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The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity by Jon D Levenson

September 17, 2017

I first encountered this book when co-leading a study of Abrahanm for the Council of Christians and Jews.

I already knew the akdedah as an archetype of the cross because it was the first lesson at Morning Prayer on Good Friday.

This book, however, had many ideas that took me by surprise. Although the practice of child sacrifice was eradicated during the late seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E, the idea of sacrificing the first-born son (or the late-born son whose preferential treatment promotes him to that exalted rank) remained potent in religious literature. Analyzing texts from the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature, Levenson shows how tales of the son handed over to death by his loving father in the Hebrew Bible influenced the Church’s identification of Jesus as sacrificial victim.

Sibling rivalry is a common Old Testament theme, reinforced often by the outward favouring by the parents of one son over another. One would imagine the “beloved son” to be the firstborn, with all the privileges that go with that station, but the Bible breaks the rules often. Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph, David, the list goes on. The “beloved son” is not only favoured by parents but God-chosen, and belongs to God … either in sacrifice or by atonement.

In Part One, Levenson points to three series of texts. The first set allows for human sacrifice, particularly of the first-born. Thus, Ex. 22:28-29, “You shall give Me the first-born among your sons. You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.” Thus, too, Micah 6:7, “Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins?” Later he points out that Gen. 22 (the binding of Isaac) surely presupposes that God is within God’s rights to ask for the sacrifice of Isaac. So, too, Ju. 11:29-40 where Jephthah offers up his daughter and perhaps also 2 Kings 3:26-27.

The second set of texts ordains redemption of a consecrated human (and sometimes an animal) destined for sacrifice. Thus, Ex. 13:2, 11-13, “Consecrate to Me every first-born, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites, among the people and the animals; it belongs to Me…. you shall hand over every first issue to the Lord … the first issue of the donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you shall break its neck; but the human first-born among your children, you shall redeem.” This is repeated in Ex. 34:19-20.

The third set of texts simply denies that child sacrifice, even of the first-born, was ever envisioned in biblical religion. Hence, Jer. 19:5, “They have built shrines to Baal, to put their children to the fire as burnt offerings to Baal — which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never came into My mind.” Similarly, Ezek. 20:25-26, “I, in turn, gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live: When they set aside every first issue of the womb, I defiled them by their very gifts …” And Dt. 15:19-23 which does not even mention human first-borns as consecrated to God.

Drawing on parallels from the ancient near east (chapters 2,3,4) and pointing out the symbolism of the Jewish people as a first-born and, hence, subject to the rule of consecration as well as to the special protection of God (chapter 5), Levenson argues that there were three stages to this rule. In the first, one usually redeemed the first-born human but, under unusual circumstances, God could demand the real sacrifice. In the second stage, redemption of all first-born humans was obligatory. And in the third stage, the existence of the possibility of human sacrifice was denied or asserted to be “laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live.”

The forms of redemption were five: [1] The Passover sacrifice substituted for the first-born of Israel who were spared while the first-born of Egypt were killed. This was re-enacted each year, the Jewish people being the first-born of God. [2] The Levites were chosen to serve in the sanctuary and temple in place of the first-born, as provided in Nu. 8:16-19, “For they are formally assigned to Me from among the Israelites: I have taken them for Myself in place of all the first issue of the womb, of all the first-born of the Israelites….” [3] Money could be used to redeem the first-born, as provided in Nu. 3:6-8 and 18:15-18, a practice later embodied in rabbinic Judaism as “pidyon ha-ben.” [4] The child could be made a Nazirite, subject to those special vows, as provided in Nu. 6:1-21, with the examples of Samson (Ju. 13:2-7), Samuel (1 Sam. 1:11), and maybe Joseph (Gen. 49:26). Finally [5], circumcision substitutes for child sacrifice, not only for the first-born but for all male children. (All this is well presented in chapter 6.) In sum, “the mythic-ritual complex that I have been calling `child sacrifice’ was never eradicated; it was only transformed” (45, italics original).

Part Two takes up “narrative sublimations,” as opposed to the ritual options in Part One. Levenson begins by pointing out that Dt. 21:15-17 specifically forbids favouring the second son of an unloved wife over the first son of the beloved wife. Still, the whole book of Genesis is the story of non-first-borns who become favoured: Abel-Seth and not Cain, Isaac and not Ishmael, Jacob and not Esau, and Joseph and not Reuben. David and Solomon, too, are not first-born / first issue children. To be sure, there is a certain tension between “first issue” (Heb., peter rehem ) and “first-born” (Heb., bekhor, reshit ), the former being matrilineal and the latter patrilineal (chapter 7). Still, as Levenson notes, “[w]e are faced with a Deity who disregards the principle of order of birth” (63). Levenson, then, links the chosen ones with the theme of real or symbolic death: Abel dies, Isaac is almost sacrificed, Jacob is exiled, and Joseph is sent into slavery. He very beautifully interprets Ishmael as a first-born and first issue, pointing to his exile and abandonment in the desert which allows him to be included in the promise but not in the covenant (chapter 10).

Part Three draws attention, first, to the lack of reference to the Akeda in the Tanak. Rather, it is later Judaism that made the Akeda central. In the Apocrypha, the Akeda is the central act of Abraham’s life; it is also connected with the Passover sacrifice. In rabbinic Judaism, the Akeda becomes a paradigm of Abraham’s loyalty to God. Also, Isaac is made into the hero of the story in a theology of martyrdom which goes so far as to envision Isaac actually having been sacrificed, a process which culminates in the terrifying poem from the Crusades (198). Levenson concludes the book with two chapters on the early Christian reading of these child / first-born sacrifice texts.

This theme of the sacrificial death of the beloved son was never purged from the Judaic mindset, even to the point of believing Abraham did put the knife to Isaac. Many midrashic interpretations of the sacrifice of Isaac refer to his blood being spilled. Perhaps all of his blood, depending upon which midrashic commentary you read.




The idea for this book came to me in connection with my preparation for a course entitled “The Joseph Story and its Rabbinic Exegesis,” which I taught in the winter quarter of 1986-87 at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It occurred to me that the loss and restoration of Joseph to his father constitutes an analogy in narrative to the several Israelite rituals that substitute for the literal sacrifice of the first-born son. In the Joseph novella, as in those rituals, the father’s choicest son receives his life anew, and the man who, one way or another, gave him up or should have done so, gets back the offspring who had been marked for death. Further reflection led to the conclusion that the analogy holds for other important sons in Genesis as well — Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob — and for the man the Church believes to be the son of God.The prominence of this theme of the near-death and miraculous restoration of the first-born son (or of the late-born son promoted to that exalted rank) led me to question the universal assumption that the great prophets of the late seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. had eradicated the scourge of child sacrifice from Israelite culture. Both the rituals and the narratives that articulate this theme suggest that though the practice was at some point eradicated, the religious idea associated with one particular form of it — the donation of the first-born son — remained potent and productive. Indeed, it proves central to Israel’s efforts to render account of its origins and character, and it was, again with modification, to prove at least as central to the efforts of the early Church to do likewise.

Similarly, the rabbinic and Christian tendencies to celebrate Abraham for his willingness to obey the gruesome command to slay and immolate his beloved son Isaac demonstrate that the matter is more complicated than the language of eradication allows. My term “transformation” is intended to imply that the strangely persistent impulse in question remains alive as a driving force behind the subtle and easily misunderstood theologies of chosenness that, again in their different ways, undergird both Judaism and Christianity.

I gladly acknowledge that I regard this transformation as highly positive, one that metamorphosized a barbaric ritual into a sublime paradigm of the religious life. Some will doubtless think that by drawing attention to the barbaric roots, I mean to deny the sublimity of the developments. I trust that discriminating readers who follow the argument through to its conclusion in part III will not make this mistake. Indeed, I dare to hope for something more: that my readers’ appreciation of the later developments will be enriched rather than undercut by an awareness of the continuing influence of the old ideal of child sacrifice upon the classic articulations of the Jewish and the Christian traditions.

Radically transformed but never uprooted, the sacrifice of the first-born son constitutes a strange and usually overlooked bond between Judaism and Christianity and thus a major but unexplored focus for Jewish-Christian dialogue. In the past, this dialogue has too often centered on the Jewishness of Jesus and, in particular, his putative roles of prophet and sage. In point of fact, however, those roles, even if real, have historically been vastly less important in Christian tradition than Jesus’ identity as sacrificial victim, the son handed over to death by his loving father or the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. This identity, ostensibly so alien to Judaism, was itself constructed from Jewish reflection on the beloved sons of the Hebrew Bible, reflection that long survived the rise of Christianity and has persisted into the post-Holocaust era.

The bond between Jewry and the Church that the beloved son constitutes is, however, enormously problematic. For the longstanding claim of the Church that it “supersedes” the Jews in large measure continues the old narrative pattern in which a late-born son dislodges his first-born brothers, with varying degrees of success. Nowhere does Christianity betray its indebtedness to Judaism more than in its supersessionism.

“Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac [is] the foundational act for the existence and destiny of the people of Israel.”

“That relationship, usually characterized as one of parent and child, is better seen as a rivalry of two siblings for their father’s unique blessing. Judaism and Christianity are both, in substantial measure, midrashic systems whose scriptural base is the Hebrew Bible and whose origins lie in the interpretive procedures internal to their common Scripture and in the rich legacy of the Judaism of the late Second Temple period. The competition of these two rival midrashic systems for their common biblical legacy reenacts the sibling rivalry at the core of ancient Israel’s account of its own tortured origins.”

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From → Biblical, Inter Faith

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