Lessons from Hanukkah

The Hanukkah story is powerful from many angles. What are its lessons for modern Jews and Christians?

Note that if you order today and ask for one-day shipping, you could probably get FFOZ’s Hanukkah guide to use with your family this season (first Hanukkah candle is Wednesday night). Get it here.

So, on to some lessons . . .

Our experience of God in the world is like Hanukkah and not Passover.

Among the many people I interacted with at the recent Society of Biblical Literature conference (SBL) in Atlanta, were many bible and theology scholars who reject the supernatural, who view the world very much as naturalists (see my ongoing series on Heschel’s God in Search of Man and Lewis’s Miracles for solid material reflecting on the divine presence and the reality of the supernatural).

It is tempting, when God is hidden, to be a naturalist. It’s a little like the Hellenists in the time of the Hanukkah story. That old Israelite myth about Hashem and his relations with the patriarchs is quaint, to be sure, but these times call for modernism, Greek thought, the universal myth as a poetic symbolism for truth, and so on. Let’s demythologize it all and get the Bible’s “real” message: social order and peace.

But, though there were no doubt excesses, the Maccabees reacted with faith against tyranny. Thankfully there are no Jasons or Antiochuses forcing us at sword point to accept naturalism and cultural relativism. But is the pressure really much less simply because it lacks the force of a sword?

On the positive side, being a supernaturalist, insisting on worship and following the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, does not involve armed struggle for most of us. We don’t have to kill any naturalist tyrants. So what are we waiting for? Why do we, who believe in the supernatural, in the divine presence in the world, try to speak to naturalists as if we accept their assumptions.

On the scholarly level, this compromise means using historical criticism to combat historical skepticism about the Bible. But that is a weak method. It is conceding to the naturalists too much. We don’t believe as the naturalists do that God is mythical or completely absent. We believe, like Joseph in the current Torah portion, that God himself will answer for our peace (Genesis 41:16, check multiple translations). It is by revelation, God’s self-disclosure, in the words of the Bible and in the presence of the living God which we sense by intuition and faith.

On the popular level, compromise with naturalism means seeking historical proofs and neglecting the presence of the Spirit. We do not believe in Torah because we can show someone that ancient Israel is historically true or that the Sinai event “really happened.” How would we show that anyway? History is notoriously difficult to “prove.” Nor do we believe in Yeshua (Jesus) because we can prove that the resurrection happened (we can show it is likely and that has some value).

We believe for a combination of reasons. We are not walking brains, mere vessels of reason. And even naturalists do not believe purely based on reason. We are emotional, intuitional, volitional, and spiritual beings as well.

There is no need to concede and our message is not: Judaism/Christianity is the most intellectually satisfying theory. Our message is: God is alive, he leaves footprints, you sense his Presence in yourself and the world, and his revelation confirms our sense of his Presence.

Don’t settle for past victories or assume God’s deeds in the past are done.

The Hasmoneans, the rulers whose dynasty sprang from the original Maccabee brothers, fermented from revolutionaries with Torah zeal to tyrants mad with power.

When will religion learn? Power. Corrupts.

Past victory became an authorization for current power. The Maccabees, they’re our heroes. Let’s give them power. Let’s not complain when they arrogate the high priesthood for themselves. Let’s form parties and fight for control. Let’s ally with Rome and have real power.

What would have been a better course?

That’s easy to answer and it is a lesson for us at Hanukkah. For past victories, thank God. For the present situation, look to future hope of God’s power liberating and redeeming people and overcoming evil. Work with faith that God will heal and liberate and redeem what is broken. So do the work of Gof and heal and redeem and liberate.

As you light the Hanukkah candles this year, remember God’s light still shines in the darkness. The darkness, to quote the fourth gospel, has not overcome it.

The triumph of good over evil, of love over power, of healing over ruling, has not yet happened. But it will.

So, serve the vision of the future. Love. Healing. Faith in God’s Presence and power. Lifting people up out of the ash heap and into the light.

If the Maccabees had done this, there would truly have been revolution. Large movements of power are never going to do this. Small communities and families of faith — like your family gathered around the hanukkiah — are the ones who take on the really important projects. I mean things like helping a single mom, adopting a child, sending help to people in need, loving family and friends to make the world a better place, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and showing others the Presence of God that is on you.

This is what the Hanukkah lights mean. The Maccabees, they blew it. But they started well. What they had right was a vision of upholding God’s Presence and holiness and light in the world.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in FFOZ, Holidays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lessons from Hanukkah

  1. jennbrooke says:

    Lovely post (and I ordered the book). So, in your opinion, is there value in Gentile believers in celebrating Hanukkah, as Gentiles? It sounds like that’s what you’re saying, but I don’t want to assume and seem like I’m blurring the line between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

  2. Christians, even those who are not affiliated with Judaism in any way, certainly could benefit from celebrating Hanukkah. I have a chapter in my book, Feast, written for Christians, all about it. John 10 forms the Christian entree into Hanukkah. It is vital background to Jesus’ life. And the menorah for Christians could surely represent Jesus as the light of the world and the messianic servant of Isaiah.


  3. jennbrooke says:

    I read that today and am having my hubby read the chapter in Feast tonight (I frequently forward him links to your blog posts :-). I’m also planning on *at least* going over the chapter on Hanukkah in “Walking With Yeshua through the Jewish Year” with the kiddos. I’m hoping to actual celebrate (not just talk about the story) this year. I don’t know how I’ve missed the clear parallels before now, but I’m *loving* how filled with Yeshua the whole celebration seems to be.

    Thanks for all you’ve written and expounded upon in your blogs and books! It’s truly a blessing.

  4. Mike says:

    “So what are we waiting for? Why do we, who believe in the supernatural, in the divine presence in the world, try to speak to naturalists as if we accept their assumptions.”
    Ask myself this all the time. I regularly interact with a group of athiests, and I try, and try and try to debate with them. I get the most mileage by trying to marry their natural beliefs with my supernatural ones, but I suspect this waters down my message.
    Not that I am going to stop trying, I will always encourage belief on ANY level (any level is better than no level), but sometimes I wish I was better at it.
    Cant really tie this into your Hanukkah theme, but what I quoted really got me thinking.
    Peace – Mike

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