Jesus the Jew & HanukkahAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Exegesis, Hanukkah, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds
Today is the 25th day of the month known as Kislev in the Jewish calendar. That means today is the first day of Hanukkah . . . the Festival of Lights. This is a wonderful time of the year that has deep meaning for all the descendants of Abraham. It is a shame that modern, conservative Christians are not as familiar with this holiday. It is my purpose to share a few thoughts on this holiday.
As the student of the Gospel of John knows, the Jewish festivals form an integral part of the story the Evangelist tells about Jesus. In 10.22ff we read about one of those festivals that is missed by those unfamiliar with the Apocrypha: Hanukkah.This short study will attempt three things at once: 1) emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus; 2) help us understand our Jewish “brethren” better; 3) show how the author of John used a “non-biblical” feast to teach about the nature of the Son. I will give a short overview of what Hanukkah is about and then look at John 10.
The “History” of Hannukkah
A small band led by an old priest by the name of Mattathias and his five sons revolted. Their struggle lasted three years and culminated on the 25th day of Kislev with the recapture and dedication of the Temple. The Jews cleansed and purified the defiled temple. The celebration culminated in the relighting of the menorah for eight days as was supposed to have been done in Solomon’s day. That is why the festival is celebrated for “eight” days. The festival has even been called “the Sukkot of the month of Kislev” (2 Maccabees 1.9; 10.6-8). It is appropriate here to quote from the writings themselves on how this wonderful event transpired:
“Then Judas and his brothers said, “See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven. Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary.” (1 Maccabees 4.36-41)
Later in the same chapter we read:
“Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 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. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed. 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 Maccabees 4.52-59).
The Rabbis explained where the tradition of the eight days and the menorah comes from. The Talmud states:
“What is Hanukkah? Our rabbis stated: ‘Commencing on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, there are eight days during with mourning and fasting are forbidden. When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against them and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil, sufficient for but one day’s lighting, which lay with the seal of the High Priest. Yet a miracle was wrought therein and with it they lit the lamp therewith for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shab. 21b).
Through the years Hanukkah has celebrated the faith of a few in the power of God to work wonders through powerless and weak. Thus the Festival celebrates God’s yeshua (“salvation” . . . also the name of “Jesus”). This faith was not only on the part of men but of the incredible sacrifice of women. This is especially evident in the book of Second Maccabees which relates the story of Hannah, a Jewish mother. I must summarize this great story.
The king tried to force Hannah, and her seven sons, to transgress the Torah and forfeit her faith in Yahweh. Rather than transgress (by eating pig meat). Rather than cave in she exhorted her sons to endure through gruesome torture and death. All seven sons died as Hannah watched and finally she herself was killed by the king. But as Hannah put it she gave her sons and her own life in “sanctification of God’s name” (2 Macc. 7.1-41).
The authors of the books of Maccabees believe that Mattathias, his sons, Hannah and her sons, could never have “witnessed” without the “hidden miracle” of God. God was present, God was active, it was who God delivered. For God is the God of the Covenant of Love. Thus during the celebration of Hanukkah, a Jew has often read the story of Judith and meditated on the passage in Zechariah . . . “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit [shall you prevail], says the Lord of hosts” (4.6). Not a bad passage to associate with the Festival of Lights.
There are other traditions associated with the Festival like the dreidel but detailing them all will make this “short” summary . . . way to long.
Against the backdrop of a burning menorah, the illuminated testimony to the “miracles” or “signs” of God’s “salvation” of Israel, John tells us the living Yeshua was standing in front of the Jewish leaders . . . who did not “believe” his “miracles” (John 10.38). God is continuing to deliver his people. Not simply through the Maccabees but through the Son. Jesus is truly the “light of the world.” He is God’s shining “menorah.”
The only person who casts a different perspective on this text is, almost predictably, one of “our own.” B.W. Johnson in both his “People’s New Testament” and his “Commentary on John” (p. 164) says “Nay!” Johnson’s argument is surely not rooted in the Greek text of John rather it seems to be rooted in a prior assumption — Jesus would not observe a festival that “lacked biblical authority.” He writes, “The feast of Dedication was not one of the divinely appointed festivals, and there is nothing in the Savior’s ministry to create the idea that he would observe it . . .”
John 10 is a gem of a text that allows us to deal with many things at once. And since Hanukkah is being observed this time of year it also creates a sense of understanding of our Jewish roots — that are all too often buried and forgotten.