Sacrificial Salvation

Yesterday we took a look at the martyrdom of seven brothers and their mother in 2 Maccabees, using it to help us put together a story of how early Jewish people might imagine atonement being made for the people through the death of a righteous martyr.

Today we turn to a much briefer passage, this one from 4 Maccabees. Fourth Maccabees celebrates the deaths of these martyrs as well, but with a much lengthier telling and a somewhat more philosophical spin on the nature of the martyrs’ fidelity.

These people who have dedicated themselves to God are honored, therefore, not only with this privilege but also because they kept our enemies from ruling our nation.The tyrant was punished, and our nation was cleansed through them. They exchanged their lives for the nation’s sin. Divine providence delivered Israel from its former abuse through the blood of those godly people. Their deaths were a sacrifice that finds mercy from God. (4 Macc 17:20-22, CEB)

The death of the martyrs brings salvation–deliverance from the reign of Antiochus IV: “they kept our enemies from ruling our nation.” Apparently, the swords of the Maccabees were insufficient–God’s favor had to be restored first and foremost.

Their death brought “cleansing” as well. The metaphor of sin as something that stains is in play here, with the martyrs’ death washing the people as a whole. (Again, it’s important that the martyrs are faithful whereas the nation as a whole is seen as faithless.)

But it’s v. 22 that might be the most intriguing for Christians wrestling with how the New Testament writers understood Jesus’ death. This cleansing, saving death is also described as the blood of the sacrifice that makes God merciful.

The Greek word, ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion), is the same word Paul uses in Rom 3 when he says God made Christ a sacrifice of atonement–often argued for as “mercy seat” these days.

Fourth Maccabees is probably not “background” to Paul’s thought, but it provides an intriguing parallel to Paul’s claims for Jesus and the language he uses to talk about the significance of Jesus’ death.

The death of the faithful martyr functions like a sacrifice that changes the disposition of God toward the people by the martyr’s representing the people in fidelity before God even to the point of death.

25 thoughts on “Sacrificial Salvation”

  1. Put like that reminds me of the “cycle of sin” in Judges and the succession of “foreign” rulers. Mostly the judges made other people die for the peoples’ sins, but there was Samson, who achieved his cleansing by pulling down the Philistines’ temple at the cost of his own death, using his particular authority as a Nazerite (super-strength). He also played fast and loose with the Mosaic law.

  2. Hello, Daniel,

    In *Paul on the Cross* (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), David Brondos comments:

    “Because of Eleazar’s [and his sons'] obedience and his prayer on behalf on the nation, God put an end to the chastisements and delivered the people from their oppression under Antiochus . . . . The basis for Eleazar’s petition and God’s favorable response to it was therefore the commitment to obedience shown first by Eleazar and then by others as a result of his unbending faithfulness to God’s law. . . . In Jewish thought *this was the only thing that could satisfy and please God and turn away God’s wrath. Eleazar’s death was thus an ‘atonement’ . . . because it was the expression and cause of repentance and a renewed commitment to God’s will on the part of God’s people, as well as a petition on their behalf . . . . There is no hint here of the idea that Eleazar’s life or the punishment he endured was equivalent to what the people owed for their sins, or that it was not possible for God to forgive and redeem the people until his wrath had been exhausted by being poured out on Eleazar as their substitute. God had been punishing the people, not for *his own* sake, but for *theirs*” [p. 28].

    Eleazar and his sons kept covenant fidelity and did not shrink from doing right. Theirs were self-giving sacrifices on behalf of the nation, even to enduring family torture and death.

    These martyrs were not the objects of God’s retributive punishment but representatives for healing the divine-national relationship.

    Although they violently died before Antiochus, Eleazar and his sons functioned as repairers of a covenant breach between God and the Jewish people (cp. Isaiah 58:12). Because of their deaths and subsequent national repentance, covenant life for the Jews continued instead of oppression from Antiochus.


    1. I agree that there’s not the sense that the entirety of the wrath due to the nation comes down on the martyrs. But I wonder if the explanation given here doesn’t underplay the sense that, despite the martyrs’ faithfulness, theirs is the discipline that was due to the nation for its disobedience? It seems that the progression in the martyrs’ speeches in 2 Maccabees cultivates a two-sided equation where both the discipline that needed to befall the nation and the faithfulness that the nation needed to render to God were summed up in their deaths.

      1. Daniel,

        Yes, the martyrs embodied the covenant fidelity that properly was a responsibility of each Jewish person in the national community.

        By Eleazar and his sons’ act of standing in the breach against widespread idolatry, greed, and apostasy, the interpreted story of their faithfulness to death–as distinct from their dying as random individuals–provoked widespread Jewish revival. In the narrative account of Eleazar and his sons, they served as ideal representatives of their people.

        Without question, their deaths demonstrated the depths of covenant commitment and self-giving sacrifice. They remarkably remained steadfast to death and were exemplars of trusting in God.

        I have reluctance to understand their (human) deaths per se as imbued with saving significance or that God demanded their horrific deaths as a punitive necessity for satisfying His wrath.

        The Day of Atonement liturgy in Leviticus does not include any human’s death, yet promoted annual cleansing from guilt as well as fresh opportunity for living out covenant fidelity.

        Heartfelt repentance seems more pivotal in the Mosaic covenant (Joel 2:12-14).

        Am I on the right track or am I missing something significant?


        1. Hello, Daniel,

          After reading portions of Leroy Huizenga’s *The New Isaac*, I can better appreciate that the parallel with Isaac’s self sacrifice and the martyrdom of Eleazar and his sons.

          (The parallels with Jesus as the new covenant counterpart with Isaac are also very instructive.)

          If I understand correctly, literature as late as 4 Maccabees suggests a kind of “dynamic equivalence” between animal sin offering and human martyrdom.

          Divine justice took on a punitive *perception* within the Jewish people around the time of Antiochus not present in (say) Leviticus or what Yahweh actually required (Micah 6:8).

          It remains clear that God honored the faithfulness unto death from Eleazar and his sons on behalf of the nation. Their self-giving sacrifice was acceptable.


  3. The death of the faithful martyr functions like a sacrifice that changes the disposition of God toward the people by the martyr’s representing the people in fidelity before God even to the point of death. Thank you for drawing on these books, not often cited, Daniel! Would you agree that the OT also describes other ways the godly & faithful seem to “change the disposition of God toward the people”, so although sacrificial atonement is central, perhaps the other stories fall within that purview for God, as it were? Various verse from Psalms came to mind, as I read your post:
    Psalm 51:17 – confession, repentance, a broken spirit, a contrite heart – unless we read that as only God changing only toward an individual (who happened to be king of Israel!)
    Psalm 105 – God’s mindfulness of his covenant, and remembrance of his promise
    Psalm 106 – the nation should repeatedly remember with gratitude what God has done (& remember ours & our ancestors’ ingratitude, too), godly individuals who stand in the breach & intercede with God for the people (Moses & Phinehas), and God’s compassion & memory of his covenant.

    It’s encouraging that God’s mercy toward us is so abundant. I meditated awhile on Luke 7:29-30 today. The bondage of our insufficiency, pride, willfulness and brokenness runs through these stories, and what/who sets us free is incarnate love for others, humility before God, and self-giving.

  4. I do think it’s interesting that we’re looking for parallels between Paul and apocryphal works that are hundreds of years removed from Paul’s context yet we can’t see with any necessity the Tanakh as having any normative role in the life and thought of Paul in terms of how we live. I wonder what drives the seeming difference here.

    1. A couple of things, Kevin. First, you keep responding to your own misconstrual of what someone must think about the Law in the NT/Paul if they don’t agree with you rather than what I actually think. Take some time to listen and understand the actual positions of people who disagree with you. It’s a lot harder than the standard fare of creating our own opponents, but more profitable for conversation.

      Second, the point at which we differ is not whether the OT is important or normative for Paul. The debate between us seems to be (as you articulated it yourself a couple weeks back) whether we should allow the Jewish milieu of the Second Temple period to frame that discussion (so Kirk), or whether we should allow 17th century Englishmen to tell us what that interpretive framework should be (the “classical covenant theology” you’re advocating).

      “What drives the seeming difference here”? Whether we should understand Paul as a Jew making sense of the surprising work of Jesus from his own second temple Jewish context or whether we should understand Paul as being closer in thought to a seventeenth century English Puritan. I think that’s the heart of it.

      1. LOL, Daniel. I’m not using 17th century Englishmen and their writings as an interpretive framework. That’s such a misconstrual of my position and allows you no small opportunity to shadowbox quite on your own. You’re off by at least two centuries and you need to swim the Channel to get any closer to my point of view.

        I don’t have any issue reviewing the matter from other perspectives, I just wonder whether you’re really as consistent as you claim in looking at something like Paul’s writings. No doubt the Apocrypha is present during the period to which you refer, but how and why it ought to be seen in parallel is something you don’t really discuss in great detail. In the meantime, you continue to press something like this over and above a more normative role that the Old Testament obviously played in the ‘Second Temple Jewish milieu’ to which you refer, let alone the writings of Paul.

        1. The question isn’t whether the OT was normative, but how. Paul, like his contemporaries, is interpreting the text and its place in the community in light of his convictions that his community possesses the truth, is the vehicle through which God has acted and will act to bring all God’s promises to fruition. The hermeneutics I see at play with Paul, including the place of the OT, are quite similar to what we see in Qumran.

          I’m not pressing this “over and above a more normative role” for the OT. To the best of my knowledge, I have never compared or contrasted the two. The question for me isn’t whether the OT is normative, but how early Jewish communities are interpreting that normative text.

          I don’t see the Maccabees forming a pattern Paul must follow–in fact, there is some important difference in Paul’s claim about a crucified messiah who has already been raised. There is discontinuity as well as continuity. The question is what sorts of conceptual resources Paul might have alighted on to understand “Jesus died for our sins.” That’s it’s own question, one that the OT can contribute to but the OT can’t tell us how 1st century Jews were interpreting the OT, or understanding how God might work now that the return from exile hadn’t really happened as planned.

  5. i find the posting here to be most thought provoking. this is really good stuff.
    i am wondering (as my reading of late has included Renee Girard) how his understanding of mimetic acts and sacrifice fits in with this.
    it would seem that his paradigm would be akin to the texts from Maccabees and the thoughts shared above.
    thanks for providing this!

  6. I reckon it would have been useful for you to have said more explicitly that ‘hilasterion’ is the word in the version of 4 Macc you use translated under the concept of ‘sacrifice’.

    Then, of course it’s interesting what the NT writers claim to have understood, but then it might be useful to say that it doesn’t look like it contributes to our actual understanding, but is something of a mystery.

  7. Ok, I’ll have another go, I don’t want to be mysterious! Saying that the NT writers understood something (as you do) might imply that they were able to see something was cogent rather than that they merely thought it was cogent because it was the type of thing that did indeed seem to be an explanation to them. So it would be implied that there was something there we also should be taking as cogent, ie as an actual explanation of how something worked. But people dying so that God will again look favourably on a nation is, I would take it, not something we now would find cogent, or an explanation of things. If we were to accept it, it could only be as a mysterious way that God worked.

  8. The language used in 4 Mac is fascinating in how similar it is to Christian descriptions of Jesus’ death. What makes Christian talk even more interesting is how this language could be broadened to include the whole world.

  9. Daniel,
    Are you intending to say that God’s wrath was appeased through punishment so that Maccabees becomes evidence for the classic Reform doctrine of penal substitution? This seems to be the implication. Is this your intent?
    If so then I think it would be important to consider the implications for God’s character here. It seems to me to have some pretty disturbing consequences. Do you see these too?

  10. One thing this gets into therefore is how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. For example at the last supper Jesus undeniably draws a parallel between his own impending death and the exodus. There are many significant ways however that the two are not the same. One involved killing Gentiles. The other involved salvation for jews and Gentiles. In one God saved by killing people. And the other God saved by giving his life. So while there are parallels in imagery and symbolism there are also significant differences with ethical implications.

    In the same way I think we need to be careful in drawing parallels with Maccabees because of the potential to reach conclusions about God’s character that may be out of line with the God revealed in Christ.

    1. The crucifixion is much more complex than simply “God saved by giving Himself.” And perhaps that’s where I continue to wrestle. Here are a couple of salient points: (1) In Mark, there is a man, Jesus, who is abandoned by God on the cross in order for the people to be saved. We need to have some way of dealing with that in our theology–or at least, for explaining it in the Gospel writer’s. (2) Jesus’ death is not only about God giving in order to save, it is also the final act of Israel’s rebellion against God to which God responds with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Mark 11, 13).

      I agree that there is reinterpretation all over the place, but then we also have to ask, “What sort of things might a Jew of the Second Temple Period mean when he uses the language of hilasterion to talk about Jesus’ death on our behalf?”

      1. Yes I am certainly aware that the cross is complex :)

        Along those lines we need to keep in mind that we are not talking about how “a Jew” of the time would have understood hilasterion, but how Paul in particular would have. James Dunn describes Paul’s former brand of Pharaseeism as one characterized by “zealous and violent hostility,” and his conversion to Christ as a conversion *away from* that type of religion. So if we were to ask how would Saul the zealous persecuter have understood hilasterion, then I would say he would have understood it like in Maccabees which is also characterized by violent zeal for purity. However if we want to ask how Paul the follower of Jesus Christ would now understand it, I think the answer is likely to be very different since he came to understand his former religious view as “blasphemous” and sinful.

      2. Daniel,

        On (1), can we comprehend abandonment in relation to God’s redemptive action in the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus as contributing to the ultimate defeat of violence and suffering in the first-Adam sphere of existence?

        In *Act & Being* (London: St. Albans, 2002), Colin Gunton reflects:

        “The point . . . is to remove suffering from the creation, not to affirm it or establish it as in some way a necessity for God or man. . . . This priority of redemption is undermined, if not actively subverted, by any breach of perichoresis; any suggestion that there is a rift in God. It seems therefore that the so-called cry of dereliction should not be seen in such terms, but as the final episode in the incarnate Son’s total identification of himself, through the Spirit, with the lost human condition. Most simply, it is the cry of an Israelite expressing the self-distancing of that people form God as the result of their sin, the completion of Jesus’ identification with Israel in his baptism” [pp. 130-131].


        1. I really like the latter part of that paragraph. But I think I’d end it with, “And if consummating Jesus’ identification with Israel’s sin, then consummating their experience of God’s abandonment of them to its consequences–namely, death.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.