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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hanukkah and the Maccabees

Hanukkah and the Maccabees
The First and Second books of Maccabees from Catholic scripture describe the events that took place from 175 to 135 B.C. in Jewish Palestine. Two of these events, the victorious battle of the Maccabees over Antionchus IV Epiphanes and the rededication of the Jewish Temple are also associated with the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.

This story starts in the late 4th century BC (336–323 BC) with Alexander the Great who, in an attempt to create a common universal civilization, conquered and spread Greek traditions over non-Greek lands instituting the cultural change called Hellenization. After his death in 323 BC, one of his officers Seleucus I continued to spread Greek culture through the establishment of the Seleucid Empire. Over time the Seleucids became rivals of the Ptolemies of Egypt and Palestine became their battlefield. It was because of their connection with the land of Palestine, that the Seleucids are mentioned in the biblical record of First and Second Maccabees.

In 175 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes became King of the Seleucid Empire and he continued to spread Hellenism, now throughout Palestine. Some of the Jews assimilated, adopting the Hellenistic culture, creating conflict between the pro-Hellenizing Jews and the Jews faithful to the Law. “Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, each abandoning his particular customs. All the Gentiles confirmed to the command of the king, and many Israelites were in favor of his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath.” (1 Maccabees 1:41-43)

By 167 BC Antiochus IV had succeeded in bringing great persecution to the Jews who refused to conform to his universal decrees. “The king sent messengers with letters to Jerusalem and to the cities of Judah, ordering them to follow customs foreign to their land: to prohibit holocausts, sacrifices, and libations in the sanctuary, to profane the Sabbaths and feast days, to desecrate the sanctuary and the sacred ministers, to build pagan altars and temples and shrines, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals….whoever refused to act according to the command of the king should be put to death.” (1 Maccabees 1:44-50) But God rose up a remnant among His people.

“On the fifteenth day of the month Chislev,” the king then erected “the horrible abomination upon the altar of holocausts.” (1 Maccabees 1:54) The term “horrible abomination” in the original Hebrew was a pun on the title “Lord of heaven” given to the god Zeus. Antiochus had desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus. “On the twenty-fifth day” (1 Maccabees 1:59) a sacrifice was offered to Zeus in an “altar erected over the altar of holocausts.” This provoked a revolt. As a Jew came forward to offer sacrifice on the altar as the king had commanded, “Mattathias saw him, he was filled with zeal; his heart was moved and his just fury was aroused; he sprang forward and killed him on the altar. At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar….Then Mattathias went through the city shouting, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and who stands by the covenant follow after me.”” (1 Maccabees 2:23-27)

Mattathias then gathered a remnant of devout Israelites entreating them to “be zealous for the law and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers.” (1 Maccabees 2:50) His sons Judas, Jonathan, and Simon Maccabeus carried out their father’s mission, recapturing Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple.

“Then his son Judas, who was called Maccabeus, took his place. All his brothers and all who had joined his father supported him, and they carried on Israel’s war joyfully.” (1 Maccabees 3:1) This battle between the Maccabees and their followers against the Seleucids continued back and forth until finally Antiochus IV commanded his warrior Lysias to “send an army against them to crush and destroy the power of Israel and the remnant of Jerusalem and efface their memory from the land.” (1 Maccabees 3:35)

Lysias sent “forty thousand men and seven thousand cavalry to invade the land of Judah and ravage it according to the king’s orders.” (1 Maccabees 3:39) This army well outnumbered the Maccabees and their followers. “Judas and his brothers saw that the situation had become critical now that armies were encamped within their territory…..So they said to one another, “Let us restore our people from their ruined estate, and fight for our people and our sanctuary!” The assembly gathered together to prepare for battle and to pray and implore mercy and compassion…Thus they assembled and went to Mizpah near Jerusalem, because there was formerly at Mizpah a place for prayer in Israel. That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes…And they cried aloud to Heaven…”How shall we be able to resist them unless you help us?”….After this Judas appointed officers among the people,…”arm yourselves and be brave; in the morning be ready to fight these Gentiles who have assembled against us to destroy us and our sanctuary. It is better for us to die in battle than to witness the ruin of our nation and our sanctuary. Whatever Heaven wills, he will do.” (1 Maccabees 3:42-59)
The battle continued, Lysias gathered “together sixty thousand picked men and five thousand cavalry…and camped at Bethzur (15 miles southwest of Jerusalem), and Judas met them with ten thousand men. Seeing that the army was strong, he prayed thus: “Blessed are you, O Savior of Israel, who broke the rush of the mighty one by the hand of your servant David and delivered the camp of the Philistines into the hand of Jonathan, the son of Saul, and his armor-bearer. Give this army into the hands of your people Israel; make them ashamed of their troops and their cavalry. Strike them with fear, weaken the boldness of their strength, and let them tremble at their own destruction. Strike them down by the sword of those who love you, that all who know your name may hymn your praise.” (1 Maccabees 4:28-33)

Against all odds but with the power of God behind them, Judas and his brothers engaged in battle and about “five thousand of Lysias’ men fell in hand-to-hand fighting,” (1 Maccabees 4:34) the rest of Lysias army withdrew to Antioch. At this Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.” (1 Maccabees 4:36)

Judas and his army went to Mount Zion where they found the Temple empty and the altar desecrated. Judas found priests, who were devout to the Law to rebuild, restore and purify the Temple. “They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple.” (1 Maccabees 4:49-50)

“Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight*, they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made. On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success. For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. ….Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev.” (1 Maccabees 4:52-59)

The celebration of Hanukkah has been commemorated annually since the miracle of the oil for the rededication of the Temple. We read that Jesus also celebrated Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication in John 10:22.

The miracle of the oil is found in the Tractate Shabbat a section of the Talmud which contains tracts pertaining to the ritual and ceremonies of certain feast days.

In Chapter II of the Tractate Shabbat entitled Regulations Concerning the Sabbath and Hanukah Light the rabbi gives instruction for the Hanukkah lamp and explains, “What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God's wonders) were to be recited.”

Happy Hanukkah
Blessed Advent

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:20-22)
The Maccabees - Wojciech Stattler
Coin of Antiochus IV Epiphanes
Mattathias Appeals to the Jews - Gustave Dore
Judas Maccabeus before the Army of Nicanor - Gustave Dore
Temple Menorah Reconstructed by Temple Institute
Oil Lamp of the 2nd - 1st Century BC
Hanukkah Menorah 

*Saint Joseph Edition The New American Bible Commentary 1:Maccabees 4:52 the Twenty-fifth day of the ninth month in the year one hundred and forty-eight (of the Seleucid era) corresponds to December 14, 164 BC.

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