In the year 3591 from creation (169 BCE), around 160 years after the Greeks conquered Eretz Yisrael, Antiochus IV Epiphanes began oppressing the Jews. Under his rule, the Greeks plundered the holy vessels of the Temple, breached the walls of Jerusalem, murdered thousands of Jews, and enslaved many others. In 3593 (167 BCE), Antiochus decreed that the Jews must forsake the Torah and its mitzvot and worship idols. He made it a capital crime to perform mitzvot, abolished the sacrificial service in the Temple, and turned the Temple into a place of idolatry. Torah scrolls were torn and burned. Antiochus’ soldiers went from town to town forcing the Jews to eat pork and erect an altar for idol worship. They prohibited the practice of brit mila and Jewish women who insisted on circumcising their sons were executed. As a result of these decrees, many pious Jews fled to the wilderness, caves, or other countries; and many were murdered in sanctification of God’s name.
The intense pressure that the Greeks exerted against the Jews kindled a spark in their souls, and when the Greeks arrived in the village of Modi’in, with the intention of forcing Matityahu b. Yoĥanan the High Priest to worship idols, Matityahu rose up and killed the Greek officer and his Hellenized Jewish collaborators. The novelty of his action was that instead of dying in sanctification of God’s name, like the other pious Jews, he decided to kill the oppressor. By doing so, he and his sons raised the banner of rebellion against the Greeks and Hellenization.
The war was difficult. Yehuda the Maccabee, the boldest of Matityahu’s sons, led the fighters. With courage and skill, the Hasmoneans overcame the Greek forces, and after two years of fighting they succeeded in conquering Jerusalem. On the 25th of Kislev, 3596 (165 BCE), they began purifying the Temple and restoring the sacrificial service to its original state. This is when the miracle of the oil took place.
Later on, the Greeks returned to Eretz Yisrael in greater numbers, conquered Jerusalem, and put Hellenized Kohanim in charge of the Temple. However, in order to avoid increasing tensions with the Jews, they abolished the evil decrees and allowed the Jews to observe the Torah and the mitzvot. But this did not stop the rebellion; the Hasmoneans continued to fight against the Greeks and Hellenism. The war effort had ups and downs, but the Hasmonean brothers combined strength, diplomacy, and cunning to eventually gain political independence, decades later. Granted, the Jews lived under the aegis of the mighty empires of the ancient world – first the Greeks and then the Romans – but rule over Eretz Yisrael was by the Jews and for the Jews.
It seems quite evident that had the Greeks been more patient, Judea would have succumbed to Hellenism, just like the other nations did. But the hand of God, which conceals itself in the historical process, generated the conflict. Just as He hardened Pharaoh’s heart during the Exodus, so too, He hardened Antiochus’ heart, and in the process helped reveal the faith, self-sacrifice, and courage of the Jewish people.