The Hanukkah story begins twenty-two centuries ago, when Israel was under the oppressive rule of the vast Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. At that time the appointed Greek Seleucid (Assyrian) king over Israel was Antiochus IV.
The self-proclaimed Antiochus IV Epiphanes (God made manifest), accelerated the pace of Greek Hellenization throughout the land of Israel by forbidding Jews to practice their religious customs and traditions. He continued this oppression by slaughtering 40,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem, murdering the high priest, and defiling the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, culminated by extinguishing the light of the great Menorah that had continuously burned for centuries. He then erected several large statues of Greek pagan gods and idols, and dedicated the Temple to the god, Zeus Olympus, where pigs were sacrificed on the sacrificial altar.
As victims of this campaign of oppressive, forced assimilation, a group of courageous Jews—the Maccabees—made the decision to rise and fight back against Antiochus and his evil forces for the sake of their religious freedom, the safety of Jerusalem, and the sanctity of the Holy Temple of God.
The Maccabees, (from the priestly lineage of Aaron) led by Mattatias, gathered together as a small, yet courageous band of men to stand up and revolt against the forces of the Greek Assyrians. Mattatias had five sons; John, Simon, Judah, Eliazer, and Jonathan; and when Mattatias became ill and subsequently died in the midst of the conflict, leadership was handed over to Judah. Judah then went on to lead the small army of 2,000 men, with what seemed to be insurmountable odds against the Assyrian army of 20,000—and miraculously, by the hand of God, took back Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
When Judah and his valiant men entered Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, they immediately went to work clearing out the idolatrous graven images of thepagan Greek gods left behind by the Assyrians—quickly, yet meticulously setting God’s House back in order.
It was beginning on the 25th of Kislev—three years to the day when the Greek pagan god Zeus had been erected in the Temple—when the Maccabees rededicated and celebrated the victory of the one true God for eight days.
This small band of spiritual revolutionaries had victoriously reconquered Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple, and relit the Holy Menorah that had burned continuously and brightly for centuries.
The story of the valiant and miraculous military victory of the Maccabees, who, with the help of God, overcame insurmountable odds against the largest empire of the time is a story of faith and courage. A story of how the faith of a handful of dedicated people ultimately changed the seemingly unstoppable course of religious and cultural Hellenic assimilation. Inspired by their faith in the one true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Maccabees defied all odds and won a divine victory for Jewish political autonomy and self-determination.
The first and second books of Maccabees are the oldest, and only eyewitness accounts on record of the story of Hanukkah; and they preserve this courageous Jewish military victory. Many find it astonishing to find no mention of the story of the miracle of oil—the basis of our Hanukkah celebration—in either of these two accounts.
“Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. 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.”—1 Maccabees 1.52-59
“Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; and they tore down the altars which had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they burned incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. And when they had done this, they fell prostrate and besought the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.”—2 Maccabees 10.1-8
According to both accounts, the eight-day celebration did not major on, or even mention the legendary story of the miracle of oil. The sages of the Talmud retell an old oral legend that says that after the Holy Temple had been thoroughly and completely cleansed and rebuilt, the Maccabees set out to rededicate it to the Lord… and as part of the Temple rededication, consecrated Holy oil was needed to light the great Menorah, but only one small vial of the sacramental oil had been found amongst the wreckage—enough to last only one day. Knowing that it took eight days to prepare more consecrated oil, they nevertheless, by faith, lit the great Menorah with what little oil they had. Miraculously, the oil was more than enough, and burned for eight days, until more consecrated Holy oil was properly prepared!
However, other than the biblical record in John 10 where it mentions that Jesus walked in the portico of the Temple during the “Feast of Dedication,” there is found no other reference of Hanukkah (the Feast of Dedication) or of this great military victory throughout the entire Bible.
Do you suppose that the simple fact that they had won one of the most stunning of military victories of the ancient world would be enough for the Maccabees to celebrate for eight days? Were they simply celebrating the long arm of the Lord against the mighty Assyrian army—celebrating His might… but not His Holiness?
Greek thinking rules out the possibility of miracles, only recognizing that which can be measured within the confines of the universe. However, Hebraic thought focuses on the God of the universe, who is central in all life, and the belief that nothing happens by chance—there are no coincidences.
Through their miraculous military victory, and subsequent regaining
and rededicating of the Temple, Judah and his brothers had achieved what they must have perceived as a momentous victory for their God. Did they fully understand the extent of God’s mighty hand in their victory? With a victory displayed by overwhelming ten-to-one odds, had the hearts of the mighty men of valor actually been tainted by Greek thinking? Had they forgotten these powerful words of Zachariah: “Not by might, nor by strength, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord”?
The Maccabees had neither might, nor strength, nor weapons, nor number, but through faith, they had God on their side.
We may never know the real reason that the “legend” of the miracle of the oil was never recorded in historical accounts, but we will always remember the victory and the miraculous hand of God.
Albert Einstein summed it up best, when he said:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Hanukkah, the festival of dedication, commemorates the amazing miracles God performed on behalf of Israel—through the faith of dedicated people. The miracle of Hanukkah began with the committed dedication of the Maccabees and their devout followers… and concluded with the dedication of the altar in the Temple of Jerusalem.
I believe that, just as in the days of the Maccabees, miracles still happen today. When they do, they provide supernatural confirmation of God’s interaction in our lives and His direction for the future… but most of the time, miracles come through God’s people, who act as His hands and His feet in this world.
Jeris L. Joyner joined the Curt Landry Ministries team as Sr. Editor in 2010. She comes to the Curt Landry Ministries with prior experience in Editorial management and Publications, and graduated, Magna Cum Laude from the Fellowship of International Revival and Evangelism, under the direction of Dr. Michael L. Brown.
With her Jewish heritage, Jeris holds a deep burning desire toward the nation of Israel. Her passion is to see Jew and Gentile walk together as One New Man, and for Israel to come into her fullness, beholding the Messiah square in the face as her Kinsman-Redeemer, Yeshua—as God had intended from the beginning.