Satirist Alan King once famously remarked that the story behind every Jewish holiday can be summarized as “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” But that template doesn’t do justice to Hanukkah—which marks the period during the 2nd century BCE when Jewish guerrillas, led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and then his son Judah Maccabee rose up successfully against the Seleucid Empire (and its Hellenized Jewish supporters). This was a successful Jewish military campaign, not the usual passive attempt to survive external aggression.
Judah’s men were not gentle souls. At Hanukkah, we linger on the reportedly miraculous way in which a small supply of sacred oil lasted for eight days during the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But the fanatics who launched this campaign were more concerned with smashing idols, forcibly circumcising children, and slaughtering Seleucid troops. (The war ended in 160 BCE, after the Jews forged an alliance with Rome, and the Seleucids eventually gave in to the Maccabees’ demands for increased religious freedom.)
Unlike Passover, which is centred on the detailed recitation of a complex narrative, Hanukkah usually goes light on history’s cut and thrust. When I was a child at a Jewish elementary school, the main points of focus were the heroism of Judah’s plucky fighters, and the miraculous Temple story, which we all understood to be a metaphor for the Maccabees’ unlikely triumph.
While this educational tradition comes with a shaky pedigree (the miracle of the burning oil didn’t appear in historical sources until the compilation of the Talmud, centuries after the fact), it now is firmly embedded in Jewish culture. To this day, the holiday marks the time when many believers contemplate the nature of miracles.
That word comes to us by way of the Latin miraculum—object of wonder. In English, “miracle” is defined as “an unusual and mysterious event that is thought to have been caused by a god because it does not follow the usual laws of nature.”
The idea that God sometimes creates miraculous events is central to all three Abrahamic faiths. And the Old Testament alone contains hundreds of them (though the number depends on how broadly you define the term), many falling neatly into two categories: (1) God miraculously slaughtering enemies of the Jewish people or wayward Jews, and (2) God acting as a last-ditch supplier of sustenance and salvation to dying or besieged Jewish communities. Which is to say: most of God’s miracles served either to inflict horrendous suffering, or deflect it.
Many of the miracles in the first category were strange and gruesome. This is most obvious in the list of sadistic plagues that God rains down on the Egyptians (right up to the slaying of the firstborn in Exodus 12—which is hard to see as anything except full-on divine terrorism).
But there also are many more obscure examples. When Uzziah, a king of ancient Judah, got too big for his britches, God miraculously afflicted him with leprosy. In the Book of Samuel, another similarly obscure biblical figure gets struck dead when he innocently attempted to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from tipping over.
Even some of God’s seemingly benevolent miracles come with a horrifying epilogue—including the parting of the Red Sea, which was followed by the annihilation of the Pharaoh’s soldiers (“There remained not so much as one of them”) despite the fact most of these men presumably were impoverished conscripts and slaves.
It is the second category of miracles – by which God saves people instead of killing them – that more closely aligns with our belief that God exists as a fundamentally benign force in our lives.
The bargain by which Jews are saved in exchange for doing right by God is made explicit in Exodus 15, in which we find the Jews wandering through the desert wilderness, seeking potable water. In the faux-oasis of Marah, they imagine they are saved—but, alas (as Hebrew speakers will guess from the name of the place), the water proves “bitter.” Then a desperate Moses “cried to the Lord. The Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There he made a statute and an ordinance for them, and there he tested them; and he said, ‘If you will diligently listen to the Lord your God’s voice, and will do that which is right in his eyes, and will pay attention to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you, which I have put on the Egyptians.’”
There are exceptions to these two categories, of course. When God miraculously turns Moses’ rod into a serpent—which, Cobra-style, then eats the court sorcerers’ own rods-turned-serpents—the effect is purely for showmanship, proof that Moses is actually an agent of divine will.
But go down the list of miracles contained in the Bible (the Internet is full of such compilations), and you’ll notice that most reflect the climate of tribal warfare and personal horror that ancient Jews (and everyone else) experienced. This was an age when even small skirmishes between neighbouring sects could result in the slaughter or enslavement of whole towns. A plague or drought could easily result in mass extermination. The average lifespan was about 35, because random infection or plague was around every corner.
Consider the fate of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king who held power during the campaign against the Maccabees. According to the (deuterocanonical) Second Book of Maccabees, Antiochus’ death (depicted in the accompanying illustration, an engraving by 19th century French artist Gustave Doré) came when, by divine miracle, he “was seized with a pain in his bowels, for which there was no relief, and with sharp internal tortures…And so it came about that he fell out of his chariot as it was rushing along, and the fall was so hard as to torture every limb of his body.”
Even if you weren’t murdered by God, this is just how people died back in the day.
The world of miracles that our ancient ancestors knew, in other words, was a world that you and I would experience as a lifelong horror movie—in which the conceit of divine intervention was used as a means to both glorify the (desperately longed for) annihilation of one’s enemies, and to invest longshot hope in the idea that one’s own death might be divinely forestalled through prayers and rituals.
It is tempting to say that if this exercise in time travel were reversed, and Antiochus and Judah Maccabee were to come recite the Shehecheyanu in our modern homes, they’d regard our advanced medical science, lengthy lifespans and dependable food and water supplies as being “objects of wonder” in the full, miraculous sense. But I’m not sure they’d possess the ability to understand how such a radical transformation in the human condition had taken place since classical antiquity.
Ancient Judea had a negligible rate of technological growth, and so the notion that scientific invention could radically improve the human condition—a foundational element of western modernism—would have come off to Antiochus and Judah as the babblings of a demented sorcerer. That’s why our forebears fixated so strongly on the workings of the divine consciousness: According to their primitive world view, this was the only available path to civilizational self-improvement.
The truest miracle, if it may be called that, lies in the 22-century-long process that brought us to the far humane world we now inhabit—a world in which we no longer live by the caprice of God and nature, and so can focus our spiritual energies on the celebration of faith and family for their own sake.