Hanukkah commemorates the dedication of the Temple in 164 BCE. Led by Judah Maccabee, the Jewish people revolted against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and regained control of their Temple and traditions. Many years have passed since the first Hanukkah, or “dedication” (חנכה), but the ancient Jews who chronicled the event believed that the defilement of the Jerusalem Temple was tantamount to the end of the world, and that its rededication marked a new creation.
First Maccabees draws on prophetic rhetoric in its description of the Temple’s desecration: Jerusalem’s “sanctuary became desolate like a wilderness; her feasts (ἑορταὶ; eortaì) were turned into mourning (πένθος; pénthos)… her exaltation was turned into mourning” (1 Maccabees 1:39-40). This language recalls the prophecy of the day of the Lord according to Amos: “On that day, says the Lord God… I will turn your feasts (ἑορτὰς; eortàs) into mourning (πένθος; pénthos)…. I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:10 LXX). In echoing Amos, 1 Maccabees suggests that, for Jews of the second century BCE, the defilement of the Temple signaled the destructive day of the Lord; put another way, it was the end of the world!
Yet, the story of Hanukkah does not end with desolation. When the Maccabees defeat the Seleucids and rededicate the Temple, God inaugurates a new creation. At Judah’s behest, the priests “made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the Temple. Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light (ἐφαίνοσαν; ephaínosan) in the Temple…. Thus, they finished all the work they had done (ἐτέλεσαν πάντα τὰ ἔργα ἃ ἐποίησαν)” (1 Macc 4:49-51). The activity in the Temple recalls the first day creation: “God said, ‘Let there be light (φῶς; phõs) and there was light” (Genesis 1:3 LXX). At the end of the Lord’s initial creation, “God finished (συνετέλεσεν) his work that he had done and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done (πάντων τῶν ἔργων αὐτοῦ ὧν ἐποίησεν)” (Gen 2:2 LXX). In drawing on the Greek translation of Genesis, 1 Maccabees presents the Temple’s dedication as a new creation. The Jews of the Second Temple period experience the end of the world and come out the other side. God rescues the people of Israel from devastation, and inaugurates a new creative act at the first Hanukkah.