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Defending the Faith

by Tim O'Hearn

Many people through the years have asked, or been asked, “If someone threatened your life because of your faith, would you remain faithful?” A few people can answer with certainty, “Yes, I would be faithful even if they kill me.” Most people might answer that they think they would, or hope they would, but admit that under the actual threat they might not. A related, and maybe in some ways more difficult question is what you would do if your life was not being directly threatened, but your faith was. That is, if someone challenged what you consider to be the essentials of obedience to God, would you stand up against such a person?

Just such a question came up about 2,150 years or more ago. Beginning about 166 BCE and ending about 143 BCE, a family of Jewish priests faced just such a question, and became famous for standing up for God’s way. In fact, these times are still celebrated by the Jewish people to this day.

A little background might be in order. The Jewish people had returned from Babylonian captivity almost 400 years previously. The Law of Moses had regained prominence in Jewish religious life. They had even retained their way of life through the reign of Alexander the Great. But after Alexander died, his kingdom was split among four generals. Two of them, and their successors, continued to fight each other, with the Jewish nation in the middle. When the Seleucid (northern) general, Antiochus IV Epiphanes gained the upper hand he tried to make the Jews become Greek in culture. Not a bad idea, that, except that there were certain things about Greek society that the Jewish people just could not participate in. These included, most notably, sporting events and worship of the Greek gods. They could not participate in sports because total nudity was a violation of Jewish morals. And of course they could not worship the Greek gods. That was what had gotten them exiled to Babylon.

Antiochus, to make a long story short, sacrificed a pig on the altar in the Temple, thus making it unclean. He forced Jewish men to forgo or reverse their circumcisions. He basically ruled that Jewish life would cease. And there were some of the Jewish people who gladly went along. (Some say the Sadducees came out of this group.)

One priest, Mattathias, taught against this Hellenization of the Jews. His son, Judas (who became know as Maccabaeus—the Hammer) took it a little farther. He led a small band of (mostly) Levites in military actions, and won. He liberated Jerusalem from the Seleucids and restored the Temple. After his death, his brother Jonathan carried on the war. Revolution in Syria helped him, and his brother Simon, to achieve total political independence, which lasted until the Roman period.

Somebody was willing to stand up for his faith. Even if it meant he had to fight, and die, somebody stood on God’s side. It was not a popular stand (until they started winning). But without the Hasmoneans, as this family came to be known, the Jewish religion and all that came from that would probably have disappeared.

Would you be willing to stand up for your faith, as did Mattathias and his sons? That is the question that should be asked every year during the celebration of that time, known as Hanukah. The Hanukah lights ask us, “Would you have done that?”

Hanukah is December 2-9 in 2010.