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“The people of Israel live!”

What is Hanukkah, and why should Christians care about it?

Two men attend the National Chanukah Menorah lighting on Dec. 7 at the White House in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

“The people of Israel live!”
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This week, Jewish people around the world celebrate Hanukkah. It’s a joy-filled holiday. What’s not to love about eight days of celebration, with food and songs and gifts and the cheery glow of the candles in the menorah? But it’s not merely a Jewish occasion for sparkling holiday lights and gift exchanges. Amid the fun and games, the holiday celebrates something profound and existential: The people of Israel live. They weathered an all-out assault in the ancient days of the Maccabees and, by the mercy of God, survived to celebrate the victory. It’s a holiday that is especially meaningful this year, as the Hebrew cry, “am Yisrael chai!”—the people of Israel live—has become unexpectedly timely.

The holiday looks back to the remarkable triumph of the underdog Jewish revolt against the tyranny of a Seleucid Greek ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The Jews living in the land of Israel had been absorbed into the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. When that empire was divided after Alexander’s death, the Jews remained largely free to live as they wished under tolerant Greek rulers.

Antiochus, who ruled from 175 to 164 BC, changed the policy. He started aggressive programs to Hellenize the Jews.

Not content to rely on persuasion, Antiochus escalated to increasingly disrespectful actions against the Jews and the Jewish faith. His Greco-Syrian forces raided the temple treasuries and later garrisoned Jerusalem. The ultimate desecration: Antiochus’s men performed pagan rituals on the altar of the temple. (Jews at the time identified this with the “abomination of desolation” that Daniel had prophesied.)

Antiochus then turned this into a program of forced Hellenization. Pagan altars were established throughout the land. Circumcision was outlawed. Torah learning was forbidden, as were a host of Jewish ceremonies and observances. Violations of the king’s rules were punishable by death. Antiochus had embarked on a systematic effort to destroy the Jewish faith and those who dared to practice it. Many, according to the ancient chronicler, “chose to die rather than to be defiled … or profane the holy covenant.”

In the face of this persecution, a Jewish man named Mattathias instigated a revolt. He and his sons—who became known collectively as the Maccabees—resisted the mandatory idol worship. Under the leadership of Mattathias’s son Judah, the overmatched Jewish forces won improbable victories against the Seleucid Greek armies. In 164 B.C., the Jewish forces succeeded in retaking Jerusalem. With thanksgiving to God, the Jewish community cleansed the desecrated temple and rededicated it to God. This is where the holiday’s name comes from—“Hanukkah” is the word for “dedication.”

Hanukkah can serve as a reminder that those whom God calls He is also able to preserve.

There’s an old line that all Jewish holidays celebrate the same thing: “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!” It’s not quite true—it doesn’t describe all the holidays—but it’s true of many. Certainly, that description fits the story of Hanukkah. Against the odds, God preserved His people from the assaults of a tyrant who would have made them choose to abandon their faith or die.

Sadly, we do not have to look far to find echoes of the spirit of Antiochus. The Nazi Holocaust was not so long ago; we still have survivors living among us. (Only last week, my son was able to talk with one such survivor and hear his story.)

In the face of repeated assaults throughout history, it is no small matter that the people of Israel live.

Just in the last few weeks, sadly, it seems that this lesson is under assault. After a shocking attack by Hamas terrorists against Jewish civilians, Jewish people around the world rallied with cries of, “Am Yisrael chai! The people of Israel live!” It was a suitably defiant response to a group whose express purpose is—and always has been—to wipe Israel off the map.

Dishearteningly, some in the American chattering classes missed the point. One American paper ran a headline calling chants of “am Yisrael chai” “divisive.” Perhaps it is, for people who would prefer that the people of Israel not live?

For the rest of us, Hanukkah can serve as a reminder that those whom God calls He is also able to preserve. That the people of Israel live is a testimony to the faithfulness of a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God who promises that the nation of Israel will exist so long as sun and moon endure (Jeremiah 31:36).

Through the preservation of Israel, God promised to bless all nations. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the providential preservation of Israel at Hanukkah, there would not have been a Torah-keeping, set-apart nation of Israel through which the prophecies would be fulfilled of a Messiah, born as the seed of David. Maybe that’s why we find the Messiah Himself in the Temple at Hanukkah—likely there to celebrate this very festival (John 10:22–23).

It does not require one to be Jewish or to celebrate Hanukkah himself to understand the significance of Jewish identity in a time when the world seems increasingly allied against the Jewish people. Christians should be first in line to wish Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah.

Lael Weinberger

Lael Weinberger is a lawyer and historian. He is a fellow of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School.

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