Of Cannibals and Chanukah

Let’s use our imaginations for a thought experiment. In 1946, a crew is airlifting the latest model Dodge from Detroit to a car dealership in Brisbane, Australia. On the final leg of its flight the airplane develops engine problems over Papua, New Guinea.  The crew’s only hope is to shove the shiny new sedan out of the ramp at the back of the airplane. In the hope of a possible salvage, they attach a few parachutes to the car which then floats down towards the jungle below. It finally settles right side up in a small clearing outside a Korowai village.  

 The local cannibals generally prevent themselves from becoming the dinner of neighboring villages by building their homes high up in trees. On this day, however, one Korowai chief takes refuge in the Dodge, laughing delightedly as his enemies’ arrows bounce harmlessly off the car.  

I presented you with this little thought experiment only to ask you this question:  Language difficulties aside, is there any way you’d be able to explain to that cannibal chief that in using the motorcar as a fort, he is not making the best use of the Dodge sedan?  

He has never seen a car before and he has no idea of what gasoline might be. After all, the Korowai people never even encountered a westerner or a wheeled wagon until about 1970. No, there is nothing you could say that would convince  our mid-20th century cannibal chief that he is wasting a huge asset.

Anyone assuming that the Bible is no more than a simple story about long ago people and their anachronistic beliefs is making a similar  mistake to that of the Korowai chief living in his Dodge. If we were to inform the Papuan primitive that by using his new fortress properly he could effortlessly transport himself and a handful of his warriors to Port Moresby, he’d blink at us in clueless incomprehension.  If we were to inform our Bible illiterate that the volume he disparages not only relates information from the past, but it also reveals data on events that have not yet happened, he’d look like the twin brother of our New Guinea native. 

The festival now being celebrated, Chanukah, provides an excellent example of this Biblical phenomenon. In his sublime ignorance, our scriptural skeptic is quite certain that Chanukah is a “post-Biblical minor celebration.” While it is true that the central historical events of Chanukah occurred about 1,000 years after the death of Moses, the seeds of that historical event are planted in the Bible. 

Leviticus 23 lists all the festivals in order through the Jewish calendar year.  Each is allocated its own “paragraph” in the unique graphical layout of the Torah. The festival of Tabernacles (Sukot) which occurs in autumn is treated in  Leviticus 23:33-44. The very next paragraph is devoted to an instruction to use pure olive oil to light a menorah. It starts off describing one flame, corresponding to the first night of Chanukah, (Leviticus 24:2) and ends with, “..he shall arrange the flames (plural) upon the menorah…(Leviticus 24:4).  Those flames were activated after the historical events of Chanukah and to this day we add an additional flame on each of the eight nights.

Years before the Greek invasion of Israel,   Daniel provided King Nebuchadnezzar with a prophecy about several subsequent empires. Each was represented by a different metallic element such as iron, gold, silver and copper.  (Some translations mistakenly render NeCHoSHeT as bronze or brass.)  

But another kingdom will arise after you, inferior to yours; then yet a third kingdom, of copper,
which will rule over the whole earth.

(Daniel 2:39)

The empire referred to as copper is Greece, the antagonist of Jerusalem in the Chanukah account.  Each time copper is mentioned in Scripture, an aspect of Greek domination is being referenced. 

With this in mind, we can look at these words having to do with vessels in the Tabernacle: .  “…shall be of copper.” (Exodus 27:19) The very next verse reads: “You shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the lamps regularly.”  (Exodus 27:20) Again we see lighting olive oil referring to the yet-to-be events of Chanukah, when the light will overwhelm the darkness brought on by Greece.

Here is one more Biblical reference to Chanukah. Every number possesses a specific significance in ancient Jewish wisdom. The number 25 always alludes to the Festival of Light. In fact the final syllable of the word Chanukah actually means 25.  It is no coincidence that Chanukah is the only festival in the Hebrew calendar that falls on the 25th day of the month. In that context, are you surprised to hear that the 25th word of the Bible is the word, OHR—light? 

 “God said, “Let there be light”
(Genesis 1:3)

It is through these and several other similar hints and allusions that we see that Chanukah, far from being solely a historical event, is actually part of the Bible’s depiction of how we humans are to relate to the electromagnetic phenomenon known as light. Light is always to be contrasted with darkness as metaphors for good and evil. We are always to be reminded that the stygian gloom of bad times can be dispelled by even one small ray of light. A tiny flame fed by pure olive oil has the power to push back the darkness of evil. If we celebrate Chanukah solely as a depiction of a historical conflict, or even as a remembrance of a miraculous military victory and subsequent miracle with oil, we are making the same error as our Korowai chief. The holiday will benefit us, but nowhere near to its fullest potential. 

If you wish to explore how this message can impact you, we invite you to find out more in our audio CD, Festival of Lights: Transform Your 24/7 Existence into a 25/8 Life. It remains on sale through the holiday.



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13 thoughts on “Of Cannibals and Chanukah”

  1. Yaakov (James) Mosher

    Not to take the side of the Biblical skeptic but Leviticus 24 is discussing lighting the Menorah in the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting is mentioned right there in Leviticus 24:3. It is correct to say there are hints of Chanukah in the Five Books of Moses but the plain meaning of the verses have to do with the Menorah used in the Tent of Meeting, later the Mishkan (tabernacle), later the Beis HaMikdash (Jerusalem Temple).

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That is what a hint means, Yaakov,
      And when we learn that the first mention of darkness in Genesis allude to Greece and their battle with the Maccabees over light and darkness, well, that is another hint. And when we discover that the 25th campsite mentioned in Numbers (CHANU–25 = חנו–כה ) is Chashmonah, the Hasmonean name of the Chanukah protagonists, why this is another hint. And so it goes, Yaakov. Ve HaMeyvin Yavin. He who understands will understand. To the wise man, a hint suffices.

  2. Thanks for using Papua New Guinea for illustration. I’m actually from Papua New Guinea. Today evening we will be lighting the fourth candle of Hannukah. There is a great joy in the celebration of life lights. Yeshua the Messiah gave himself as servant to light the in us so that we will be light to the world. Just like the menorah lights. ADONAI is really changing Papua New Guinea from cannibal or animal of life to human being way of life through Yeshua Messiah by guarding us through the Torah.
    Thanks Rabbi Daniel Lapin for this message.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for writing Jeremiah–
      It’s so wonderful to hear from you. We have heard that in the past fifty years, Christianity has made excellent progress in reaching pagans in Papua New Guinea.
      We hope that you are being blessed by the festival of light and that 2020 will be a wonderful year for you

  3. Dear Rabbi, Hanukkah is my second favorite festival! (The first is Passover!) I so love remembering how the little rag-tag group of Maccabees beat the snot out of the greatest army of the time because they went in the power of the true and living GOD!!! May our Wonderful LORD fill you , Susan, and your family with His presence and His LIGHT this Hanukkah!!! Much love, Margaret

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Margaret–
      Susan and I thank you for your good wishes. Actually what happened Chanukah was not quite as simple as the Maccabees having “beat the snot” out of the Greeks army. You see, the Greeks were already in decline. Barely 20 years after the events of Chanukah, Greece was in serious decline. Rome was conquering all the Greek controlled territories. What was really happening was the internal civil struggle between secularized Jews who adopted Greek values and those Jews who remained true to God. Unfortunately, due to ongoing internal struggles among the Hasmoneans, a Roman was actually installed in Jerusalem. His name was Herod. So the events of Chanukah didn’t actually settle anything. However, most importantly they did shed LIGHT upon the true struggle which is between good and evil, between light and darkness, rather than between competing political powers.

  4. Oh you proven again Rabbi why one really needs a Rabbi to bring out the full potential in all of us.
    Chag Urim Sameach!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Lovely to hear from you Lisa–
      Thanks! I like to remain fully employed so I agree, everyone needs a rabbi. And I humbly submit my candidacy.
      Happy Festival of Light

  5. Hello Rabbi!
    I really enjoyed this article. Often I would like to comment more, however so many things that you and Susan talk about are new to me and I think I’m just at a “mind-opening-soaking-in” stage. I do want to let you and Susan know how much I really enjoy reading your material, and I have recently turned my mother to the resources on your website, she is being blessed as well!

    1. Lace, when my husband was leading a synagogue in S. California, he had a rule that newcomers to his Bible class could only ask questions after they had been there three times. It was a way to respect their fellow students and the material by making sure they had a basic idea of what was going on before opening their mouths. It sounds like you have absorbed that message and we look forward to hearing from you in the future.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Lace–
      You can’t imagine how encouraging your warm words are for us. We value your comments always but there is much wisdom in not asking until you have a clear enough understanding to make sure that your question makes sense.

  6. Dear Rabbi,
    As I sit this morning in daily Bible study and reflection I am struck by the messages God has sent me this day. In the season of lights – Hanukkah and Christmas – I have just finished reading 2 Thessalonians 2 with a message that I interpret as – there will be darkness, I guarantee, but hold to the light and keep faith that I am God and I own the blueprints. Then I read your lesson. I thank God for these lessons at the perfect time – of course – with an added statement from Him that clearly says, I am here, child, all is well. Thank you, Rabbi, for being a part of this Holy message today. Happy holidays to you and your family. Vickie

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Vickie-
      The message is clear isn’t it? Yes, we can be surrounded by darkness and enclosed by gloom but one small candle is all it takes to start driving away the dark.

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