Hanukkah and the Apocalypse

Detail from a Dead Sea scroll (Wikimedia Commons)

“I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse”—Hillary Clinton, The New York Times Magazine, October 11, 2016

“This is not the apocalypse”—Barack Obama, the Oval Office, November 9, 2016

Sunday night, just shy of the winter solstice, driving home through Minnesota’s brittle dark, I passed the Pine Bend Refinery, glowing like a city of embers. It is an oil refinery, owned by Koch Industries, which processes crude piped down from Alberta, supplying the upper Midwest with gasoline and jet fuel. The temperatures outside ran below zero, lending an odd heaviness to the smoke that streamed from the refinery’s chimneys.

I was coming from an early celebration of Hanukkah, which my parents raised me to believe was a holiday about the miraculous abundance of oil to keep the world alight—that, and getting more presents than the goyim. But I’ve since learned it has little to do with lights, and everything to do with the apocalypse. Hopeless hope. Blood in the streets.

In my rearview, the refinery, its twinkling lights buried by smoke, became a city of ashes: Pompeii, or Aleppo.


I am a scholar of the apocalypse. I study how contemporary writers deploy apocalyptic rhetoric in response to economic dislocation, or mass incarceration, or climate change. Or, now, the Trump presidency. After the election, several friends—gallows humorists—congratulated me on my professional fortune. Yes, I replied. The world’s loss, my gain.

“I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse,” warned Hillary Clinton back in October. For months, Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate maintained the “Trump Apocalypse Watch”: “a subjective daily estimate, using a scale of one to four horsemen, of how likely it is that Donald Trump will be elected president, thus triggering an apocalypse in which we all die.” These pre-election invocations of the apocalypse expressed a mix of mockery, dismissal, and terror at the unlikely prospect of a President Trump. And then here we are. Early on November 9th, Mathis-Lilley posted four horsemen and the hope that his previous posts were “all just hyperbole.” A few hours later, President Obama invited White House staffers to the Oval Office and told them, “This is not the apocalypse.”

Knowledge is no inoculation against feelings. I know that the apocalypse is a rhetorical form that remakes history and experience according to a trajectory that leads toward imminent cataclysm. I know that it appears when groups perceive themselves as existentially threatened and hope seems foreclosed. I know that its escape route passes through exceptional violence, that it legitimates quietism, that it is a salve for the resigned. And yet. Do I have to enumerate the reasons for despair?

The hot takes came and keep coming. Who or what is to blame? Identity politicsRacismWhite womenFree tradeFake newsClinton’s ground gameJames ComeyRussiaRussiaRussia. I soak up all this analysis and it bloats me. I am a nightmare creature, a giant adenoid, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Then, on the way home from Hanukkah, I passed the Pine Bend Refinery, unsated in its hunger for fossil fuels. So much for the menorah, I thought. So much for brisket and kugel and dreidels and gelt. In the glow I saw another city of ashes from an old story of Jerusalem under siege. This is a 2,200-year-old cold take.


Hanukkah is a story about a people divided in a dark time. It was 167 BCE and the Jews had, for centuries, heard tales from their prophets about self-determination, the Promised Land. Instead, the Seleucid Empire, an offshoot of Alexander the Great’s conquests, came to occupy Judea in 200 BCE, and, thirty-three years later, a particularly vicious king, Antiochus IV, pressured Jews to assimilate to Greek culture. Many did, especially urban elites. Hellenized Jews assumed power in Jerusalem and Antiochus made the practice of Judaism punishable by death, rededicating the Jewish Temple to Zeus, and, to the horror of traditional Jews, desecrating the Temple with the slaughter of a pig.

Traditional Jews from the surrounding countryside, instigated by the priest Mattathias and led by Judas Maccabeus, formed a militia and fought a guerilla war against the Hellenized Jews and imperial Seleucids. The Maccabees bloodily battled their way into Jerusalem and, victorious, ritually cleansed the Temple. According to one brief mention in the Talmud, the Maccabees supplied oil to keep the Temple’s eternal flame lit. They had only enough oil to keep the flame lit for one day, but it lasted eight: the miracle of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah’s lights, then, memorialize the violent anti-imperial struggle of the rural poor for self-determination against an urban, cultural elite. But other traditional Jews responded to Antiochus not with blood but with words, and their legacy is vastly more influential.

For several hundred years, Jews had been listening to prophets like Jeremiah who promised that if they only stopped erring, God would restore peace and prosperity. By the time Antiochus arrived, the message was tired. Behaving well did not seem to help the Jews, who felt on the verge of annihilation, so, while the Maccabees took up arms, others took up a genre that had just begun flickering to life and crystallized it. The apocalypse took agency out of their hands in anticipation of divine intervention, when God or his angels would destroy the Seleucid Empire.

A new Jewish sect moved down from Jerusalem to a valley on the north shore of the Dead Sea, declared itself the true Israel, and awaited the end of the world. This was the Qumran community, which produced the Dead Sea scrolls, a vast body of texts discovered in caves beginning in 1947. Qumran was hardly alone. Antiochus inspired a craze for eschatology and the new apocalyptic writing, none more well-known than the Book of Daniel, canonized in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. After Daniel escapes the lion’s den, the book takes a dramatic turn toward divine violence and final judgment. These latter chapters were written between 167 and 164 BCE, in the midst of the Maccabean insurrection, as an alternative vision of anti-imperial salvation. They set the stage for the unlikely ascendance, two hundred years later, of a carpenter from Nazareth who strongly hinted that he was the one, finally, we’d been waiting for.


A divided nation faces an unhinged king. What next? Hanukkah bequeaths us no easy allegory. One faction of the resistance takes up arms, the other retreats into the imagination. The danger of apocalyptic thinking is that it lulls us into waiting for the end. But who on the left can imagine, in the United States today, armed insurrection? If we have Maccabees, they are right-wing militias in Michigan and Montana. No, they tell us, we must continue, despite this setback, our incremental progress. President Obama, in conversation with Marc Maron, used the metaphor of a ship: turn the wheel gently now for significant change later. Or, as another prominent leader more lyrically said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

But if Hanukkah and the apocalypse warn us of anything, it is the fiction of progress. Progress for whom? Tell the kids tweeting from bunkers in Aleppo about progress. Tell Yemen about justice. The truth is that the apocalypse happens all the time. It’s the apocalypse today in Aleppo. It’s the apocalypse today in Sana’a. Worlds expire. Nations are fragile.

What makes the United States immune, ultimately? Nothing.


Dan Sinykin is a visiting assistant professor at the College of Wooster.

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