THE LIGHT OF HANUKKAH
And just like that, it’s time to light the candles of Hanukkah. Israelis, by and large, are still stuck in October 7. Time has lost meaning as it simultaneously stays static, yet flies by. So here we find ourselves in December, or Kislev, as the Jewish calendar tells us. How did that happen? Yet as the Feast of Hanukkah approaches, the first candle to be lit on 25th day of Kislev, the meaning of the festival seems so appropriate for us in Israel right now. The light of Hanukkah shines bright in the darkness.
There are four themes within the story which speak powerfully into our situation even in the midst of this dark war with Gaza.
1. THE VIOLATION OF ISRAEL
The story of Hanukkah, set in 165 BC, starts with the violation of Israel. Back then, Jewish people in Israel were living under Greek occupation, and the Greek ruler of the time was so evil that it’s reasonable to call him a type of Antichrist. He fitted the description that the Prophet Daniel gave perfectly. Antiochus Epiphanes IV set up Greek gods and idols inside the Jewish temple in Jerusalem: an abomination of desolation, standing where it should not stand. He banned the worship of the God of Israel and study of the Torah. It is for this reason the dreidel spinning top features in today’s Hanukkah celebrations—to remind us of the terrible time when Jewish children had to pretend they were playing games, hiding their Bibles and whipping out the dreidels, if any Greek soldiers happened to come by while they were studying the Torah. Violence, abuse, and sacrilege were rampant. But worst of all, the temple altar itself was desecrated by the Greeks. In a display of aggression and dominance, Antiochus had pigs slaughtered on the altar in the temple, and began forcing Jewish people to eat the flesh. This is the violation that pushed the Jewish people over the edge and led to all-out war.
2. THE EXISTENTIAL FIGHT
The Maccabee family led the revolt. An elder refused to eat the pig and killed the Greeks involved, triggering war between the Greeks and the people of Judea. The Jews were badly outnumbered, but valiantly fought to reclaim their temple and their homeland. It was no small miracle that they overcame the Greeks, and in the wake of that victory, Israel enjoyed a period of autonomous rule in their own country. For much of history the land has been occupied by foreign invaders (Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and for many years various Christian and Muslim empires from the surrounding nations – Byzantines, the Ayyubid dynasty and the Mamluks from Egypt, Ottomans from Turkey, and most recently the British). The only time that the country has known autonomous rule by the indigenous people has been under the kings of Israel and the Jewish Hasmonean rule, ushered in by the Maccabean victory over the Greeks. The name Maccabee is from the Hebrew for “hammer” and it’s also is an acronym from a phrase in Exodus 15:11 sung by Miriam, after the Egyptian chariots all drowned in the Red Sea: Mi kamocha b’elim Adonai, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?” (מכבי: מִי-כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם יְהוָה). Who indeed? Hear O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is one.
On reclaiming Jerusalem and most importantly the temple, an ugly scene lay before the Jewish people. The temple had been profaned and scandalized. They immediately set to work cleansing the temple, throwing out the idols, and reestablishing God’s order. The word “Hanukkah” literally means “dedication” in Hebrew, and when you read about Jesus going to the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem at wintertime (John 10:22) you’re reading about the Feast of Hanukkah. The rededication of the temple to God has been celebrated every year since by the Jewish people, including Jesus. The temple was cleansed, purified, and dedicated once again to the God of Israel. The golden lampstand, the menorah, was relit. The seven-branched menorah was supposed to stay alight night and day as a symbol of God’s presence in the temple, among the people of Israel. According to the instructions that God gave in Exodus 25, the oil for the menorah had to be set apart, sanctified oil, and would undergo a process of purification for use in the temple. This took seven days, but there was only enough oil for one day available, or so the story goes (hence the obsession with oily foods like donuts and latkes at this time of year). Miraculously, that day’s oil lasted for eight days, until the new batch was ready. This is why Hanukkiah candlesticks have nine branches not seven: eight lights of Hanukkah to represent the eight days of the miracle, and a ninth which is the “servant light” to light the others with. The sullied temple was purified.
The light of Hanukkah overcame the darkness. Evil was pushed back, and the Jewish people were free to worship the God of Israel in the land of Israel once again. Many years later, on exactly the same date in the Jewish calendar, Jerusalem was conquered again. It had been under Muslim rule and authority for hundreds of years before the British brought them to surrender the city at the start of Hanukkah in 1917. General Allenby famously demounted his horse to walk through the Jaffa Gate, aware of the sanctity of the moment. Much has happened in the hundred or so years since then, both good and evil. And here we stand today, a country full of searing pain, hubris, catastrophe, and valor. The land was violated by the atrocities of October 7. Those who used to live in the communities in the south beside Gaza only the have charred remains of the horror story that happened that day. There is talk of return and restoration but how on earth is it possible with the memories of the massacre hanging heavily over the entire area? It’s hard to fathom how those places could ever be restored. Yet we are hearing amazing stories of selfless heroism and generosity even now in these dark days. There are many people whose goodness is bringing a light in the blackest of nights. It only takes a little light to drive out darkness, and bring a flicker of hope back again.
THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE…
I know some people who have seen Jesus. Literally seen Him. Both Jewish and Arab people here have had clear visions. And the two words used to describe Him are “light and love”. That is how Jesus appears. Indescribable light, more powerful than anything we know, and extraordinary love that washes over in waves.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
This is what Israel needs right now: we need Jesus the Messiah, the light of the world. The temple menorah is a symbol of Jesus: Emmanuel, God with us, dwelling among us. As His followers, we have His light and love in our lives, and we can share this life with others. There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis helping in various ways: opening their homes, making meals, taking provisions to those in need… it’s been all hands on deck, and those in the body of Messiah have been quick to help in numerous different ways. Here are a couple of examples. There’s a Jewish pastor whose niece was brutally murdered at the music festival, and within a week he decided to start distributing very expensive first-aid bags to Arab churches all over Israel. Specifically Arab churches, taking a stand against the darkness of Jewish/Arab hatred. Similarly, there are Arab believers in key positions helping in many different ways. One of those providing desperately needed gear to soldiers all over the country is an Arab believer, choosing not only to help, but to help the army of Israel. By refusing to hate and instead bring love, the light pushes back the darkness.
THE LIGHT OF HANUKKAH
Just as the Maccabees had to cleanse and restore God’s house, we need to get back to worshiping the one true God of Israel and throw out all idols. Misplaced trust in the army or leadership of the country has been shaken and Israelis are starting to turn to God more and more, praying, repenting, and seeking His face in this great darkness of war. Mi kamocha b’elim Adonai, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?” We need to rededicate ourselves again to God. As a nation we will start to light the little Hanukkah candles each day in increasing number until all nine are shining brightly together. Each of these little candles make a difference, but when they shine together, there is way more light to drive out the darkness. And darkness will not overcome it.
We came to banish darkness
In our hands is light and fire
Each one is a small light
And we are all a strong light
Depart darkness! Move on black night
Depart! Here comes the light!
בָּאנוּ חוֹשֶׁךְ לְגָרֵשׁ
בְּיָדֵינוּ אוֹר וָאֵשׁ
כָּל אֶחָד הוּא אוֹר קָטָן
וְכֻלָנוּ אוֹר אֵיתָן
סוּרָה חוֹשֶׁךְ הָלְאָה שְחוֹר
סוּרָה מִפְּנֵי הָאוֹר