Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Twin Challenges

James Michener’s book, The Source, is a historical novel surveying the history of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Chapter 7 is particularly gripping. It chronicles five years in the second century B.C., when Palestine is ruled by the Syrian emperor Antiochus IV.

In 171 B.C. Antiochus decrees that all citizens must acknowledge that the god Zeus has come to earth in the person of … Antiochus! (He thereby is referred to as Antiochus Epiphanes, “God-made-manifest”). The government assures Jewish residents that those who prefer to worship in their synagogue are not affected by this law, “for our great emperor has no wish to offend any man so long as his deity is acknowledged.”

In 170 the government announces a law requiring all citizens to present themselves four times a year to pay formal homage to Antiochus Epiphanes. The four days happen to fall on the Jewish Sabbath. When Jews protest, the government decides that Greeks will pay homage during the daylight hours and Jews in the evening after their Sabbath has ended.

In 169 the government announces that “in order to halt the perpetuation of differences among the peoples of this great empire, Antiochus Epiphanes has decided that Jews shall no longer circumcise their male children.” Many Jews protest vigorously, but some say that the Greek view of the human body as a temple that is not to be desecrated should be respected. Thus the Jews cannot unite in protest. Many devout Jews continue circumcising their sons on the eighth day as their religion commands, but many others acquiesce to the new law.

In 168 the government announces that the worship of Antiochus Epiphanes henceforth should be the one and official religion of all the people. “But after a man has paid proper homage to Antiochus he shall be free to worship his old gods as his second and private religion.” The quarterly offering at the temple, however, must now be a pig.

In 167 the government announces that thereafter any Jew who refuses to accept Antiochus Epiphanes as the sole god, supplanting all others, including the god Yahweh, and any Jew who persists in following the law of Moses, and/or circumcises his son, or refuses to offer a swine as sacrifice, shall be scourged, have his skin torn off while still alive, be chopped to pieces and his body fed to the dogs. This is the final straw that leads to a bloody Jewish rebellion (known as the Maccabean Revolt) which drives the Syrians out of the land over the next twenty-five years.

Religious people throughout history have been challenged in two particular directions: to resist assimilating further into the competing values of the surrounding culture, and to resist governmental restrictions on their religious practices. The temptation to avoid resisting is so strong because seldom do these challenges come in strong doses; assimilation and acquiescence occur inch by inch, small compromise by small compromise. American Christians face these twin challenges continually. Michener’s fictionalized but historically based depiction of the Jews’ predicament in second century Palestine under Syrian rule and amidst Greek culture is particularly instructive both for individual Christians in our repeated temptations to compromise our faith convictions, and for the church in the face of an ever-growing and increasingly intrusive government.


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