Give in to the dark side. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like “Everybody’s doing it?” Right now Isaiah 60:2 appears to be a reality: “For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples.” Just keep on keeping on because in the same verse it says: “the LORD will rise upon you and His glory will appear unto you.” This is the third day that we are focusing on the dark side of the Chanukah story, so we can know what the heroes of this season overcame. Their impossible odds were truly overwhelming: weak versus strong, few versus many, and pure versus impure. How did a small rag-tag group of devout people preserve their culture and faith in the face of annihilation? It’s a great lesson for us today. But to truly understand the heights of the Maccabean victory, we have to first plumb the depths of the darkness that surrounded them.
The fact that the struggle between Syrian-Greeks and the Jewish people climaxed with a miraculous supply of oil and that God choose to stamp His salvation with a miracle of light is a divine message that their struggle was more than a fight for self-respect and freedom. God’s people were waging a war of light against darkness. Only when someone extinguishes light can he be accused of plunging his victim into darkness.
It’s interesting that the Jewish Sages chose the term “darkness” to describe the Antichrist of this age. Antiochus Epiphanes VI was a man of great ambition. He had hoped to expand his realm as his father had done, and planned on imposing Greek culture and religion as a unifying force. He was vain to such an extent that his coinage carried the legend “Antiochus Theos Epiphanes,” which means God made manifest. He liked to picture himself as the “savior” of the ignorant natives of his kingdom. Antiochus was an impulsive, eccentric monarch who was always trying to do something extraordinary that would leave his mark on the world. He also liked to mix with his people. Greek historian Polybius tells us that Antiochus IV used to walk through the street of Antioch wearing magnificent robes while being crowned with roses as he distributed rings of gold or handfuls of stones to everyone he met. That was the good part.
His character was particularly unstable given to extremes of generosity and cruelty. In his private life, Antiochus IV indulged, as most Greeks did, in hedonistic excesses. It was part of their culture, part of their fleshly religion. For example, Antiochus would leave his throne at banquets to dance naked with the entertainers (i.e., cultic prostitutes). His mad antics caused the people to call him “Ephimanes,” the Mad One, behind his back instead of his illustrious official name of “Epiphanes,” the Divinely Manifest.
Of course, Antiochus Epiphanes IV had some help. He was aided by a couple corrupt High Priests who epitomized the Kingdom of Self. They bribed, murdered and schmoozed their way to the top, and fought like hell to stay there.
Jason was the Hellenized (Greek-converted) brother of the previously righteous High Priest – Chonyo III. Not only did Jason propagate the Grecian gospel, he offered Antiochus IV an additional tribute payment if he would authorize a gymnasium for the youth of Jerusalem and consider making the people of Jerusalem honorary citizens of Antioch, the Syrian capital. Even though this privilege came with many social and economic advantages, the Jewish people would have to demonstrate their total acceptance of Greek ways and culture. Jason established a gymnasium in close proximity to God’s Temple, and cultivated pagan customs. Although the gymnasium was used primarily for athletics, it was a vehicle for paganism and depravity. The athletic exercises were performed naked, and before the games were held, sacrifices were offered to Hercules. The gymnasium became successful to such an extent that the Kohamin (i.e., direct descendants of the first High Priest Aaron) began to neglect their sacrificial service in favor of Jason’s new form of religion – entertainment.
When the time came for Jason to pay Antiochus his tribute, Jason sent Menelaus as his emissary. Menelaus put his finger to the wind and judged that Jason’s policies were too moderate for Syria, so he offer King Antiochus IV an even greater payment to appoint him the High Priest of Jerusalem. Antiochus must have loved that, because Menelaus secured the king’s appointment and began to ruthlessly oppress his own people and persecute the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This guy was so corrupt that he literally took some golden vessels from God’s Temple and sold them to raise the money that he needed to keep his prestigious position of earthly privilege and power.
Alarmed at the robbing of the Temple, the people of Jerusalem began to express their discontent. Fearing an organized revolt, Menelaus sent his brother, Lysimachus, and 3,000 soldiers to quell the people. The people fought back with sticks and stones. Afterwards, three members of the Sanhedrin were sent to Antioch to accuse Menelaus before the king. Menelaus, being wise as a serpent and just as innocent, bribed a close advisor to the king in order to be acquitted of the charges and his three accusers be condemned to death.
During this same time frame, Antiochus had attacked and conquered Egypt (169 B.C.E), but failed to reckon it with Rome first. This was a problem since Rome had become the strongest power in the Middle-eastern orient. Rome opposed Syria extending its power, and they were strong enough to intimidate Antiochus, so he retreated. Meanwhile, rumors had been circulating that Antiochus had been killed in the Egyptian campaign. Jason, thinking that he was taking advantage of a perceived power vacuum, attacked Jerusalem with a thousand men. He massacred his own countrymen while Menelaus and his people retreated and took refuge in the citadel.
Antiochus heard about Jason’s attack and interpreted it as a revolt against his throne, so he stormed up from Egypt enraged. Not expecting a military action the gates of Jerusalem opened. Little did the gatekeepers know that Antiochus had ordered his soldiers to indiscriminately kill men, women, and children. Forty thousand were killed and an equal number were taken into captivity. Usurper Jason fled Jerusalem and died as a fugitive.
Before Menelaus was reinstated as the High Priest, Antiochus IV shamelessly enter the Temple in Jerusalem to strip it and lay it bare. He boldly entered the Holy Place (i.e., God’s Sanctuary) and removed the remaining holy vessels, the golden Altar, the golden Menorah, the golden Table of Showbread, the curtain, and the gold ornamentation with which the front of the Temple was decorated. When Antiochus had finished sacking the Temple, he released Menelaus to oppress his own people even more cruelly than before and more cruelly than even Antiochus.
After two years, Antiochus sent Apollonius, the commander of the Mysians (2 Macc 5:24) to Jerusalem with 22,000 soldiers. Thinking that he came in peace, once again, they let the Syrian forces in without a struggle. Once inside, he attacked the people and once again many inhabitants of Jerusalem were plundered and murdered. Men were massacred. Women and children were taken captive while soldiers destroyed their homes and the wall encompassing the city. Antiochus must have given specific instruction against the Temple, because the Syrians made thirteen breaches in the low wall of lattice work that encompassed the Temple Court. Then later they totally demolished that wall that was supposed to demark the place where unbelieving Gentiles were not permitted to enter. In its place, they built a place that positioned harlots.
Now no one would doubt what Antiochus Epiphanes IV meant when issued a declaration to his entire realm that he fully intended to unify the diverse ethnic and religious groups in his empire and form them into one identical nation. Therefore, all peoples must relinquish their own customs and religions to join the dominant Greek culture and creed. Absolute conformity was required. The Syrian-Greeks fully intended to obliterate all differences.
A directive was sent specifically to those rebels in Judea. They had to cease and desist from all sacrificial service in the Temple in Jerusalem. In its place, altars and pagan temples were set up everywhere for idol worship where hogs and other unclean animals were to be sacrificed. And if that were not enough, Antiochus commanded that Jerusalem’s Holy Temple be personally desecrated and converted into a pagan temple. The Syrian-Greeks prohibited the observance of Sabbath, Festivals of the Lord, and New Moon, the dietary laws. the covenant of circumcision, the laws of family purity, and even the use of God’s Name. God’s Word was singled out. All copies of the Torah and the holy writings were to be confiscated and burned. Anyone who possessed any of these books would be immediately executed. The plan was to even profess you were a Jew was punishable by death.
As soon as the order was given, Menelaus and the king’s forces set about enforcing these severe laws with extreme brutality. The Temple in Jerusalem was converted into a place of harlotry in conformance with the Greek custom in their pagan temples. And on the 15th of Kislev (168 B.C.E.) an “abomination – an idol that was a statute of Zeus – was erected upon God’s Altar, and beginning on the 25th of Kislev they began to offer unholy swine upon that formerly Holy Altar to a pagan deity.
Most of the people complied with the barbaric orders to save their physical life and limb, but many others choose death rather than to desecrate the Name. If women were caught circumcising their children, they were both put to death by hanging and their entire families who performed the circumcision were killed. What could be more cruel than the heart-wrenching example of a circumcised infant hanging around its mother’s neck as they both swung in the public square?
One of the most famous tragic stories of Chanukah centers around Chana and her seven sons. They were captured and brought publicly before King Antiochus. He tried to force this faithful family to eat a little pig’s meat. When one after one of them refused, even after being viciously tortured, the furious king had them put to a slow and painful public death that was so off-the-chart that the details would sicken you. These seven noble brothers and sons of the Most High God defied the ruthless king to the last. They declared their faith in the One True God. They declared their determination to live by His Word. And they became martyrs on the spot as their mother stood by and encouraged each one of her sons to be faith and true to sanctify the Name. What a mind-blowing testimony! Tragically, we can understand that distraught Chana climbed up on a roof after all of her sons had gone on to be with the LORD. She joined them by jumping off the roof to her own end.
This is the gross darkness that the light of the Maccabees shined through. Tomorrow we will meet our Chanukah heroes – the Maccabean Family. For now, I think it’s only right to consider: Would I choose to be faithful to the very end if I had to? Would I choose to save myself or my family? Or would I choose God and His ways above all?
Copyright Dec. 11, 2012 – Author: Robin Main.
Some references can be found in my book: SANTA-TIZING: What’s wrong with Christmas and how to clean it up (available on amazon http://www.amazon.com/SANTA-TIZING-Whats-wrong-Christmas-clean/dp/1607911159/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353692179&sr=1-1&keywords=SANTA_TIZING).