The festival of Hanukkah is mentioned only once in the Bible. We find that text in John. 10:22: 'The festival of the dedication of the Temple was celebrated in Jerusalem; it was winter'. Apparently this is a loose comment in a speech in which Jesus talks about Himself as the good shepherd, but if we read carefully that is certainly not the case. To understand this, we first need to know what this festival entails.
In 168 B.C. Antiochus IV Epiphanus conquers Jerusalem. In 167 B.C. the Jewish religion is banned and a statue of Zeus Olympius is placed in the temple. Sabbath observance, Jewish festivals and circumcision were forbidden. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, a revolt of the Jews arises. After 3½ years in 164 BC. Jerusalem recaptured by the Maccabees. The temple service is restored. This has since been commemorated annually during the Hanukkah festival.
According to tradition, a miracle also occurred during this period. When the temple was retaken, they wanted to light the menorah again. However, there was only holy oil available for one day. This oil was used to light the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick, and the menorah remained lit for eight days. New oil could have been prepared at this time. That period of 8 days that the menorah continued to burn on that little bit of oil is commemorated by a hanukkiah, an 8-armed candelabra. During the annual celebration, one candle is lit on the first day, two on the second day, etc. until all 8 candles are lit on the last day. Actually, a hanukkiah contains nine candles. The ninth candle is placed separately from the other eight. First one lights this extra candle, which is called shamash (servant). With this candle one then lights the other.
Although Judas Maccabeus was greatly admired for the fact that he managed to reconquer Jerusalem with a relatively small army, the further course of history was less positive. His descendants, the Hasmoneans, ruled Israel with an heavy hand and also took over the high priesthood. Despite the fact that they did not come from the good tribe, the tribe of Levi. Not everyone agreed with that. Ultimately this led to a civil war, which ended when the Romans intervened.
In the time of Jesus, the Maccabees were admired because they were the example of Jews who rebelled against foreign rule. People longed for a new uprising and the expulsion of the Romans.
The image of the shepherd
When Jesus uses the image of the good shepherd, He bases it on the use of this image in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament this image is used for three indications:
1) God; think of Psalm 23
2) The king, as God intended; see for example 1 Kings. 22:17: 'He said, I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd. And the LORD said, These have no master: let every man return to his house in peace.
3) The Messiah; think of Ez, for example. 37:24: 'And my servant David shall be king over them. There will be one Shepherd for them all.”
Jesus as the good Shepherd
n John 10, Jesus uses the image of a shepherd to draw three parallels.
1. The sheep follow the voice of the shepherd (verses 1-6). The gist is verse 3-5: (…) and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he has brought out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice. But they will not follow a stranger, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.
2. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (verses 11-13): I am the good Shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. But the hireling, and he who is not a shepherd, and who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and forsakes the sheep, and flees; and the wolf seizes them and scatters the sheep. And the hireling flees, because he is a hireling and cares not for the sheep.
3. The shepherd knows the sheep (verse 15): I am the good Shepherd and I know My Own and am known by My Own, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father (…)
Then follows the text about the Chanukah festival, and Jesus returns to the image of the good shepherd:
Verse 26-30: But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I told you. My sheep hear My voice and I know them and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father who gave them to Me is greater than all, and no one can pluck them out of My Father's hand. I and the Father are One.
In fact, this is a repetition of what was said earlier, in the text for the comment on Chanukah.
The structure of the pericope
The text about Chanukah occupies a central place in Jesus' statements about the good shepherd. In the first part He also uses the image of a stable door. If we pay attention to the statements about the Good Shepherd, the placement of the text about Hanukkah is striking. I am convinced that this is not without reason. The Maccabees were not the shepherds God intended. They were an example of abuse of power, of shepherds who were not committed to caring for the sheep.
If we look at the structure of the pericope, the reference to the Chanukah festival is not just an isolated comment. This comment is placed in such a way that a contrast is created between Jesus' statements about the good Shepherd and the history of the Hasmoneans.