Mystery: Of the Light (of Chanukah)
Sam Trumbore | Dec 02, 2018

Inconsistent stories and instructions are troublesome in Judaism that is steeped in thousands of years of tradition.  If Unitarian Universalism lasts that long, and I hope it does, maybe we’ll have that problem too!  The problem is the earliest texts we have of the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Greeks around 168 BCE does not describe the miracle of the oil lamp lasting for eight days.  When you consider the great detail found in Leviticus about dietary laws and how other holidays have detailed instructions about how they are to be celebrated, it is a little surprising that the lamp story is missing.

We do have texts that the Protestants dropped out of their Bibles describing the Maccabean rebellion.  There are four books that describe this war that were written not long after it happened.  Historians tend to give these texts a lot of credibility because of that.  In these texts, at the end of the war when the temple was cleansed, they celebrated for eight days but no miracle with oil was recorded.  Here is a description from Second Maccabees 10:5-9

It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place… They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing … therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.  They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.

I wonder what the big deal about the oil is anyway.  Since they had been banished from the Temple during the war and the altar had been profaned by sacrificing and roasting pigs on it, did it really matter if they had to wait another eight days for new oil to be prepared and sanctified?  Or why not just light a wood fire and keep it burning?   A new altar had to be constructed to replace the desecrated old one after all, and that must have taken some time too.

In those days however, there were very strict rules about how everything in the temple was done.  They may have just decided to light the sacred lamp with whatever sacred oil they could find as soon as possible and hope for the best.   (continued … )