Increasingly, the idea of atonement is a tough one for folks to grab hold of. “Jesus died for our sins” is not only subject to lots of interpretation and reinterpretation. One of the questions we have to keep coming back to in this discussion, at least to get our bearings, is how first-century Jewish people might understand such a story.
The people of God are sinful. Within this context a person is killed for maintaining his fidelity to Israel’s God in the face of every inducement to abandon his course. The result is that God’s just displeasure with God’s people is removed and they are delivered from their enemies.
This is the story of 2 Maccabees.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes is persecuting the people of Israel. But the problems aren’t all from the outside. A Hellenizing movement has developed, pulling the people away from the Torah keeping that marks them out as the people of God.
This king attempts to induce seven brothers and their mother, under severe torture, to eat pig.
When the first brother is killed, they encourage each other to entrust themselves to the God who judges justly: “God will have compassion on his servants.”
What possible deliverance can these maimed and tortured brothers be hoping for? One part is personal vindication:
“You, who are marked out for vengeance, may take our present life, but the king of the universe for whose laws we die will resurrect us again to eternal life.” (2 Macc 7:9, CEB)
Resurrection is God’s vindication of God’s suffering faithful–and the indication that God is a greater, more powerful king than the kings of the earth who can take a life, as the fourth brother says:
“Death at the hands of humans is preferable, since we look forward to the hope that God gives of being raised by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.” (2 Macc 7:14, CEB)
But this event is not merely personal. It is corporate as well. The shift to the people begins with the fifth of the seven brothers:
While looking at the king he said, “You, though human, have power among human beings and do what you want. But don’t think that God has abandoned our people.” (2 Macc 7:16, CEB)
The following brother connects their suffering with the people’s sins: the brothers are faithful, yet suffering for the sins of the people. But this moment of suffering is not the last word:
“Don’t deceive yourself in vain. We suffer these things because of our own sins against our God. Things worthy of wonder have happened. But don’t think you will escape unpunished after trying to fight against God.” (2 Macc 7:18, CEB)
It’s in the lengthy speech of the seventh brother that the propitiating significance of their death comes to the fore:
“We are suffering because of our own sins. If our living Lord is angry for a short time in order to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy man, the most bloodstained of all people, don’t be so proud without having cause. Bloated by futile hope, you raise up your hand against the children of heaven. You haven’t at all escaped the judgment of the almighty God, who oversees all. Now our brothers, who endured pain for a short time, have been given eternal life under God’s covenant, but you will suffer the penalty of your arrogance by the righteous judgment of God. Just like my brothers, I give up both body and life for the ancestral laws. I call upon God to be merciful to the nation without delay, and to make you confess, after you suffer trials and diseases, that only he is God. Also I hope through me and my brothers to stop the anger of the almighty, who is justly punishing our entire nation.” (2 Macc 7:32-28, CEB)
The suffering of the martyrs is (1) because of the people’s sins; which (2) has provoked the just wrath of God. But (3) their own suffering is due to a faithful adherence to God’s law which (4) should have the effect of stopping God’s anger and turning God to mercy.
Immediately afterward, the story shifts scenes to Judas the Maccabee, gathering his army. “They called on the Lord to listen to the shed blood of those who had appealed to God for help” (2 Macc 8:3). And then, “Once he organized his army, the Maccabee couldn’t be stopped by the Gentiles, because the lord’s wrath had turned into mercy (2 Macc 8:5, CEB).
How might atonement be conceptualized by an early Jewish person?
In a context where the people are viewed as sinning against God and in need of repentance, a person who is faithful to God is martyred precisely because of this faithfulness. The fidelity of the martyr turns God’s anger to mercy, and the people are delivered. Despite their own faithfulness, the martyr receives the just penalty, the chastening discipline, due to the people as a whole.
And then, everything changes.