Monday, December 10, 2012

The Geography Behind Hanukkah: Hebrews Caught Between Larger Things

Many Christians and seculars commonly mistake Hanukkah as the "Jewish Christmas", i.e. the largest and most important holy day of the year.  However, it is only a minor holiday on the Jewish religious calendar.  Much of the holiday's present fame is the desire to have a Jewish alternative to Christmas in order to protect Jewish identity in majority Christian/post-Christian cultures.

The story of Hanukkah itself meanwhile is similar with Jews desiring their own identity in a hostile world.  Interestingly enough it involves the first long-term exposure of Judaism to a European culture.

Greeks, Other Greeks, Pathways to Invasion, Dreams of Godhood and the Jews Caught in Between

In 332 BC Alexander the Great marched and seized the Levant from the Persian Empire.  The Jews of the region were allowed their de facto internal autonomy as long as they paid taxes since Alexander was more interested in defeating the Persian Empire than Hellenizing the world.  After Alexander's empire split the land of Israel went to the ethnic Greek, Egypt-center Ptolemaic Kingdom.  The Ptolemaics continued Jewish freedom of religion though a slow but steady trend of Hellenization began among some Jews.

In 198 BC another spin-off of Alexander's empire, the Seleucid Empire, conquered present-day Israel from the Ptolemaics as part of a campaign to gain vital trade lanes and make inroads for an invasion of Egypt.  Seleucid Emperor Antiochus III continued Greek tolerance of Judaism.

Antiochus' son, however, had different plans.  Antiochus IV was the first Seleucid king to enforce demands of worship for his claim of divine nature.  He saw this as a way to unite the empire around his divinity and build morale for the upcoming invasion of Egypt.  While Hellenized Jews were willing to follow the orders to deify the emperor most Jews refused.

In 168 BC Antiochus IV and his pro-Greek Jewish allies looted the Temple (the most holiest place in Judaism), massacred Jews who refused to add the Greek Gods to Judaism, and outlawed monotheistic Judaism.  It took the Maccabees Revolt, a revolt of monothestic, anti-Greek Jews described in the Bible books of First and Second Maccabees, for Jews to regain their independence and religious freedom. The Seleucids were too busy fighting off growing threats from the mixed Greek-Iranian Parthians and the growing Roman Republic to ever threaten the Jews directly after the rebellion.

The Festival of Lights itself comes from the Maccabees seizure of Jerusalem from the Seleucids and their allies.  The Maccabees went to the Temple and cleaned it of Pagan and other defilements.  After the cleansing the Temple was rededicated.  1 Maccabees 4:56 (RSV-CE) states

So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise.

The famous Jewish historian Josephus wrote a similiar account around AD 75

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms.

After the end of the war the Jews were safe in Israel for the time being.  Many challenges were to come but thanks to the Maccabees their freedom of worship was preserved.

1 comment:

Dina said...

Thanks for the thorough explanation. If only I could remember all those names when people ask me about Chanuka . . . .