Jesus supplants Isaac — the contribution of Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

What was the origin of the idea that God sacrificed his beloved or only son to cover for the sins of his favoured people? Was it novel to the Christians? Was it the outcome of years of theological reflection searching for meaning in some historical event? Or was the idea already central to certain Jewish interpretations about their own identity in relation to the binding (and near sacrifice) of Isaac? And if so, was the Jesus christology little more than a direct hijacking of a set of Jewish beliefs about Isaac? I am not sure of the answer but as part of an attempt to find it I have been working through a series of posts outlining Levenson’s study of how some of the earliest Christian writers drew on longstanding Jewish traditions about “the beloved son” (epitomized in Isaac) to interpret the role and meaning of Jesus.

In terms of social (i.e. racial) impact, the most significant writings that drew on Jewish interpretative frameworks about the beloved son, in particular Isaac, are those attributed to Paul. (I place ‘replaced’ in quotation marks because Isaac was never replaced within Judaism, of course. Displaced would have been the more arms-length term to have used, and is in fact the word Levenson uses. But ‘replaced’ certainly would apply to those Jews and proselytes who originally transferred all the meanings bestowed upon Isaac to their Jesus and/or Christ figure.)

A corollary of this involves a rejection of the commonly assumed notion of Paul’s “universalism”. He is not by any means a “universalist”. He wants, rather, for a reversal of the Judaistic premise: his system places the gentiles in the favoured position of the Jews, and relegates the Jews to castaway status until their punishment is complete. This discussion will, following Levenson, not make any differentiation between passages that might arguably be attributed to a later redaction of Paul’s letters, nor will it attempt to make allowance for the debate about whether the letters really are original to a mid-first century missionary or a product of second century stakeholders. I will be assuming a naive reading of the Pauline letters, as does Levenson, and relegate the context of these thoughts to separate question.

Paul identifies Christ with the Passover lamb

Just like the evangelist of the Gospel of John (as per the last post in this series), Paul equates the Christ with the Passover:

It is no good thing–this which you make the ground of your boasting. Do you not know that a little yeast corrupts the whole of the dough? Get rid of the old yeast so that you may be dough of a new kind; for in fact you are free from corruption. For our Passover Lamb has already been offered in sacrifice–even Christ. Therefore let us keep our festival not with old yeast nor with the yeast of what is evil and mischievous, but with bread free from yeast–the bread of transparent sincerity and of truth. (1 Cor. 5:6-8)

If Christ is the sacrificed Passover lamb, then he precedes the week when no leaven was to be found in the Israelite houses. They had to be cleansed of all leaven before the sacrifice. To find oneself into the Passover period, with the lamb already slain, is an “intolerable situation” — Paul is stressing with the need for the church to have got rid of sin (symbolized by the leaven) long ago!

Paul identifies Christ with Isaac

Paul not only identified Jesus with the Passover lamb, but also with Isaac:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet when it hath been confirmed, no one maketh it void, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed/descendant/offspring, which is Christ. (Gal. 3:13-16)

We have already seen how in Genesis that same (singular collective noun) “seed” is identified as Isaac:

And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy handmaid. In all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice. For in Isaac shall thy seed be called. (Genesis 21:12)

In this passage God is telling Abraham that his first born son, Ishmael, and those descended from him, will not be “the seed” of Abraham in the same way that Isaac is to be, and those descended from him. This passage presupposes the association of Isaac and the singular collective noun, zera’, “offspring/seed”. A later Talmudic makes the same presupposition:

“For it is in Isaac that offspring will be continued for you.” Then the descendants of Esau should be obligated [to practice circumcision]! “In Isaac” — not all of Isaac. (b. Sanh. 59b)

What the author of this passage in Galatians has done is to take this central Hebrew scripture and exchange its meaning from Isaac to Jesus. He exchanges the status of “the beloved son” from Isaac, the patriarch who prefigures the Jewish nation, to the Christ Jesus, in whom lives the church. Levenson writes:

Paul’s midrash on the one word ûlezar’aka, “and to your descendant(s),” exemplifies a familiar and uneventful Jewish exegetical technique. But in it loom the future separation of Christianity from Judaism and their crystallization as mutually exclusive traditions. (p.211)

Once Jesus has displaced Isaac, it follows that the promises and blessings associated with Isaac, “the beloved son”, must also be transferred to Jesus and become available through him. And this is indeed the implication of the above passage from Galatians:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

That expression, “the blessing of Abraham”, comes from Genesis 28:4

And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father. And take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother.

And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a company of peoples/many nations. And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee. That thou mayest inherit the land of thy sojournings, which God gave unto Abraham.

The author is attempting to argue that the gentile Galatians are the rightful heirs of the promise to Abraham because of their relationship to Abraham’s “true seed”, the Christ. This passage in Genesis suits his purpose admirably: Isaac (the original seed), is passing on his status to Jacob, and promising him a multitude of nations. What better image for the many gentile converts to Christ (the “true seed”) who could thereby claim to be the true heirs of Abraham?

Recall that the promise to Abraham was contingent upon his willingness to sacrifice his “beloved son”, Isaac:

And the angel of Jehovah called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith Jehovah, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the seashore. And thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. Because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:15-18).

The author of the passage in Galatians surely saw in this Genesis passage the central role of the father being willing to sacrifice his (“firstborn”) beloved son in being the key to extending the promises to “all the nations of the earth”.

But the single swap was the crucifixion of Jesus for the binding of Isaac.

And just as there was the polarity of sacrifice/loss and blessing/gain in the binding of Isaac . . . .

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree (Deut. 21:23) : that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:13-14)

. . . so also in the above Paul epitomizes his “salvation history”. From the curse of the law one moves to the blessing of Abraham; from the law itself one moves to spirit and faith; from Israel one moves to the Church; from the crucifixion to the blessings of salvation.

How to relate “the curse of the Law” to “the blessing of Abraham”?

Levenson refers to the suggestion by Nils Dahl that Paul’s linking of the impaling of a criminal on a tree (the crucifixion) to “the blessing of Abraham” hangs on the equation of the “ram caught in the thicket” (Genesis 22:13) with the criminal hanging on the tree in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:23). If this means that Christ is the stand-in for the ram, it needs to be kept in mind that the ram only derives its significance from being a stand-in for Isaac.

Paul does not even mention the name of “the elephant in the room” in this passage. The name of Isaac has been supplanted totally by Jesus, or the Christ.

Jesus completely displaces Isaac

For Paul, Isaac does not prefigure Jesus. Jesus completely replaces him. If there is a type in Paul’s thinking, it is that Isaac is a type or representation of the Church.

Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid, and one by the freewoman. Howbeit the [son] by the handmaid is born after the flesh; but the [son] by the freewoman [is born] through promise. Which things contain an allegory: for these [women] are two covenants; one from mount Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar. Now this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia and answereth to the Jerusalem that now is: for she is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; Break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: For more are the children of the desolate than of her that hath the husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him [that was born] after the Spirit, so also it is now. Howbeit what saith the scripture? Cast out the handmaid and her son: for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman. Wherefore, brethren, we are not children of a handmaid, but of the freewoman. (Gal. 4:21-31)

Finally Paul mentions the name Isaac. But it is not to present it as a forerunner of Jesus Christ, but of the Church.

The expulsion of the Jews

Levenson further notes:

“It bears mention that in rabbinic literature, Torah and Mount Sinai often represent true freedom (and the other positives that Paul associates with Jesus).” (p. 214)

“The rivalry of Ishmael and Isaac, and of Hagar and Sarah (Gen 21:9-10), is thus allegorized into a stark opposition between slavery, Torah, and flesh, on the one hand, and freedom, promise, and spirit, on the other.” (p. 214-5)

What Paul has done in Galatians here is to equate the biblical Ishmael — not Isaac or Jacob/Israel — with those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments! He has branded Israel — his contemporary Jewish people — as being the spiritual Ishmael! Israel, the Jewish people, may have thought of themselves as “free” in the Torah given at Mount Sinai, but Paul here says that it was at Mount Sinai they came into bondage! Israel, the Jewish people of Paul’s generation, of course taught, in concord with their scriptures, that Egypt, not Sinai, was the time of their bondage. But Paul completely inverts all this.

In response to those who see Paul here being the “universalist” in opposition to an assumed Jewish “particularism”, Levenson writes:

For in Paul’s lifetime and for a significant period thereafter, it was actually Judaism that was the larger community, spread throughout the known world, with influence even in the centers of power, and attracting converts and semi-converts. The Christian Church, by contrast, was a very new sect, small and beleagured. To attribute godliness and freedom to the Church — and especially, as Paul did, to the Torah-less subgroup within it — was hardly to strike a blow for universality and inclusiveness. (p. 216)

Levenson reminds us that Paul, on the contrary, merely reverses the polarity of the Jew-Gentile paradigm. It is no longer the Jews who are the inheritors of the blessings of Abraham, but the gentiles, through Christ. Christ has replaced Isaac as the seed. It is now the Jews who are in the outer, the castaways. Or “the wild olive shoot” as per Romans 11:17 in the 11:11-29 passage.

To step outside Levenson for a moment with my own comment, it is easy to forget that modern interpretations of Paul that lean to universalism, equality of genders and social situations etc, are really driven by contemporary secular social values. Paul has more often been used as a weapon for intolerance these past 2000 years.

Back to Levenson:

But in both the Jewish and Pauline frameworks, the issue turns upon the question of which community can lay just claim upon the status of Abraham’s beloved son. This could not be more different from the way modern universalists approach such matters. (p. 217)

The place of the Church vis a vis the Jews

So Paul saw Jesus as the “true Isaac”.

He also saw the Church as the body of Jesus/Christ — Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:27

Did he not therefore see the Church, with its gentile membership, as the true Isaac?

Was this then the basis for the demand to expel the Jews from “Christian society”, just as the original literal story had demanded the expulsion of the Ishmaelites by those eventually known as Israel and the Jews? Levenson rightly observes that if we only had the New Testament then we would think that it was the descendants of Ishmael who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments!

Paul’s sophistry (not Levenson’s expression) even manages to turn the message of the Torah against itself!

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? (Gal 4:21)

It can be no surprise then that Paul simply inverts the Jew/superior – Gentile/lost-degenerate polarity.

The entire question hangs on which community can lay claim to being Abraham’s “beloved son”. Those from Isaac or those from Jesus Christ? Paul is not a modern universalist by any means.

Paul sees the Church as the true inheritors of the the blessings of Abraham because he sees Jesus as the true seed of Abraham through whom those blessings are promised. When Paul does speak of Isaac’s rights over against those of the son of Hagar, therefore, he is speaking of the rights of “the Church”!

And if the rights of Abraham and his seed are to be found in Christ (in whom lives the Church), then the allegory of Abraham’s story instructs Christians to cast out the (false) rival claimants to those blessings, the Jews.

And such, for most part, has been the history of Christian-Jewish relations ever since.

Thus far for understanding early Christology, and Christian-Jewish relations . . .

Much early christology is thus best understood as a midrashic recombination of biblical verses associated with Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, with the suffering servant of Isaiah who went, Isaac-like, unprotesting to his slaughter, and with another miraculous son, the son of David, the future messianic king whom the people of Israel awaited to restore the nation and establish justice and peace throughout the world. (p. 218)

All of these have been discussed in previous posts in this series. Pauline texts stress the role of Isaac.

Paul’s interpretation, with its transplanting of enslavement to the original Sinai experience, thus displacing its traditional Jewish association with freedom, could only lead to role reversal in terms of race relations. Paul was not the universalist. He was simply a role reversalist.

How could it be otherwise? If two traditions lay claim to the same father, Abraham (confining ourselves here to the first 2 centuries), they must either both agree or part from each other.

And in parting, we see that the Christian sect not only made exclusive claims upon Isaac, but they even transformed God in the image of Isaac’s father, Abraham. But that’s for the next post.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Jesus supplants Isaac — the contribution of Paul”

  1. Hard to disagree with Neil and Levenson here. Thing of it is, it clearly unveils Galatians 4:4 (“born of woman, born under the law”) as an interpolation!

    1. Btw the passage in I Cor. 5 about keeping the feast with unleavened bread was applied directly by the Western Church as answer to the question of what kind of bread must be used in the holy eucharist. The East understood the passage in its more genuine, less directly literal sense….just sayin…

  2. The identification of the Beloved Son with Isaac makes sense from the narrative of the Vision of Isaiah too, where the Beloved, as an expression of the eternal Father in angelomorphic form, enters the realm of the dead (Sheol) unable to be really ‘killed’ on the tree, just as Isaac escapes death in the Genesis narrative.
    This points to a Pauline understanding of Christ’s suffering and ‘death’ as soteriologically real but ontologically unreal, in terms of death. In the initial cultic understanding Isaac wasn’t signalled in valid comparison with a human Jesus on a cross, but the Beloved from heaven slain by demonic forces and attached to a tree, and thus accursed gains entre into the abode of the nonliving.

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