“In Every Generation They Rise Up Against Us to Destroy Us”: How We Keep Getting Hanukkah Wrong

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Malka Z. Simkovich

Antiochus, the not nice king

He did to the Jews a terrible thing

He made the holy bais hamikdash unclean

And besides, he was so mean

Sometime around the year that my children came home from preschool singing this song, a relative of mine casually mentioned that he viewed the Greeks as equivalent to the Nazis. I tried to protest that while there was not always much love between the Greeks and the Jews, there is also no reliable evidence that the Greeks wanted to wipe out the Jewish faith. In response, he suggested that I must have forgotten what Jews say each year at the Passover Seder, that in every generation, Gentiles want to annihilate the Jewish people.

According to my relative, then, the underlying message of the rabbinic statement preserved in the Haggadah is that Gentiles who seek the demise of Jews really seek the demise of Judaism. They are motivated by a common, irrational burning hatred of Judaism that defies logic, probably tied to their suppressed jealousy of the Jews, and can only be a result of God’s desire that the Jews remain separated from the foreign nations, and more closely connected to the divine instead.

Suffering at the hands of our enemies, therefore, is both a sign of our sins and of our chosenness.

The historical picture of what happened in the early decades of the second century BCE, however, is not so simple. In this article, my aim is to argue that by painting the story of Hanukkah as a story about the Jewish religion confronting an inevitable clash with Greek culture, we play into a false binary that neglects to capture what actually happened in 175–164 BCE. There were indeed anti-Jewish sentiments on the rise at this time. And Antiochus did try to repress the practice of Judaism. However, the edicts he issued were more political than theological. I believe, therefore, that we should focus on the remarkable and unlikely victory of the Hasmoneans rather than the notion that this holiday celebrates the Jewish victory against those who wished to wipe out the Jewish religion.

While Antiochus IV Epiphanes may not have embarked on a project that specifically aimed to eradicate Judaism, the very fact that the Jews defeated his army is reason to memorialize an event that can be understood as divine intervention on behalf of the Jewish people. There is no reason, therefore, that Hanukkah cannot be celebrated in both a historically accurate and theologically meaningful way.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, he did not leave a will. Without a successor, his massive empire was divided among his most prestigious generals known as the Diadochi. These generals ruled the Seleucid kingdom to the north and northeast, the kingdoms of Macedon and Pergamon to the northwest, and the Ptolemaic kingdom to the southwest. My relative descriptions of these kingdoms, of course, place Judea in the middle of these territories, which it more or less was.

Judea was prime real estate for all of these kingdoms, and greatly desired as a trade route and a key connector between the Diadochi’s kingdoms. The territory of Judea soon became under dispute, with the Ptolemies and the Seleucids fighting over the region in the third and second centuries BCE in what is known today as the Six Syrian Wars. For the bulk of this period, Judea was squarely under Ptolemaic rule.

What would it have meant to Jews living throughout the Greek world to be “Greek?” It would have meant living under one of the kingdoms that were formed following the death of Alexander, and participating in an umbrella culture that encompassed language, material life such as clothes and architecture, literature, philosophy, and the perfection of both the soul and the body. Being Greek meant participating in a culture that pervaded every public space, and many private ones, as well.

At the same time, this was more of an ideal than a reality: since the Greek kingdoms following Alexander comprised such a massive swath of land, the majority of those who found themselves living under Greek rule at the end of the fourth century BCE had to navigate this new umbrella culture with their traditional native ones. The Jews were not the only people who were faced with the challenge of piloting this balancing act.

What made the Jews different from many other Greek-conquered ethnic groups, however, is that while they felt deep ties to Judea, the majority of Jews did not actually live in Judea. They lived throughout the Greek world, in Antioch, in Alexandria, in Rome, and in eastern provinces that were once Babylonia. The Temple was a centripetal force of Jewish identity that made Jews feel drawn towards and connected to the land of Israel, and many thousands of Jews throughout the diasporan world made pilgrimages to Jerusalem on the holidays of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot.

On the other hand, the identifying markers of Judaism was not one’s proximity to the Temple. It was the practice of Shabbat and holidays, dietary law, and circumcision. For this reason, even though Antiochus’s policies applied only to the Jews in Judea, the prohibitions to observe these laws were viewed by many as an act of hostility towards all Jews, and not just those living in Judea.

In around 200 BCE, the Seleucid Greek Empire gained control of the region of Judea. Jews found themselves under the rule of a Greek Empire, just as before. One of the rulers of this Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who rose to power in 175 BCE, was unlike the Ptolemies in that he was more interested in dictating the personal lives of his subjects. He insisted instead that all of his subjects abandon their ancestral traditions.

The sources about the Hasmonean rebellion written most contemporaneously are I Maccabees—whose author may have witnessed the accounts he describes firsthand—and II Maccabees—which was written about a generation later and certainly did not witness the accounts firsthand. The II Maccabees that we possess today is a condensed version of a massive, five-volume work that was composed by a Jew named Jason of Cyrene.

The authors of both works held certain agendas. I Maccabees seeks to valorize the Hasmonean family. II Maccabees seeks to theologize the story by inserting references to God, the Temple, and prayer throughout his story. In addition, they both contain kernels of historical accuracy that I believe demonstrate that Antiochus IV Epiphanes was not motivated primarily by a desire to eliminate the Jewish religion.

According to I Maccabees, Antiochus IV Epiphanes’s invasion of Judea and his legislation prohibiting all people to give up their local customs were two entirely different events. The first occurred because Antiochus engaged in battle with Ptolemy over territory, and the second occurred because Antiochus wanted to ensure a cohesive kingdom whose regions would not splinter and revert back to Ptolemaic rule. I Maccabees describes the conflict in 1:10-51, and can be bullet-pointed as follows:

  • After Antiochus became king, some Judeans proactively sought to Hellenize Jerusalem on the grounds that the separation of Jews and Gentiles led to the oppression of Jews (1:11–15).
  • Antiochus attacks Egypt and then returns back up north to invade Judea. He pillages the Temple and ravages the land (1:16–28).
  • Two years later, Antiochus attacks Judea again and conquers it. The people strongly resist his attack, but prove no match for Antiochus’s forces (1:29–40).
  • The King issues legislation that all of his subjects should abandon their local customs on pain of death (1:41–51).

A careful examination of I Maccabees, then, reveals that the invasion of Judea was part of Antiochus’s larger campaign to wrest territory away from the Ptolemies, and his move to prohibit the observance of ancestral law applied to all of his subjects.

II Maccabees chapters 3–6 affirms that Antiochus did not invade Judea in order to quash the Jewish religion. Instead, the author describes at length an intra-Jewish debate between Menelaus and Onias’s brother, Jason, on the one hand (two claimants to the Jewish high priesthood who wanted to see Judea fully Hellenized), and the pious priest Onias on the other, who would later be assassinated by one of Menelaus’s cronies, Andronicus. This debate ultimately led to Antiochus’s invasion. The events in II Maccabees are as follows:

  • The righteous high priest Onias has a disagreement with a Jew named Simon, who seeks revenge on Onias by leaking information to king Seleucus IV Philopator’s officials that the administrators of the Jerusalem Temple are hoarding money. Antiochus sends his assistant Heliodorus to Jerusalem to raid the Temple, but he is miraculously stopped by two angels who flog him. Heliodorus then declares his commitment to the Jewish God (3:1–40).
  • Simon’s plotting against Onias continues; Onias appeals to Seleucus for help (4:1–6).
  • Seleucus dies and Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascends the throne. Jason, Onias’s Hellenist brother, purchases the high priesthood by bribing the king. Jason embarks on a project to Hellenize Judea by building gymnasiums, encouraging Greek dress, and ceasing to support Temple service (4:7–20).
  • Antiochus initiates battle with the new Ptolemaic king Philometor. On his way to Egypt, Antiochus stops in Judea and is greeted warmly by Jason (4:21–22).
  • Simon’s Hellenized brother Menelaus approaches the king and outbids Jason for the high priesthood, supplanting him for the position. Jason escapes Judea, fearing that Menelaus will kill him (4:23–29).
  • Menelaus enlists his aide Andronicus to assassinate Onias, which he does. When Antiochus hears of the murder of his friend Onias, he is so enraged at Andronicus that he has Andronicus publicly killed on the site where Andronicus had killed Onias. (4:30–38).
  • The Jews protest the corrupt acts of Menelaus’s brother Lysimachus, who in turn gathers an army against the Jewish protesters. A small battle ensues which results in Lysimachus’s death. While the Jews bring charges against Menelaus, Menelaus bribes his way out of the crisis and is allowed to remain the high priest (4:39–50).
  • Antiochus again invades Egypt. At this time, a miraculous image of golden cavalry appears in the sky over Jerusalem (5:1–4).
  • Jason hears a false rumor that Antiochus is dead, and amasses an army to attack Menelaus in Jerusalem. Jason loses the battle and retreats to Egypt where he dies in exile. (5:5–10).
  • Antiochus hears of the unrest in Judea and assumes that Judea is in revolt against him. He leaves Egypt and invades Judea, killing thousands of Jews and pillaging the Temple (5:11–26).
  • Judah Maccabee escapes the carnage by retreating to the countryside with some companions (5:27).
  • Sometime after this catastrophe, Antiochus issues legislation prohibiting the Jews from observing their ancestral law and announcing that the Jerusalem Temple will be used as a Temple dedicated to Zeus (6:1–2).

According to II Maccabees, the Seleucid king Seleucus IV Philopator and his successor Antiochus IV Epiphanes enjoyed a warm friendship with the local Judean leadership until the tension in Judea among Onias and Menelaus, and then Menelaus and Jason, became so toxic that Antiochus perceived the unrest to be a direct threat to the wellbeing of his own Empire.

The tone and content of II Maccabees is markedly different from the narrative found in I Maccabees. As one can easily see from the bullet points above, the book’s emphases on the welfare of the Jerusalem Temple and the insertion of miracles which occur during key military events in the Greek world point to the author’s belief that the conflict between Antiochus and the Jews was an existential one, and that even the battles which the Seleucids and Ptolemies waged against one another were all part of a divine plan. No such explicit theologizing appears in I Maccabees.

In both books, the story of the Hasmonean uprising does not begin with Antiochus’s effort to issue legislation to eradicate Judaism. Instead, they begin with descriptions of intra-Jewish conflict and the way in which this conflict intersects with Antiochus’s campaigns against Egypt. The key to the conflict, then, was intra-Jewish fighting, not a baseless hatred for the Jewish people.

Most scholars believe that as the less hyperbolized and more straightforward account, I Maccabees is more historically reliable than II Maccabees. II Maccabees is the first Greek text to use the word “Judaism,” and it does so in contrast to “Hellenism.” The word “Judaism” does not appear in earlier Greek texts. The use of this word reflects a larger polemical agenda in II Maccabees which argues that what happened in 175–164 BCE was the result of a conflict between the Jewish God and the Greeks’ false gods. II Maccabees theologizes this story, moreover, by inserting miracles, prayers, divinely sent angels, and martyrologies.

While I Maccabees should serve as the historical basis for our understanding of the story, particularly when it comes to the fact that Antiochus IV Epiphanes never targeted the Jews alone, but issued edicts which applied to all of his subjects, II Maccabees likely preserves key information regarding the intra-Jewish conflicts in Judea occurring at this time that centered on the corruption of the high priesthood.

Finally, both texts agree on two key points. First, Judean leadership in the second century BCE was unstable, and there was heated debate regarding the degree to which the region should be Hellenized and led by Hellenized Jews. The question wasn’t whether to Hellenize—since a certain amount of Greek influence was inevitable and perhaps even desirable—but to what degree should Hellenization affect the Jews’ manner of life. Second, both accounts make clear that Antiochus IV Epiphanes’s edicts aimed to quell political tensions in Judea and create a cohesive kingdom. This way, he could ensure a degree of loyalty from his subjects.

Celebrating Hanukkah as a story of Jewish victory over the Greeks who wanted to destroy the Jews offers another point of irony, since the question of how to address Hellenization was not resolved once the Hasmoneans rose to power. In fact, the Hasmoneans experienced a total defeat in this zero-sum battle. Two generations after Judah the Maccabee lived, the Hasmonean family ran a Hellenized court rife with corruption, while many Jews living in Greek diasporan centers like Alexandria were practicing their ancestral religion by going to synagogue and keeping dietary laws. The Talmud itself accounts for this.

Rather than attempting to squeeze the complex events leading up to the Hasmonean rebellion into an artificial and existential conflict, I suggest that we should celebrate the historical aspects of Hanukkah as representing a shocking achievement of Jewish autonomy in the face of forced integration, an achievement that Jews at the time (and now) view as nothing short of miraculous.

Even if we do acknowledge that the conflict of 175 BCE did not derive from Antiochus’s interest in eradicating Judaism, the fact that a small Jewish army in Judea defeated Antiochus’s massive forces and gained independence is so remarkable that it is no wonder that observant Jews interpret this story as a sign of divine intervention and care for the Jewish people.

When we celebrate and teach about Hanukkah, our focus should be not on the inaccurate notion that the Greeks wanted to destroy the Jewish religion, but on ways in which the Jews’ salvation from the Greeks underscores the everlasting covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and the One True God.


Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and the director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016), and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism (2018), which received the 2019 AJL Judaica Reference Honor Award. Simkovich’s articles have been published in the Harvard Theological Review and the Journal for the Study of Judaism, as well as on online forums such as The Lehrhaus and the Times of Israel.