And it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem: it was winter; and Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon’s porch (John 10:22-23).
Prophecy was being fulfilled, but no one was celebrating.
Daniel had spoken regarding a “king of the north” whose heart would be set against the holy covenant; he would defile the Temple and the fortress, setting up an abomination that makes desolate (Daniel 11:7-45). Around 375 years after Daniel spoke those words to Darius the Mede, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was king of Seleucid Empire. After a military campaign against the Ptolemies of Egypt, he entered Jerusalem and took all of the silver and gold from the Temple. Two years later, he declared that everyone in his empire must maintain the same Hellenistic customs. On the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Chislev, which falls somewhere between mid-November and mid-December in our calendar, in 167 BCE, they installed a statue of the Olympian Zeus in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem; ten days later, they offered swine flesh upon the altar. Anyone who would continue to practice the Israelite religion and seek to abide by the Law of Moses would be condemned to death.
Such were trying times indeed. As is often the case, the majority just went along with the new rules: some Israelites were already turning into Hellenists, and the severe consequences for following the Law of Moses were enough to give most people pause. Considering the circumstances, it would not be difficult to imagine Israel going the way of every other nation: absorbed into greater Hellenism, setting aside whatever religious distinctives they might have maintained and becoming good pagans like the rest. This was exactly what Antiochus IV Epiphanes wanted, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get it done.
But not all Israelites just went along with it. The king’s officers began to attempt to enforce the edict outside of Jerusalem, and arrived in Modein, a small village about seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem. A priest named Mattathias and his five sons had moved there from Jerusalem; when called upon to sacrifice to idols, he refused, and killed a Jew who offered sacrifice along with the king’s official. He and his sons fled the town and went into the wilderness; soon, many others who refused to go along with the king’s edict joined them. After Mattathias died in 166, his son Judah, called the Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took command. He began a war which we would today call an insurgency against Antiochus and the Seleucids. By effectively using guerrilla tactics and making wise strategic decisions, he and his small force defeated the Seleucids time and time again. For a time, the Seleucids retreated in order to obtain reinforcements. Judah and his associates took the opportunity to come to Jerusalem.
They found the Temple in disarray. The sanctuary was desolate; the altar was profaned; its gates were burned. Judah commanded men to cleanse the Temple and re-establish the proper altars and instruments. On the twenty-fifth day of Chislev in the year 164 BCE, exactly three years after the Seleucids had defiled the Temple, this small insurgent band of Jews offered sacrifice on the new burnt altar they had installed. The people then celebrated the re-dedication of that altar for eight days, akin to the time of re-dedication of the Temple in the days of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:17).
The re-dedication of the Temple was an important moment, but the war was far from over. There would be many more battles, more than twenty more years of conflict with the Seleucids, and Judah himself would fall in battle. Ultimately, however, the insurgency led by the five sons of Mattathias would defeat the Seleucid Empire, one of the three great powers of the day; Judah’s brothers and their children after them would rule as priest-kings over an independent Israel for about one hundred years, the only independent Israelite state between the days of the kings of Israel and Judah and 1947 CE.
The Israelites would begin to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple and the events surrounding it as the Festival of Lights, or the Feast of Dedication (in Hebrew, Hanukkah). The events we have described are narrated in 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and Josephus; the description of Hanukkah is found particularly in 1 Maccabees 4:36-58, 2 Maccabees 1:7-9, 10:1-9, and in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 12.7.6-7. A later tradition in the Talmud alleges that, during the re-dedication, there was only enough olive oil to light the lamp (Hebrew menorah) for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days.
While the Feast of Dedication was not explicitly commanded by God and is not found in Scripture, nor could it be, since there was no prophet in the land at that time (cf. 1 Maccabees 4:46), the reasons for observing it are understandable. Judah and those around him ascribed all glory to God; they knew that their insurgency, on its own, had little hope. Daniel foresaw that not all would go along with the king of the north; a remnant would stand firm and take action, being refined and purified through their experience (Daniel 11:32-36). Judah and his people believed that the God of Israel was the One True God, and He loved His people Israel and would provide for them. It most certainly seemed as if He did; they wanted to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple and to give honor to God in their newly independent country.
Yet not all was well; Mattathias and his sons were Levites, not of Judah or David. Maccabean priest-kings might have ruled in Jerusalem, but the people knew that God had promised a Messiah from the house of David. After 63 BCE, when the Romans took over from the Maccabean rulers, the Israelites hoped all the more diligently for that promised Messiah.
Almost two hundred years after the re-dedication of the Temple, near the very spot where these events took place, Jesus of Nazareth visited Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication. He was walking in the same Temple, near the very spot where these events took place. Israelites came to Him, wanting to know if He really was the Christ, the Messiah (John 10:24). Will Jesus be for the Israelites of His day what Judah was for a previous generation? Would Jesus stand up against the oppressive pagan power and be the true fulfillment of Israelite expectation, re-establishing the Davidic monarchy from Jerusalem, ruling there forever?
Jesus would not satisfy the expectations of the Israelites, but He was the promised Messiah of Israel. He would not provide liberation from the Romans, but He would provide liberation from sin and death through His death and resurrection (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-3). He did not re-dedicate the physical Temple in Jerusalem; in fact, He predicted its downfall (Matthew 24:1-36). He did, however, “re-dedicate” the Temple of His body in the resurrection (John 2:18-22). Jesus did not set up a throne in Jerusalem, ruling over the nations of the earth from there, but He did receive all authority in heaven and on earth, and beginning in Jerusalem His Lordship and Kingdom was proclaimed, and the message would spread to all nations throughout all time (Acts 1:8).
Hanukkah may not be one of the feasts mentioned in Leviticus, but it maintained great importance for the Israelites of Jesus’ day. Without the firm stand of the Maccabees, to whom would Jesus have been able to go two hundred years later? The Hanukkah story of oppression, liberation, and dedication to God connects to God’s whole story regarding Israel, and in so doing, connects to Jesus and the Gospel story as well. Let us praise God for the Christ and the Temple of His body, dedicated for all of us for all time!
Ethan R. Longhenry