The Maccabees are the heroes of Hanukkah, but few Christians are aware of their story. In an effort to further educate Christians about our connection to the Jewish People, I present the story of these zealots for religious freedom.
Setting the Stage: Bible believers vs Antiochus Epiphanes
In the New Testament gospels we read about the zealots. They were Jews who opposed Roman rule of the land of Israel. In the second century before Christ the Holy Land was ruled by the Syrian Greek kingdom, the Seluecid. Descending from a General to Alexander the Great, the Seleucids were a rich, well organized society known for their great cultural sophistication as heirs to the great civilization of Plato and Aristotle. The Jews had spent generations in a cultural exchange with the Greek world, and had experienced a golden age in the Greek city of Alexandria but under the rule of the Seleucid King Antiochus the dynamic had shifted. Antiochus was not interested in a dialogue with the Jews, he was interested in their eradication as devout followers of God. Antiochus was determined to force Greek culture and belief unto the Jews by force. Antiochus literally believed himself to be a god and the barer of a superior worldview. He opened up gladiatorial arenas in the Holy Land, endorsed a much looser idea of family values and sexual morality than what Jews then or Christians today could tolerate. He banned the study of the Torah and even went so far as to have a pig sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem and demanded Jews worship himself and Jupiter.
The Act of Defiance
Several generations since Ezra, during the Babylonian exile, had hammered into the Jewish mind a steadfast and absolute commitment to God’s Word. Though while many Jews were disgusted by Antiochus and clung to their Jewishness even in secret, who could stand up against his armies?
In the small town of Modi’in a Greek officer had a pagan altar built in the marketplace. To ensure that the Jews in the town would begin to bend to the “divine will” of Antiochus he summoned the town’s priest, a simple elderly man named Mattityahu. There, before the well armoured Greek soldiers and the frightened townspeople the Greek soldier demanded Mattityahu offer up a sacrifice for Greek gods.
Mattiyahu refused, “I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant that our G‑d made with our ancestors!”
A sudden, brief and bloody fight broke out in that town as Mattiyahu, his sons, and devout Jews overwhelmed the Greek soldiers. Knowing Antiochus’ retribution would come swiftly and violently, Mattityahu and the other bloodied jews fled for the hills of Judea to fight a prolonged gorilla resistance.
God’s People Remember their Strength
Even though the Jews were a largely poor and rural people at the time, their devotion to God compelled scores to flee to the hills as well. Quickly this movement gained momentum and they formed legions ready to fight for their faith. Leadership passed after Matityahu’s death to his two sons, Shimon the Wise was to provide the spiritual counsel for the fighters and Judah the Maccabee was to lead them in the fighting. They were stunningly successful, in a single battle alone they defeated 40,000 Greek soldiers!
The Liberation of Jerusalem and the Miracle
In 139 BCE, in the Hebrew month of Kislev, the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem. The Temple was purified of pagan idols and a new Menorah was built. It is difficult to overstate how key this moment was, I mean how many cities can literally say, “God lived here”? The liberation of Jerusalem was nothing short of a reaffirmation of God’s love of Israel and the Jewish people’s devotion to him. But there was a problem, God commanded the Menorah in the Temple always be lit, symbolically showing the Light of God being constant and eternal, but they only had enough oil for a single day, it would take a week to prepare more in the kosher form God commanded it to be made.
Legacy of the Maccabees
The Maccabees were of the priestly tribe, it was their duty to mange the Temple as it was the duty of the House of David to mange the affairs of State but after their successful revolt they found themselves holding political power. Their dynasty fell to the same mundane realities of infighting and corruption that defeats most dynasties. But their legacy is not their politics, but their faith. The Maccabees proved that no earthly power can stand against the Holy One of Israel, and no persecution from a wicked king, can be victorious over devotion to God.