Israel: From The Maccabees To A Miracle To Hanukkah Donuts


Temple Mount and Dome of The Rock (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)
400 Years of Silence

The events that inspired Hanukkah took place in the midst of “The 400 Years of Silence” or the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament when God appeared to be silent.

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God Uses History

During the course of history, while God was setting the stage for the birth of His Son and the spread of His Gospel, the Holy Land gained, and has retained, the dismal distinction of being the most fought-over country in the world. In addition, Jerusalem, His beloved city, has twice endured total destruction by Babylonian and Roman troops, and further havoc during 23 sieges, 44 captures and 53 attacks.

Man Praying at the Western Wall (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)

Around 200 B.C., right in the middle of those years of silence, Palestine came under the control of a successor to Alexander the Great’s empire, Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. Antiochus III allowed the Palestine Jews to continue practicing their religion, however his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent according to ancient writings, including Josephus, who recounts how he outlawed the Jewish religion, ordered them to worship Greek gods, and desecrated Jerusalem’s Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus in the Holy of Holies and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

The Maccabees Enter The Picture

It was during these terrible persecutions by Antiochus Epiphanes that the Hasmoneans, a family of Jewish priests, rose to prominence.  The Hasmoneans, later called the Maccabees after one of the sons, led the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid king and all other foreign influences permeating the Jewish culture and religion.

Israeli Military at the Western Wall (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)
If God Is With Us, Who Can Be Against Us

For the better part of three years, the Maccabees toiled at wresting control of Palestine from the Seleucids. With a small militia using guerrilla tactics, they successfully fought the enormous Seleucid army,  winning Jewish independence, including the priesthood and religious freedom, while radically redrawing the map of Judea.  Their success mirrored the Old Testament victories of Joshua and the 20th century triumphs of the nation Israel, with God on their side – who can prevail against them!  What had once been a small province in the Persian and Greek Empires became a major political entity embracing most of modern Israel, and parts of Lebanon and Jordan.

Golden Menorah In the Western Wall Plaza (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)
Relighting The Golden Menorah

Finally, after defeating Seleucid army, the militia arrived at the Temple Mount and the appallingly desecrated Temple. There Judah Maccabeus called on his followers to cleanse the Jewish Temple, rebuild its altar and relight its menorah—the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represent knowledge and creation and was supposed to be kept constantly burning.

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, the Jews who took part in the cleansing and rededication of the Temple witnessed a miracle. Even though there was only enough pure olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames miraculously flickered for eight nights, allowing time to replenish the supply. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.

Soldiers Lighting The Hanukkah Menorah
Hanukkah Through The Ages

The story of Hanukkah does not appear in the Old Testament because the events that inspired the holiday occurred after it was written. It is, however, mentioned in the New Testament, in which Jesus attends the “Feast of Dedication,” an alternate name for Hanukkah. During the rise of Zionism, as early Israeli pioneers found themselves defending against attacks, Hanukkah took on an enhanced meaning. The holiday with its positive portrayal of the Jewish fighter spoke to the reality of those early Zionists. Later, during the years leading up to the founding of Israel in 1947, especially in light of the Holocaust, Jews became acutely aware of the issues that surrounded the first Hanukkah…oppression, identity, religious freedom, and the need to fight for national independence.

History After The First Hanukkah

While no one can deny the importance of the Hasmonean years, history details the many cruel Maccabean acts that occurred after that first Hanukkah miracle. It seems that power does corrupt and absolute power corrupts completely!  But it was those ruthless tendencies that allowed Antipater, a descendant of Jacob’s brother Esau, the father of Herod the Great, and an Edomite forced to convert to Judaism by the Hasmoneans, to become ruler over Palestine.  It is also during the waning days of the Hasmonean Dynasty that the fateful treaty was struck between Rome and Palestine, just a small, modest agreement with a rising power in the west to hedge Hasmonean bets against another Seleucid attack.  Although this treaty was made in all earnestness and sincerity, it was the impetus that inserted Rome into the picture and history of the Holy Land.

Latkes Being Prepared For Hanukkah
Modern Hanukkah Traditions

From that vivid course of history, Hanukkah has developed into a holiday rich with historical significance, miraculous narratives and dialogue with Jewish culture and tradition. Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels, exchanging gifts and eating about 24 million mouth-watering, sweet and gooey, deep-fried sufganiyot…donuts! Apparently Israelis stop counting calories the eight days of Hanukkah just like we throw out the diet between Thanksgiving and Christmas!

Sufganiyot or Hanukkah Donuts
2017 Hanukkah In Jerusalem

Hanukkah festivities were in full swing during our stay in Jerusalem on the December 2017 Holy Land Tour. We enjoyed all the customs and fun happening inside the walls of the Old City, around the Mamilla Mall and on Ben Yehuda Street. Each of these sites are within walking distance of our home away from home, the Jerusalem Leonardo Plaza! We can’t wait to experience it all that Israel has to offer with you, on our next tour!

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