In that fuzzy time after Malachi wrapped up the Old Testament and the Gospel narrative began was a time we call the intertestamental period. The most significant historical development during that time was the rise to power of a young man named Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered much of the known world by the age of 30. He died a few years later at the age of 32 in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian palace. The imprint he left on the world would last hundreds of years (honestly, the impact is still felt today).
One of the biggest things Alexander did was popularize Greek language and culture. Roughly 150 years after his death the Jews were still wrestling with keeping their faith alive in a time when syncretization with the larger Greek culture and language was growing. Many Jews could no longer read Hebrew and so they translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, a work known as the Septuagint (LXX). It was during that time Antichochus Epiphanes came on the scene. He was a Greek king of the Seleucid Empire and he reigned over Israel. He did his best to snuff out Jewish culture by banning their customs (like circumcision), attacking them on the Sabbath (so they couldn’t fight back) and ultimately sacrificing pigs on the altar in the Jerusalem temple, which he later dedicated to Zeus.
That was the straw the broke the camel’s back and a man named Judas “the Hammer” (Maccabee) took things into his own hands. He retook the temple and re-dedicated it back to God. The word for dedicate in Hebrew is the word Hanukkah. The Hanukkah celebration is also called the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights. Where do the lights come in? The legend was that when Judas searched for consecrated oil in the temple he only found a single jar to re-light the candelabra. That was enough oil to last him one day but miraculously it burned for 8 days (hence the Menorah).
It is at this time of the year one of the main passages of scripture that was read and discussed in the synagogue was Ezekiel 34 where Ezekiel talks about the failure of Israel’s leaders. He compares them to shepherds who no longer care for the sheep. At the end of that chapter God tells us that at the end of the day he will be the shepherd of Israel and he will be the one to provide for them and bring them justice, in spite of the corruption and mismanagement of their earthly leaders. The point is this – the thing that got them in the mess they were in, in the first place was a lack of solid spiritual leadership and guidance. If you don’t want to repeat the events of the past, learn from them and surround yourself with godly leaders. So they studied Ezekiel 34 to make sure that God was indeed their shepherd.
Hanukkah is mentioned in the Gospels. It is brought up in John 10:22 when it talks about “the Feast of Dedication”. Right before that a very famous teaching of Jesus where he says that he is the “good shepherd” who takes care of his sheep and whose sheep know his voice. That fits right in with the Hanukkah story because at this time the main passage on their minds would have been Ezekiel 34. Jesus is the fulfillment of Hanukkah. Jesus is the fulfillment of Ezekiel 34. He is the one who will lead us. He is the one who will bring justice. He is the one who will provide for us. And so we echo the words of the psalmist,
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord