That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.— John 1:9
The historical account of the beginning of Hanukkah is mentioned in the Apocrypha. We do not hold the Apocrypha to be inspired. Much of the Apocrypha is no better than fanciful fairytales. However, 1–2 Maccabees provide a historical narrative we can somewhat trust as a historical account. History books written by fallible man will not be authoritative. The Bible alone is authoritative in all matters. I will attempt to summarize here 1 Maccabees 1-4.
The setting is 167 BC. Antiochus IV has conquered the land of Israel with a mighty host. Antiochus IV, reeking of prideful arrogance, marches into the temple of the Lord God of Israel. He and his men grab the golden altar, candlestick, table of shewbread, and all the holy vessels and cast them out of the temple. Thinking he has had his fill of lust for the day, he marches back home. He has murdered countless lives and has all but destroyed what little hope the poor Jews had. Everyone throughout the land of Israel mourned greatly for their shame, embarrassment, and desecration. Many Jews wondered if the stories of their forefathers were true. How could God part the Red Sea but allow Antiochus free access to Israel? How could God give Israel victory under the leadership of Joshua when the temple was so easily put to shame? Many Jews were swamped with confusion and doubt.
Antiochus IV absolutely despised the Jews. His lust waxed stronger and stronger as he sees the Jews lost in their confusion and doubt. He believes he has singlehandedly defeated the God of Israel. To pour salt in the wound, he names himself “Epiphanes (God Manifest)” and issues a decree throughout the land: “All should be one people, and every one should leave his laws.”
He forbids the Jews to sacrifice their offerings according to their tradition and commands that they completely abandon the Law of God. He adds to the decree, “And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king should die.” Many Jews forsook the Law of God. Others, however, refused to obey the commands of the proud king. Thus, many Jews were killed for their faith.
The temple of Israel was now a pagan place of worship. The statue of Zeus was the centerpiece of the temple. Pigs were offered upon the altars and the name of the Lord God was blasphemed. Antiochus liked to recruit pagan priests from the Levitic priestly line as a way to cause that much more blasphemy upon the name of the Lord. Some of the proud king’s men approached a Jewish priest by the name of Mattathias to recruit him to oversee some pagan celebrations. Mattathias refused and declared, “Though all nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments, yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers.” As he was giving his answer, he happened to spy a Jew carrying his pagan offering to sacrifice according to the king’s commandment. Enraged with fury and trembling with zeal, he charged at the Jew and slew him upon the altar. Mattathias cries out, “Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me.” And so the revolution began.
Judas, one of the sons of Mattathias, took leadership of the revolution. He was nicknamed, “Maccabeus (hammer).” Judas led his small army in guerilla warfare against the superior Greek army. Judas Maccabeus and his small Jewish force gained more and more recruits with each victory. At last, Jerusalem laid before them. Knowing Antiochus had sent a mighty host to surround them, the Jewish revolutionaries bring out the Law of God and the priestly garments, trusting in the Lord God of Israel to miraculously deliver them from the trap. Hearing that Gorgias, one of Antiochus’ top commanders, was headed his direction, he rushes his men to a different location. When Gorgias arrives at the Jewish camp, he found the camp empty. Thinking that the pitiful Jews fled in fright into the mountains, Gorgias and his men trek into the mountains during the night. But in the early morning, Judas and his men charge from behind and utterly destroy the host of Gorgias. Singing praise and thanks to the Lord God of Israel, they spoiled the tents of Gorgias and went home.
The message of Gorgias’ defeat reached another of Antiochus’ commanders, Lysias. Enraged that a small group of Jewish rebels could outsmart a Greek commander, he gathers together 60,000 footmen and 5,000 horsemen and marches to meet Judas Maccabeus and his army. As the two armies collide, the army of Judas gains the upper hand. Lysias was amazed at the strength, fury, power, and “manliness” of Judas’ army. He gives up and flees to regather another army.
Jerusalem was now left relatively unguarded and open to Judas and the revolutionaries. As they approach the temple, the sight of its desolation terribly grieved their hearts. Judas orders some men to finish off what remaining Greek soldiers were left in the city and determines to rededicate the temple. He selects priests of godly character who were known to love the law and orders them to cleanse the sanctuary of the temple. They stacked up the stones of the great, desolated altar in a corner until a prophet could instruct them in how to cleanse them. They built a new altar and made new holy vessels for the temple. They brought back the temple candlestick and set up the altar of incense. Finally, they lit the temple candlestick and set out bread on the table of shewbread. It was the 25th day of the 9th Hebrew month, Kislev. They sacrificed burnt offerings and rejoiced with thanksgiving and praise for eight days to celebrate the dedication of the temple. Judas and his brothers command that the whole nation of Israel keep this celebration each year for eight days, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev.
The death of Antiochus IV is recorded in 2 Maccabees 9:1–18. In this account we read that Antiochus was thrown from his chariot and dragged behind as the chariot rushes on. As Antiochus’ body flails around behind the chariot, worms burst out of his bowels. 2 Maccabees 9:10–11 reads,
“. . . and whiles he lived in sorrow and pain, his flesh fell away, and the filthiness of his smell was noisome to all his army. And the man, that thought a little afore he could reach to the stars of heaven, no man could endure to carry for his intolerable stink.”
The story of the victory gained by Judas Macabeus and his small band of Jewish revolutionaries is absolutely amazing. Who would have thought that a small Jewish army could defeat the seemingly superior Greeks. Jews everywhere treasure this story for its message of victory, hope, and comfort.
The Talmud, a collection of teachings by Rabbis, adds another interesting detail to the story. The tradition in the Talmud records that when the priests went to light the candlestick, they were only able to find enough oil to keep the lamp lit for 1 day. The candlestick needed to stay lit in the temple. Making do with what they had, they lit the candlestick. Miraculously, the Talmud records that the oil was enough to keep the candlestick lit for eight days. Traditionally, this is viewed as the reason why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days.