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By James A. Haught

Passover is horrible. How could anyone celebrate because the Jewish tribal god massacred Egyptian children in a huge infanticide while sparing Hebrew tots? That’s sickening.

But there’s little need to fret about it, because the Old Testament account of Exodus is mere fiction. Archeologists find no evidence that Jews ever suffered slavery in Egypt or escaped northward.

Speaking of the horrible, Hanukkah is almost as vile – and it’s based on real history, not myth. It rises from the Maccabee revolt in the 2nd century BCE, which pitted hard-line, rural, orthodox Jews against modern, assimilated, urbanized Jews. Here’s the history:

After Hebrews were freed from the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE, Judea was ruled mostly by greedy, squabbling priests loosely under foreign military dominance. After Alexander the Great swept the region in the 4th century BCE, urban, educated Jews adopted Hellenized Greek values. A Greek-style gymnasium was installed at Jerusalem, where men exercised and bathed nude, in violation of Hebrew taboos. Urban parents stopped having their sons circumcised. Families ignored old Hebrew rites. Amazingly, a statue of Zeus was installed in the great temple of Jerusalem. What sacrilege.

In her landmark book, Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht outlined how hidebound rural Jews, mostly poor farmers, were dismayed by this slippage of faith. Some became militant and “took the name Hasidim, which means the pious or loyal. Their idea was to… vigorously reject Greek culture.” The gulf worsened after a new Greek emperor and modernized high priest banned former Hebrew rites.

The impasse exploded when Greek officials came to the town of Modein to perform new-style sacrifices. A Hasidim priest and his militant sons refused. When a local Jew joined the sacrifices, the priest killed him, along with a Greek official. The rebels fled into mountains. The priest’s son, Judah Maccabeus, became leader and the band was called Maccabees.

They waged guerrilla warfare against urban, Hellenized Jews, who appealed to Greek rulers for help. Greeks sent a military unit, which was ambushed and destroyed – then two more Greek brigades met the same fate. Seleucid Greek rulers prepared a powerful army, but their empire was attacked by Parthia and the troops were diverted – which allowed the Maccabees to capture Jerusalem. They plunged into “killing sinners – Helenized Jews – and forcibly circumcising others,” Hecht recounted.

Zeus was thrown out of the great temple, the gymnasium was abolished and orthodoxy was restored. Sporadic battling continued until 160 BCE, when a large Greek army crushed the Maccabee Jews and killed their leader. Later, a younger Maccabee son became high priest and formed the corrupt Hasmonean Dynasty that ruled for a century.

Long afterward, scribes added a story about a single jug of lamp oil lasting eight days in the temple after the Maccabee victory, which spawned the holiday of Hanukkah. A rather meager miracle.

Some historians record the Maccabees as brutal theocrats who forced their narrow-minded religion onto urbanized fellow Jews who had abandoned it. But others say the Seleucid Greeks and fraternizing urban priests were equally cruel to conservative rural Jews.

It’s amazing that theologians claim to see an all-loving, all-merciful father-god behind all this.

Religion contradicts itself. We’re told that God is pure love and compassion – yet we’re told that he slaughtered Egyptian children, and drowned most humans in Noah’s flood, and ordered massacres of neighbor tribes around Israel, and burned cities he disliked, and struck various people dead, and committed an array of other atrocities recorded in the Bible. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. How can churchgoers swallow this schizophrenia?

Again, there’s little need for us skeptics to fret, because the contradiction rests on fantasy. The kindly god doesn’t exist, and neither does the murderous one. Both are imaginary. So relax and ignore the quandary.

(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. This article originally appeared in Free Inquiry, December 2020.)

Image credit: Esteban Chiner, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license