At sunset tonight, December 1st, begins the holiday of Hanukkha. For years I didn't understand the importance or the passion of those who celebrated. I assumed that Chanukha was a holiday made up by Jewish parents to give their kids an alternative to the Christian holiday of Christmas.
If that describes you, come with me back to about 200 years before Jesus and let me tell you the story.
In 174 BC, a rash and impetuous tyrant named Antiochus IV began to reign over Syria. He was called "Epiphanes," meaning "the gods' beloved." Several other Syrian rulers received similar titles. But a historian of that time, Polebius, gave him the epithet "Epimanes," which means "madman." That was a more suitable title to the character of this harsh and cruel king.
Antiochus desired to unify his kingdom by combining the various religions and cultures into one Hellenistic society under his leadership, borrowing heavily from the conquering plans of Alexander the Great some 200 years earlier.
Antiochus tried to root out the individualism of the Jews by suppressing all the Jewish Laws. He removed the High Priest, Yochanan, from the Temple in Jerusalem and in his place installed Yochanan's brother Joshua, who loved to call himself by the Greek name Jason. "Jason" was a memeber of the Hellenist party, and used his high office to spread more and more of the Greek customs among the priesthood.
When Yochanan, the former High Priest, protested against the spread of Hellenism (which celebrates man as the center of the universe rather than God) the High Priest conspired with murderers to assassinate him.
At this time Antiochus was engaged in a successful war in Egypt. He was ordered by Rome, however, to cease that war and return home.
A rumor spread in Jerusalem that the army's return was due to Antiochus' death and a revolt against the pagan-influenced High Priest ensued.
Antiochus returned from Egypt enraged by Roman interference with his ambitions. When he heard what had taken place in Jerusalem, he ordered his army to fall upon the Jews. Thousands of Jews were killed.
Antiochus then enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews. Jewish worship was forbidden; the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision, and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death.
Even one of the respected elders of that generation, Rabbi Eliezer, a man of 90, was ordered by Antiochus to eat pork so that others would do the same. When he refused, he was put to death.
There were thousands of others who likewise sacrificed their lives, but the story of Chanah and her seven sons is the story I want you to take with you.
Antiochus sent "policemen" throughout all the land searching for people who worshiped God and Chanah was brought before Antiochus, along with her seven sons.
Rather than executing them on the spot, Antiochus wanted to make a point with these. He looked at them and said, "Renounce God or die."
The oldest boy asked Antiochus, "Why have you brought us here? Did you want to learn about our God from us?"
Antiochus was shocked. "No! I want you to renounce your God or you will die right here!"
The boy said, "No way."
Antiochus brought in a bunch of cauldrons and filled them with water and built a fire under each of them.
It became obvious what Antiochus was planning to do.
Antiochus asked him, "Change your mind?"
They took their knives and took his skin off an inch at a time. Can you imagine the six brothers and the mother watching this happen?
They cut his hands off and they cut his tongue out for his arrogance and his insolence.
When they were done with that, they put him in that boiling water and they boiled him alive.
Antiochus turned to the second boy and asked, "What about you? Will you renounce your God?"
"Didn't you just see what I did?"
They took his insolent tongue out, they cut his hands off, they took his skin off inch by inch and they boiled him alive.
Antiochus didn't get the chance to ask the third boy. That boy walked right up to Antiochus and stuck out his tongue and his hands.
Off goes his hands, out comes his tongue, off comes his skin, and they boil him alive.
And the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth.
Antiochus gets to the last boy and understands now that he has a problem. He's got to get this last boy to renounce God or all he will have done is make a bunch of martyrs. Instead of making Judaism less attractive, people will rally to God using Chanah's name and the names of her sons as rallying cries.
He pulls the last boy aside and offers him money. He offers him land. He offers him power. All if he will just renounce his God.
The boy refuses.
Antiochus turns to the mother and says, "Talk to him. You've made your point. You've honored your God. But, you've got one son left. Don't let him die like his brothers. Talk some sense into him."
The mother goes to her son and says, "Be strong. Be brave. Die well."
And he did.
Antiochus had him tortured more than his brothers. But he died well.
One thing Chanah told her last son was, "Tell father Abraham that he bound only one child on an alter to God. I, however, have bound seven."
Then they tortured her, and she died well.
The news of this and other atrocites rallied the people, first behind an old priest named "Mattiyahu" (Matthew). Before Mattiyahu's death, he urged the fighting men to rally behind one of his sons, Judah the Strong.
Judah was called "Maccabee," a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba'eilim Hashem, "Who is like You, O God."
Antiochus sent his General Apolonius to wipe out Judah and his followers, the Maccabees. Though greater in number and equipment than the Maccabees, the Syrians were defeated.
Antiochus sent a greater army of more than 40,000 men to wipe out the Jewish resistance while Judah exclaimed, "Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!" The people assembled in Mitzpah, where Samuel had offered prayers to God.
After a series of battles the war was won.
The Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrian pagans. Judah and his follwers built a new alter, which he dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev. Today at sunset.
Since the golden lamp stand (Menorah) had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees now made one of the cheaper metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small container of olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest Yochanan. Remember him from the beginning?
That container held only enough oil to burn a lamp for one day. By a miracle of God, it continued to burn for eight days, till new oil was made available.
That miracle proved that God had taken His people under His protection and from that day forward, the "feast of dedication," or Hanukkah has been celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev.
And if you wonder what Jesus thought about this feast, consider John 10:22, when Jesus made the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem:
"Then came the Feast of Dedication* at Jerusalem. It was winter,"
Footnote: * Hanukkah