Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur in Hebrew—is the most solemn and holy day of the Israelite calendar. It falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, and this year (2009) it will begin at sundown on September 27. Ancient Israelites prepared themselves by refraining from work as on the Sabbath, repenting of their sins, and fasting. The purpose of this day is described in Leviticus: “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). The high priest performed a series of rituals, including washing himself, offering sacrifices, and taking blood into the Holy of Holies of the temple, where he sprinkled it on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The power of the Lord to cleanse his people was dramatized when the high priest cast lots over two goats. One goat was designated as belonging to the Lord and was sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest took the other goat and transferred the sins of the people to this goat by laying his hands on its head. The second goat, called the “scapegoat” in English, was driven into the wilderness, symbolizing the cleansing of the people from the stain of ritual impurity and sin.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Atonement of Christ through the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. Christians believe that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to cleanse his people from their sins. Just as the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Jesus “by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12). Because Latter-day Saints understand the Day of Atonement was part of the law of Moses fulfilled in Christ, we do not formally celebrate this occasion, but we do regularly take of the tokens of the sacrament as symbols of the power of the redemption of Christ to cleanse us from our sins and transgressions.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 the Jews were no longer able to offer sacrifice, and the celebration of Yom Kippur moved from the temple to the synagogue. Today Jews celebrate Yom Kippur as the culmination of the process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month. For nine days Jews engage in personal retrospection and repentance, reaching out to those around them to confess their sins and ask forgiveness. On the tenth day, Yom Kippur, each individual solemnly presents him or herself before God in the synagogue in fasting and prayer seeking for divine forgiveness for their sins and shortcomings. In light of the absence of the temple, the Talmud prescribes the study and recitation of the biblical ritual described in Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur. The meaning of Yom Kippur is eloquently expressed in Song of Songs Rabbah 6.11: “Just as a nut falls into some dirt you can take it up and wipe it and rinse it and wash it and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating, so however much Israel may be defiled with iniquities all the rest of the year, when the Day of Atonement comes it makes atonement for them, as it is written, ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you.’”
One year my family and I experienced Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. There was complete silence in the streets throughout the day as all normal daily activities came to a complete stop. It was a vivid reminder of the need to take time, whether once a year, or once a week, to pause and inventory one’s standing with God and with each other, and to seek to find “at-one-ment” with the Lord through repentance and divine forgiveness.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk every day and then celebrate with family each evening at dinner. Several years ago during this special season, I was leading a group of BYU Jerusalem students on a field trip into the West Bank (known today as the Palestinian Territories or simply as Palestine). Nablus, ancient Shechem, was just heating up as one of the flash points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so a BYU Palestinian security guard (all of whom were loved by the students) accompanied us as additional safety precaution for our trip into this Palestinian area. As we made our way back to Jerusalem, the students were surprised when he pulled out his lunch and began to eat it. As he looked around with a sandwich in one hand, he said to the shocked students, “Hey, I’m Christian!” It had not dawned on them that any of the security guards could have been Christians; they were simply assumed to be Muslims.
My experience as tour director to the Holy Land is that most North American tourists assume that all Palestinians or Arab-Israelis are Muslims. Truly the Arab Christians are “the forgotten faithful” (see “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians,” National Geographic, June 2009, 78–97). Surprisingly, in 1914 more than 26 percent of the population living in what is known today as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, and Syria were Christian (87). Not too long ago, Palestinian Christians constituted the majority in Bethlehem, representing about 80 percent of the population. Today they make up about 10 percent of what is now decidedly a Muslim city. The decline in Bethlehem, as well as Nazareth, parallels what has happened in the entire region, where Christians now constitute less than 9 percent of the total population. Ironically, today, much of the West views these Christians suspiciously, and at the same time they are increasingly marginalized and even forced to convert or flee by their Muslims neighbors. They are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
It may be interesting to note that there have been many well-known Christians from the Middle East or Middle Eastern descent. For example, Abdalá Jaime Bucaram Ortiz, Lebanese Catholic president of Ecuador (1996–97); John Sununu, Palestinian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox Christian U.S. political leader; Carlos Ghosn, Lebanese Maronite Christian CEO of Nissan and Renault; Hanan Ashrawi, Anglican Palestinian activist and spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority; Paul Anka, Syrian Christian U.S. pop singer; Salma Hayek, Lebanese-Mexican Roman Catholic actress; Azmi Bishara, Arab-Israeli Greek Orthodox member of the Israeli Knesset; and Tony Shalhoub, Lebanese Maronite Christian and Emmy Award-winning TV star of Monk.
A few more experiences in the Middle East reveal the unique situation that Middle Eastern Christians find themselves in today.
In a private conversation with a Palestinian Christian friend several years ago, he told me he did not like living under Israeli occupation but he feared that if the Palestinian established their own nation, it would become an Islamic religious state. In what I can only describe as complete but composed despair, he added, “There may be no future for me and my family in this land,” a land where Christianity was born and a land where his family had lived for more than five hundred years as Christians.
During a tour of the Holy Land five or six years ago, several participants talked to a Palestinian during one of our rest stops. Apparently, the brief discussion had begun with a few harmless questions about his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, as they talked with him, it became clear that they supported the current policies of the political state of Israel, including the expansion of the Jewish settlements into Palestinian lands of the West Bank. As I drew nearer, they asked him, “Why don’t the Palestinians just move to Jordan and allow Israelis to have their own country?” They apparently assumed that Palestinians did not have the same kind of historical connection or claims to the land that Jews did—that the Palestinians, as Muslims, were aliens and foreigners in the Holy Land.
These tourists were surprised when he responded, “Why don’t you Americans think or care about us, your Christian brothers and sisters? Aren’t we followers of Jesus like yourselves? Aren’t Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Jerusalem sacred to us too?” Then he revealed himself as a Palestinian Christian—not a Palestinian Muslim. They simply assumed, like my BYU students, that all Arabs or Palestinians were Muslims. They discovered in their conversation that his family had lived in the land for centuries and had been Christians far longer than their own families, who were most likely pagan peasants living in the backwaters of Europe when his progenitors accepted Christianity in the Holy Land nearly two thousand years ago. Somehow, it now seemed wrong to them that believing Christians who had lived in the land for so long were persecuted, driven, and marginalized by competing political, economic, and religious ideologies of the region.
This month’s National Geographic article on Middle Eastern Christians is a great introduction to their story, highlighting an important insight to the conflict that may not be as familiar to us as it should be. In the end, it is all a lot more complex than we generally assume.