The Historical and Biblical Events of Hanukkah
by Margaret Pogin
What is Hanukkah? Hanukkah is a celebration that starts on 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which means it falls sometime in November or December on the Julian calendar. This celebration lasts 8 days, commemorating the rededication of the altar and Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC.
The Temple, as well as Israel, had been taken over by the Greeks over the years prior to 167 BC. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire, Jewish ways were outlawed. He raided the Temple and carried away all the articles within the Temple and all the gold and silver he could find. A statue of Zeus was erected on top of the altar, and pigs were sacrificed regularly to Zeus. Antiochus declared himself god, Zeus incarnate, and demanded worship to himself as Zeus. A sacrifice to Zeus (Antiochus) was to be conducted on the 25th of every month, in celebration of Antiochus’s birthday. (By the way, Zeus’s “birthday” was December 25th.) Every Jewish town was to sacrifice a pig to Zeus, and all Scriptures were to be burned.
In the town of Modiin, one priest who had five sons refused to worship Zeus. Mattathias the Hasmonean refused to give up worship of God. In 167 BCE, Mattathias and his sons killed the Greek military contingent that was in Modiin to enforce Antiochus’s decrees. He, his five sons, and all who were not willing to give up their faith and obedience to God’s Word then fled to caves hidden in the cliffs of hills in the wilderness.
One of the sons, Judas, was nicknamed Judas Maccabee, which means Judas the Hammer. He led the military fighting of this small group of Jewish people who decided to die, if necessary, fighting for the right to worship God rather than bow their knee in worship to a false god. They fought the Greeks with guerilla warfare tactics, and won many battles against incredible odds. They eventually won Jerusalem back from the Greeks. The Greeks granted the Jews the freedom to worship their God in their way.
Since the Temple had been defiled with statues of false gods and the blood of sacrificed animals that were considered unclean or unacceptable to offer as sacrifices to God, it had to be cleansed. The cleansing occurred in 164 BCE. Hanukkah is the 8-day celebration that occurs every November or December (on the 25th of Kislev) to commemorate that rededication and cleansing of the Temple.
The Maccabean revolt and the rededication and cleansing of the Temple occurred in the time period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Jesus is recorded as being at the Temple in Jerusalem for this feast in John 10:22-23:
“Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch.”
The Feast of Dedication is Hanukkah. This is the only direct reference in the Scriptures to Hanukkah.
However, in Joel 3:7, God promised to do nothing unless He reveals it to His servants the prophets first.
“Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets.”
There are actually many different Old Testament prophets who prophesied about this time period of Greek oppression. Actually, it can more correctly be called the Greek holocaust. The book of Daniel contains very accurate and detailed prophesies about these events. However, that is addressed thoroughly by Dr. Clyde Billington in a different article on BFA, so I will not include Daniel’s prophesies here.
Antiochus intended to wipe out Judaism altogether. All Jewish practices of religious life were outlawed, and all scriptures were to be destroyed — ALL. To understand the prophetic voices recorded in the Old Testament regarding this Greek holocaust, it is necessary to understand the history of what the Greeks did to the Jews.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled the Seleucid Empire, one-fourth of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire. He was based in what is now Lebanon and Syria. The Ptolemy Empire, another one-fourth of the Greek Empire, was based in Egypt. Israel was caught in the crosshairs of these two empires, both politically and physically. As the Seleucid armies marched to war in Egypt, they had to march through Israel. The Ptolemy’s had ruled Israel first. Antiochus III, father of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, battled for and conquered Israel from Ptolemy rule.
By this time Greek culture had infiltrated Jewish life and thoughts. The Greek culture was economically attractive, and those who followed Greek ways received special privileges. Jews had assimilated into that culture and lost their devotion to worship God. Conformity to the Greek culture meant accepting both Greek cultural and Greek religious practices. Both were offensive to devout Jews, and against written Scripture. Antiochus IV decided to create a uniform Empire, with only one culture – Greek – for all who were under his rule.
A Greek gymnasium was built next to the Temple on one side, and a very high, very strong tower called the Acra was built on another side of the Temple. The Acra was tall enough that Greek troops inside could look out their windows and down onto the Temple plaza to watch those who came up to the Temple to worship.
This is prophesied in Zechariah 9:3, 12-14a:
“For Tyre built herself a tower, heaped up silver like the dust, and gold like the mire of the streets…Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope. Even today I declare that I will restore double to you. For I have bent Judah, My bow, fitted the bow with Ephraim, and raised up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and made you like the sword of a mighty man. Then the Lord will be seen over them, and His arrow will go forth like lightning.”
Tyre is located in Lebanon. Damascus is located in Syria. This was where the Seleucid Empire ruled by Antiochus IV was located. He built the Acra, which survived until Simon Maccabee, Judah’s brother, eventually succeeded in burning it down. Antiochus IV pilfered all the gold and silver from the Temple in Jerusalem. Judah used guerilla warfare tactics to strike against the organized Greek armies sent to squash the revolt. He struck unexpectedly, much like lightning. No one can predict exactly where lightning will strike. Lightning also strikes suddenly, disappears after striking, and travels at incredible speeds of 2,500 to 93,000 miles per second. It is a great way to describe guerilla warfare tactics.
In the process of Greek culture, thought, and religion overtaking Jewish ways, two different groups of Jews emerged: Hellenized Jews, who accepted Antiochus and all his pagan belief systems, and devout Jews, who wanted to continue worshipping the One True God according to His prescribed ways of living and worshipping. Ultimately, the ensuing battle was about worship. Antiochus wanted to be worshipped as Zeus, and the devout Jews wanted to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Ezekiel 28:1-2 describes this battle for worship,
“The word of the Lord came to me again, saying, “Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Because your heart is lifted up, and you say, ‘I am a god. I sit in the seat of gods in the midst of the seas.’ Yet you are a man, and not a god, though you set your heart as the heart of a god.”
This prophecy is against the Prince of Tyre, or the man sitting on the throne as ruler of that kingdom. It applies to Antiochus IV. The King of Tyre would be the spiritual ruler of that principality. Ezekiel 28:11-19 is a prophecy against the King of Tyre, which is a description of Satan, who desired to sit in God’s seat and be worshipped.
Antiochus actually declared he was Zeus incarnate. He minted coins that depicted his head wearing a crown with rays on one side, and an inscription on the reverse that said he was god manifest. Later in his rule, he minted coins that said “King Antiochus, God Manifest, Bearing Victory.” He installed a statue of Zeus, made to look like himself, in the Temple in Jerusalem. Zeus’s symbols were an eagle and lightning bolt, usually shown as an eagle holding a lightning bolt in its claws.
As a side note, Caligula in 40 AD also ordered a golden statue of himself as Zeus to be set up in the Temple at Jerusalem. It never happened, though, because he was assassinated in 41 AD. Titus ordered the worship of Roman standards, which included the eagle with the lightning bolt symbol, on the Temple Mount in 70 AD. Emperor Hadrian attempted to install a statue of Jupiter Capitolinus on the site of the ruined Temple, which led to the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135 AD. Jupiter is the Roman version of Zeus, including the same symbol of eagle/lightning bolt. Hadrian thought he was Jupiter incarnate, and the statue looked like Hadrian. Satan still wants to divert our worship from God to himself, or anything other than God, today.
Antiochus IV marched through Israel on his way to overthrow Egypt on two separate occasions. His first campaign against Egypt was abruptly cut short. Internal upheaval between the devout Jews and the Hellenized Jews caused him to march north again to deal with this upheaval. This internal warring was over the position of High Priest.
Antiochus returned to Egypt, campaigning against the Ptolemy Empire a second time. He was thwarted again, and returned north blaming the Jews for his failure. He ordered his troops to kill every Jew they met and even those who took refuge in their houses. Forty to sixty thousand men, women, and children were killed. Another approximately forty thousand were sold into slavery.
Antiochus also entered into the Temple, and actually entered the Holy of Holies with his appointed High Priest. Neither of them was qualified to enter there. The High Priest of Antiochus’s choice, Menelaus, was actually from the tribe of Benjamin and not from the tribe of Levi. Antiochus profaned the Scripture he found there. Furthermore, he stole all the gold and silver he could find including all the articles of worship he could carry, such as the Temple Menorah. He returned to Syria.
Joel 3:4-6 describes this:
“Indeed, what have you to do with Me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the coasts of Philistia? Will you retaliate against Me? But if you retaliate against Me, swiftly and speedily I will return your retaliation upon your own head; Because you have taken My silver and My gold, and have carried into your temples My prized possessions. Also the people of Judah and the people of Jerusalem you have sold to the Greeks, that you may remove them far from their borders.”
When Antiochus IV returned through Israel after his second failed attempt to conquer Egypt, he came to Jerusalem with uncontrolled fury. He ordered his soldiers to wipe the Jews out altogether and destroy the Jewish religion. He decreed that Jews could no longer offer sacrifices in the Temple to their God. He required them to:
1. Profane the Sabbath
2. Build pagan altars and worship pagan gods with unclean animals
3. Commit unclean and sexually perverted acts
4. Offer pagan incense as worship at their own doorways every time they walked into or out of their homes
5. Violate all the laws of Moses, among other things.
Zechariah 9:7-8 describes this:
“I will take away the blood from his mouth, and the abominations from between his teeth. But he who remains, even he shall be for our God, and shall be like a leader in Judah, and Ekron like a Jebusite. I will camp around My house because of the army, because of him who passes by and him who returns. No more shall an oppressor pass through them, for now I have seen with My eyes.”
For example, circumcision was banned. In the Law of Moses, a male baby was to be circumcised on the 8th day. Any baby that the Greeks discovered who had been circumcised was killed and hung around the mother’s neck. If the mother were allowed to live, she had to wear that child hanging from her neck until the body decayed. Oftentimes, the mother was also killed, along with the father and the one who performed the circumcision. Any violation of any part of Antiochus’s decrees was punishable by death.
Antiochus also sent officials to each town and village to enforce his decrees. Each town or village was forced to sacrifice a pig to Zeus and then eat the meat. Pork is one of the unclean animals that Jews were forbidden by God’s word from eating. Doing so violated the dietary laws in Scripture.
Many towns yielded to or fully embraced Antiochus’s decrees. They embraced Greek culture. This would have included participating in the Greek gymnasium. The gymnasium was a place where discus throwing, wrestling, and other Greek sports occurred. All young men trained in the gymnasium in the nude, after going through ritual baths, having their bodies oiled, and observing rituals in front of various statues of idols that filled the halls of the gymnasium.
Their education occurred there, too. The gymnasium served as school for the young men. Without graduating from the gymnasium, a young man could not become a citizen of their city, which had economic consequences.
The main physical activity area was large enough to conduct contests, which were viewed by an audience, especially at festivals held for one of the pagan gods and idols. This main area was a large flat grassy area much like a public park is today. Columned porticos on all sides enclosed it, with side rooms for education, philosophical debate and discourse, the baths, statues, etc.
Isaiah 66:17 described these Hellenized young Jewish men:
“Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, to go to the gardens after an idol in the midst, eating swine’s flesh and the abomination and the mouse, shall be consumed together,” says the Lord.”
As I mentioned earlier, Mattathias the Hasmonean began the revolt at Modiin when the Greek officials came to his village to enforce the decrees of Antiochus IV. Hellenized Jews sided with the Greek officials, and betrayed devout Jews to the Greeks. As Antiochus began to send military power to stamp out the revolt, Hellenized Jews joined the Greek army. Antiochus IV also hired Samaritan, Ammonite, Philistine, and Edomite mercenaries.
Three and one-half years of battles ensued. Apollonius, the Mysian commander under Antiochus, led the first attempt by the Greeks to squash the revolt. Mysia was an area of what would be a section of modern day Turkey. Judas Maccabee killed Apollonius in this battle.
Seron, commander of the Syrian army came against the revolt next. Seron was commander in Coele-Syria and Phoenicia. Judah and his forces also defeated Seron. Seron fled to Gaza.
Antiochus was now beyond furious, and raised a huge army, including elephants, to go annihilate Judaism. He needed more funds to pay this huge army, and went to Persia to raid the coffers there. He left Lysias, a noble of royal descent, in charge.
Lysias chose Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes as one general of the army. Ptolemy was now the governor of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia. Coele-Syria was also known as Hadrach. Lysias also chose Nicanor and Gorgias, powerful men from among the King’s Friends, as the other two generals. Nicanor was Antiochus’s agent who dealt with the Samaritans. Gorgias was governor of Idumea (Edom). It is not clear whether he was Greek or a Hellenized Edomite. Lysias equipped the three generals with 40,000 soldiers plus 7,000 cavalry. Edomites and Philistines from Gaza joined the Greeks for this battle. Merchants also came prepared to buy captive Jews as slaves. Judas Maccabee defeated them at Emmaus.
The next year, Lysias himself came with 60,000 men and 5,000 cavalry to battle the Maccabees. Judah now had 10,000 men in his army. Lysias saw he was losing the battle, and withdrew.
Amos prophesied about this in Amos 1:3-15. Amos was from Tekoa, which is where the olive oil for the Temple Menorah was from. Incidentally, it took eight days to get the oil from Tekoa to Jerusalem.
“Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four; I will not turn away its punishment, because they have threshed Gilead with implements of iron. But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, which shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad. I will also break the gate bar of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitant from the Valley of Aven, and the one who holds the scepter from Beth Eden. The people of Syria shall go captive to Kir,’ says the LORD.
Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they took captive the whole captivity to deliver them up to Edom. But I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, which shall devour its palaces. I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod, and the one who holds the scepter from Ashkelon; I will turn My hand against Ekron. And the remnant of the Philistines shall perish,’ says the LORD GOD.
Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and did not remember the covenant of brotherhood. But I will send a fire upon the wall of Tyre, which shall devour its palaces.’
Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because he pursued his brother with the sword, and cast off all pity; His anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever. But I will send a fire upon Teman, which shall devour the palaces of Bozrah.’
Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of the people of Ammon, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they ripped open the women with child in Gilead, that they might enlarge their territory. But I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour its palaces, Amid shouting in the day of battle, and a tempest in the day of the whirlwind. Their king shall go into captivity, He and his princes together,’ says the LORD.”
Judas Maccabee fought with fire. He burned any pagan town he defeated. Obadiah, verse 18, prophesied against the Edomites:
“The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame; but the house of Esau shall be stubble; they shall kindle them and devour them….”
To quote Dr. Clyde Billington, “Just as Obadiah 18 had predicted 400 years earlier, the Israelites under Judas Maccabaeus had ‘set it [Edom] on fire.’”
Antiochus died in Babylon on his Persian tax-raising expedition in 164 BCE, sometime in November or December of that year.
There are some other interesting connections between prophesies in Scripture and the events that led up to the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. Antiochus IV seized the throne of the Seleucid Empire with the aid and assistance of the King of Pergamos. Pergamos helped Antiochus financially. He supplied the army and provided the trappings of royalty for Antiochus. The King of Pergamos sealed a treaty between himself and Antiochus with a pagan sacrifice. In return for all these favors, Antiochus built an altar to Zeus at Pergamos. It was 40 feet tall and one of the seven wonders of the world. Interestingly, Hitler’s viewing platform over the parade grounds for the Nazi party in Nuremburg, Germany, was a replica of the Altar of Zeus. The original altar is in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.
The King of Pergamos also supplied troops to support Antiochus’s campaigns against the Jews.
Revelation 2:12, 14-15 talks about Pergamos:
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, ‘These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword…But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.”
The stumbling block Balaam taught Balak to put in front of the children of Israel was to eat things sacrificed to idols, commit sexual immorality, and abandon the laws of God while going after pagan gods. This is in Numbers 25:1-13. According to 2 Peter 2:15, Balaam loved the wages of unrighteousness. Jude 11 says woe to them that run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit.
Antiochus purposely encouraged all these activities, and forced the Jews to participate in them as part of worship to Zeus. Furthermore, by raiding the Temple and Jerusalem of all the gold and silver he could find, and carrying off the articles of worship from the Temple, Antiochus was greedy for profit. The Hellenized Jews who abandoned their worship of God for economic positions of authority were also greedily running after the error of Balaam for profit. That error was embracing the pagan ways and lusting after economic gain.
The doctrine of the Nicolaitans was also one of mixing paganism and Jewish worship practices. In essence, the doctrine of the Nicolaitans was that it is ok to embrace pagan beliefs and not be strict about the separation from the world as a follower of God. The Hellenized Jews failed to see any danger in having an open mind of tolerance and acceptance of the Greek pagan beliefs and activities. While the Scriptural passages about Balak and Balaam, and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans are not directly referencing the Maccabean revolt and rededication of the Temple, we can see the connection. God hates the mixture of paganism and His worship. God still hates it when we allow today’s culture and views to water down His Word and our obedience to His ways. We cannot allow the world’s philosophies, ways, entertainment, attitudes, or culture to draw us away from His Truth.
There is one final aspect of Antiochus’s purposeful and brutal Hellenization program for the Jews. Ezekiel 8:15-16 says:
“Then He said to me, ‘Have you seen this O son of man? Turn again, you will see greater abominations than these.’ So He brought me into the inner court of the LORD’s house; and there, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs toward the temple of the LORD and their faces toward the east, and they were worshiping the sun toward the east.”
These were Jews who were supposed to be worshipping God but were instead worshipping the sun. They had turned their backs on their LORD. Antiochus claimed to be Zeus, who was the sun god of the Greeks. Zeus ruled the heavens, controlled the sun, and was the one who could bring rain. His depiction on his empire’s coins of the crown on his head had rays on it, which represented the rays of the sun. Antiochus may have died in a foreign land and failed to conquer Israel, but he did succeed in spreading Greek pagan behavior and worship practices into Jewish life.
God performed miracles of might for a small band of men who made the decision to resist the elimination of their culture, religion, Scriptures, and lives. There are many similarities between today’s world and the world that faced those who revolted in the Maccabean revolt of 164 BCE. There is a battle being waged today over worship, righteousness, God’s Word, Truth, and the lifestyle of followers of God. One man did make a difference. One man’s stand changed the course of history. One family’s stand saved a nation and saved the Scriptures so that we could read and study them today. Since God is no respecter of persons, and since He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we can know that we, too, can make a difference in the world with God’s guidance and help.
God spoke through many prophets over many years about what was coming. God warned His people about the events leading up to what is celebrated each year at Hanukkah. He also told His people what judgments would happen to those who did the evil deeds done to the Jewish people. Those same judgments still apply for any who want to obliterate the Jews today. God has a covenant with His people. He will keep His covenant. No empire can succeed against God. We can take comfort in the knowledge that God does know what is ahead of us, today, and He is still in control. No matter what faces us ahead, we can know that only one or a few of us can indeed make a huge difference in the world. We can know that God is aware of any horrors facing us in the future, or even now, and will be there to deliver us as we listen to His instructions and take stands for His Truth in our lives and times.
As we celebrate Hanukkah, whether Jew or Gentile believer, we are celebrating the many miracles God did for His people during the Maccabean revolt. Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, as recorded in John 10:22. He is the Good Shepherd, and believers are His sheep. We are to follow our Shepherd. If He celebrated Hanukkah, we should do likewise.
As you can see, God had quite a bit to say about the events leading up to Hanukkah. This subject was important to Him. I believe that Mattathias, who was a priest, knew the Scriptures. He knew what Daniel said, and he knew what the Prophets said. I think he looked at the events happening around him, and the Scriptures, and realized that God would be with them as they took their stand for their way of worship. Without the Maccabean revolt the Jews would have been extinguished from the earth; the Scriptures would have been destroyed. There would have been no Jewish people. There would have been no Messiah, since the Messiah had to come from the Jews, specifically from the lineage of David according to Scripture. We could not celebrate the birth of Messiah today if the events leading up to the rededication of the altar in Jerusalem had not happened. Celebrate this season, and the miracles God does for His children.