Many books I read are just fine. Some are good. A few are outstanding. David deSilva’s latest offering, Day of Atonement, is in a league of its own. The subtitle is: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (Kregel, 2015). This is a work of historical fiction that places the reader in the world of early Judaism with a specialist interest in Hellenization and the negotiation of Jews in the Greek and Roman world.
I read fiction from time to time and I think that I have relatively high standards for good fiction. I know that sometimes biblical scholars try their hands at fiction (for pedagogical reasons) and most of the time I can tolerate the amateur fiction-writing because it is in service of better learning through narrative. But Day of Atonement is really good fiction. David deSilva completely blew me away with his gripping writing style. I have rarely – scratch that – never said that a biblical studies book is a “page-turner,” but this is a bona fide page-turner.
You can tell a great book based on two things: you are “lost” in the book as you read it (hence – page-tuner) – and you continue to be lost in the world and ideas of the book after you finish. The longer you are lost, the better the book, or something like that.
It has been a month or so since I finished the book and I can’t stop thinking about it. Let me give you four issues that have stuck with me.
#1: Love for the Jerusalem Temple – deSilva captures the Jewish reverence, admiration, and love for the Temple in a striking manner. It reminds me of how a Catholic might feel going to the Vatican. There was a feeling that Jewish priests must do everything in its proper way out of respect for God. This is where they go to be close to God in a special way. No wonder its desecration or destruction was so shattering.
#2: Hellenization – perhaps the most captivating aspect of the novel for me was the pressures and desires to Hellenize amongst certain Jews. Here is an example. A Greek gymnasiarch says this to a Jew attracted to Greek life and thought: “People are Hellenes not only by descent but by disposition. Those who share our education are as fully Hellenes as those who share our ancestry. I have no doubt, Jason, that you are a true Hellene at heart” (p. 72).
The debates that Jews had in that time (2nd century BC) are remarkably similar to how we talk about church and society today – we must move forward and find our place in culture. Culture has much to offer us without the risk of losing our identity. God speaks to us through other cultures, etc. And then there is the same push-back: how far is too far? When have we forsaken our tradition? Are we not supposed to be counter-cultural? This reminded me: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
#3: Jew-Gentile Relationships and the Problem of Idolatry – there is a nice sub-plot in the book about whether a Jewish craftsman can make jewelry for a Gentile that wants an image of an idol. The wise elder says to a young craftsman: “when we, who have enjoyed God’s care and favor, prefer to make idols for the Gentiles for the sake of money rather than use those encounters as opportunities to testify to the grace and majesty and goodness of the Only God, what would that say to the one who looks on from above?” (this also says something about the Jewish desire for positive witness to Gentiles)
#4: The Importance of meals and honor-shame dynamics. Much of the book’s stories take place around meals and clearly meals (in Jewish as well as Gentile circles) were treated as places where status was very important, and where honoring and shaming clearly took place.
One more thing – perhaps one of my favorite moments in Day of Atonement was deSilva’s narration of Mattathias’ speech in Modein where he stood against Antiochus’ orders. Again, the opportunity to see the social dynamics, the history, the tensions, is eye-opening.
If you don’t tend to like biblical studies books (especially if you struggle with finding “history” engaging), this might be the book for you. But carve out 6-8 hours in the week you start because it is the kind of book in which you will get lost!