Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Where in the Bible is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is coming. We can see in the Bible where God instructs the Jewish people to celebrate Passover, for instance. But where is Hanukkah? It's in the Catholic (and Orthodox) versions of the Bible (that is, the Greek Old Testament, also called the Septuagint), contained in the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees, two of the books Martin Luther removed from his translation of the Bible; ironically enough, these books are not included in the Jewish Scriptures, either, because (in part) they were originally written in Greek.

The New Testament in John 10:22-39 mentions Hanukkah by the name of "the feast of the Dedication [of the Temple]": It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon... This is Biblical evidence that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah since he was there at the Temple during the feast (which *should* lend some credence to the books of Maccabees). Let's look at the "meat and potatoes" of the story by examining the original story (in the same books of the Bible that contain Scripture encouraging prayers and offerings for the dead in Purgatory).

1 Macc 1:11-15 says, "In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.

At that time, King Antiochus of Greece conquered Egypt and then "went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures which he found. Taking them all, he departed to his own land" (1 Macc 1:20-24).

After a couple of years, the king forced the Jews to pay an oppressive tribute, and then he arrived to the city with a great military force, subduing the people with false talks of peace, "but he suddenly fell upon the city, dealt it a severe blow, and destroyed many people of Israel. He plundered the city, burned it with fire, and tore down its houses and its surrounding walls. And they took captive the women and children, and seized the cattle. Then they fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel. And they stationed there a sinful people, lawless men" (1 Mac 1:30-34).

It became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel continually. On every side of the sanctuary they shed innocent blood; they even defiled the sanctuary. Because of them the residents of Jerusalem fled; she became a dwelling of strangers (1 Mac 1:36-38)...

Israel embraced the pagan beliefs of the Greeks. "Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they should forget the law and change all the ordinances. “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. And he appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the cities of Judah to offer sacrifice, city by city. Many of the people, every one who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had."

Jesus and the Prophet Daniel have spoken about the "abomination of desolation" and the Fathers of the Church believe that this refers to the actions of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, for he went so far as to desecrate the temple of God. "...they erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding cities of Judah, and burned incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law which they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Where the book of the covenant was found in the possession of any one, or if any one adhered to the law, the decree of the king condemned him to death. They kept using violence against Israel, against those found month after month in the cities. And on the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar which was upon the altar of burnt offering. According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks" (1 Mac 1:54-61).

The story shifts to Mattathias and his five sons, including Judas Maccabeus. They openly defied the orders of the king and vowed to die before betraying the God of Israel. The next several chapters describe the battle between faithful Jews of Israel and the Gentiles and their followers. By 1 Mac 4, Judas and his followers had chased the enemy away and in celebration were determined to cleanse and rededicate the Temple.

"He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, lest it bring reproach upon them, for the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar (4:42-45)..."

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month...they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev (1 Mac 4:52-59).

The feast of Hanukkah is reiterated in 2 Maccabees 1:18: "Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the feast of booths and the feast of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and altar, offered sacrifices."

Lastly, the famous story of the Hanukkah celebration where the oil for the lamp lasting for eight days can be found in the Jewish Talmud. Knowing the story in the Books of Maccabees helps put this story from the Talmud into context:

Commencing with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislew [Chislev, Kislev] there are eight days upon which there shall be neither mourning nor fasting. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil that was there. It was when the might of the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and vanquished them that, upon search, only a single cruse of undefiled oil, sealed by the High Priest, was found. In it was oil enough for the needs of a single day. A miracle was wrought and it burned eight days. The next year they ordained these days a holiday with songs and praises."

As our Jewish brethren celebrate Hanukkah this year, let us remember the valiant efforts of these heroes of the People of God, of whom we are a part, as baptized Christians. As they celebrate the rededication of the Temple, let us think of our Lord - the New Temple - and contemplate what must have gone through his mind as he "was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon" in celebration of the feast. During this 'festival of lights', let us honor Jesus, the "light of the world". As it is written in the Psalms, "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." Glory be to God in the Highest.