The Law and the Light: The Judean Hammer and the First Hanukkah

1 and 2 Maccabees tell the story of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty. The revolt was the Maccabees’ response to the pervasive hellenization of Jewish culture and the persecution of faithful Jews by the Seleucids.

While 1 and 2 Maccabees are part of the Catholic canon, they are not recognized as canonical by Jews and Protestants. For that reason, many people are unaware of the rich story and theology contained in these books.

The two points of focus for this article will be: the Maccabean “hammer;” and the roots of the Jewish Feast of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

The Hammerers (Hasmoneans)

1 and 2 Maccabees get their name from Judas Maccabeus, the son of Mattathias. Mattathias initiated the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids, people from Alexander the Great’s fractured kingdom who attempted to rule over Judea after he died.

The word “Maccabeus” means hammer. It is believed that Judas was called the “hammerer” because he was a successful military leader. Mattathias and his successors, who ruled Judea between 135 and 63 B.C., are known as the the Hasmoneans.

A Tool to Build and to Destroy

It is interesting that the Maccabees (the “hammerers”), whose focus was on preserving the Mosaic Law, used the Law as a metaphorical “hammer.”

A hammer can be used to create or destroy. It can be used as a weapon to kill or maim an enemy. It can also be used to demolish physical materials.

However, when a hammer is carefully guided by its wielder, it can also be used to create things. A hammer can be used to chisel stone, shape metal and fasten nails to objects to construct buildings and vehicles like boats and wagons.

Surely hammers were one of the tools used to build the Jerusalem Temple. And hammers were also likely used by the Romans when they destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D.

The Hammer of the Law

The Hasmoneans used the Mosaic Law as a metaphorical hammer “flexibly” to preserve life and “strictly” to cause death.

Mattathias used the Law as a hammer of death to justify killing the Jew who offered a pagan sacrifice at the altar in Modein. Judas Maccabeus also used the Law as a hammer of death to go to war with the Seleucids and also when he exiled or killed hellenized Jews who the Maccabees considered renegades because they did not strictly follow the Law or because they assimilated too easily into Greek society.

However, when the Law was applied in a “warm” and flexible manner, it was used to preserve life. First, when Mattathias allowed his followers to fight on the Sabbath to defend their lives against the Gentiles and again when the Hasmoneans, who were not Levites or from the tribe of Judah, were installed as kings and high priests to preserve the Temple and the liturgy, the life of the Jewish faith.

This brings to mind the delicate balance between the “letter of the law” (lifeless and strict) and the “spirit of the law” (living and flexible) that all human beings encounter in society.

The Festival of Lights

After Judas Maccabeus and his army defeated the Seleucid armies of Gorgias and Lysias, Judas and his men retook the Temple in Jerusalem.

They found the Sanctuary had been damaged, overgrown and made unclean. First, Judas’ men cleaned and repaired the Sanctuary. Then they brought new sacred vessels, an altar of incense, a table and a lamp stand there. They lighted the lamps on the lamp stand to illuminate the Sanctuary. Finally, they placed loaves on the table and hung up curtains.

When their work was finished, the Maccabees celebrated their victory over the Gentiles and the rededication of the Temple with a feast which is celebrated to this very day as Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights.

They rose early on the morning of the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar for burnt offerings that they had made. On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had desecrated it, on that very day it was rededicated with songs, harps, lyres, and cymbals. All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.
For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers and furnished them with doors. There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.
Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary. — 1 Maccabees 4:52-59

This year Hanukkah and Advent begin on December 2nd. As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the victory of the Law and rededication of the Temple in the Festival of Lights, so we Christians prepare to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World who illuminates tabernacles throughout the world.

Wishing everyone a Happy Hanukkah and a blessed Advent and Christmas season!

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