The United States of America is about to experience an unusual event – the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah and American Thanksgiving fall on the same day this year (2013). Though this may not be the most significant world event this month (try the collapse of Western and UN resolve in the P5+1 accord with Iran), it does give pause for thought – a time to reflect on the historical and spiritual roots of both holidays, and to apply these lessons in our fast-paced modern world.
Once upon a time there was a huge superpower known as Hellas. Today it is called Greece. In the days of Alexander the Great this empire held sway from Macedonia to Libya, and from Samarkand to Persepolis. But the Hellenistic Empire eventually fell on hard times. Its Pax Hellenica crumbled as the empire broke into four separate kingdoms. As usual the Jewish people found themselves buffeted by international power-politics. Barely one hundred years earlier the Persian Empire (modern-day Iran) had crumbled before Greece, and now Rome was waiting in the wings for its “15 minutes of fame.”
The people of Jacob did not fit easily into this neo-pagan world. They persisted in worshiping an invisible God named YHVH, insisting that all other gods were idols. They believed that their Holy Book (the Hebrew Scriptures) was breathed out from the very lungs of God, and that the Jewish people had a priority covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They held to their divine traditions like the Sabbath day and circumcision, and abstained from certain delicacies and certain ways of slaughtering animals for food. They were a separate, different people, fulfilling Balaam’s prophecy of being a “people who dwells alone and which is not counted as being one of the rest of the nations” (Numbers 23:9).
Alexander’s dream of one world culture could conceive of no place for such a stubborn people, a nation who refused to bow the knee to assimilation. The proponents of one world government saw the people of Israel only as a source of trouble – as a fly in the ointment of world peace. Alexander’s eventual successor Antiochus IV of Syria (see Daniel 11:28-35) made a significant attempt to break the Jewish people’s attachment to their covenants (Romans 9:3-5), their God and their land. His abominations went as far as desecrating the Temple Mount, pouring swine’s blood on the altar and establishing the worship of a Syrian demon Baal Shamayim in the courts of Zerubbabel’s Temple (see Zechariah 4:8-14).
“Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God; also to profane the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus … A man could not keep the Sabbath or celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit that he was a Jew…
A decree was issued … obliging Jews to partake of (pagan) sacrifices, and put to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks… Two (Jewish) women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall” (Second Maccabees 6:1-10).
Revival and the sword of the Lord
A descendant of Aaron, Matisyahu by name, catalyzed a revolt against Hellenistic religious coercion and persecution. His five sons John, Simon, Judah (the Maccabee), Eliezer and Jonathan led an ultimately successful guerilla campaign against the Syrian-based Greeks, driving them out of Judea and rededicating the Jerusalem Second Temple. One biblical verse prophesies Maccabean victories (“The people who know their God will display strength and take action” – Daniel 11:32). Another verse depicts the sufferings and setbacks that these sons of Aaron would endure (“Those who have insight among the people will give understanding to the many; yet they will fall by the sword and by flame, by captivity and by plunder for many days” – Daniel 11:33).
- The Maccabees spearheaded a revival in Israel which ultimately safeguarded the light entrusted by God to the Jewish people (Romans 3:1-2). The birth of Yeshua in Bethlehem of Judah would not have happened if Antiochus’ strategies had become reality for the Jewish people.
False restoration of David’s tent
Unfortunately the Maccabean revival was short lived. The priests who led it gradually became ambitious and eventually began to call themselves kings and royalty, even though that honor was biblically reserved for the House and Dynasty of David son of Jesse (Jeremiah 33:25-26). The new Maccabean kings quickly became a force for assimilation and Hellenization, embracing the very things that their fathers had fought against tooth and nail. Eventually the Maccabean dynasty would face opposition by those who loved the Hebrew Bible, the Pharisees before the time of Yeshua.
In later years Rabbinic writers of history tried to downplay Maccabean exploits and military victories. The eight festive days of light originally celebrated by the Maccabees was actually a ‘behind schedule’ enactment of the Feast of Tabernacles/Sukkot. In those days Sukkot involved a flaming torch procession in Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities, Book XII). The Rabbinic historiographers added a fanciful legend to their propagandistic history books, describing a fantastic story about eight miraculous days of oil – something that no one who had lived at that time knew anything about. The Rabbinic focus on a miracle which never happened eventually won the day, succeeding in taking the primary focus off the Maccabees. Today Hanukkah is known more for the ersatz miracle than for the original faithfulness of the militant Maccabees – more for the candelabrum than the combat.
- Today faithfulness to the message of Hanukkah means being faithful to Yeshua, David’s Greater Son and Israel’s Messiah – the Light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of His people Israel (Luke 2:26-34).
Thanksgiving is a Jewish holiday?
The Pilgrims were a Scripture-drenched people who saw their own destiny as parallel to that of the Jewish people. “No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation. They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites (or the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel); the pact of the Plymouth Rock was God’s holy Covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were the Divine Law. . . [They] saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai” (Gabriel Sivan, The Bible and Civilization, 1973, p. 236).
The first Pilgrim governor William Bradford proclaimed the first Thanksgiving celebration in November 1620, reciting verses from Psalm 107. The first Thanksgiving dinner was held nearly a year later, between September and November, 1621, and mentioned by Edward Winslow in a letter a few weeks after the fact.
A few Jewish people have been reticent about celebrating the holiday, while most are quite happy to do so. Most researchers agree that the biblically Jewish worldview and patterns of thanksgiving to God are reflected in this most ancient of European-American holidays. The closest biblical parallel is to Tabernacles (Sukkot). In that sense the Puritans attempted to model Thanksgiving after the Jewish Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving.
Faithfulness to the God of the Scriptures
Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are celebrations of God’s goodness and provision. Both have at their root the worship of the Lord God of Israel. Both remember God’s provision in difficult circumstances. Both praise God for His faithfulness.
As America digs in to platters of overflowing food on groaning tables, as football fans gaze upon their color TVs, and as Jewish people across the world light candles, play with spinning tops and eat traditional oil-fried foods, let us also remember that those who would destroy Israel still exist; that the war against the Jewish people continues; and that ancient demonic forces like the Prince of Persia (Daniel 10:13, 20) still strive “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews” (Esther 3:13). Though the Western world may not be quick to discern these matters, “those who know their God” will intercede for Jacob’s welfare, and they will reach out for the protection and salvation of Zion (Isaiah 62)!
- Pray for the salvation of many Jewish people during this Hanukkah season
- Pray for God’s protection over the Jewish state from all weapons formed against her (Isaiah 54:17)
- Pray for revelation from Heaven for the leaders of the West who have signed off on a new “Munich Agreement” with Iran (see “Munich on 44th street”)
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do!