Every December someone starts the debate over how to properly spell the name of this joyful event – is it Hanukkah or Chanuka? Maybe even Channukah? To make it more complicated, we call this holiday also the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication. But why?
Let’s take a closer look at the Hanukkah story, to fully grasp its message of light and dedication.
History of Hanukkah
Have you ever had a season in your life when you thought, God is surely silent and distant? Then, you realize later that He was simply working behind the scenes. What is more, He did it in a way that you never expected.
This has often been the traditional Christian view of Hanukkah. It occurred less then 200 years before the life of Yeshua, between the time of Malachi and John the Baptist. This 400-year season in traditional biblical history is often referred to as “the silent years”.
Yet, God is rarely silent and was still at work behind the scenes.
The Hanukkah story is not recorded in the canon of Scripture (what we call the Bible). The book of 1 Maccabees in the Apocrypha speaks of Jewish zealots who were passionate for the Torah. They followed the ways of the Lord, and they could no longer compromise with the oppressive Greek influence of idol worship.
After years of outnumbered warfare, a great Jewish military victory was won. They threw out the foreign invaders, both physically and spiritually. As the first act of victorious freedom, their eyes turned to the desecrated temple. Something needed to be done to rally and refocus the people to the worship of the One true God, as instructed by Moses.
Restoring the Temple
The Temple needed to be cleansed and restored. The Talmud tells us that the large golden menorah with 7 lamps was found and returned to its place. However, the special oil found with it was enough only for one day. The process to make this holy oil was week-long. It involved beating (not pressing) the olives, then allowing them to sit, to naturally drain the oil.
Rather than continuing in darkness, the decision was made to follow the commandments with what they had. They followed instructions of Moses, even if for just one day.
And you shall command the sons of Israel that they bring you clear oil of beaten olives for the light, to make a lamp burn continually. Exodus 27:20
They took the oil and lit all the wicks on the menorah. Yet, day after day the oil lamp flames miraculously remained burning bright. They lasted until the end of the 8th day when the new oil was ready. This is the miracle of Hanukkah. Also called the festival of lights or the feast of dedication, it speaks of God taking the little that we have and multiplying it.
Perhaps this is the God that you recognize. He is the One who enjoys responding to overwhelming odds. He loves the passionate devotion of those that follow Him. And He is the One who multiplies the little that we offer Him into more than enough for a nation.
Festival of Lights
Today Hanukkah is celebrated with a unique menorah with 9 branches, rather than the normal seven. Gifts, decorations, sweet deserts and games accompany the celebration. All to remember the great miracle that God provided in these 8 days and nights.
Hanukkah is also a holiday where a Shabbat – complete rest – is not required. It contrasts with Passover or other biblical holidays where the Scriptures command a Shabbat. Regardless what day of the week it falls on, Hanukkah simply calls for a celebration.
It is a time to be with family, remembering God’s deliverance of Israel in her time of need. And it’s a time for joyous songs and prayers. It is not just a one-day celebration, but it lasts all 8 days. Much of the rejoicing centers around the nightly lighting of the 9-branched Hanukkah menorah, called Hanukkiah.
We finally get to the significance of the Hanukkah candles. There are eight candles for each day of the holiday. And then, there is one that is different. Often it is positioned higher than the rest. Not seldom it is right in the middle. This unique candle has a special role, called the shamash, meaning servant.
Traditionally, the shamash candle has an exclusive job – to light all the candles on the Hanukkiah. Rather than lighting each candle with a match, only “the servant” is lit in the raised position. The flaming servant is then used to light the rest of the candles. With each day of the celebration, a new branch is lit.
Feast of Dedication
In the first century, you can imagine the excitement and festive atmosphere in the land, as the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Even Yeshua showed up for the celebration of this Feast of Dedication.
In John 6, He had multiplied a few loaves and fish to feed 5000 people. In John 8, He proclaimed Himself “the Light of the world”. Now in John 10, it was the time of Hanukkah, a reminder of when God rescued Israel by multiplying a small amount of oil and restored the light to the Temple.
Many saw the correlation, and asked Him about it directly:
At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple area, in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then surrounded Him and began saying to Him, “How long [b]will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” John 10:22-24
Notice that John calls it the Feast of the Dedication and not the Festival of Lights. I don’t believe the latter is wrong but perhaps “dedication” is where we should put our focus.
It could refer to the rededication of the Temple at the time of the Maccabean revolt. But what started the revolt was dedication to the Torah and to the God of Israel. God loves responding to those that take the time to dedicate and rededicate themselves to His ways, regardless of personal cost.
Celebrating with Yeshua (Jesus)
Do Christians need to celebrate a Jewish military victory? Should they focus on a holiday that is not in the canon of Scripture, and happened in the “silent years”? The answer is, No. You don’t need to. But you GET to!
Aside from the fact that it was significant enough for Yeshua to join the celebrations. It is a wonderful time to reflect on the origin of the holiday. Dedicate yourself to God and His ways.
When we do, we may often find that God only feels silent and distant. But in reality, He is very near, preparing us for multiplication. And the time is coming when His Shamash – His Servant – will reignite His light in our life.