As a Christian with a Jewish father and a “Messianic” upbringing, I have struggled with the rightness of appropriating elements of Jewish culture into my own family. I don’t want to pass myself off as something that I am not. But since Jewishness is reckoned by religion, culture, and/or descent, I have at least two out of three going for me. I believe that Christians can learn quite a bit from Jewish tradition, which has wrestled for two-and-a-half millennia with the Hebrew scriptures–longer than Christians have. Furthermore, the earliest Christians were Jews and conceived of themselves as constituting a true remnant of Israel. There, of course, my Jewish friends would part ways with me–but I can learn from their way of understanding themselves as Israel.
I’m going out a limb to say that Christians can celebrate Hanukkah, too. I know it’s possible, because I do. This evening my wife, my son and I lit candles on our menorah and sang, “Ma`oz Tsur.” We don’t typically exchange gifts, but we read the Hanukkah story from the book of Maccabees and thank God for preserving the Jewish people.
So, what do Christians without ethno-cultural Jewish background need to know about Hanukkah?
Working our way backward, it’s important to note that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah:
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.'” (John 10:22-24)
Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for “dedication.” This feast is not commanded in the (Written) Torah or mentioned specifically in the Old Testament (Tanak), because its inception is in the 160s BCE, precipitated by the Maccabean Revolt.
After the period of Persian hegemony in the Middle East–including the land of Judea (Yehud)–Alexander the Great swept over the Persian Empire, conquering as far as India. After Alexander’s premature death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his four generals. For the next two centuries, the land of Judea was alternately under the control of the Seleucid Greeks from the north (Syria) or the Ptolemaic Greeks from the south (Egypt).
These were very difficult times for the Jews in Palestine, as you can imagine. Some wanted to Hellenize (assimilate to Greek culture), while others wanted to maintain their traditional Jewish identity and religion–a perennial tension within Jewish communities. Under the control of Antiochus III (Seleucid), the Jews enjoyed a degree of self-government and religious freedom. But his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attacked Jerusalem in 167 BCE, banned traditional Jewish worship (sacrifices, Sabbath observance, circumcision), and installed the Zeus cult in the temple.
These events are described in 1 Maccabees 1. 1 Macc 2 describes the uprising of Mattathias the priest and his sons: John, Simeon, Judah, Eleazar and Jonathan. Even after Mattathias’ death, his sons–called the “Maccabees” after Judah’s nickname, “The Hammer”–led a successful guerrilla campaign that drove Antiochus’ generals out of Jerusalem (1 Macc 3:1-4:35).
Because the temple had been desecrated, it had to go through a process of purification. This purification included the destruction of the unclean altar and the erection of a new altar. The consequent celebration each lasted eight days:
“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 joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering….Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.” (1 Macc 4:55-56, 59)
According to tradition, there was only enough sacred oil to perform the purification rites for a single day, but it miraculously lasted the full eight days required. This is why Hanukkah lasts eight days. Hanukkah menorot (plural of menorah) have nine branches rather than seven (as the temple menorah did): the middle candle is lit each night and then used to light the others. This is why Hanukkah candles come in packs of 44 (2 for the first night, 3 for the second night, 4 for the third, etc.). Small gifts may be exchanged, and foods made with oil are served, particularly latkes, potato pancakes. Children play a game with a special four-sided spinning top called a dreidel.
For Jews, Hanukkah is a celebration of God’s salvation for His people–just like Purim and Pesach (from Esther and Exodus). Christians should also thank God at Hanukkah, for at least three reasons.
First, we see how God rescues those who honor him. Mattathias and his sons were inspired by zeal for God, refusing to abandon their faith and the commandments. We read in the New Testament of Jews such as these, notably Simeon who was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25).
Second, we see that God is sovereign over world affairs. The book of Daniel makes veiled reference to Antiochus IV and the Maccabean Revolt (8:8-25; 11:29-39). The message is clear and consistent with that of the entire book: rulers who exalt themselves to the place of the God of Israel will be humbled and destroyed–Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, Antiochus, Caesar, or any other “divine” king.
Finally, we thank God for His preservation of the Jewish people, to whom, Paul says, “belong adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom 9:4). Furthermore, the one whom Christians call ‘Christ’, the Messiah Jesus, was born a Jew only a century-and-a-half later. Paul says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal 4:4-5). In God’s Providence, the “fullness of time” had not yet come–had Antiochus succeeded in destroying the Jewish people and religion, we would have no Messiah–and no salvation.
There’s a lot more to say on Hanukkah, of course. Two thousand years’ worth of water have passed under the bridge between Jews and Christians–and not always fresh water. But Jews and Christians have much in common, and thankfulness for Hanukkah should be one of them.
So, this holiday season, wish your Jewish friends a sincere “Happy Hanukkah” from the bottom of your heart. Remember God’s salvation of the Jews in 166 BCE–and his Salvation for all in Yeshua, his Son.