Very few biblical scholars are also writers of interesting and engaging fiction. But David deSilva is one of them. His Day of Atonement is a novel set in the turbulent years leading up to the Maccabean revolt. A culture war is being waged in Jerusalem and Judea in the second century BCE. The progressives view the adoption of Greek culture as essential to the continuing relevance of Judaism in a rapidly changing world. The traditionalists see Hellenization as nothing short of heresy—the paganization of their ancestral religion and the desecration of Yahweh’s holy city and temple.
Jason, an ardent Hellenist and brother of Honiah the high priest, maneuvers politically to have himself appointed as high priest in Honiah’s place by the Syrian king Antiochus IV. Jason’s goal is to make Jerusalem a place where everyone feels welcome and where Greek culture can thrive alongside Judaism. Only then will Jerusalem become a great city among the other great cities of the world. Jason courts the favor of Antiochus, building a Greek gymnasium and encouraging the tolerance of private pagan shrines. While respecting the sanctity of the Jerusalem temple, he faces stiff opposition from conservatives, who view any pagan idols in Jerusalem as an abomination.
When Jason’s reforms move too slowly for some, Antiochus is persuaded by powerful forces in Jerusalem to replace him with Menelaus, who takes even more radical measures to Hellenize the nation. Menelaus eventually commits the “abomination of desolation,” erecting pagan shrines in the temple and offering unclean animals on the altar. Since in his view Judaism now means backwardness, intolerance and insurrection, he moves to outlaw Jewish practices like circumcision, Torah study and Sabbath observance. These last events spark a guerrilla war, launched by the zealous priest Mattathias and his sons. The novel ends in the early days of the Maccabean revolt.
Many of the characters in the novel are known from history: Honiah, Jason, Menelaus, Mattathias and his sons, etc. Others are fictional. The story especially focuses on the family of Zerah, a metal worker who has died five years earlier, leaving a widow, Miryam, and three sons, Binyamin, Meir and Ari. Their household becomes a microcosm for what is happening in Judaism: Binyamin pursues the life of a rabbi, while his brother Meir (renamed Hilaron) becomes enamored with Hellenism, joining the gymnasium, marrying a Syrian girl, and finding a patron in a leading Hellenistic Jew. Ari, the youngest, eventually joins the revolutionaries.
David deSilva is well known for his expertise in Second Temple Judaism and the book does an excellent job of establishing the Zeitgeist of second century BCE Jerusalem, both culturally and historically. Through the voices and actions of the various characters, we see and understand the powerful attraction of Hellenism for many as well as the repulsion and anger it provoked among pious Jews. We find ourselves sympathizing with Zerah’s second son Meir (Hilaron), who sees better relationships with his Greek patrons as a means of getting ahead and getting along. Why not appropriate the best from the Greeks while staying faithful to our ancient heritage? When he rescues a Syrian girl from prostitution and then marries her, the common narrative theme of “love conquers all” seems appropriate and fitting. At the same time, we feel the outrage and zeal of Mattathias, Ari and others as their countrymen forsake faith in the one true Creator God to follow worthless idols of wood and stone.
Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” is portrayed not quite as the maniacal madman (“Epimanes”) and cruel tyrant we sometimes assume, but (probably more accurately) as a pragmatic ruler set on expanding his empire and obsessed with the defeat and subjugation of his constant nemesis—the Ptolemies of Egypt. In his eyes, the loyalty and support of his Judean subjects is essential to these grand designs. Menelaus’s failure to bring his unruly people into line is a constant irritant for Antiochus.
There are also some interesting innovations and surprises in the book. DeSilva handles the challenging question of the prophecies of Daniel related to the Maccabean revolt in a fascinating way, as a divine vision of God’s coming deliverance given to a priest and desert prophet named Zedekiah.
I won’t spoil the ending by giving anything else away. Let me just say that a famous scene from 4 Maccabees comes to life in a remarkable way.
This volume is not just a good read. It is also an excellent teaching tool. Students will learn the religious, social and cultural background of the New Testament period without realizing they are in class! The book would be an ideal supplemental text for courses in New Testament survey, history, and background as well as those more specifically focused on Second Temple Judaism.