No, I didn’t slide open the tomb of an ancient revolutionary in Israel. But I did rest on the half-open lid of what might be his grave at the town of Modi’in and consider what it takes to provoke oppressed people to revolt.
Violence erupted at Modi’in in 167 BCE when the foreign ruler Antiochus IV tried to force all of Judea to abandon loyalty to Yahweh and accept Greek gods. Ready to embrace the foreign culture, some Judeans built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and even tried to remove marks of circumcision so they could exercise naked in Greek style without drawing attention (see 1 Maccabees).
Then Antiochus placed a statue of Zeus in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem and sent officers throughout Judea forcing everyone to sacrifice to his gods. These agents burned Torah scrolls and executed Jewish people who circumcised their sons. Antiochus issued coins that read, “King Antiochus, god manifest.” The man was divine!
At Modi’in a priest named Mattathias and five sons watched as a fellow Jew prepared to make sacrifices the king’s officer demanded. Enraged, Mattathias killed both that man and the officer. Mattathias and sons headed to the hills for guerrilla warfare, and the Maccabean (“hammer-like”) revolt was underway.
Three years later these rebels captured Jerusalem and ritually cleansed the temple. Only a day’s worth of sacred lamp oil remained for the temple menorah. But, according to legends in the Talmud, that amount lasted eight days — a miracle that Jews still celebrate as Hanukkah. Two decades of warfare followed until the last Greek invaders left in defeat.
How often does such violent resistance improve society? The record is not good. After the Maccabean revolt, Jewish rulers soon became as corrupt as their Greek predecessors. Some modern states “liberated” by armed revolutionaries have become just as oppressive under new leaders. Jewish self-rule ended in civil war, with Romans entering in 63 BCE to occupy Palestine for centuries.
No quick fix exists for ending oppressive governments, but the Bible gives clues on how God’s people can respond. The Book of Daniel probably first appeared in its present form early in the regime of Antiochus. Narratives in the first six chapters of Daniel portray nonviolent resistance to idolatry and courage to face martyrdom in ancient Babylon. Visions in the second half of Daniel project hope that God will send a messianic agent to end oppression and inaugurate the kingdom of God.
Daniel and colleagues never took up arms like the Maccabees did centuries later. The Hebrew lads in Babylon simply were faithful to God even in the face of fiery furnace or lions’ den.
Likewise, Jesus resisted idolatry and faced martyrdom. He confronted oppression by denouncing Herod, casting out demons, lampooning hypocritical leaders and overturning money-changer tables in the temple.
But when Peter started using lethal force in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Put away your sword.” Name and confront oppression and idolatry? Yes. Take up arms? No. Jesus calls followers to nonviolently confront evil, show love even to enemies, and expect that God in the end will bring justice.
J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more writing and information about his upcoming tours to Israel-Palestine at peace-pilgrim.com.