Following the death of Alexander the Great in at 332 B.C.E. the Greek Empire was divided into three new kingdoms. The Chanukah story involves two of them: the Seleucid Empire in Assyria to the north of Israel and the Ptolemy Empire in Egypt to the south. For approximately 150 years Israel was literally caught in the middle of these two warring empires.
Since the time of Alexander the Great the “Hellenistic” (pagan) way of life made inroads into Israelite urban culture, the land owner class, and those who collected taxes from the agrarian communities in the countryside. This led to dissension and animosity between Israelite urban “insiders” and agrarian “outsiders.”
Antiochus IV Epiphanes was determined to conquer the Ptolemy’s once and for all and made his way through Israel to Egypt. Along the way he ordered sacrifices to the Greek gods in the Temple in Jerusalem. Urban insiders were uncomfortable with this, but remained unwilling to raise their voices in protest; the agrarian outsiders were livid.
Antiochus’ military actions failed in Egypt and in response to false reports of his early demise during the war, he outlawed the practice of Judaism and ordered the conversion of all Israelites to Hellenism/pagan religion.
One such public conversion event was said to occur in the town of Modi’in where Mattathias the local priest and community leader was singled out to “set the example” for making sacrifices to the pagan gods. Instead, he killed the Assyrian representative and his military escort after which he fled for the hills with his sons taking with them a small group of believers. Not long after this incident, Mattathias dies and his son Judah (a.k.a. “the Maccabee” [the hammer]) transformed his ragtag group into a guerrilla fighting unit. The “Maccabees” then went to war against the Seleucids and the Israelite ruling class.
The dark side of the story is that the war really didn’t go that well for the Maccabees. They were out-manned and out-gunned. They also found themselves involved in a “civil war,” fighting against fellow Israelite countrymen who sided with the ruling Assyrians. No doubt many Israelites were killed at the hands of their brethren. In the end, the Maccabees sought a truce and attempted to negotiate an agreement that guaranteed amnesty for the guerrilla army. Cleansing and re-dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem were not originally a part of that plan.
Fortunately, the Roman Empire began its rapid expansion into the Middle East and Antiochus IV ordered his army out of Israel and back to Assyria to defend the homeland. With his army already disbanded, Judah the Maccabee scrambled to re-mobilize. When he did he was able to easily overrun the symbolic forces left behind by the Assyrians and recapture the Temple and Jerusalem.
They removed the Greek idols from the Temple and cleansed it in preparation for rededication (“Chanukah”). They modeled the rededication after the eight-day dedication of the tabernacle in the wilderness and King Solomon’s original Temple dedication. Many see a link between the eight days of Chanukah and the eight-day Festival of Sukkot. The Maccabees chose the winter solstice in 165 BCE as the celebration date and rekindled the sacrificial flame on the “darkest” day of the year.
During the Talmudic period the Rabbis debated the worthiness and wisdom of celebrating a military victory and rededication of the Temple. In a time when Jews were living under the authority and at the pleasure of other nations and rulers, celebrating national identity and military victory was not a politically wise choice. Ultimately the rabbis decided to “re-invent” Chanukah as a miracle of faith and the celebration of a miracle of light. They developed a story of divine intervention to save the Israelite people which included one-days-worth of oil burning for eight days. This reinvention into a politically safe Chanukah served us for nearly two millennia.
In my opinion, the real miracle of Chanukah was that in the face of overwhelming odds and real pressure to just walk away from Jewish life, the overwhelming majority of Israelites chose to be and remain Jewish. Had our ancient ancestors chose to walk away from Judaism, and Judaism ceased to exist, everything we know as Western civilization would be different. We, too, make Chanukah miracles happen when we make such choices to send to future generations we will never know.