Just the gist (for small children and others with tiny attention spans):
A wicked Greek man named Antiochus Epiphanes came to power and tried to undo all the hard work of the Returnees. He destroyed the wall they’d built, desecrated the temple and ordered that any found copies of the Torah were to be destroyed. The Jews who refused to deny their faith were killed.
A group of rebels lead by a very faithful man named Mattathias and his sons fought back and eventually reclaimed Jerusalem, reconsecrated the temple and started the feast of Hanukkah after the supply of oil to reconsecrate the temple lasted eight days when it should have only lasted one. The Jews won their independence, only to lose it again to a new Gentile empire called Rome.
For those that can handle just a bit more:
Under the leadership of Alexander the Great, Greece conquered Persia, bringing us into the bronze torso portion of the Nebuchadnezzar Dream Statue. It is not yet time for the awaited Messiah, but we’re so close!
“Alexander with the sea before him and the desert at his back wept because he had conquered everything.” – A quote from my children’s world history book (and also Hans Gruber in Die Hard) and quite possibly the first 1st world problem ever uttered. He didn’t have to suffer from unbridled affluence long. At the age of 32, he came down ill and passed away from the sickness. He left no heirs so his kingdom was split amongst his top generals.
It was from this political turmoil that “came forth a wicked root” (1 Maccabees 10), Antiochus Epiphanes, who tyrannized the Jews. He was intent on Hellenizing them which is fancy talk for making them more like the Greeks. He put a gymnasium in the middle of Jerusalem. A gymnasium! They used pre-fig leaf fashion in gymnasiums.
Antiochus also made Israel’s sacrifices illegal and circumcision became punishable by death (which they doled out in a most gruesome manner, making it not Christmas talk. However, if you want an idea of the cruelty inflicted on the faithful Jews at this time, there’s an example of it at 1 Maccabees 1:60).
Antiochus undid all the hard work of the Returnees. He had Jerusalem’s walls torn down and any found Torahs torn to pieces and burned. He had the temple desecrated with plundering, rededicating it to Zeus and within it, many practices that are absolutely not Christmas talk . (2 Maccabees 6:1-6) Shrines to pagan idols were built all over the city and the Jews were ordered to make unclean sacrifices to pagan gods and eat unclean foods or face death.
Many of the Jews went along with the forced Hellenization.
Others chose death rather than violating God’s laws. One such martyr was Eleazar, a scribe and well-respected 90-year-old man. His tormentors pried his mouth open and stuffed pork, an unclean food inside. Instead of swallowing, he walked up to the rack and spit it out. Some of his tormentors had come to know him and liked him. They told him to sneak in his own “clean” food and pretend it was pork. He refused, not wanting to lead astray the young who looked up to him in order to save his own life. It was in this way that he died a noble death. (2 Maccabees 18-31)
A woman and her seven sons, likewise, died noble deaths rather than transgress God’s laws. The first brother was tortured and martyred. The second brother, having watched what had happened to the first, was asked, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” (2 Maccabees 7:7)
“Never!” the second brother yelled and was tortured and martyred. And so it went with each brother and ended with their mother joining them in the afterlife.
Wait a second! Hold the phone! Nude sports play? Desecration? Torture? Murder? How is any of this Christmas talk?
It’s not Christmas talk, its actually Hanukkah talk. Which leads us to the revolt.
The king sent his officer to Modein and told Mattathias, a man with five sons and great zeal for the Lord and his laws, to offer sacrifice and they’d give he and his sons honor and bling. Mattathias replied with a spectacular speech that when boiled down, essentially said, “Nay.” (1 Maccabees 19-22)
Another Jew, maybe wanting some of that promised silver and gold, stepped out of the crowd to offer the pagan sacrifice. Mattathias, burning with righteous anger, dispatched that man along with the king’s officer and then destroyed the altar. Then he yelled, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” (1 Maccabees 2:27) Which is Bible talk for “Who’s coming with me?” With that, he and his sons gave up everything to go live in the wilderness. Many joined them including a group of Jews called the Hasidians (meaning “pious ones”) who wanted to live very faithfully for God and wanted nothing to do with Greek culture. It was from this group that came forth the Pharisees and the Essenes.
The rebels organized into an army and used guerilla warfare against their enemies with much success. Mattathias had grown old and was close to death. “Now my children, show zeal for the law and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers.” (1 Maccabees 2:50) He reminded them to remember the deeds of their fathers such as Abraham , Joseph and David and to remember that “none who put their trust in Him will lack strength.” (1 Maccabees 2:61). He put his son Judas called Maccabeus (which meant the Hammer) in charge of the military.
Judas ended up being one heck of a military commander and strategist. He overcame his enemies despite the fact that they had much more powerful combat forces than he. In addition to encouraging the use of sweet fighting moves like Krav Maga, Judas also led his men in prayer, flamed their faith and inspired them to victory. He used stories of Israel’s past leaders overcoming insurmountable odds with the help of God. In 164 B.C., under the leadership of the Hammer, the Jews retook Jerusalem. They cleansed the temple, fixed it up and rebuilt the altar. They then had a reconsecration celebration to end all reconsecration celebrations. They only found enough oil to keep the lampstand in the temple lit for one day, but it miraculously lasted for eight days (the amount of time it took to make new oil). The Feast of Lights, or Hanukkah, became a yearly celebration of the temple’s reconsecration. (1 Maccabees 4:36-59)
Judas continued his successful military campaigns. Antiochus died and his Greek forces backed off. Judas entered into an alliance with a little-known Gentile startup called Rome. It may have slipped Judas’s mind that when God’s people enter into alliances with worldly powers (Assyria, Babylon), it comes back to haunt them, but The Hammer was so awesome, we’ll forgive him the oversight.
Judas was killed in battle. (1 Maccabees 18) His brother Jonathon took his place and continued to battle successfully and also engaged in skillful political maneuvering with the various Gentile powers. He was captured and killed by one of the enemy generals (1 Maccabees 12:48).
His brother Simon, the last surviving son of Mattathias, took his place. Under his leadership, Israel finally gained its independence. (Yay!)(1 Maccabees 13:41) He too was killed while he was drunk (Bummer!) and his son would take up the mantle of leadership. (1 Maccabees 16:16-23) His son was the beginning of a line of Hellenizing kings called the Hasmonean Dynasty who became annoyed with the Jews who remained zealous for the law of God. The ruling class favored a group of Hellenizing-friendly Jews called the Sadducees, the zealous Jews became the Pharisees and it wasn’t long before the two groups were fighting. Rome stepped in to settle the fight for them by telling them, “If you can’t stop fighting over Jerusalem, neither one of you get it.” Rome took Jerusalem in 63 B.C.
We have now entered the Iron legs and feet portion of the Nebuchadnezzar Dream Statue which means the Messiah should be showing up any time now. The Romans put into power an Edomite (descended from Jacob’s brother Esau) named Antipater whose son was Herod the Great, the ruler of Judea at the time of the arrival of our birthday boy on Day 25.
Christmas for Beginners is now available in book form! Click here to take your Advent readings Old School.