Chanukah and Santa Claus – restoring truth to the Festival of Lights

Holiday preparations are in full swing. Christmas lights are strung up and blinking, sleighs and reindeer magically appear on suburban lawns; even the occasional Chanukah menorah (or chanukiya in Hebrew) glows brightly in Jewish homes for eight nights.

Today very few adults believe in Santa Claus, though a significant amount do believe in the virgin birth of Israel’s Messiah Yeshua. At this holiday season childhood legends of men in red suits and white beards come face to face with the miraculous Jewish Babe of Bethlehem.

The Jewish Feast of Dedication (known as Chanukah or the Festival of Lights) also has significant legends twined around its holiday menorah – legends that might obscure the spiritual and historical roots of the holiday, and distract from its powerful message, This newsletter focuses on the real meaning of Chanukah.

Superpower pressures on tiny Israel

Between 604 BC and 553 BC the prophet Daniel received the interpretation of a number of apocalyptic visions concerning the rise and fall of major Middle Eastern empires. Communicating in fluent Aramaic, the God of the Hebrews revealed to Daniel that a future kingdom (called ‘the third kingdom’ – Daniel 2:39) would arise and rule over the whole earth. In Daniel 7:2, 6, 16-17 this beast is pictured as a leopard with four wings and four heads, while in Daniel 8:5-25 the empire is alternately depicted as a horned and shaggy goat. Verse 21 states, “the shaggy goat is the king of Greece.” Daniel’s description of the military and  political intrigue of the Greek empire is so accurate, that secular historians (who do not accept that prophecy exists) assume that the Book of Daniel must have been written five hundred years after the fact!

Alexander the Great was a world conqueror with a vision – he wanted to create one unified world government under Greek control, with all the world accepting the Greek language, Hellenistic culture and the deities of Mount Olympus. Any God or people (including YHVH and the Hebrews) who refused to bow down before the might of Greece would be crushed.

The divine vision in Daniel 8 describes how Greek forces would desecrate the Jerusalem Temple after 330 BC, cause the sacrifices to cease, persecute the Jewish people and murder many of them. This detailed and gory vision left Daniel exhausted, appalled and physically sick (8:27).

Daniel 11:21-35 zooms in on the Greek king of that campaign, giving specific details of these Chanukah-related events. Stymied by the rise of Rome (the new up-and-coming Mediterranean superpower), the Greek King of Seleucid Syria Antiochus IV would return from Egypt to Syria in a rage, passing through Jerusalem and wreaking havoc on the Temple. He would profane YHVH’s altar, dedicating it to Zeus of Olympus and sacrificing a pig on it (which act the prophet calls ‘the abomination of desolation’ in 11:31).

Ezekiel’s army in the Days of the Maccabees

The believing remnant of Jewish people in those days rose up against the Seleucid Greek occupiers from Syria, and began a guerrilla war against the Hellenists between 168 and 164 BC. Starting near Modi’in (not far from today’s Ben-Gurion Airport) this revolt was led by descendants of Aaron the High Priest. Matisyahu and his five sons (the most famous being Judah the Maccabee) waged an extensive campaign against superior forces, finally defeating them and rededicating the Jerusalem Temple in December 165, on the 25th day of the month now called Kislev.

These Maccabean fighters are prophesied in Daniel 11:32-35: “The people who know their God will firmly resist him. Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, they will receive a little help… Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless…”  These men and women were true heroes of the faith.

The Maccabees – Hebrew heroes in Hebrews

A Jewish court history was written between 80-70 BC, today called The Second Book of Maccabees. Describing the battles before the Dedication of the Temple, the writer remembers how “a short time before … they… were like wild beasts, in the mountains and in the caves” (2 Maccabees 10:6-7; see also chapters 5-7). The Messianic Jewish writer of the Book of Hebrews adds his Amen to these words, quoting from that book in the New Covenant Letter to the Hebrews 11:32-39:

“And what more can I say? I do not have time to tell about … those whose weakness was turned to strength and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground. They were all commended for their faith.”

The first Messianic Chanukah celebration

The first historical descriptions of Jewish holiday celebrations during the Second Temple period are found in the New Covenant. These feasts were Passover (what is today called the Last Supper – Matthew 26:17-30) and Chanukah (the Feast of Dedication mentioned in John 10:22-24). Yeshua celebrated these feasts in a Jewish way, in a Jewish city and according to the biblical Jewish calendar.

Why eight days of Chanukah?

Many children know the song about the Twelve Days of Christmas, though few would understand why there are twelve holy days. In the same way, most Jewish children know that there are eight days of Chanukah and eight candles lit, but do not know why – they do not grasp the origin of that tradition.

It may surprise some to discover that the original historical record knows of no miracles regarding a cruse of oil burning for eight days when it should have only lasted one. That legend comes 300 to 600 years after Chanukah and was created by the leaders of the fledgling Rabbinic movement in order to detract from focusing on the Maccabees. More on this soon.

In the Second Book of Maccabees (written approximately 80 BC) we are told that “on the very same date on which the Temple was profaned by foreigners, there occurred the purification of the Temple – on the 25th day of the ninth month (that is, Kislev). Joyfully they held an eight-day celebration after the pattern of Tabernacles … remembering how a short time before, they spent the Festival of Tabernacles like beasts… Therefore, holding wreathed wands and branches bearing ripe fruit, and palm fronds, they offered songs of praise to Him Who had victoriously brought about the purification of His Place. By vote of the commonwealth they decreed a rule for the entire nation of the Jews to observe these days annually” (2 Maccabees 10:5-8)

To emphasize that point, the same writer states at the opening of 2 Maccabees, “And now we ask you to celebrate the Days of Tabernacles in the Month of Kislev” (2 Maccabees 1:9).

The Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot) is an eight day festival (Leviticus 23:33-36). The Maccabees liberated the Temple nearly two months after the passing of the Feast of Tabernacles. They had just missed celebrating this final festival of God’s seven feasts as described in Leviticus 23. Now that the Temple was in Jewish hands again, this Feast could be celebrated – even if it was two months past due! Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Following King Hezekiah’s example (2 Chronicles 30:1-23), a second Tabernacles was instituted – not to replace the original feast, but to be a special memorial to the work of deliverance and military victory that YHVH had granted to His people. The eight days of Tabernacles was morphed into a new holiday of eight days – Chanukah.

King without a crown, feast without a miracle

Flavius Josephus, the most prolific Jewish historian of the First century AD, was also known by his Hebrew name Yosef ben Matisyahu. Though he had no direct connection to the father of the Maccabees, Josephus did bequeath us an excellent job of reporting on the Maccabean revolt. In his Antiquities of the Jews XII:322 Josephus says in approximately 80 AD that “the desolation of the Temple came about in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel, which had been made 408 years before, for he had revealed that the Macedonians would destroy it.” He adds that Jewish people “observe this festival, which we call the Festival of Lights, giving this name to it, so I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it” (Antiquities XII:325-326).

The death of a revival movement

The Maccabees started out as a revival movement among the Jewish people. They were priests who stepped up to the plate and faced a pagan enemy who wanted to wipe out both the light of God’s word and the existence of God’s chosen people. They fought like lions to regain the Jewish people’s independence, and defied the world’s largest superpower to achieve that goal.

Yet what started out as a movement to safeguard the calling and gifts of the Jewish people (see Romans 11:28-29; 3:1-2; Numbers 23:7-9) against the assimilationist influence of Hellenism, morphed within thirty years into a movement advocating Hellenism, The Maccabees were priests and were forbidden by the Covenant of Moses from becoming kings. That privilege was only granted to the Dynasty of David by covenant (Psalm 89). When the Maccabees began to call themselves kings, they quickly adapted to the political swirls and eddies of Middle Eastern superpower politics, choosing Greek titles and opposing those Jews (Pharisees) who remained faithful to God’s revelation in the Bible (see Acts 23:6). The Maccabean King Alexander Jannaeus ended up murdering 6.000 Pharisees who opposed his measures and even crucified 800 of them while dining luxuriously at their execution site.

This dynamic, wherein a move of God eventually self-corrupts and becomes a persecutor of the next move of God, is well documented in later history. Catholic and Protestant movements reveal similar patterns. In the history of the Pentecostal movement one can note how Catholics persecuted the Anglican revival movement, which subsequently persecuted the Methodists, who then persecuted Nazarenes, who went on to persecute Pentecostals, who later persecuted the Latter Rain movement and the charismatics, who persecuted the Third Wave, who persecuted Toronto etc. May the Lord God of Israel grant us all humility and obedience to cleave to Him, to keep us from such behavior, and to shine His light and love to those around us!

Re-inventing Chanukah

The Pharisee movement started out as a group of Bible-believing Jews who were faithful to the word of God. Eventually they moved into a rigid institutionalism, developing a rigorous structure requiring Jewish adherence to levels of purity and outward righteousness that God had never commanded for the Jewish people. Their laws eventually grew to carry more weight that biblical laws, much in the same way that some Evangelicals put more stock in their study Bibles than in the Biblical texts themselves.

Since the Maccabees moved from being a revival movement to persecuting true believers, and since the Pharisees (who later morphed in to Rabbinic Judaism) felt uncomfortable giving credit to enemies of God’s word, it was decided to de-emphasize the historical role that the Maccabees had played, to downplay their faith and force of arms, and to focus on an esoteric miracle that actually had no historical record.

In a rabbinic document called Megilat Ta’anit (the Scroll concerning Fasting) dating from somewhere between 70-135 AD, the following legend is presented for the first time on folio 9:

“When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils that were there. When the House of the Hasmoneans prevailed and won a victory over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest that was not defiled. It had only enough oil to burn for one day. A miracle happened, and there was light from it for eight days, In the following year they established eight festival days.”

Here is the legendary source of the modern celebration of Chanukah. The original eight day celebration memorializing Tabernacles now becomes an eight day celebration of an apocryphal miracle. The Maccabees are safely relegated to the back rows, and the Pharisaic emphasis maintains the spotlight – even at the expense of historical accuracy. A false miracle was deemed to be more worthy of focus than a revival movement of warrior-priests that went rogue.

A pro-active response

How can we as believers in the God of Israel, who identify with the godly Maccabees and who praise the God of Jacob for delivering His people from the pressure of the nations – how are we to celebrate Chanukah?

  • Remember the faith of the warrior-priests and the people of Israel who rallied to their flag – a willingness to sacrifice, fight, suffer and even die for faith in Israel’s God and for the preservation of God’s word and ways
  • Be strengthened that the God of Israel prophesied both about these conflicts as well as about the faithfulness of a remnant in trying times. He knows the challenges that we face in our day, and will be with us in the same way as He stood by the Maccabees
  • Stand fast in YHVH’s commitment to preserve and purify a remnant in Israel and to protect His people. Rejoice that there are Gentile believers in Yeshua who are willing to identify with the Jewish people today, to stand with them today, to suffer with them today, and even to die with them today
  • Call out to the God of Isaac and ask Him to shine His light on Israel (promised in Isaiah 60:1-3) even as gross darkness fogs the nations, and to bring the Jewish people into full recognition of Yeshua our Messiah, Son of David, the Light of the world

Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.

In Messiah Yeshua,

Avner Boskey

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