The Brave Heroes of Hanukkah

Persecution, rebellion, freedom, miracles, gifts, latkes, the centuries old celebration of Hanukkah has all the elements of a tragic and beautiful tale. Legend provides us much of what history knows of Hanukkah’s origins and traces it back to the 2nd century B.C. The complicated and captivating story of the origins of Hanukkah is often over simplified to a “good vs. evil” battle. Yet, from the detailed reality of the attempt to stamp out an entire faith, heroes emerge and miracles from God punctuate the story.

Beliefs Clash

Long before those of Jewish faith were persecuted and 1/3 of them eliminated in Europe during the holocaust, they fought through and survived a very turbulent, painful era at the hands of Seleucids. 2000 years ago, Israel was part of the Greek Empire. The Syrian-Greeks tried to force their spiritual beliefs on the people of Israel. Jewish temples were destroyed, sacred idols were stolen and replaced with pagan idols. King Seleucus IV specifically took great offense at the Jewish religion which emphasizes truth and moral purity and faith in God. Greeks and Syrians instead held idol worship and faith in the ideal of outward beauty. The contrast in beliefs became a perfect storm for the powerful and corrupt king to put his attempts at oppression in play.

A New, “Mad” King

While Seleucus began the persecution of the Jews in Israel, his brother Antiochus IV took it to a new level of madness following Seleucus’ death. Known as Epimanes, or “Madman,” the new king desired to unite his kingdom under a single religion and culture. Some Jews embraced the change brought by Antiochus. They were knows as Hellenists. Antiochus enlisted help from the Hellenist party as he began suppressing all the Jewish laws.

First he removed their high priest. The he deputized high members of the Hellenist party to spread Greek customs to the priesthood. The former high priest’s continued protests against the suppression resulted in his murder. Jews who stood up to the persecution were swiftly dealt with by Antiochus’s soldiers who killed thousands of Jews. Antiochus continued to take his anger out on everything hallowed by the Jewish people. He burned the sacred scroll of Jewish Law, prohibiting the day of Sabbath rest, circumcision, and dietary restrictions of the Jewish faith. Those who refused to conform were ordered killed. They died as martyrs.

The Resistance

A small battle in the village of Modin began a rebellion by a modest group of brave Jews who became knows as The Maccabees. The uprising was lead by a priest named Matthathius. Syrian officers attempted to erect a Greek temple in the village and ordered Jews to make sacrifices to their Gods. Matthathius, his brave sons, and friends attacked the officers, killing some and chasing the rest away. Knowing that Antiochus would send reinforcements to punish those involved in the revolt, Matthathius retreated to the mountains of Judea.

Judea was a lone refuge hidden away in the hills and caves for faithful Jews. Matthathius gained many followers and the legions left their hiding place from time to time. This let Antiochus’s henchmen and officers know they would continue to fight the good fight. They emerged to ruin pagan alters, and destroy enemy outposts. As expected, Antiochus retaliated, sending, at first, a small army to defeat the rebellious Jews.

Following the death of his beloved father Matthathius, the stronghold was now lead by Judah the Strong. Despite their smaller numbers, and lackluster weaponry, the Maccabees defeated the Syrian soldiers on multiple invasions. After each defeat, Antiochus sent another, larger army, and each time, the Maccabees prevailed. A final battle consisted of a Syrian army of 40,000 soldiers marching on Judea. Their faith strong, and willing to die for their commitment to God, the revolting Jews prevailed in a series of battles with the massive army, and ultimately won the war.

The Miracle of Oil

Once the dust had settled, the Jewish faithful liberated Jerusalem. They were now tasked with clearing all pagan idols and rebuilding their sacred temple. A new alter was built and a new menorah crafted. Resources were still scarce. Once made of gold, the new menorah was fashioned of a cheaper metal. The candles were lit with only a day’s supply of oil, yet they burned miraculously for 8 days. The miracle of God which sustained the burning menorah for 8 days until more oil could be supplied became an 8 day celebration of giving thanks.jewish boy with menorah on hanukkah

Modern Day Hanukkah

Today, feasts are enjoyed, gifts are exchanged, lights are lit, and prayers are exclaimed over the course of the eight day “Festival of Lights,” known as Hanukkah. The “Festival of Lights,” proximity to Christmas has resulted in its commercialization, yet its legends and heroes remain firmly in place. Jewish children grow up being told the story of Judah the Strong, who continued to fight persecution. He and his courageous followers put aside their desire for the return to their peaceful life of worship for the sake of their faith and their people. The Jewish faith, being centered in truth and love made their sacrifice all the more awesome and worth celebrating.

Leave a Reply