The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah (which is a big deal in my house) started last week and continues through Saturday. We all know it for the story of the oil found in the desecrated Temple that was just enough to burn for one day, but miraculously lasted eight. For Jews around the world, it’s also a way to remember a critical military victory over subjugation and religious persecution.
This year, the story’s social and political context seems relevant. I am not suggesting there’s a moral correlation between either side then and any wars now under way. But it is an interesting look at what happens when a persecuted, native force decides to rise up against an occupying nation trying to impose its culture.
The time was the second century BCE. Alexander the Great’s empire had broken up. A ruler named Antiochus IV controlled Syria and was extending his armies into Israel, with an eye toward Egypt. Helenistic culture, a vestige of the Greeks, had taken hold in Syria, espousing a philosophy that celebrated the human spirit and man as the measure of all things. Antiochus didn’t like the fact that Judaism put God’s laws first, even if its precepts were justice and love. He cracked down on all Jewish religious practices–sacrifices, observance of the Sabbath, reading of the Torah, circumcision–instead encouraging Greek gymnasia as the center of culture.
In 168 BCE, Antiochus’ army invaded Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple, the center of Jewish life and prayer. A year later he invaded again, ravaging the city, setting up a garrison and, on Dec. 25, 167 BCE, rededicating the Temple to the Olympian god, Zeus.
While some Jews had acquiesced in the beginning, the second invasion was unbearable. A Jewish priest named Mattathias, who lived in a village 17 miles from Jerusalem, sparked a resistance movement when he struck a Jew who was about to make a sacrifice to the new gods and then killed a Syrian guard who was nearby. He and his five sons then took to the hills, joined by hundreds of others, and started a guerrilla war against the occupiers. Mattathias was profoundly religious, and though he overcame objections from a particularly strict group that refused to fight on the Sabbath, he was as harsh on collaborators as he was on the enemy.
With the death of Mattathias in around 166 BCE, leadership of the resistance passed to his third son, Judah. Judah was a charismatic leader and a great military mind–so impressive he was given the honorary title “Maccabee,” said to mean “hammer” or “hammerer.” His guerrilla army was outumbered by Syrian forces, but the resistance recaptured the Temple and most of Jerusalem in December 164 BCE. Judah Maccabee had priests cleanse the holiest inner chamber of the Temple, build a new altar and rededicate the sanctuary; Hannukah is the Hebrew word for dedication, and gives the holiday its name.
A superior army from a liberal culture is defeated by fundamentalist, indigenous guerrillas. Like so many things, Hanukkah’s not just about oil.