Yet the sixth century B.C.E. prophet Daniel foretold events that would lead up to Hanukkah. Some say the parts of Daniel that deal with Hanukkah-era events are not foretelling, but late additions to the book by someone living in the middle of those events. See part 1 for more about the issue of date and Daniel.
The chapter in Daniel which brings us to the events which lie behind Hanukkah is chapter 11. It is a long and obscure chapter. No doubt many who read it, and I include myself, get a few of the early references and then become lost in the details. Historians and commentators have been working on understanding those details for long centuries. I will bring us through the major parts of the chapter and help us understand the story.
NOTE: Some readers may get bored with some of the details below, though I have been extremely brief. At least skip to the final section before you give up reading, “Hanukkah and the Last Days.”
Two of the most famous conquerors of history are referenced in these verses: Xerxes of Persia and Alexander the Great.
If you saw the move “300,” you saw a very cool depiction of Xerxes, the insanely wealthy and powerful emperor of much of the known world at that time (ruled 486-465 B.C.E.). As Daniel said, “he shall stir up all against the kingdom of Greece.” It was an ill-advised war and Xerxes lost a great deal trying to defeat the Greeks.
After Xerxes, Daniel brings us to Alexander the Great, son of Philip of Macedon. Alexander’s conquests (336-323 B.C.E.) are legendary and involved bringing Greek culture to the world in addition to conquering. This period of history led directly to the Hanukkah story, when the Hellenization (spread of Greek culture) threatened to annihilate the people of Israel through assimilation.
When Alexander died in 323 B.C.E. (at only 33 years of age), his kingdom was divided four ways. Daniel’s “his kingdom will be broken and divided toward the four winds of heaven” is accurate.
This breaking up of Alexander’s kingdom is an important step leading to the Hanukkah story. The Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Babylon and who ruled into Syria contested the territory between them, which included the land of Israel.
It was a combination of military conquest, political strategy, the ambition of a Hellenizing monarch, and treachery from Jewish nobles who preferred Greek ways that led to the Maccabean revolt and the Hanukkah story.
The king of the south stands for the Ptolemaic rulers from Egypt while the king of the north stands for the Seleucid rulers from Babylon and into Syria.
Daniel’s words detail a number of events occurring from shortly after Alexander’ death to just before Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) who was the evil king in the Hanukkah story. Vs. 5 may have reference to the Battle of Ipsus in which Seleucus I expanded his power though the Ptolemies ruled Judah at this time. The alliance in vs. 6 is the marriage of Berenice, daughter of Ptolemy II, to Antiochus II in 253 B.C.E. But the peace did not last. Ptolemy III conquered Seleucid territory and then later Seleucus II took it back.
In vss. 10-13 are about the wars of Seleucus II and Antuochus III to capture Ptolemy territory. In 200 B.C.E., Antiochus II took Judah and Samaria for the Seleucids. Vss. 14-19 bring us to more about Antiochus III, who strongly consolidated Seleucid power, but who lost battles with Rome in Asia Minor. After that, Rome became the enemy of the Seleucids and in the Hanukkah story, the Romans are an ally with the Maccabeans.
This is one of the controversial sections of Daniel, perhaps the most controversial. Those who view this part as a late addition to Daniel see it as a history-written-as-prophecy. In other words, someone living in the middle of these events (167 B.C.E.) is thought to have written these words. This mystery writer, it is said, got the parts right that had already happened, but made some predictions about the future that did not come to pass.
P.R. Davies, following this approach, sees vss. 40-45 as predicting Antiochus IV defeating Egypt and dying in the land of Israel. Antiochus IV never conquered Egypt and died in Persia. Thus, it is thought by many that the writer of this section lived before these final events happened and guessed wrong about what would happen.
Iain Provan, as I mentioned in part 1, takes a different approach. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the book presented as a prophecy from the sixth century B.C.E., Provan notes that while there is no doubt that vss. 40-45 bear “no relation to history,” even here in vss. 21-35 we see something more than history.
Some of the details in vss. 21-35 do point to Antiochus IV. The Seleucid king did suffer loss from the Kittim (the Romans). He did seduce traitors to the Torah covenant in a conspiracy to end Torah observance (Jason and Menelaus and other Jewish leaders who wanted to lead Israel to become Greek).
Yet other parts do not fit well with Antiochus IV. He did not rise to power unexpectedly. He was the brother of Seleucus IV and the son of Antiochus III. The reference to a prince of the covenant being swept away by him doesn’t fit well. Davies says this must be Onias III, but Antiochus did not break him with a military action. Rather, Antiochus sold the priesthood to Jason. Antiochus did not instigate war with Egypt as vs. 25 implies, though of course there was fighting between Antiochus and the Ptolemies. We know of no internal plots that led to the downfall of the Ptolemies in this period as vss. 25-26 imply.
Rather than taking 11:21-35 as being about Antiochus IV, Provan stands in a long line of interpreters who suggest we have prophetic telescoping going on. Some events do fit with Antiochus, but the rest are about an Antiochus-like figure, the final anti-Messiah who will come. It is about the time of the end (vs. 35) and not just the time of the Maccabees.
If we understand these as prophecy yet to be fulfilled, the difficulties with Daniel disappear. We should not be surprised to hear Daniel prophesying about the anti-Messiah of the last days. His book has had an eschatological focus throughout.
The Big Point: Hanukkah and the Last Days
If we understand Daniel 11 as prophetic telescoping, leaping from a king whose madness and opposition to the covenant of God is legendary to the final evil ruler, the anti-Messiah, then we see a connection between Hanukkah and the last days.
The story of Hanukkah is a lot like the story of the book of Revelation. We have all the important elements. A hell-sent ruler makes decrees attempting to get the righteous to abandon God’s ways. The compromisers give in and find judgment as their reward. The holy ones, the hasidim, submit to martyrdom if necessary to resist evil.
This Hanukkah, as you consider the many worthy themes (faithfulness to the covenant way of life, rededication to the worship of Hashem, the preservation of the people of Israel, and so on), do not omit the one Daniel points us to. A day is coming, he would have us know, when the ultimate Antiochus will come. And like the Maccabeans and the hasidim and the faithful common people of the land in those days, we will be judged by our commitment to faithfulness to God and the ways of his covenant.
The Hanukkah story will happen again. There will be a decree against circumcision, Jewish continuity, the worship of Hashem, and so on. There will be a call for compromise, for worshipping false images.
What if it happens in our generation? Will we stand firm to the end?
If so, we can look forward to what comes next in Daniel: the resurrection of the dead and shining like stars into eternity (see 12:1-3).
But you may worry. You may say, “This seems very exclusive of God and what if I don’t measure up?”
I don’t think so. I think that those who love God will find great strength. But if you want to be ready, then live the covenant now.