Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Day of Atonement (David de Silva) -- Review

DAY OF ATONEMENT: A Novel of the Maccabean RevoltBy David A. de Silva. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015. 320 Pages.

                From the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah in the sixth century BCE, the Jewish people lived under foreign domination. First the Babylonians, then the Persians, and then came the Greeks. The Babylonians had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Persians allowed for the people of Jerusalem to rebuild it in the fifth century. In many ways the Temple served as a beacon of Jewish identity. The High Priests served not only as religious leaders, but often as political ones as well. In these dual roles they tried to navigate between the needs of the people and the demands of the empires that held ultimate power. By the time the second century BCE rolled around, the region was caught up between the imperial designs of two Greek kingdoms—one centered in Egypt and the other in Antioch. Both kingdoms sought to Hellenize their domains, so that the regions would let go of their local customs and traditions and adopt Greek patterns of life, including Greek views of religion. The ultimate design was complete assimilation. In the middle of this Hellenized world lived the Jewish people, with their monotheistic exclusivism defining their identity. They simply found it difficult to assimilate, though there were partisans, mostly among the elite who sought to change that reality. The clash of cultures that finally erupted in the second century BCE led to a revolt that overthrew the dreams of the assimiliationists and their imperial mentors.  

                Although the story of this period is told in the four books of Maccabees, it is a story largely unknown to Christians. In part that is due to the fact that Protestants didn’t adopt these books into their canon, so they’re not read nor studied. One biblical scholar decided to take on this reality by turning to fiction to tell the story.  That scholar is David A. de Silva of Ashland Theological Seminary.   The writing of novels is an exercise that must be engaged in with great care and skill. Not everyone is a novelist, and biblical scholars are probably not programmed for such a work (I would agree to add in theologians as well).  So, when I decided to ask for a review copy of this novel, I did so with a wait and see attitude. I didn’t doubt the academic qualifications of the author, only his aptitude to tell a good story. I should add that I was intrigued by both the subject— the Maccabean Revolt -- and I have been following the author's career since I published what was probably his first published work many years ago when I was editing a graduate student journal for Fuller Theological Seminary. I must say I found the book well written and engaging. It is thought-provoking, engaging, and in line with what we know of the period and its peoples. The author does a good job developing the characters, some of whom the reader will come to empathize with, and others who you will not find very appealing. The most appealing characters are those caught between extremes, those who seek to be faithful to their religious identity while trying to navigate this new world.

Being that this is a historical novel, de Silva brings into the story historical characters such as the Seleucid king Antiochus IV and several of his advisors, as well as important Jewish figures including three high priests—Honiah, his more Hellenized brother Jason, and the rather evil and capricious Menelaus who seeks to completely throw off his Jewish identity and jump fully into the arms of Antiochus.  Of course, we also meet up with Mattathias and his five sons who not only led the Maccabean revolt, but helped establish a new semi-independent Jewish kingdom free from Seleucid control.  The novel is filled with intrigue, as different parties parry for control of the narrative. While we engage with these historical characters, it is the characters that de Silva creates who carry the story.  Binyamin and his brother Meir, one who refuses to assimilate and the other who tries to be faithful but who finds the Hellenistic world both fascinating and financially attractive, provide us with characters with whom we can identify. 

In his author’s note de Silva reveals that he has long been interested in the Apocrypha, which he first encountered as a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, which does provide for occasional readings from the Apocrypha. Over the years he has devoted scholarly study to these texts, including the books of Maccabees as well as other texts such as the Book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, which shared the wisdom of ben Sira. The wisdom of this teacher of wisdom is referenced multiple times in the novel, providing another scriptural component to the story (even if it would not have been seen as scripture at that point in time). In addition, he brings in stories from Daniel, which provide encouragement to those who seek to resist Hellenization. From my reading of the novel, it appears that de Silva understands the stories of Daniel and his companions to have been passed down through the years, but not written down until the second century, when they were combined with apocalyptic revelations that emerged during the second century.  These scriptural elements help flavor and further the conversation.

Since this is a novel, and a reviewer doesn’t want to spoil the plot line, I need to limit my comments. What I can say is that the reader will gain a deeper insight into the challenges faced by second century BCE Jews as they sought to find their way in an increasingly alien world.  Standing in the middle of this story is the Temple, and the fight to preserve its uniqueness.  History tells of Antiochus’ defilement of the Temple, and the revolt it engendered. When the Hellenizers went too far, there was resistance and revolt.

One will find some similarities between that era and ours. I expect many readers will find themselves forced to look at the way they (we) accommodate our faith to culture. While this is a novel, the author taken great care to be faithful to the historical accounts and that is important to a reader like me. At the same time, no one really wants to read a boring novel.   I can saw that the story continues to move, with a mixture of danger, intrigue, battle, and even a bit of romance.  I should add that I’m not given to reading a lot of novels, but I found myself drawn into the story—not wanting to put it down.  So, not a bad combination—good history and good story.

So, if you’re interested in knowing more about the era of the Maccabees and want to read a good story, I would recommend this book highly!

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