What a statement to be making, “There wouldn’t be Christmas if it wasn’t for Hanukkah!” To most people, this might sound like an oxymoron, but I would beg to differ. So, let’s look at the biblical and historical origins of Hanukkah, its modern practice, and finally, let’s investigate to see if it has any connection to Christmas (you might be surprised!)
The feast of Hanukkah is known as either ” The Feast of Dedication” or “The Festival of Lights”, and it actually is both. The word itself means “dedication.” As you will see, Hanukkah teaches us how God delivered and preserved His people and prepared the world for the arrival of the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth.
Historically speaking, the events that led to the creation of the Feast of Hanukkah are found in three of the four books found in the Apocrypha, known as “Maccabees I, II III and IV.” The reason that I speak of the historical record and not biblical is that evangelicals do not accept the Apocrypha as part of the inspired word of God found in the Jewish Bible. This doesn’t mean that their historical accuracy is in question, but simply that the authors of the story were not inspired by the Spirit of God to record the events. Details about the Maccabean revolt are found in I, II and IV Maccabees.
Additionally, the great Jewish historian Josephus wrote about Hanukkah in his Antiquities, in which he calls it “The Festival of Lights”, ” Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.”
Biblically speaking, Hanukkah is not included in the Levitical feasts of the Lord found in Leviticus 23. Similar to the feast of Esther known as Purim, Hanukkah is a post-biblical holiday. It is a celebration that was instituted as the result of a significant event in Jewish history. The prophet Daniel tells us quite a bit about this event and about the rise and fall of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He also was a type of the Antichrist that will come to the world’s stage in the future. In Daniel 11:3, we are told “And a mighty king will arise, and he will rule with great authority and do as he pleases.” This is a reference to Alexander the Great, the mighty Greek leader who conquered the known world, mostly from 333 BCE to 323 BCE, before his sudden death at a young age.
Alexander the Great didn’t dislike the Jewish people, but after his death, when his kingdom was divided between his things quickly changed. Daniel 11:5, 6, 9 and 11 tell us about the “King of the South” (Egypt) raging war against the “King of the North (Syria) for control over Israel, seen as a buffer zone. This took place between 331 BCE and 198 BCE, but in 198 BCE the Seleucids (Antiochus) gained control (Daniel 11:15, 18, 19).
Eventually, Antiochus IV acted against the Jews as we see in Daniel 11:29-31, “At the appointed time he will return and come into the South, but this last time it will not turn out the way it did before. For ships of Kittim will come against him; therefore he will be disheartened and will return and become enraged at the holy covenant and take action; so he will come back and show regard for those who forsake the holy covenant. Forces from him will arise, desecrate the sanctuary fortress, and do away with the regular sacrifice. And they will set up the abomination of desolation. The next verse (v. 32) speaks of the Maccabees,
Frankly, we get quite a bit of detail in the prophet Daniel to help us understand the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus, the rededication of the Temple and the inauguration of the Feast of Hanukkah. We do not get quite as much as in the three apocryphal books of the Maccabees, but the stories correlate nicely, considering that it took place a long time ago. That was almost 2200 years ago. Antiochus eventually desecrated the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, massacred many Jewish people and outlawed Judaism altogether. He even sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar to further humiliate the Jewish people. He simply hated the Jews.
But a simple Jewish family from the village of Modi’in (about 30 miles NW of Jerusalem) wouldn’t remain silent. Mattathias and his five sons known as the Maccabees (meaning “hammer” in Hebrew), led a revolt against their oppressor. It took eight years, but they managed to liberate and retake the Temple from Antiochus and free the Jewish people from Hellenistic domination. And so, the story continues to this day.
They proceeded with the rededication and decided to relight the eternal light of the Temple menorah. They needed special consecrated olive oil and only had enough for one day. They lit the menorah and went on to prepare more oil knowing that the process would take a week. The story tells us that the one-day reserve miraculously lasted for the whole week until the new batch was ready. And so, the Feast of Dedication was born. We celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights, as we light a candle on the first night, two on the next night, and so on. The menorah, also known as a Hanukkiah, has nine branches (a regular menorah has seven). One of the branches is either displayed forward or to the side, but always set apart. It is called the shamash or “servant” candle as we light it first and use it to light the other ones and recite the Hanukkah prayers, “Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.” and “Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.”
We also eat a lot of foods that are fried in oil to remember the miracle of the oil. We eat potato pancakes called latkes, and jelly-filled donuts called sufganyot. Additionally, we spin little tops called dreidels on which four letters are inscribed meaning “a great miracle happened here” (for dreidels used in Israel) or “a great miracle happened there” for dreidels used anywhere else in the world. The modern observance of Hanukkah has often been called the “Jewish Christmas” because gifts are exchanged for eight nights, and the fact that it starts on the 25 of the Jewish month of Kislev which is believed to be the day that the Maccabees defeated Antiochus IV in 165 BCE, (almost always in December within a few weeks of Christmas.)
So, Hanukkah is a time of great celebration of how God preserved, protected and provided for our people. It is a festival of dedication and a festival of lights. It is often said that the Jewish people got a new holiday for each time that the world tried to kill them. And with that holiday, usually come special foods (Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Purim, etc.) So, in Jewish circles, we jokingly say, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” And yet, there is another aspect of the Feast of Hanukkah that cannot be missed, and it has to do with its connection to Christmas and the birth of the Jewish Messiah. Oh, and by the way, Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah did celebrate Hanukkah and we can read about it in the New Testament.
It is crucial to understand that throughout our history, several attempts have been made to completely eradicate our people. It goes back to the third chapter of Genesis when Satan realized that the Messiah would be coming from the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), eventually learning that He would be from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and the line of David (2 Samuel 7:16-17; Psalm 89:34-37.) In other words, the Bible promises beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Messiah would be a Jew in His humanity. If Satan wanted to thwart God’s plans to bring the Jewish Messiah on the world’s stage and secure his job as the great deceiver, the best way would be to completely decimate the Jewish people and put an end to the Jewish race, something that God promised would never happen in (Jeremiah 31:35-37.) This is God’s way of saying that nothing can be done to completely eliminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth,
Notice that God mentions at the very end that even Israel’s disobedience and idol worshipping couldn’t deter Him from preserving the Jewish people. In other words, their preservation is not depending on their performance, but on God’s character only. What a promise!
Several biblical characters were used by Satan to further his destructive agenda. The Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph decided that all Jewish newborn males should be killed, and as retold in the book of Esther, Haman wanted Mordechai and the rest of the Jews of the kingdom to be killed. Incidentally, as an example of the promise God made in Genesis 12:3, all the first-born of Egypt were decimated as the result of the 10th plague against the Egyptians before the exodus of the Jewish people towards the Promised Land. Additionally, Haman and his sons ended up hanging on the very gallows that he had built for Mordechai. God’s covenantal promise to preserve the Jewish people, protect us and provide for us was strong then and it is strong now because God means what He says and says what He means.
So, when the events that led to the Feast of Hanukkah took place, even though many Jewish people tragically lost their lives, God wasn’t caught off guard and He had not changed His mind. Once again, the Jewish people prevailed, or more accurately, God prevailed on behalf of His people Israel.
I often say that anyone who doesn’t believe in God should look at the history of the Jewish people, our preservation and our growth against all odds. We absolutely shouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for God’s grace and His eternal, irrevocable covenantal promises (Romans 11:28-29), God Has always known that the Messiah would come through a Jewish family and this was not about to change. If the Jewish line was interrupted at the time of the Maccabean Revolt, the Messiah couldn’t have been born and this why we can say with certainty and with hope, “There wouldn’t be Christmas if it wasn’t for Hanukkah!” It has always been God’s timing.
It is God who originally set the stage for the arrival of the Messiah, not a minute too soon and not too late either, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law” as Paul tells us in Galatians. Here again, it is confirmed that in His human form, Messiah would be born “under the Law”, another way to mean that He would be a Jew.
The Bible also promises us that the Messiah would be a light to the nations. The theme of light against the darkness shouldn’t be missed. Isaiah 42:6 reads, “I am the LORD, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations.” Speaking for God, he continues in 49:6, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
I find it fascinating that the prominent candle on the Hanukkah menorah, known as the shamash or “servant” candle, is the one that we light first and then use to light all the other candles. The servant brings light to all the others and adds light to fight the darkness. At the very least, I see some similarity with Yeshua the Messiah Who came as “the Servant of the Lord” to bring light to a very dark world. We read about the Servant in four passages in Isaiah: Isaiah 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–7; and 52:13–53:12.
The most poignant and life-changing passage is probably Isaiah 52:13–53:12 where the Servant is seen as being humiliated, suffering, and innocently killed for his own guilty people. This will remind anyone with an open mind of the fate of the servant of the Lord, Yeshua, who came to be a light to us all but ended up being crucified for us all. Years later, in the context of the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), He even stated that He was that light in John 8:12, ” Then Yeshua again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”
But maybe even more important than the light He is and He brings, Messiah also brings deliverance which is another important theme found in Hanukkah. The Jews were delivered from Antiochus’ oppression and tyranny by the grace of the Almighty. Today, all people can be delivered from the tyranny of the enemy and our doomed destiny by trusting the Messiah and His finished work. The many miracles told in the book of Acts are a testimony to the atoning work of Yeshua on our behalf, for Jews and Gentiles alike. Acts 26:17-18 reads “rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.
It is so refreshing to know that the light of the world came to pull us all out of darkness, but we have to believe what He did on our behalf as John 8:24 tells us, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” It should lead us to a desire to dedicate or re-dedicate our lives to God as we are advised in Romans 12:1-2, ” Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Of course, dedication is also a theme that is part of the Hanukkah story as the Jewish people worked hard at cleaning the Temple and re-dedicating it with freshly pressed olive oil for the menorah while as the story tells us, the one-day reserve of oil burned for 8 days until more oil was available.
Re-dedicating our lives should really be a daily event. Each morning we ought to speak to God and offer to Him our day dedicated to His glory in everything we think, say or do. It is a great way to start our day and to stay focused on what is important.
As if all these parallels between Hanukkah and the Messiah weren’t enough, one of the best-kept secrets of the Bible is the fact Yeshua Himself recognized and celebrated Hanukkah in Jerusalem, as we see in John 10:22-23” At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Yeshua was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon”
So, again, it is not a stretch to say that there wouldn’t be Christmas if it wasn’t for Hanukkah! So, whatever we chose to celebrate, being the birth of the Jewish Messiah or the deliverance of the Jewish people, we ought to recognize God’s hand in all of it. As for me and my family, we recognize and celebrate both the birth of the Messiah the Light of the world and the preservation of the Jewish people by the grace of God.
Happy Holidays to you all!