Ancient Israel and Resistance Theory

Thoughts on Israel and the world powers:

The great bulk of my articles on resistance theory concern those Christians from the time of the Reformation and onwards. But earlier Christians of course also reflected on such issues – especially asking if and when civil government might be resisted. But before even then, the ancient Israelites had to deal with such matters as well.

As to examples found in the Old Testament of Israelites refusing to obey the powers that be, many cases can be offered. See one such piece that I did on this:

But it is actually the intertestamental period that I want to focus on here. This is the 400-year-period that fits between the end of the Old Testament and the start of the New. See more on this here:  

In particular, I want to focus on some of the responses that arose especially just prior to the Hasmonean era which had spanned some eight decades (142-63 BC). A brief timeline can be offered here:

198                    The Seleucids take over control of Syria-Palestine
175-164            Antiochus IV Epiphanes rules as the Syrian king
167-164             Antiochus IV devastates Jerusalem and the temple – the revolt of the Maccabees
164                    The Maccabees take control of the temple
160                   The Seleucids again control the temple
142                   Jewish independence is achieved
133-129            Independence temporarily lost to the Seleucids
63                      The Romans capture Jerusalem, ending the Hasmonean dynasty

Many know about some of the gorier details of what Antiochus had done. A three-day rampage in Jerusalem resulted in thousands of Jews being killed, enslaved, or forced to flee. Then the Hellenization process and the sacrilege really began in earnest. The worship of pagan deities was commanded, and even Antiochus was to be worshipped as a god. The temple itself was converted to one dedicated to the Olympian deity Zeus.

While the liberal Hellenizing Jews did not mind all this very much, obviously the more conservative Jews most certainly did. In his important new volume of over 800 pages Sydney academic George Athas discusses all this in great detail. He says this about how the devout Jews saw things:

But in the estimation of conservative Jews, Antiochus’s decree was not a theological triumph but a theological catastrophe that lethally poisoned the Jewish nation. It repudiated the prophetic promises and denied the God who made them. Rather than bringing the nations to the God of Israel, it dissolved Israel into the nations and disfigured Yahweh beyond recognition. It was a wholesale compromise of the national covenant that had conferred the status of “holy” upon Israel and that necessitated its distinction from other nations – a conviction that stemmed from understanding that Yahweh himself was intrinsically different to other deities. Jews would be unable to pursue the moral and cultural mandate laid out in the Torah (Deut. 4:5-8). Rather than allowing Jews to be a moral and cultural beacon to attract the nations to their God through the observance of Torah, Jewish distinctiveness officially evaporated into Greek cultural air. Judaism became indistinguishable from idolatrous polytheism. Antiochus’s decree undid the notion that Yahweh was the God of Israel and that they were his people, dissolving the very core of Jewish identity. (pp. 333-334)

Image of Bridging the Testaments: The History and Theology of God’s People in the Second Temple Period
Bridging the Testaments: The History and Theology of God’s People in the Second Temple Period by Athas, George (Author) Amazon logo

But as already alluded to, there was not a unified response to the oppression, persecution, and sacrilege the Jews were experiencing at the hands of Antiochus. In his helpful volume Anthony Tomasino looks at five different responses that can be mentioned:

The collaborators. Jewish collaborators consisted primarily of the Hellenists who were eager to see Jerusalem enjoy the cultural, political and economic benefits of adopting Greek ways….


The accommodators. Jewish accommodators had no particular love for the Greeks, but no particular dislike for them, either. They were willing to accept the new religion being imposed on them from simple necessity, not from any particular conviction….


The pacifists. Pacifistic Jews didn’t want to abandon their faith, but they wouldn’t fight to preserve their way of life. They would die for their religion, but they wouldn’t kill for it (at least not at this time)….


The defenders. The Jewish defenders were willing to fight to save their lives, but they had no desire to press the battle against the Greeks. Some of them fought only when they were attacked….


The aggressors. To Jewish aggressors the Antiochan persecution was a call to arms – not merely to defend themselves but to take the battle to the Greeks and drive them from the land. For these people the situation called for more than a restoration of the status quo. It was a call to liberation from all foreign domination…. (pp. 137-140)

All this is of interest to Christians today who in varying degrees in the West are seeing their once Christian cultures quickly succumbing to the forces of secularism, paganism, relativism, wholesale sexualisation, and increasingly anti-Christian sentiment and actions. How are we to respond to such challenges today? Do we flee or fight? Do we submit or resist?

But getting back to ancient Israel, and the Athas volume, he devotes some pages to “Resistance Literature” – in particular, the Song of Songs and the book of Daniel. He sees both as having been impacted by what Antiochus had done. Let me share a few paragraphs from his discussion on the Song:

The notion that death was preferable to compromise is one of the key ideas in the Song of Songs. So many modern interpreters treat the book as a collection of disparate love poems, the book shows evidence of a narrative integrity. That is, there is a consistency to the characters who speak within the poem, which helps us discern a storyline unfolding throughout it. Once the Song’s plot is understood, we may see how it relates metaphorically to the crisis of the Antiochene persecution….


On the metaphorical level, the Song draws on the prophetic marriage metaphor used to describe the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. In this way, the Song’s protagonist, the young woman, is representative of Israel, and the shepherd represents Yahweh, the divine shepherd. The argument of the Song is that Israel rightly belongs to Yahweh and to no one else. To take Israel away from Yahweh is criminal and should be resisted at all costs. Solomon, therefore, is a cypher for Antiochus IV and the woman’s brothers stand for the Jewish elite, like [the High Priest] Menelaus, who should protect the nation’s interests but instead sell the nation out to Antiochus for personal gain…. (pp. 340-341)

Athas had earlier written on these themes in his 2020 commentary on Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. I quoted from it in the ‘Between the Testaments’ piece that I link to above. But it is worth sharing here again that particular quote:

It is difficult to capture how close conservative Judaism came to complete collapse at this time. Both the internal cultural pressure of progressively minded Hellenists and the external legal pressure of the ruling authority subjected faithful conservative Jews to a virtually impossible decision: abandon conservative commitment to Yahweh or die. There were many social and economic advantages in such compromise. Just as a life of wealth and prestige awaits the woman in the Song if she marries the king, so survival and progress awaited conservative Jews if they adopted Hellenistic values and fell into line with Antiochus’s decrees. (p. 326)

Compromise is always one way to get along with hostile and anti-God powers. But it is not an option for the child of God. While the various options available to the Jews back then may not fully apply nor exhaust the choices Christians today might have in similar sorts of circumstances, we can learn a lot from how they proceeded during this difficult time in their history. And we can be pretty sure that the anti-God and anti-Christian persecution will only ramp up in the days ahead. So we had better start thinking long and hard right now as to how we will respond.

Let me offer a summarising quote from the new Athas book on just what had transpired during this crucial period in Israel’s intertestamental history:

The early Hasmonean era (167-142 BC) was characterised by the Maccabean Revolt and the gradual separation of the Jewish people from their Seleucid overlords. The period could just as easily be considered part of the Seleucid era. At its heart, the revolt was an intra-Jewish civil war between conservative-fundamentalist factions committed to traditional modes of cultural and religious expression, and progressives keen to embrace Greek ideas and integrate the Jewish people more fully into the Hellenistic world. In many ways, this was friction between a protective isolationist posture (cf. Nehemiah in the Persian era) and an ancient form of globalism. It is a mistake to think that Jewish conservatives and fundamentalists resisted Hellenism completely, for they easily and perhaps imperceptibly adopted many elements of Greek culture and thought, such that, by the time of the Maccabean Revolt, Judaism was very much Hellenized already. The bone of contention was the degree of Hellenization and who had the right to determine it. Even with the development of various Jewish schools of thought, Jews still believed in the oneness of Israel on the basis of the Torah’s covenant theology. This necessitated a centralised, communal approach to Jewish identity, which pitted competing factions against each other to become the gatekeepers of that singular identity. Jews were, on aggregate, conservative in comparison to Greeks. So, when the Seleucids empowered the progressives as the Jewish gatekeepers, Jewish conservatives and fundamentalists reacted against it. In their eyes, Antiochus IV’s revocation of the Jew’s ethnic status within the Seleucid kingdom led to the annihilation of Jewish distinctiveness (“holiness”). Thus, the Seleucids added an external spark that ignited a highly combustible internal matter. (p. 498)

It does not take much lateral thinking to see that there are some very real parallels to be found in the situation facing Western Christians today.

References and further reading

Athas, George, Bridging the Testaments. Zondervan, 2023.
Athas, George, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Zondervan, 2020.
Johnson, Paul, A History of the Jews. Harper & Row, 1987.
Kaiser, Walter and Paul Wegner, A History of Israel, rev. ed. B&H, 1998, 2016.
Pfeiffer, Charles, Between the Testaments. Truth Pub., 1959.
Scott, Julius, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. Baker, 2000.
Tomasino, Anthony, Judaism Before Jesus. IVP, 2003.

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2 Replies to “Ancient Israel and Resistance Theory”

  1. Nationalism vs globalism. Being nations or being just part of one big global empire. As it was it is. There is nothing new under the sun.

    Or as another put it “As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man”.

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