Hanukkah, the Widow and God – what olive oil can teach about hope
Dr. RB McFee
Royalty free image – Hanukkah olive oil menorah firstname.lastname@example.org
Of all the times of the year when “hope” should reign supreme in all of us - whether the Christmas season for Christians, or Hanukkah for Jews - these holidays often serve to sap the last vestige of it.
Perhaps the pain of loss and loneliness often give rise to despair, instead of hope. Perhaps we no longer feel the Presence of the Almighty at the very season He should burn brightly in our souls. At moments when our spirits should rejoice, we find ourselves trying seemingly without result to reclaim what we once celebrated. We overlook the blessings of the day looking into the future, where hope no longer seems to lead us.
Even when we recognize God can heal all wounds, make all things anew; as He demonstrated through the Christ-child, we sometimes fail to feel the sense of Immanuel in our soul.
We try and cling to the Cross, or stretch to touch Christ’s robe, we reach out with arms that seem too short for the task. We want to look into the eyes of Jesus, and know His Will is enough for us. But like Peter walking on water, just as we surrender to the uplifting and upholding Power of our Lord, we look around and see the storm, the lack, the empty chair, the broken heart, and in taking our eyes off of our Savior, we plunge deep into dark waters.
Such was the case with the widow before she encountered the prophet Elijah. Her hope was all but gone. She had said as much to Elijah.
That’s where God comes in…..Emmanuel
The Bible is filled with stories about people who were clutching hope by their fingertips, barely able to grasp it. Yet they knew hope and God were inextricably linked. You can’t connect with the One without the other.
The Psalmist often wondered, and then reminded us when our hearts cry ‘where does my hope come from when I only have enough for a night, and I need it for a lifetime?’ …. That’s where God comes in…..Emmanuel
“For You oh Lord are my hope, my trust”
So let’s go back in time several centuries before Hanukkah and the Maccabees, to the Prophet Elijah, when he meets up with the widow at Zarephath. Let’s see how desperation transforms into celebration, how near hopelessness becomes “You oh Lord are my hope, my trust.”
As an aside, the Biblical word “widow” is often used to convey a person who is impoverished.
8 Then the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” 10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?”11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” 12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.””
1 Kings 7: 8 – 16
How out of hope do you have to be to declare you and your son will eat the last of the food, then die, especially to a stranger?
Elijah doesn’t try to change her mind in words, but reveals his trust in the promise of God by actions – he wants the widow, the impoverished one, the use what little she has, and in the process she’ll start to see the miracle. And God, incapable of breaking His promise, delivered. She did not run out of olive oil or flour.
One important Biblical principle that seems to emerge throughout miracle stories – God promises, but you have to act on the promise before you see it fulfilled. Obedience, faith, belief become God’s fulfillment when we act in trust. A lot like jumping into the pool, trusting your parents that it will open a lifetime of blessings when you learn to swim. Low and behold, you don’t drown, and in fact they were right!
Faith into action is trust, and perhaps that is where the miracle comes.
But to get that far, you must have hope. And it is often in short supply.
However, a funny thing happens when you start to see God’s provision, God’s promise in action – whether a random act of kindness at a time when it is desperately needed, or some other grace and blessing – hope starts to take flight. What was once a near invisible flicker starts to burn brighter.
The widow’s hope was restored as she recognized God knew her name, her plight. Moreover, He sent her a mighty prophet to show His Loving Grace through restoration of the provisions of flour Jewish and olive oil.
A word about olive oil
From time immemorial olive oil has been the fuel of temple menorahs, and household use in ancient Israel. But it requires olives, and processing. That means having resources, and time.
Oil represents the Presence and Power of the Spirit of the Lord – Jesus is the Anointed (with oil) One. Then there’s the iconic Psalm 23, “He anoints my head with oil.” And there are other examples.
Then there is the olive; a revered fruit of the Lord. Outwardly unimpressive, yet inwardly olives’ oil can illuminate a room. And for Judaism it isn’t the outward appearance that matters, it is the inner essence. “Ha-sheman” in Hebrew means ‘the oil,’ and shares the same letters as “neshamah,” Hebrew for ‘the soul.’ So from a Jewish perspective, as the oil is the olive’s hidden essence, the soul is our hidden essence, too.
Doubt me? Just listen to the Grinch song. What kind of soul did he have, which defined Him, before being transformed into a big hearted, sharing creature who learned to love Christmas at Who-Ville?
Speaking about transformation – hope is a reflection of where we are spiritually. Sometimes we can feel like Pandora, where all of life’s miseries were let out of the box, and landed on or near us, but the one thing most needed that wasn’t set free from her box was “hope.”
No discussion about oil and hope would be complete, especially this time of year without a brief reference to the Jewish celebration of light that ended Monday.
It may surprise some, but Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah! Or even the Old Testament. Yet Hanukkah is recognized as the Feast of the Maccabees, or the Festival of Lights, and begins on Kislev 25, and ends on Tevet 2, which is most often in December.
Scholars do note the appearance of ‘Hanukkah’ in the Babylonian Talmud around the 5th century AD. It is also in the Book of Maccabees, and other scholarly documents, but not the Pentateuch.
To be sure, Jewish scholars have debated the Hanukkah story, challenging a variety of details. In the interest of sharing inspiration, and avoiding an intellectual coma, let it suffice we will focus on what has been celebrated through the millennia, and leave the academic discussion for another time.
So what’s the back story, and why the significance?
Hanukkah celebrates the reacquisition, and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by Judah Maccabee and his fellow Israelites (Hasmoneans), in ~165 BC after defeating the Seleucids who tried to outlaw Jewish practices. Although in and of itself not an insignificant feat given the conflicts afflicting the Jews since the death of Alexander the Great (he conquered, and stabilized parts of the Middle East).
But the significance of Hanukkah is more in the miracle than the military.
According to First Maccabees the eight days of Hanukkah were supposed to be a celebration to consecrate the new temple altar, the same amount of time observed by Moses and Solomon. In Second Maccabees, it was to commemorate the Festival of Tabernacles that Jews were not allowed to observe.
To rededicate the temple the Maccabees needed oil to fuel the altar flame. Alas they only had enough for one night. But the flame is meant to be eternal.
According to Leviticus 6:13 a fire must be kept burning continuously on the temple altar.
One wonders how much hope was left in the Maccabees when they were about to run out of oil? But they prayed. They obeyed. They trusted. You don’t obey Who you don’t trust.
Let me digress a bit. From a religious perspective, just as we keep a light on in our house of worship, the flame of God is meant to burn brightly in the temple as well. With today’s safe battery candles, I wonder if we shouldn’t keep God’s flame lit eternal in our homes, too. A reminder of His Presence, and the hope in Him we can believe in, act on, trust.
Getting back to the Maccabees at the temple….For a variety of reasons, which scholars continue to debate, there was insufficient oil. Yet that little bit of oil, barely sufficient for one night, lasted a full eight, just in time for the new olive oil to be processed, and utilized.
And that is the miracle of the oil and light. God made the tiny amount of olive oil last so the flame wouldn’t go out.
For Jews two miracles took place – God giving them the ability to defeat occupying enemies to reclaim the temple, and the provision of God to allow their tradition of keeping His eternal flame in the temple.
Their hope was in God against significant odds. At times it may have dimmed, like the lamp sustained by dwindling oil, but in God’s provision, hope can be rekindled to burn brightly.
During my prayer time the other night the story of Elijah and the widow came to mind. I was thinking about “hope.” Christmas is a time of great joy, and a time that can try our souls, even when God designed it to restore them.
God is asking us to trust Him, to jump into Christmas with the joyous abandon of a child who has discovered mom and dad were worth trusting…the water is awesome, so take the plunge!
Our God and the promises of redemption, restoration and love that He makes to each of us, that is what Christmas is all about.
The Bible is full of people with flickering hope, broken dreams, uncertain holidays, and the need for “God to turn it around, turn it around, turn it around.”
Consider the lyrics that Jon Reddick wrote in his song “God turn it around.”….
“I’m praying God come
And turn this thing around
God, turn it around,
God, turn it around,
God, turn it around
I’m calling on the name
That changes everything, yes
God, turn it around
God, turn it around
God, turn it around
All of my hope
Is in the name
The name of Jesus”
Are you feeling like you’ve run out of gas? Or hope?
We all face challenges sometime in our lives when the light of hope is dim, a flicker, much like the last embers of a dying fire. Down deep we want to believe. We want to trust. We want to feel the energy that hope can power up a weary soul.
It is those times we can and must pray. Approach God with authenticity, admit our spiritual fatigue. Then allow God to fulfill the scripture, His promise that ‘we are made strong in our weakness through our Savior.’
Miracles come in all sorts of ways. At Hanukkah, at Zarephath God used a simple, household item, like olive oil to reveal no one goes unnoticed, even an impoverished widow, or the battle weary. The same is true for you and me. And just like the lamp in the temple, God can refill and restore us, and our hope, too.