We all know that Christmas is celebrated differently around the world – and sometimes we mistakenly think that the Jewish celebration of Hannukah is simply their variation of Christmas; it falls at the same time of year. But of course the great majority of Jews never accepted Jesus as Christ, so they don’t celebrate Christmas. What then is Hannukah?
Hannukah is actually mentioned only once in the Bible (John 10:22), but the story is in 1&2 Maccabees. It was originally known as ‘the Feast of Dedication’. This was not one of the 7 Feasts established by God in the OT. Rather, it began in about 160BC, long after the last book of the OT was written. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a Seleucid king who ruled the Syrian portion of Alexander the Great’s divided empire (to the north of Israel). He was a fierce and wicked ruler (a madman by some accounts), who imposed a strict Hellenistic regime and Greek gods (including himself as the incarnation of Zeus) on all conquered peoples. He sent around a moveable statue of himself demanding the Jews bow down and worship it. Many Jews capitulated, but others resisted, and formed the ‘Maccabean revolt’.
The revolt (167-160BC) was devastating but finally ended in Jewish victory. However, when the Jews recaptured the Temple, they discovered to their horror that Antiochus had blasphemously sacrificed a pig on the altar. The Maccabees dismantled the altar and heaped the stones (which they believed were beyond cleansing) outside the temple.
Tradition required seven days to ‘rededicate’ the Temple, consecrated on the 8th day. Oil was necessary to light the menorah continuously during this time, but there was enough for only one day. Nevertheless, they proceeded in faith – and the oil miraculously kept burning for seven more days! Thus Hannukah is knows as the Feast of Lights. The Hannukah menorah has 9 branches rather than the usual 7. The central candle is called shamash (the Servant) and lights the other 8 day by day.
Just before Hannukah (John 9:5) Jesus declared, ‘I am the light of the world’. During the Feast, the Jews demanded he say plainly if he was the Christ (10:24). Then they tried to stone him for blasphemy – a mere man claiming to be God – just like Antiochus! One can easily empathise with these Jewish leaders – except sadly they were unable to consider the incredible possibility – could it be true?