibles have this as 6:13.) Unfortunately, there was only enough oil to keep the fire burning for one day, but it would take eight days to make more. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil DID last for all eight days until it could be replenished.

Of course, this is a “Bible Blog”, but Hanukkah as a holiday was started in the post-Biblical period. The Hebrew Bible ends shortly after the construction of the Second Temple. So, to find the story of Hanukkah in the Bible, you need to turn to an unlikely source: The Roman Catholics.

More below the cut…

Roman Catholics, and the various Eastern Orthodox traditions, include a number of books of the bible which are not accepted by Protestants for various reasons. In general, the Protestant bibles, following the advice of Martin Luther, limited the “Old Testament” to those books which the Jews also found canonical. (Some protestant bibles will include these books as “deuterocanon” or “apocrypha”, indicating that they are worthy of study but are not theologically canon.) Two of these books are “1 Maccabees” and “2 Maccabees”.

1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees both tell the story, in slightly different forms, of the revolt against the Greeks. Antiochus was a great Greek ruler who had successfully ravaged Egypt and was turning his attention toward Israel (already a part of Greek territory). And what did he do when he got there?

(By the way, all the Maccabees readings here are from the King James Version, from a text I scraped online for ease of cut-and paste.)

And entered proudly into the sanctuary, and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light, and all the vessels thereof, And the table of the shewbread, and the pouring vessels, and the vials. and the censers of gold, and the veil, and the crown, and the golden ornaments that were before the temple, all which he pulled off. He took also the silver and the gold, and the precious vessels: also he took the hidden treasures which he found.
1 Maccabees 1:21-1:23

And it got worse:

Not long after this the king sent an old man of Athens to compel the Jews to depart from the laws of their fathers, and not to live after the laws of God: And to pollute also the temple in Jerusalem, and to call it the temple of Jupiter Olympius; and that in Garizim, of Jupiter the Defender of strangers, as they did desire that dwelt in the place. The coming in of this mischief was sore and grievous to the people: For the temple was filled with riot and revelling by the Gentiles, who dallied with harlots, and had to do with women within the circuit of the holy places, and besides that brought in things that were not lawful. The altar also was filled with profane things, which the law forbiddeth.
2 Maccabees 6:1-6:5

In short, Judaism was banned, replaced by Greek theology. And “And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, he said, he should die.” (1 Maccabees 1:50). Conversion by the sword.

Mattathias and his family, the heroes of this story, were temple priests and they were eventually called to show their support for the Greek overthrow by offering a sacrifice at a temple at Modin to one of the Greek gods. His response was a simple invocation of faith:

We will not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand, or the left.
1 Maccabees 2:22

But Mattathias didn’t just profess his faith. He was pretty damn angry. He killed the men that commanded him to sacrifice to another God.

And Mattathias cried throughout the city with a loud voice, saying, Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me.
1 Maccabees 2:27

What’s more, he engaged in something akin to a guerilla war against the Greek towns and temples in Israel. And even the children weren’t safe: Mattathias “circumcised valiantly” any male children he found in Israel that weren’t circumcised. You can almost imagine commando raids of mohels descending on Israeli villages in the dark of night.

But, Mattathias is eventually killed and his son Judas, otherwise known as Maccabeus, takes up the charge. Judas was even more successful and recruiting followers and the Greek armies began to take notice and rise against him. Eventually, the Jews were able to retake Jerusalem.

First on the agenda, of course, was restoring the Temple:

Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former; And made up the sanctuary, and the things that were within the temple, and hallowed the courts. They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table. And upon the altar they burned incense, and the lamps that were upon the candlestick they lighted, that they might give light in the temple. Furthermore they set the loaves upon the table, and spread out the veils, and finished all the works which they had begun to make. Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up betimes in the morning, And offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. Look, at what time and what day the heathen had profaned it, even in that was it dedicated with songs, and citherns, and harps, and cymbals. Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise.
1 Maccabees 4:47-56

What’s more, this eight days wasn’t just to be enjoyed by the Jews in the recaptured Jerusalem, but also those still in the diaspora. 2 Maccabees begins with what appears to be a letter to Jews in Egypt telling them the great news of the recapture of Jerusalem, but now also giving them a new festival to celebrate:

Therefore whereas we are now purposed to keep the purification of the temple upon the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, we thought it necessary to certify you thereof, that ye also might keep it, as the feast of the tabernacles, and of the fire, which was given us when Neemias offered sacrifice, after that he had builded the temple and the altar.
2 Maccabees 1:18

While this is not the end of the story of the Maccabees, or of the war, it is the end of the story of the origin of Hanukkah. Maybe I’ll talk about the rest of the book in a few years! The Second Temple would remain restored until its destruction post-Jesus in 70 AD/CE.

The major missing element in this story, of course, is the miracle of the oil. That may have come later – as an explanation for the eight days – or may have come from a different tradition. This book, while the best textual evidence we have for the early celebration of Hanukkah, isn’t considered canonical by Judaism and so reading too much into Jewish holidays from this may be tricky, but there is clearly a great deal here to be learned about Hanukkah.

The best early post-biblical source I can find for the celebration of Hanukkah is in the Talmud, the extremely long and complex formulation of Jewish law and custom compiled around the 6th century CE. The Talmud is a commentary and clarification on the Mishna, the description of the Jewish Oral Law which itself was written in the 3rd century CE. A full explanation of the Talmud and the Mishna (for Christian readers who are unfamiliar with it) will have to wait, but here is the English translation of the portion describing Hanukkah:

What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God’s wonders) were to be recited.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat

Of course, that text also has several differences in practice from modern Hanukkah, including a belief (by some) that you should light eight candles the first day and subtract one each following day. It also says that you should leave your menorah on the outside door of the house, unless you don’t have an outside door (you live in an apartment) when you can just leave it in your window. There is also some debate in the Talmud (the Talmud is not short on disagreements between rabbis) on whether you are allowed to light one Hanukkah candle with another, or if each needs to be lit separately.

Since I began a discussion of Hanukkah with Christian holy books, I guess I shouldn’t shy away from the question of whether Jesus celebrated Hanukkah. While I am not a Jesus scholar, or a scholar of 1st century Judaism – I have no idea when Hanukkah was regularly celebrated by Jews – I can say that there is one fleeting mention to the holiday that I am aware of, in John 10:22:

And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly. Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me.
John 10:22-25

So, Jesus visited the Temple during Hanukkah (the winter feast of the dedication), but whether he “celebrated” Hanukkah is somewhat tougher to discern. My guess is that he did.

I hope you enjoyed my Hanukkah excursion!

Next up: What does Rashi have to say about Lech-Lecha? And then God opens up a mighty can of whoop-ass on Sodom and Gomorrah.

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