Day of Atonement (DeSilva)

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
DeSilva, David. Day of Atonement. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2015.

“I will stir up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece.”

David DeSilva gives us a brilliant and gripping fictional retelling of the Maccabees saga. Not only is this good history, it is outstanding storytelling. It’s Braveheart for Hebrews. It begins with the godly Honiah as High Priest. Jason, Honiah’s brother, is the functional mayor of Jerusalem (though that title isn’t accurate). Jason is caught between loyalty to the covenant and the increasing pressure to Hellenize.

DeSilva’s real strength is showing just how powerful Hellenism was. It wasn’t simply “worshipping Zeus.” It required learning the Greek stories, language, and customs (such as wrestling nude in a gymnasium). Those in themselves aren’t too powerful forces. The real problem is that the Hebraic resistance to Hellenism meant loss of commercial opportunities for Jerusalem. That was a problem, not because it made Jews poor, but that it reflected badly on the Hellenistic ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? If you want the big company to come to your town and bring jobs, then you might need to accommodate them. That might involve updating your views on traditional marriage and working on Sunday. Chill out. No one is asking you to worship Zeus. Don’t be silly.

The main characters, though, aren’t Honiah and Jason, nor even Judas Maccabeus. They are the young Jewish metalworkers, Meir and Binyamin. The former feels the Hellenistic pressure acutely.

From there DeSilva outlines the causes of the Maccabean rebellion in story format. I say “causes” and not so much the war itself. The initial conflict between Judas Maccabeus and Antiochus is over by chapter 2 of 1 Maccabees. What DeSilva does is brilliantly recreate the situations that made it possible. It’s also good history for understanding how Rome got involved in Judean affairs later on for New Testament times.

The reader, moreover, feels the struggle of Hellenism. As Christians who inherited our theology from Greek theologians, we simply cannot reject all things Greek. Substance metaphysics, for one, has remained a powerful conceptual tool and to reject it probably spells disaster for Trinitarian theology. On the other hand, we should also be aware of what Greek culture really was back then. I think our desire for “classical education for our Christian kids” has sanitized Greek culture. While some post-Pythagoreans might have believed in the one god, it was always a god who could be manifested in Baal, Zeus, or Yahweh. As Robert Jenson quipped, “Greek philosophy is a Mediterranean mystery religion.”

There are other less than savory aspects of Greek culture. A Greek symposium might sound like a nice philosophy conference, but you were also expected to receive the entertainments of hetaira. I suppose, though, we should be grateful that the hetaira were female.

I recommend this book for everyone in high school and up.
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