The Maccabean Revolt

Cleansing the Temple

It was at Jerusalem the feast of dedication [Hanukkah], and it was winter.
--John 10:22

Michael Brann

Of all the famous wars involving the nation of Israel described in this issue, only one is still memorialized with an annual day of celebration. It is called the Feast of Hanukkah (or Chanukah). The feast originated with the Maccabean Revolt, also referred to as the Maccabean Wars. It commemorates a great event in the history of the Jewish people--one that left an imprint on the entire future course of Jewish history and, to a certain extent, upon world history.

The feast of Hanukkah commemorates the social and political independence of the Jews. It recalls the period of history when a few zealous people fought to maintain their customs and practices against the oppressive might and strength of invaders who wanted only to destroy them. It is a story of the weak overcoming the strong, another “David” battling “Goliath.”

Historical Setting and Timeline

The Maccabees--a family name also known as the Hasmoneans and historically referred to as the Hasmonean Dynasty--took on national prominence in 168 B.C. There were two significant aspects weighing on Jewish life during this time, one spiritual aspect, the other socio-political.

First, there was a period commonly referred to as “the silent years” or the “silent centuries” where there was no “authorized” prophet from the LORD to give Israel focus and direction. This period of time began with the last prophet Malachi and ended with John the Baptist--a span of nearly 400 years! Malachi lived and prophesied around 400-350 B.C., while John began his ministry in 29 A.D.

Second, the social and political life of the Jews was under intense pressure. Having been under foreign control since their return from Babylonian captivity in the sixth century, Israel now found itself in the midst of a struggle for supremacy between the Greco-Egyptian and the Greco-Syrian empires. First one dominated Israel, then the other according to the fluctuating fortunes of war. The Grecian empire eventually gave way to the conquering power of Rome.

Under these circumstances it was only natural for someone to rise up and lead the people. In fact there were many who made such an attempt, spiritually and politically. It was during these “silent years” that many of the political/religious parties raised their voices in an attempt to be recognized as the mouthpiece of the Lord. The Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Hasidim, and Herodians all emerged during this time. There were also the Maccabees.

The Revolt

The Maccabean Revolt began in 168-167 B.C. when the Romans expelled Antiochus Epiphanes from Egypt, a man who began to vent his rage upon the Jews. He massacred vast numbers of Jews on their Sabbath day, took many captive, erected a fortress on Mt. Zion, and attempted to abolish all vestiges of Jewish worship and practice. The Temple was dedicated to the false god Zeus, and upon the newly erected altar a pig was sacrificed! (The apocryphal book of Maccabees, apparently quoting Daniel 11:31, calls this act the “abomination of desolation.”)1

Subsequently, a representative of Antiochus came to Modin, a town 17 miles northwest of Jerusalem, to enforce the new royal edict opposing and obliterating the national Jewish practices of worship. One of the local priests, Mattathias by name, refused the orders. He then publicly declared his determination to live and die in the religion of his fathers. When another Jew sought to profane the altar, Mattathias not only slew him, but the king’s commissioner as well. Then, offering himself as a rallying-point for all that were zealous for the Law, he fled to the mountains. Many families followed his example. He and his five sons led a guerrilla-type war that lasted for several decades, seeking to maintain and enforce the observance of their Jewish life and practice.

Within the first three years, this ragtag army, utilizing only spears plus bows and arrows, fighting against the seemingly endless array of the well-trained and well-equipped mercenary Syrian army, entered Jerusalem in victory. They cleaned out the abandoned and profaned Holy Temple and sought to purify the holy places and restore its worship. Precisely three years to the day of Antiochus’ profaning the temple, the Maccabeans, under Judas, one of the five sons of Mattathias, rededicated the altar in the Temple with a great ceremony. The feast lasted eight days with the lighting of the menorah. Tradition has further added that when they entered the Temple, they found just enough holy oil to light the lamp for one day, but miraculously, it lasted for eight days. Several years later, this act was commemorated and fashioned into an annual holiday for the Jews. Legal Jewish worship was now restored to the nation!2

Continuing Conflict

After the death of the fifth son of Mattathias, the Hasmonean Dynasty began a slow descent into ignominy. The Bible had always separated the two offices of priest and king, the former to be from the tribe of Levi, the latter from the tribe of Judah (Numbers 3:6-9; Genesis 49:10). The Maccabean family traced its descent from Levi, not Judah. Now, the Dynasty acted more like a priest-king in Israel. They sought recognition from Rome and engaged in the same kind of political intrigue, self-aggrandizement, and bloodshed as those they had just conquered. Rome became arbiter of many internal disputes, paving the way for the Romans to take matters into their own hands. Finally, Rome came against Jerusalem in A.D. 63, squelching the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-70, ending the last remnants of Jewish autonomy for which the Maccabeans had struggled. Perhaps the last vestige of the original spirit of the Maccabean revolt occurred in 132-135 A.D. under the leadership of Simon bar Kosebah. This resulted in the final expulsion of the Jews from Palestine and Jerusalem became a Roman city. The Jews themselves entered upon a worldwide exodus, living without a state until 1948 when the modern state of Israel was established.

The early triumph of the Hasmonean Dynasty was soon overshadowed by its own corruption. The story of Hanukkah became largely ignored within a few decades after it originated. Soon, however, as Rome’s crushing power started to be felt and the scattering of the Jews began, the people saw in the story of Hanukkah a message of hope that perhaps a new “Maccabean family” would arise and their national independence would be restored.

Today’s Legacy of the Revolt

From the time of the Roman conquest until the nineteenth century, the feast of Hanukkah celebrating the victory of the Maccabees and the lighting of the torches (symbolizing the bringing of the light of truth into a dark place) was considered as only a secondary festival. Then Zionism appeared on the scene as a major force. While the notion of the miracle of oil fell into disfavor under the age of rationalism and enlightenment, the Maccabees became models of the heroic Jew willing and able to fight for his rights. That initial miracle of the few against the many, the weak gaining victory over the strong, gave Zionists and the early settlers in Israel hope and courage.

Throughout the Holocaust, some salvaged bits of butter to fuel small flames in hollowed potatoes, thanking God for the miracle of Hanukkah, believing like their former comrades, that with him all things were possible. Although six million individual Jews perished during this time, they strongly believed that the Jewish people would survive. In 1948, the new emerging state of Israel was likened to the victorious Maccabees of old, surviving and thriving in spite of the tremendous forces arrayed against them.

Today, and especially in America, Hanukkah is sometimes called the “Jewish Christmas” because of its proximity to December 25. Unfortunately, its real meaning and significance are often overlooked. For the observant Jew, as well as any enlightened assimilated Jew, the feast is gaining new impetus. It is being called by a new name as well: the Hasmonean Festival or the Festival of the Maccabees. In Israel, it is observed as a national patriotic holiday.

Practical Lessons

Although the Feast of Hanukkah and the Maccabean revolt are based in Jewish history and practice, many lessons can be learned from this account. The hope it inspires in anyone who feels a lack of ability to succeed when faced with enormous obstacles is certainly one important lesson. How often we need to put our hope and trust in the Lord and in the power of his might in time of need. How often we have been miraculously rescued from the terror of night or the arrows of enemies, spiritual pestilence and plagues that seem certain to overwhelm us!

We may also see in this story the nation of Israel itself, soon to be cleansed and purified as a people made ready to be used by the Lord. The people will take a stand for the Lord and the truth against the mighty host gathered against them in the battle of the great day of the Lord Almighty. Since they will be walking in the paths of righteousness, on that great Highway leading to holiness and eternal life, all who choose to follow their example will be led to the same condition! (See Isaiah 35; Ezekiel 20:34-38; Joel 1:15; 2:2-11; 3:2,9-17; Acts 15:14-18; Romans 11:25,26.)

On a grander scale we, as Christian students of the Bible, see in these events a story of hope of deliverance from Satan and his host, the great oppressor of mankind. He too, like the Syrian army of old, is well-equipped and well-trained in the art of war, using ignorance, superstition, sin, and death as his main offensive weapons. We see a grander picture of the Maccabean resistors in the form of Jesus Christ, head and body, coming to the rescue of the downtrodden, to liberate all mankind from the shackles of Satan, sin, and death (Psalm 72:11-14; John 5:28,29; Galatians 3:27-29). Praise be to the Lord!
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1. Although many similarities exist between Daniel 11:31,36 etc. with the account of Antiochus Epiphanes profaning Jewish rites, we do not agree that this is the correct identification of the “abomination which maketh desolate.” Antiochus IV, who called himself “Epiphanes” or “God manifest among men” was merely a partial fulfillment at best. When our Lord spoke about this “abomination” some 200 years later, he spoke of it as something future from his own day (see Matthew 24:15). For a fuller explanation and application of its true identity to the Roman Catholic institution of the Mass, see Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 2, ppg. 267-366.

2. Perhaps due to prejudice, ignorance, apathy or contempt, there is very little documentation regarding the wars and activities of the MaccabI and II Maccabees. The historian Josephus also is heavily relied upon. Apart from this, eans. Most of the information about them is found in the apocryphal literature of not much can be gleaned. Hebrew and other classical writings offer scant fragments. It was not until the second or third century that the Rabbis formulated much of Judaism’s ceremonies as they are practiced today, some three to four hundred years after the original event. There is probably some truth and error mixed into the story of Hanukkah, but there is little doubt as to the occurrence of the Maccabean revolt against the desecration of their society.