The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity

Jon D. Levenson
Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son
    Book Description:

    The near-sacrifice and miraculous restoration of a beloved son is a central but largely overlooked theme in both Judaism and Christianity, celebrated in biblical texts on Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, and Jesus. In this highly original book, Jon D. Levenson explores how this notion of child sacrifice constitutes an overlooked bond between the two religions.Levenson argues that although thepracticeof child sacrifice was eradicated during the late seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E, theideaof 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. According to Levenson, the transformation of the idea of child sacrifice was central to the accounts given by the people Israel and the early Church of their respective origins, and it also underlay the theologies of chosenness embraced, in their differing ways, by the two religions. Furthermore, the longstanding claim of the Church that it supersedes the Jews, says Levenson, both continues and transforms elements of the old narrative pattern in which a late-born son dislodges his first-born brothers. Levenson's book, which offers novel interpretations of several areas crucial to biblical studies, will be essential reading for scholars in the field.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15747-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Part I Father’s Gift
    • Chapter One Child Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible: Deviation or Norm?
      (pp. 3-17)

      Of all the passages in the Bible that have been deemed offensive, none has been deemed so more often than this one, and none has generated greater resistance to a literal interpretation. That the God of justice and mercy should demand the first-born of herd and flock is a common stumbling-block for moderns. That he should demand the same of human families has been judged an offense much longer, indeed from biblical times themselves.

      Among critical scholars of the Bible—that is, scholars who are prepared to interpret the text against their own preferences and traditions, in the interest of...

    • Chapter Two YHWH versus Molech
      (pp. 18-24)

      The precise relationship of this practice of the sacrifice of the first-born son to the cult of Molech remains in need of clarification. That the two cannot be simply equated is to be inferred from the nature of the respective victims. The biblical denunciations of the rites at the Tophet speak of people “burn[ing] their sons and daughters in fire” (for instance, Jer 7:31) and make no reference to order of birth, whereas the law of the first-born involves only the eldest male.¹ Furthermore, if, as tradition long maintained, Molech is the name of a god worshiped through child sacrifice,...

    • Chapter Three The Sacrifice of the Son as the Imitation of God
      (pp. 25-31)

      A contemporary of Felix and Diodora and fellow North African, the church father Tertullian held, as one might expect, quite a different view of the sacrifice of children to Saturn:

      In Africa infants used to be sacrificed to Saturn, and quite openly, down to the proconsulate of Tiberius, who took the priests themselves and on the very trees of their temple, under whose shadow their crimes had been committed, hung them alive like votive offerings on crosses; and the soldiers of my own country are witnesses to it, who served that proconsul in that very task. Yes, and to this...

    • Chapter Four El and the Beloved Son
      (pp. 32-35)

      We have seen that Philo of Byblos identifies the deity who sacrificed his only begotten son,YādîdorYāḥîd, with the god El. The recovery of Canaanite religion as it stood just before the emergence of Israel has vastly fleshed out our knowledge of this deity. In the texts discovered at ancient Ugarit, along the Syrian coast, El appears as the father of the gods, the “Creator of Creatures” and “Father of Man,” an ageless patriarch who is the “Eternal King,” the “Ancient of Days,” “the kindly One, El the Compassionate,” and a figure of boundless wisdom. We also hear...

    • Chapter Five The People Israel as the Son of God
      (pp. 36-42)

      Before discussing the wider theological meaning of sonship in the Hebrew Bible, a moment of recapitulation is in order. I began by asking how we are to take the enigmatic clause at the end of Exod 22:28—“You shall give Me the first-born among your sons.” Against traditional interpreters and most modern critics, I argued that both the context of the clause itself and the manner of presentation of child sacrifice elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible call for a literal interpretation: the Israelite father is to sacrifice his first-born son to yhwh. That most did not do so need not...

    • Chapter Six The Sacrifice of the First-Born Son: Eradicated or Transformed?
      (pp. 43-52)

      Even if it is accepted that there was legitimate child sacrifice in early Israel and that the status of Israel as God’s first-born son is a matter of high import in the Hebrew Bible, it could still be argued that the scenario that I have sketched pertains to early Israel but not to Israel after Jeremiah and Ezekiel waged war on child sacrifice about the turn of the sixth century b.c.e., For by the end of that century, the institution seems to have vanished entirely,¹ and yet I have argued for the importance of the myth associated with it, the...

  7. Part II The Beloved Sons in Genesis
    • Chapter Seven First-Born and Late-Born, Fathers and Mothers
      (pp. 55-60)

      That the impulse to sacrifice the first-born son never died in ancient Israel but was only transformed is hardly surprising. For the special status of the oldest boy continued to be a point of great significance in the society and of noteworthy resonance in its law. Deuteronomy is the most insistent:

      15If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one—16when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the...

    • Chapter Eight The Loved and the Unloved
      (pp. 61-68)

      The law of the birthright in Deut 21:15–17 speaks directly only to a situation in which the father has two wives, each the mother of one son. Its point, as we have seen, is to insure that the offspring of the “unloved” wife, if he is the oldest of the father’s sons, does not suffer from his mother’s unfortunate status. The impression the law conveys is that order of birth among the father’s male offspring must count for everything, and this impression may well correspond to the legislator’s intent and the ongoing community’s understanding of the statute. On a...

    • Chapter Nine Favor and Fratricide
      (pp. 69-81)

      The story of Jacob and Esau testifies to a stage in the history of Israelite law and theology in which the status of the first-born son was a matter of great importance but less fixity. The importance is seen in the way in which God’s greater love for Jacob is realized—through Jacob’s assumption of the status of Isaac’sbĕkôr. To say that YHWH favored and chose the younger son over the older is too simple. Rather, he reversed the order of the two and assigned the one he favored the status of the first-born. That such a reversal could...

    • Chapter Ten “Let me not look on as the child dies”
      (pp. 82-110)

      With this observation, the Mishnah discerns a decisive aspect of the interplay of genealogy and theology in the Priestly (P) account of the early history of the human race. The line of the primordial couple, Adam and Eve, continuing through their third son Seth, the stand-in for the slain Abel, culminates, in the tenth generation, in the figure of Noah, the man who alleviates the pain that the first father and mother inflicted upon their descendants (Genesis 5). Only the family of Noah survives the great flood, and from Noah to Abraham ten generations are rapidly and colorlessly reported, with...

    • Chapter Eleven The Aqedah as Etiology
      (pp. 111-124)

      The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22:1–19, known in Jewish tradition as theaqedab(“binding”), falls into both categories of the transformation of child sacrifice, the ritual and the narrative. At first commanded to make of his beloved son a burnt offering, an obedient Abraham is later instructed not to harm the boy in any way, and in his son’s stead, offers a ram that appears just at the right moment, caught in a thicket. The affinity of the aqedah with the story of the first Passover in which the blood of a yearling lamb saves...

    • Chapter Twelve Isaac Unbound
      (pp. 125-142)

      Gerhard von Rad sees in the beginning of the story of theaqedaba twofold movement. On the one hand, the announcement that “God put Abraham to the test” (Gen 22:1) destroys the tension in the narrative: we know that the following events are only a test, that God does not desire the death of Isaac. On the other hand, this very knowledge, according to von Rad, engenders another tension: how will Abraham conduct himself in this most painful of tests?¹ Through this interpretation, von Rad aligns himself with the school of thought, best exemplified in Kierkegaard’sFear and Trembling,...

    • Chapter Thirteen The Beloved Son as Ruler and Servant
      (pp. 143-170)

      The story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 is not only the longest and most intricate Israelite exemplar of the narrative of the death and resurrection of the beloved son, but also the most explicit. In it is concentrated almost every variation of the theme that first appeared in the little tale of Cain and Abel and has been growing and becoming more involved and more complex throughout the Book of Genesis. The story of Joseph thus not only concludes the book and links the Patriarchal narratives to those of the people Israel in Egypt for which they serve as...

  8. Part III The Beloved Son Between Zion and Golgotha
    • Chapter Fourteen The Rewritten Aqedah of Jewish Tradition
      (pp. 173-199)

      The extraordinary prominence of the story of the binding of Isaac in Gen 22:1–19 in rabbinic Judaism stands in stark contrast to the utter absence of direct references to it anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. In part, the difference reflects the greater emphasis upon the Patriarchs in rabbinic theology than in the thinking of the prophets and the other non-Pentateuchal biblical authors. This explanation, in turn, reflects an even deeper difference between the forms of biblical religion and those of the rabbis: because in rabbinic theology the Pentateuch was preeminent over the rest of the Bible and prior...

    • Chapter Fifteen The Displacement of Isaac and the Birth of the Church
      (pp. 200-219)

      The identification of Jesus of Nazareth with “the beloved son” on which our discussion has focused comes early in the Synoptic Gospels. It is first made through a heavenly announcement during Jesus’ ablution at the hands of John the Baptizer:

      “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11; cf. Matt 3:17; Luke 3:22; 2 Pet 1:17)

      The wording recalls the designation of Isaac in the aqedah, wherein the Hebrew termyāḥîd(“favored one”) is consistently rendered in the Septuagint asagapētos, “beloved” (Gen 22:2, 12, 16), the very term that appears in this heavenly announcement.¹...

    • Chapter Sixteen The Revisioning of God in the Image of Abraham
      (pp. 220-232)

      As Jesus supplants Isaac in Paul’s theology, and the Church, the Jews, so does God supplant Abraham in the role of the father who did not withhold his own son from death itself:

      28We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.29For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.30And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.³¹...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 233-250)
  10. Scripture Index
    (pp. 251-257)
  11. Author Index
    (pp. 258-258)