Like modern Israel, biblical Israel had many enemies. The average person today can conceptualize some of them - the Egyptians, for example - but based on the holy book, it's hard to distinguish among the Canaanites and Ammonites, the Hittites and Philistines. The Bible is not a history book, and certainly not one written by a disinterested third party. Enemies of the Israelites are presented as just that.
But in the case of the conflict commemorated by Hanukkah, understanding the enemy involved can provide much insight.
The Seleucid Empire was not a tribe or a race, but one of four Greek-Macedonian states carved out of Alexander the Great's empire. It was named for Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander's great generals, and it stretched from what is now eastern Turkey all the way to present-day Pakistan. The purpose of this empire was, like any other's, to get bigger, as well as to disseminate its Greek culture to the territories it conquered. And therein lay the seeds of the conflict.
The Greeks brought with them their ideas and philosophy. They introduced public baths, forums, theaters, and gymnasiums. They brought technological innovation and improved living standards. In short, they blew into Israel as America has been blowing into places for the last century, and they changed those places forever.
These changes were popular with some of the Jews of Israel, who sought to combine the best of the new ideas with the best of the old. But others saw the Greek influence as a dangerous incursion that threatened to leave the Jews, their culture, and their covenant with the one true God indistinguishable from the rest of the empire.
While they were great cultural proselytizers, the Greeks were usually less so when it came to religion. But in 167 B.C., the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, disappointed after a failed attempt to conquer Egypt, attacked Jerusalem, executed many Jews, and sided with those who were Hellenized, forbidding Jewish customs and rituals. He forced the Jews "to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God; also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus" (2 Maccabees 6:1-11).
Judas Maccabeus wasn't a storybook hero. He was a warrior and a zealot with a singularity of purpose that would be familiar to a Navy SEAL. He and his followers killed people, circumcised men against their will, and fought a guerrilla war against one of the world's most powerful armies - which they defeated. They struck a great blow for their freedom of worship, but, like many others throughout history, thought little of extending that freedom to others. Most important, they faced down an existential threat to their people and their faith.
Accounts of Hanukkah appear in the biblical books 1 and 2 Maccabees. They are not considered canonical by the Jews, though they are by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians (which means that, ironically, the story of Hanukkah can be found in some Christian Bibles, but not the Jewish one.) Protestants also reject the books as apocrypha because the Anglican Church's Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion declared them peripheral to salvation.
But are they? What if there had been no Maccabees to counter the Hellenized Jews? What if the ancient faith was sacrificed as a cost of modernization? Would Judaism have gone on to inspire the world as few things have? If Judas the Hammer had not drawn his line in the sand, would Judaism have existed in the same form two centuries later, when Christ was born? Would Christmas be possible without Hanukkah?
The account of the rededication of the Temple in 2 Maccabees does not mention the event that is central to modern Hanukkah celebrations: that although there was enough oil to light the menorah for only one night, it lasted for eight. This version first appears in the Talmud, written about 600 years after the events described in Maccabees. The New York Times' David Brooks has noted that the rabbis may have felt the need to introduce God into a story that was mostly about earthly power.
Modern Hanukkah emphasizes that facet of the story. The holiday we know is about family, love, and faith amid flickering candlelight.
The historical Hanukkah, however, is about the hard choices that humans must make, and the consequences of those choices. It was as sharp as the edge of a blade. That's why Hanukkah matters, and not just to those lighting the candles this week.