Can Christians celebrate Hanukkah? Before we can answer that question, we need to get some background. What is Hanukkah? Well, it turns out that a bunch of the events leading up the Festival of Lights are predicted in the Old Testament book of Daniel.
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Here are two of Bruce’s videos we used in the creation of this series.
CS: Chris Staron
BG: Bruce Gore
BS: Bob Stephenson
CS: We’re at that season again. You know. With presents and gifts and stuff. Families coming together. Eating foods that maybe you only eat once a year. I’m talking about Hanukkah.
One of the most common things you hear this time of year in church circles is a little bit of griping about how December is for Christmas. None of this Happy Holidays stuff. It’s Christmas. Christians comment on signs at the grocery store. Starbucks coffee cup designs.
We’re pretty good at nit-picking. So I went to my small church in our tiny town and asked some questions. About the Festival of Lights.
CS: (interviewing) How long is the celebration of Hanukkah?
MALE INTERVIEW SUBJECT: I’m gonna go for one day. Kinda like Christmas. It’s a one-day gig.
FEMALE INTERVIEW SUBJECT: Is it seven? (laughing) I don’t know. Seven is for perfection.
CS: Do you know how many candles there are?
FEMALE INTERVIEW SUBJECT 2: Well, that’s something I overheard. I would have said twelve if you’d just asked me, but I just heard you tell someone else it was nine1.
CS: (in studio) If you’re like most Christians, you probably don’t know much about this holiday. Yet some of us have very strong opinions on the subject. So I want to make the case that we should be more open to sharing the month of December. Because the events surrounding Hanukkah are pretty cool. And they are a big part of our heritage.
We’re entering a multi-part series. We’re going to talk about the prophecies leading up to Hanukkah, the event itself, and one of the weird ways this story ties into yet another religion.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars to see how we got here, and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron, this is Truce.
Christians find comfort in all sorts of places in the Bible. I asked some friends at the church where they go when they need to build up their faith.
MALE 1: When I’m struggling with things I go to Proverbs. It’s very encouraging to me. It’s very logical, I’m very logical. Um, James, I like James because James is very logical…
MALE 2: John or James.
CS: Any reason why?
MALE 2: Um, John kinda lays out the gospel in a nice way and James gives me a way to walk it.
MALE 3: The Psalms, of course. Job is a good book for comfort.
FEMALE 1: I’ve usually gone to the Psalms in those times.
FEMALE 2: Any of the books, but especially the New Testament. Yeah.
CS: For me, if I’m being honest, I find comfort in the Old Testament prophets.
Which, I know, sounds a little bit nuts. But if I’m doubting my faith, it brings me a lot of comfort to see the ways that prophecy has been fulfilled over the years. If a prophet makes a prediction and it comes true a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years later… So good.
It turns out, there are a bunch of predictions in the Old Testament book of Daniel that provide this really clear path leading up to Hanukkah. Allow me to explain.
We’re going to be talking about the book of Daniel. You may have heard of him. He’s a superstar in Sunday school stories.
FEMALE 1: Um, he was a young man, he was super brave. He stood up for his faith when he was an exile in another country. I know about the lion’s den, um, he decided not to pray to the king when that was an edict and he stood strong and kept his faith. Yeah.
CHRIS (on location): You know what you need to know. Yeah.
CS: Many of us know him from the whole Daniel in the lion’s den thing.
Anyhow… Daniel was more than just the most famous lion tamer in the Bible – he was also a prophet. And he had visions of things that would come long after he was dead. He wrote this book in the 500’s BC. The events we’re going to cover took place some 340 years later.
Daniel has this vision. It’s in Daniel 11. It’s of a kingdom divided. He’s having this vision while the Medes are in charge of Israel. But that’s not going to last forever. Eventually, there is going to be a ruler who takes a bunch of disparate pieces and molds them together. Here’s my friend Bob Stephenson, radio professional, with the verse.
BS: “But as soon as he has arisen, his kingdom will be broken up and parceled out toward the four points of the compass, though not to his own descendants” (Daniel 11:4 NASB)
CS: So, we’ve covered already, right? So let’s recap. A great king takes over, but it doesn’t last too long and his kingdom is torn into four pieces. None of which go to his descendants. Who is this talking about, do you think? Believe it or not, you’ve probably heard of him. Even if you don’t know that much about ancient history.
Does Alexander the Great ring a bell? He’s this guy who fought a ton of battles and brought the Greek empire under his rule. That’s much of India almost to China, Greece, Egypt2… and… he died at 32 years old. All my friends over 32, don’t feel shamed by him. Alexander accomplished so much in his lifetime but, we’ve all done what he couldn’t do… we’ve lived past 32. And he probably never listened to a podcast.
After Alexander brings together the empire there are 15 years of war. The whole thing settled into… guess what? 4 different kingdoms3. Just like we read in Daniel.
All of them were Greek. Which is important. If you’re going to rule vast lands from Syria to Egypt, you want your subjects to behave in a certain way. You want all of those different people to assimilate, to become the same. Because all of those different belief systems… don’t always play nicely together.
To help me tell the rest of this story, I contacted Bruce Gore. He’s the author of “Historical and Chronological Context of the Bible”. He’s also got a YouTube channel that…honestly, deserves some really solid binge watching.
So, the Greeks want to make one homogenous culture.
BG: And so it created a tension everywhere in the world between the indigenous culture and this new overlay that began to be viewed as the more sophisticated way to live, the Greek way of life.
The Greeks we the sophisticated set. The cool kids at the party. And if you weren’t like them you were the nerds. By the way, in this story, as in most stories, it’s the nerds who rock.
BG: So everywhere you go whether in Egypt or Mesopotamia and certainly in Judah and Jerusalem and elsewhere that tension is part of the story. It’s called the Hellenistic world.
CS: Remember that term – Hellenism.
BG: Hellen is the world that means Greek, and so it’s the greek world or the greek-ising of the world if you will. In Israel, the tension was between those who were sympathetic to a Greek way of life and wanted to embrace it increasingly and those who were more committed to the Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish law.
CS: We’ve got this kind of tension even today. The battle between popular culture and those who want to hold onto the things that God has told them to do. How much of the zeitgeist, of the spirit of the age, do you accept? Every person of faith has to walk this line. So there are these four kingdoms, all Hellenizing the snot out of the country. North, East, South, West. The four compass points.
We’re mostly looking at the northern kingdom and the southern. And there are a bunch of kings we’re breezing through. I’ll mostly refer to the region they controlled instead of their names. These kings… didn’t get along with each other. They fought so much.
And in the midst of that, there’s the Jewish people who were also not so happy. Because even though there were all of these wars going on between the north and the south, and they were expected to assimilate. To become like the greeks.
So they tried to revolt. Here’s Bruce with Daniel 11:14
BG: “In those times, many shall rise against the king of the south [referring to people in Jerusalem]. The lawless among your own people shall lift themselves up in order to fulfill the vision but they shall fail.”
CS: The lawless of your people will try to revolt and fail. They were probably trying to hasten the day of the Messiah, someone who could rescue them from their misery. It didn’t work. And they’d have known it wouldn’t if they’d read Daniel.
CS: He’s the king of the south, which included Egypt.
BS: …resisted that revolt and dealt rather severely with it and so these Jewish rebellions were unsuccessful.
CS: Which is only going to upset everyone even more. The Jewish people were angry because of the assimilation and the Greeks were upset because the Jews kept rebelling. Back to the book of Daniel. And Bob’s amazing radio voice. Starting at 11:17.
BS: “He will set his face to come with the power of his whole kingdom, bringing with him a proposal of peace which he will put into effect; he will also give him the daughter of women to ruin it. But she will not take a stand for him or be on his side.” (Daniel 11:17 NASB)
CS: In summary, Daniel says here that the king of the north will bring a proposal of peace. He’ll even give the king of the south a young woman as a peace offering, but she’ll turn against him. Which we might have seen coming. What woman wants to be traded in like a used car? Of course, she turned against him. We know what scripture says is going to happen. What really occurred?
The king of the north gets control of Jerusalem. He’s feeling pretty good there for a while. So the King of the North marries his daughter (Cleopatra I4, not the famous one from the movies) off to the king of the south. His name was Ptolemy5. The king of the North treated his daughter like a used car, in an attempt to create a little puppet government there in the South. Just like scripture said. This actually happened in 197 BC6. And, just as scripture said, it didn’t work. Instead of being on the side of the Northern kingdom, she turned to team Rome7. She wants Rome and Egypt, her kingdom, to be buddies. There will be a podcast extra that revisits this moment, so try to keep it in your brain. Anyhow, she rebels. So what’s a father to do?
The king of the north goes to war against the Romans. The guys his daughter wanted to partner with instead of him. This war… was a bad bad idea. He got walloped. And as part of his penalty, the king of the north has to pay money to the Romans. Tributes to them for losing the war.
Focus on that for a moment. The Greek king of the north has to pay money to the Romans. As penalty for losing in battle.
Well, the king of the north died and his successor went looking for money. To pay the Roman war debt. Who can the king raid looking for money? Who has piles of goodies sitting around to be taken? The Jews. They’ve got a temple in Jerusalem filled with precious things. Gold. Silver.
So the king of the north tries to raid the temple, looking for money. But he’s thwarted by the Jews8. The king’s men were turned away by this little subset that just did not want to become greek. Now, keep in mind, the kings already don’t like these guys because they kept revolting. Now they smack his hand away when he tries to reach into their treasury.
Pretty soon a new ruler comes into power… who is even worse. Maybe the worst. Here’s Bruce Gore again with Daniel 11:21.
BG: “In his place shall arise a contemptible person on whom royal majesty had not been conferred,” this is Antiochus IV. “He shall come in without warning and obtain the kingdom through intrigue.”
CS: We’re on to our main villain. It’s 175 BC9 and we meet Antiochus the 4th. Antiochus Epiphanies. As a reminder, the verse says that a terrible ruler is going to come along and take the kingdom by intrigue.
BG: He took control of Syria claiming to rule on behalf of his brother Demetrius, that’s why it says he came in with intrigue. His brother Demetrius was actually a prisoner in Rome. Antiochus came in saying, “I’ll just do this on behalf of my brother. Soon, hopefully, he’ll be released and then he can take over. I’m just here as a caretaker.10
CS: Don’t you think a good brother would try to get you out of jail? Some brother.
BG: He became the most hated of all the foreign rulers that ever had dominion of Jerusalem during this era and remains even to this day one of the most contemptible people in Jewish recollection.
CS: He’s a bad dude. He’s dabbling in how he can control his kingdom. Including those rowdy Jews. Now the theory went, if you control the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem, you control the people. So Antiochus Epiphanies deposed the high priest of the temple and inserted one of his own goons. Now the king is getting money from the Temple and the guy on the inside is coaxing the Jews to be more Hellenistic11. More greek.
This worked so well the first time that Antiochus Epiphanies did it again. He deposed his own high priest and set up a new guy. The temple isn’t what it’s supposed to be. The government had changed the leadership so that it would behave as a puppet might. Imagine what would happen if the United States busted into every church and set up their own pastor at every pulpit.
FEMALE 1: Its a reality in our world that these things happen, and it’s scary to think about. It’s something, I hope that never happens.
MALE 2: I think I have two feelings on that. One would be, it’s wrong and I would fight against that. The other would be it might actually give us some strength. When things are easy we don’t see a need for a savior. When things are hard… we understand… it gives us a picture of why the savior was needed.
MALE 3: I’d be upset. Especially if it wasn’t like a vote or because of a certain issue. If… Ray was just gone. I don’t know, I might leave the church.
CS (on location): Wow, yeah.
MALE 3: Yeah. Especially if you became pastor, then I’d really have to leave.
CS (on location): (laughing) Why would I become pastor?
MALE 3: Because then you’d be doing audio recordings on all the things…
CS (on location): Is it weird that I’m walking around church interviewing people?
MALE 3: I don’t think it’s weird, but it’s not normal. But I like it. I like that you’re unique.
CS: With the puppet priest in place, Antiochus Epiphanies, the king of the north, heads south to claim his territory in 168 BC12. Here’s Bob again with Daniel 11:29.
BS: “At the appointed time he will return and come into the South, but this last time it will not turn out the way it did before.” (Daniel 11:29 NASB)
CS: Scripture tells us this tyrant king is going to go to war again with the south. But it ain’t going to go as well as it did before. He meets… the Romans13. Oh, the Romans. It’s wasn’t a big army. But it was backed by the power of Rome. The rest of the military back home, itching for a fight. Here’s bruce with verse 30.
BG: “Ships from Kittim shall come against him,” that’s Antiochus. “and he shall lose heart and withdraw. He shall be enraged and take action against the holy covenant. He shall turn back and pay heed to those who forsake the holy covenant.”
CS: So Antiochus is talking with the senator from Rome, and the senator says.
BG: Okay. We have a treaty agreement with Egypt, based on arrangements made by Ptolemy IV. And so you need to understand if you attack Egypt, that is going to provoke a treaty violation that requires Roman response. And so you’re not just going to be fighting Egypt, you’re going to be fighting Rome. So what’s it going to be? Are you going to go home, or are you going to proceed with this military expedition and tangle with Rome?
CS: Antiochus is given the choice. If he fights now, he’ll have the Egyptian AND Roman armies after him. His other option, of course, was to… go home. Really, he couldn’t stay and fight.
BG: Now, Sigmund Freud had an expression called displacement14. Displacement is where something bad happens at work, but instead of retaliating at work, you go home and kick the cat.
CS: He’s all dressed up, got his army with him… he’s got to fight somebody.
BG: So, of course, Jerusalem is the major city between him and home and he took out his anger and humiliation on Jerusalem.
CS: He goes to Jerusalem, tears down houses… builds a fortress to keep out any Romans that might come by.
BG: But he does a few other things that are really calculated to simply insult the Jewish psyche, especially the Jewish religion. He changed the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel, to Zeus Olympus. That’s who we’re now going to worship.
CS: Jews aren’t supposed to worship any God but their own. Antiochus is picking a fight. But wait… there’s more.
BG: He orders the Jews to start sacrificing pigs to Zeus.
CS: This is kinda key. Pigs are not kosher. Not okay with Jewish law AND there’s that don’t worship other gods thing. You’ll never see a kosher Jewish person worshipping Zeus and eating a piece of bacon.
BG: He prohibited the celebration of Sabbath days, festivals, or the right of circumcision.
CS: Next comes, perhaps, the worst of it. We’re in Daniel 11:31.
BS: “Forces from him will arise, desecrate the sanctuary fortress, and do away with the regular sacrifice. And they will set up the abomination of desolation”. (Daniel 11:31 NASB)
CS: The abomination of desolation. A pig. In the holiest place in the whole faith. Sacrificed to another god. On his way out of town, Antiochus robbed the temple and left troops who would harass Jerusalem for three years.
What could they do? The Jewish people were stuck. So they revolted. We’ll cover that next week. In the meantime, let’s take a moment to think about where we are in the story right now.
There are some amazing forces at play here. First of all, God’s people, His chosen ones, spend a lot of time in captivity in the Bible. Not far into the book, they go into slavery in Egypt. Then it’s the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medo-Persian Empire. The Greeks. And then the Romans in the New Testament.
That’s a long list. Right? Here’s where the tension comes into play. As Christians, we are commanded in 1 Peter 2 to be subject to every human authority. Yet… they couldn’t worship God in His temple the way He commanded AND worship Zeus at the same time. Which means, they couldn’t obey the government.
Another interesting bit of tension is that this narrative conflicts with the idea many modern Christians have about how God operates the world. Some of us believe that if we are God’s people then our lives will be smooth sailing. Right? You know you’ve heard this. We know that bad things pop up in the lives of other people, but we’re genuinely stunned when they happen to us. It seems out of context with our planned narrative. Some of us walk away from our faith when times get rough because we feel like we’re the exception to the way God does things. He makes it easy for THOSE people, so He must not like me.
But what is the pattern we see in the Bible? Do people have easy lives?
I’m not joking when I say, I’d be hard pressed to find one person in the Bible I’d like to switch places with. If you can think of one, send me a tweet.
There’s the tension between obeying leaders and following God, and this stark reality that this whole thing may not be about God making your life awesome. It’s about following Christ, even when life is crashing down.
Do you see why I love the prophets?
They show us that God is faithful. He’s going to make sure these prophecies come true, and in Daniel 11 they really did. The kingdom of the Greeks was broken into four pieces resembling the points on a compass. The king of the north did use his daughter as a bargaining chip. And failed. Antiochus desecrated the temple in exactly the way Daniel 11 predicted.
I read the prophets when I doubt because God has fulfilled a LOT of what they’ve said, and there’s more yet to come. I also read the prophets because they remind me that reality is not like self-help gurus say it is. Sometimes it’s really hard. And it’s part of God’s plan that it will be hard. I’m not promised an easy life, or that rulers will treat my people well. But I am promised that He’ll be faithful until the end. That, if nothing else, should give us reason to celebrate. And, not just in December.
We’ve got plenty more to come about Hanukkah. This was only the preface. Subscribe to our feed so you get new episodes every time they’re released.
The Truce podcast is listener supported. Consider giving us a few dollars each month on Patreon. Find links to our social media pages on our website at www.trucepodcast.com. Special thanks to Bruce Gore, author of Historical and Chronological Context of the Bible. You can find his videos on our website, including the full versions of the ones we took clips from. They are really really interesting. Our logo is by Andy Huff, Roy Browning of the Business Acumen podcast is teaching me marketing. Our scripture verses were read by Bob Stephenson. Of course, I’m very thankful to all the folks who answered my interview questions. I say this often, but… please please tell everyone about this show. Yeah, you! I need your help to spread the word. If you listen to Christian podcasts you know there isn’t much in the way of journalism. I’m trying to raise the bar. It’s hard to do that with a full-time job. So help spread the word. Check out my movies Bringing up Bobby and Between the Walls on Amazon and Pureflix. My novel Cradle Robber is on your favorite ebook platform.
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Thanks for listening.
I’m Chris Staron and this is Truce.
CS: So, you said you don’t know anything about Hanukkah.
MALE 3: I don’t know anything about Hanukkah and I’m sick. So I sound funny.
CS: Okay, I just was to say, as your Sunday school teacher years ago I taught you about Hanukkah.
MALE 3: That wasn’t a Sunday school that was a small group study on the Old Testament. And you were a bad teacher, I didn’t learn anything.