2008-05-18

The offering of Isaac: its evolution into the template of the Jesus event: 1

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by Neil Godfrey

An intriguing read is Jon D. Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. (There are public domain reviews online here and here.)

Levenson’s argument is that the Jewish interpretations of the Aqedah (the story of the Binding of Isaac at his moment of sacrifice by Abraham) developed into an etiology of the Passover, and Isaac himself eventually became a willing sacrificial victim for the redemption of Israel. These interpretations can be traced from the second century b.c.e. Chistianity displaced this Isaac legend with its theology of the Jesus crucifixion.

There is too much in the book for me to cover here, but will share a few of the highlights.

I’ll pass over Levenson’s coverage of the history of child sacrifice in the Canaanite culture and the sublimation in early Israel of that practice to prominent motifs in myths, legends and symbolic sacrifices. A discussion of all the appearances in Israelite literature of the story of a father, including God as a father-figure, giving up a son (including a collective son as in the people of Israel) to death or slavery only to have him/them, or more abundant replacements, restored again would require a separate post or two or three.

Both the Jewish and the Christian systems of sacrifice come to be seen as founded upon a father’s willingness to surrender his beloved son and the son’s unstinting acceptance of the sacrificial role he has been assigned in the great drama of redemption. Though this is more obviously and more centrally the case in Christianity, it holds for Judaism more than is generally recognized. The Christian doctrine is incomprehensible apart from the history of Jewish biblical interpretation. (p.175)

Following Levenson I refer to the Aqedah — the name given to the narrative of the Binding of Isaac.

Abraham the faithful when he believes

The story in Genesis 22:1-19 contains no mention of Abraham’s “faithfulness”. That is a subsequent interpretation read into the story. Modern readers have become so familiar with this interpretation that they probably find it hard to read the original story without that interpretation. The idea of Abraham’s faithfulness first appears in Nehemiah 9:7-8, a text no earlier than the 5th century b.c.e., and which is a commentary on Genesis 15:6-8 — not the later Aqedah. Until the second century it appears that it was Abraham’s belief in the covenant (Genesis 15:6) that was the supreme example of his faith in God.

Abraham the faithful when he is tested

It is in the second century b.c.e., in Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Joshua ben Sira/Sirach, 44:20-21, that we read:

Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations,
and no-one has been found like him in glory;
he kept the law of the Most High,
and was taken into covenant with him;
he established the covenant in his flesh,
and when he was tested he was found faithful.

The time of testing commented on here is surely the moment beginning at Genesis 22:1 (God “tested” Abraham . . .) Levenson sees here in ben Sira a reinterpretation of the life of Abraham. The blessing of Abraham was postponed until he had undergone this test. No longer is Abraham’s belief in God’s promise the supreme moment of his faithfulness (Genesis 15:6) . For the first time Abraham’s faithfulness is now linked with his testing.

A century later we read another interpretation of Abraham, in 1 Maccabees 2:52

Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?

There are three noteworthy points here:

  1. This interpretation is given in the context of Jewish martyrs being required to follow Abraham’s example and be zealous for the law even to the point of death (Will discuss the implications and evolution of this idea later)
  2. Abraham’s faithfulness is again linked with testing (Gen.22:1) — that is, the time of the sacrifice of his son
  3. Abraham’s faithfulness is also linked with his belief in the promise of God (Gen.15:6)

We see in ben Sira and 1 Maccabees that the faithfulness of Abraham in Genesis 15:6 was re-applied to the time of his testing when required to sacrifice his son.

In the Wisdom of Solomon 10:5-6, from the late first century b.c.e. or early first century c.e., there are only two points in the life of Abraham are worth mentioning: how Wisdom rescued him from the destruction of Sodom and kept him blameless and preserved him resolute in the aqedah:

Moreover, the nations in their wicked conspiracy being confounded, she [Wisdom] found out the righteous, and preserved him blameless unto God, and kept him strong against his tender compassion toward his son. When the ungodly perished, she delivered the righteous man, who fled from the fire which fell down upon the five cities.

In the second and first centuries, then, Abraham’s supreme example of faithfulness was epitomized in the aqedah, the binding of Isaac.

The sacrifice of Isaac identified with the Passover

The Passover sacrifice

In the middle of the second century b.c.e. Levenson writes that “a transformation of inestimable significance had come about in the interpretation of the aqedah.” It is the Book of Jubilees 17:15-16:

And it came to pass in the seventh week, in the first year thereof, in the first month in this jubilee, on the twelfth of this month, there were voices in heaven regarding Abraham, that he was faithful in all that He told him, and that he loved the Lord, and that in every affliction he was faithful. And the prince Mastêmâ came and said before God, ‘Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son, and he delights in him above all things else; bid him offer him as a burnt-offering on the altar, and Thou wilt see if he will do this command, and Thou wilt know if he is faithful in everything wherein Thou dost try [test] him.

Since the Passover sacrifice was made in the evening of the 14th day of the first month, the 12th of the month was 3 days before the Passover. And since Jubilees appears to assume that Abraham made his sacrifice immediately upon arrival (Genesis 22:4; Jubilees 18:3), after his three day journey, we see that the offering of Isaac has been transformed into an etiology of Passover. Levenson refers to Mircea Eliade’s “prestige of origins” being built around the Passover — embedding it into “the life of the very first Jew.”

The Seven day paschal feast

Following Abraham’s offering up Isaac and sacrificing the lamb instead, Jubilees departs from the Genesis account:

And Abraham went to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham [2010 A.M.] dwelt by the Well of the Oath. And he celebrated this festival every year, seven days with joy, and he called it the festival of the Lord according to the seven days during which he went and returned in peace. And accordingly has it been ordained and written on the heavenly tablets regarding Israel and its seed that they should observe this festival seven days with the joy of festival. (Jubilees 18:17-19)

The only 7 day festival in the first month is the Passover (Lev. 23:5-8 ). It appears that Jubilees is providing an etiology of this 7 day festival, too. There is no comparable etiology for this in the Bible. The seven day festival is a joyful celebration of Abraham’s 7 day journey in which he offered Isaac: 3 days to the place, one day sabbath rest, and 3 days return. The reason it was joyful was because Isaac was spared at the last moment.

Unlike the Leviticus account, Jubilees begin this 7 day festival on the 12th in order to make the offering of Isaac coincide with the Passover sacrifice.

The Firstborn son redeemed by an animal substitute

Levenson refers back to his earlier discussion (not covered here) to the stories of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son and the sparing of the Israelite first born in the tenth plague on Egypt and how these reflect a much earlier (pre-Israelite) cultic institution that allowed for the substitution of a lamb for the child destined to be sacrificed to god. The idea that the firstborn son belonged to God, yet could happily be redeemed by an animal substitute, was deeply rooted in Israelite culture, and Jubilees makes this explicit with its interpretation of the aqedah and associating the aqedah with the Passover.

The Defeat of the Destroyer

Jubilees applies the opening scene in the Book of Job to the beginning of the Abraham-Isaac account and thus introduces yet another interpretation into the aqedah that brings it closer to the Exodus Passover.

And the prince Mastêmâ came and said before God, ‘Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son, and he delights in him above all things else; bid him offer him as a burnt-offering on the altar, and Thou wilt see if he will do this command, and Thou wilt know if he is faithful in everything wherein Thou dost try [test] him.

The Hebrew word mastema derives from a root meaning hostility, enmity. Jubilees lists Prince Mastema among a number of demonic figures.

Levenson alerts us to the fact that the Devil or Adversary who provoked the test of Job’s obedience resulted in the deaths of his children, and in their final replacement with new set whose descendents Job lived to see to the 4th generation. This should be read beside the aqedah which ends not with the son dead, but spared, and with the genealogy of the family of the son’s wife and mother of the Israelite peoples (c.f. Job 42:13-16 and Genesis 22:20-24). Both Abraham and Job also die old and happy (Gen.25:8 and Job 42:17) despite their trials. Hence the author of Jubilees had rich midrashic logic for applying the same taunting by the Devil or Destroyer as the motive for the testing of Abraham.

The Jubilees midrash of Mastema should also be read in conjunction with the Destroying Angel in Exodus 12:21-23 who was sent by God to destroy the first born in Egypt. Israel’s obedience in sacrificing the lambs turns away the Destroyer from their firstborn.

If this Destroyer in Exodus, though sent by God in this case, was identified with the Devil by the time of Jubilees, then it makes sense for the author of Jubilees to apply the introduction of Job to the aqedah.

This would mean that Abraham’s test would have been at the instigation of the Devil, and Jubilees interprets Abraham’s obedience in being willing to sacrifice his son as a defeat of the Devil — much as the Israelite’s smearing blood on their doorways overcame or set back the intentions of the Destroying Angel.

Abraham pre-enacts his descendants destiny, obeying God’s command in a way that defeats the supernatural forces of destruction and, paradoxically, enables his first-born son to survive . . . . Abraham becomes the originator of Passover, and the Passover becomes one massive footnote to the faithful obedience on the world’s first Jew. (p. 179)

(Levenson has earlier discussed the many other points of contact between the fate of Israel in Egypt and the story of Abraham.)

And Salvation of a nation

The idea that the salvation of a nation should hinge upon a father’s willingness to surrender his son harks back to Canaanite and Israelite themes already hoary in antiquity by the time Jubilees was written. (p. 179)

Two of the most obvious examples are the story of Joseph where father Jacob is willing to hand over Benjamin to save his family from death by starvation and his son Simeon from imprisonment; and that of Mesha, king of Moab, who saved his city by offering his son and heir a burnt offering, causing a “great wrath” to fall upon Israel and force their retreat (c.f. the diverting of the Death Angel)

By founding the story of Passover upon the aqedah, Jubilees makes a father’s willingness to give up his son and heir a key ingredient of Israel’s redemption in Egypt. Once again the wrath of God falls upon the enemy, this time in the form of the Destroyer’s execution of the tenth and climactic plague upon the Egyptians. The functional equivalence of the Destroyer and the “great wrath” should not be missed, nor should the Canaanite affinities of the paschal theology and rites. A holiday whose origins lie in a father’s willingness to surrender his beloved son for a sacrificial death ends in the redemption of his descendants’ first-born sons from the grip of death. (pp.179-180)

Will continue as opportunity arises. . . . . Been wanting to blog up my notes on this one for a long time but takes time to sort out old messy notes and sort out personal comments . . . .

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