The Hanukkah story of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty they founded is not for children. The aftermath of the overthrow of the Seleucid overlords is for grown-ups, a history of empire, guerilla wars, massacres, alliances made and betrayed, power marriages, expansionism, hegemony, and subjugation. And of course faith—the right kind, the wrong kind, and none at all.
It is the sort of story that belongs in Game of Thrones. You won’t see that series on HBO. We want simple tales of faith and miracles, for ourselves and especially for the kids. And why not? In troubled times and a troubled world, no one can begrudge any injection of light or miracles we can find or conjure up.
For a summary of this history, see this from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: A Brief History of a Violent Epoch: Judas Maccabeus’ death would mark the end of the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks – and the start of the extremely unstable Hasmonean dynasty.
Here is a chart that outlines the chronology of the Hasmonean Dynasty:
Hanukkah has never been a major Jewish religious holiday, not on a par with Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and the rest. The events celebrated on Hanukkah do not appear in the Jewish bible. The canon of the Tanakh was closed before the Books of Maccabees could be included. Some of those books, though, can be found in Christian versions of the Old Testament.
Hanukkah was elevated, especially in America, as a seasonal companion to Christmas, for Jews living in decidedly Christian cultures. For a complete treatment of this phenomenon, see the book Hanukkah in America: A History.
The comparison to Christmas does suggest why we don’t have an epic series devoted to the Maccabees and their historical legacy.
The Christmas story has an even bigger and more significant and spectacular sequel. The newly born Jesus grows up to become the foundation of the faith and one of the great teachers in world history. The next part of his mission is told in the story of Easter. Sequels don’t get any bigger, clearer or cleaner than that.
The historical follow-up to the story of the Maccabees is more equivocal. It puts that era in Jewish history in a very real, human, political light that may clash with the simple idealized version of candles and dreidels.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t light the candles, eat the latkes, spin the dreidels, and commemorate the victory of God’s rule over the rule of the less godly. It’s just that sometime during the holiday, we might leave behind childish things and look at the history with eyes open. Not because it takes away from the holiday, but because it adds to it a fuller sense and understanding.
And because for two millennia, the exact same complexity has been unfolding in the exact same place. Not a children’s game. More like Game of Thrones. Only much more real.