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.