Imagine what your world would be like as an educated person from the Kingdom of Judah after Jerusalem fell in 597 BC. The holy city – your people’s refuge – has been sacked. The Chaldeans have destroyed your temple, killed your loved ones, and carried you and your temple’s sacred treasures to the great city Babylon.
You now live in the king’s court and have been given a Babylonian name. You learn of their foreign Gods and discover that Babylon is more technologically advanced than your society was. King Nebuchadnezzar’s buildings and gardens leave you in awe.
You wonder if you should assimilate with Chaldean culture and adopt its dress, cuisine, customs, and religion. Many of your Jewish (also called Judahite) neighbors are casting aside the old ways and embracing their new circumstances. Those who bend the knee are treated with kindness and given financial opportunities while those who hold fast to their Jewish heritage are persecuted. Do you conform or do you attempt to push back against the weight of an empire?
How a few young men saved a culture
Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were young Jews who lived in such times. The story goes that they turned down food and wine from the king’s own kitchens because it was unclean according to Jewish law. When all the inhabitants of Babylon knelt and prayed to the king’s golden statue, they refused to do so. They would not idolize their new king or pray to unknown gods, even though the penalty for such behavior was the furnace. They said, “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your god, and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” 1
The king was enraged by their defiance and ordered that the young men be executed. The guards threw Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah into a blazing furnace. The Bible says that, miraculously, they were unharmed. In the oven they enjoyed the presence of God. Their clothes were not singed, and afterward, they did not even smell of fire.
The three young Jews were willing to face scorn, imprisonment, and even death to defend their way of life. They compromised with the Babylonians in some ways but held onto what truly mattered to them. The stories of these three dissidents and others like them inspired many of their fellow Jews to remain a separate and distinct people. Even more, their courage and conviction echoed through the centuries. For more than two millennia, many Jews have looked back on these examples and refused to compromise their values.
How we can protect our way of life
There are those who say that marriage is an outdated custom, hard work is a kind of oppression, tight-knit local communities are unnecessary, and God is dead. They point to the declining rates of marriage, shrinking family sizes, and decreasing church attendance and say that the end of all our institutions and values is inevitable. Because they have fewer relationships and responsibilities than people had in the past, they invent empty replacements for human connection, and they attempt to justify their own self-centeredness. Perhaps one day they will learn that no one can find lasting contentment in what is inherently unfulfilling.
Today, some of those with Judeo-Christian standards would rather face the furnace than bow to popular notions. Many of them do not go to church or the synagogue every week, but they understand the individual and societal benefits of certain shared customs, beliefs and values. Published research is on their side, and they can see the happiness and meaning available to those who cling to certain time-tested principles.
People who resist the popular current are subject to some harassment now. In the future, they can expect rising waves of intimidation and perhaps even violence. Helpful standards from the past will not be snuffed out though despite public opinion. A core of principled people will remain, and they will confront untested and destructive ideologies. Even if these individuals are swept away, their stories will lend others the courage to stand up and face persecution themselves.
Healthy cultures cannot persist unless there are exceptional people willing to lose wealth, popularity and even their lives for their core principles. Culture is ingrained and protected by the stories of the few who sacrifice everything – those who know what the good life is and cannot be moved from it. May we have the courage to stand firm.