The Lie in the Sand

How did Hanukkah, celebrated last week, actually come to be?

The popular explanation is that the eternal flame of the Temple in Jerusalem burned for eight nights on a supply of purified olive oil that should have lasted for only one. This was after the Temple had been rededicated following the Maccabees Revolt, in which a Jewish rebel army ousted the Seleucid Empire, which had outlawed the practice of Judaism, from parts of Israel.

Yet in the contemporary accounts of the rededication, the oil is not mentioned. Even in the apocryphal Books of the Maccabees, no miracle is mentioned. Instead, the success of the revolution is the reason for the celebration. Four hundred years later, when many of the oral traditions of the religion were first put to parchment, no mention is made of the miraculous oil. It wasn't until 300 years after that, in the Talmud, that the miracle first appears in writing.

Perhaps a fuller history is needed.

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Antiochus IV was the king of the Seleucid Empire, which covered the parts of the Middle East where the U.S. is either fighting right now or looking to fight — Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and, of course, Iran. Although it is popular to compare America to the Roman Empire, in its rise and scope and ultimate fall, it is probably closer to the Seleucid Empire.

Like almost all leaders past and present, Antiochus liked war. He attacked Egypt twice, and failed twice. The second time, he encountered Gaius Popillius Laenas, an old Roman envoy, who, standing alone, demanded Antiochus withdraw from Egypt or consider the Seleucid Empire at war with Rome. Antiochus said he would discuss the matter with his council. The envoy then literally drew a line in the sand, encircling Antiochus, telling him to give an answer before he crossed the circle. Antiochus meekly complied and withdrew. This is the origin of the phrase "line in the sand."

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Antiochus returned home from Egypt a loser, and his need for tyranny unfulfilled, so he outlawed Judaism. He looted the Temple in Jerusalem. He massacred anyone possessing Jewish scripture. He made observing the Sabbath illegal. He brought a statue of Zeus onto the Temple and ordered people to sacrifice pigs to it, an abomination and idolatry under the traditional Jewish religion. Whoever failed to pray to the Greek gods was executed.

One family resisted. Mattathias, the father, refused to worship the Greek gods. A Hellenistic Jew tried to take his place and offer the idolatrous sacrifice. Mattathias killed him. He and his five sons then fled into the wilderness. A year later, the father was dead, but his son, Judah Maccabee, using guerilla tactics, led a makeshift army to victory over Antiochus. They immediately went to cleanse and rededicate the Temple. (Hanukkah translates as "dedication.")

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The first couple of decades after the Maccabees revolution saw relative peace and independence, but then the military leaders established the Hasmonean dynasty, which engaged in more war. Ultimately, the dynasty ended in Roman subjugation.

Perhaps the editors of the Talmud wanted to downplay the Hasmonean dynasty, partly because they felt only descendants of the House of David can rule Israel, and the Maccabees/Hasmonean were not, and partly because it was a violent regime. Perhaps they thought if Hanukkah celebrated olive oil instead of bloodshed, that would be a good thing.

We are now building our own empire on the basis of even flimsier rewriting of history. None of the 9/11 hijackers were from any of the countries we are now occupying or eyeing. None of those countries have weapons of mass destruction. Without our military interference in the Middle East over the past 50 years, it is possible al-Qaeda and other extremist Muslims would have never existed or would have eventually fallen into obscurity. Where is our Laenas today? Nobody has drawn a line in the sand for America.

This article originally appeared in the Fairfield Weekly.

December 24, 2009