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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 8 (March 1995)


Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Pp. xiv + 258. N.P.

This book should be of interest to readers of the Bulletin. Levenson does not mention Girard, nor does he have any inkling of the mimetic model, but he raises issues and poses a challenge for Jewish-Christian dialogue which we have to face.

Levenson holds that sacrifice of the first born belongs to the very beginnings of ancient Israelite religion and culture, with deep roots in earlier practices and obvious links to child sacrifice and mythic motifs among the ancient Canaanites and others in the western Semitic and Mediterranean world. Many of the great prophets condemned child sacrifice, but the ancient devotees of the God of Israel undoubtedly understood themselves as his faithful worshipers in offering their first born or other children.

The great value of this book lies in the clear and cogent dismantling of the taboo surrounding the whole question of human sacrifice. He reconstructs the historical path of the mythic-ritual motif of the sacrifice of the beloved son from the classic biblical texts, including above all the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and the Joseph story, tracing it through the texts of second Temple and rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament. The actual practice of child sacrifice was eradicated by the time of the Babylonian exile, but the symbol of "the beloved son" remained potent in narrative and ritual. His central thesis is "that a basic element of the self- understanding of both Jewry and of the Church lies in stories that are the narrative equivalent of these ritual substitutions-narratives, that is, in which the first-born or beloved son undergoes a symbolic death" (p. 59).

His treatment of the aqedah (binding) of Isaac in rabbinic Judaism and the early church is especially interesting. By 200 B.C.E. or shortly thereafter the aqedah had become "the supreme moment in the life of Abraham." It took on the role of foundation story for the Passover festival, "with the near-sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowing the literal slaughter of the lamb." More and more attention was devoted to Isaac, who was often construed as willingly offering his life as a martyr in obedience to God, and this self-giving was seen as bringing about atonement (pp. 198-9). The author shows that the Apostle Paul drew upon the Isaac paradigm for formulating the meaning of Christ's crucifixion.

Judaism and Christianity finally appeal, says Levenson, to a common root in Abraham, which "ensures that [they] will be mutually exclusive" (p. 219). The relationship between the two is "usually characterized as one of parent and child," but it "is better seen as a rivalry of two siblings for their father's unique blessing." Each has developed its own kind of universalism, that is, the ability "to affirm the spiritual dignity of those who stand outside their own communities. But the two traditions lose definition and fade when that universalistic affirmation overwhelms the ancient, protean, and strangely resilient story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son" (p. 232).

Although Levenson does not name the sources of his assumptions and basic concepts, his perspective comes across as influenced primarily by a structuralist paradigm, which posits the inevitability of binary oppositions. It is the fundamental principle of Lévi-Strauss's work and the point of departure in the deconstructionism of postmodern perspectives. Now this structuralist paradigm of language is a way of trying to avoid the problematic opened up by the great thinkers of the nineteenth century, particularly Nietzsche, for with the Nietzschean dialectic of the Apollonian and the Dionysian the alternatives at the extremes are positivist historicism and nihilism. Levenson is neither a positivist nor a nihilist, but at times he appears to be caught in the structuralist trap in that he opposes Judaism and Christianity as inevitable rivals in conflict.

But why should the conflictual opposition that Levenson posits be accepted as tragically inevitable? There are other, and I think better, interpretive models, and it would be carrying coals to Newcastle in a Bulletin review to explicate René Girard's model of the exception in the process of emerging. Here I will simply refer to two parables. First, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. It could be taken as implying a comment on the relationship of the emerging church to its Jewish origins, particularly in the narrative context of the gospel of Luke. It pictures a father who says to the angry older brother, "Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours" (Lk 15:31). "All that is mine is yours." This is quite striking if the father is understood as the voice of God speaking to the older brother qua Jewish people. Indeed, according to Jesus in Luke, eternal life is already found in the Law and the Prophets (Lk 10:25-28; cf. 16:31). So why should the older brother not rejoice and be glad that the younger brother, who was "dead" is now "alive, he was lost, and is found" (Lk 15:32)? Of course, it is a different matter if the younger brother becomes uppity and supersessionist, sometimes in dangerous and violent ways. But the problem is not that we are doomed by our common biblical root to conflictual rivalry. We do indeed have the continual potential of turning our models into rival- obstacles whom we desire to eliminate or escape. But there is a biblical tradition of witness that says rivals can become brothers and sisters and friends if they imitate a divine model of love that turns sacrifice into self-giving (Rom 12:1-2). Levenson touches on this biblical witness, but his assumptions about language and textual code prevent him from focusing on the biblical theme of the emerging exception and human transformation.

Levenson reads his model of dichotomous oppositions back into his comparison of rabbinic and gospel parables about wicked husbandmen who rent a vineyard from an owner/king. The point in both the Jewish and the Christian context is that the owner, in exasperation over the dishonesty of the tenants, sends his son, the rightful heir or, in the rabbinic parable, orders that the property be repossessed for his son. In the gospel texts (and in Thomas) the son is murdered by the wicked tenants. The gospel form of this parable has indeed been used to justify dispossession of the Jews as God's people, the "beloved son," but in the gospels the matter is much more complicated and potentially irenic than Levenson indicates. In all three NT gospels the parable is not directed against "the Jews" as some abstract whole, but against dominant religious leaders, particularly priests and Pharisees (Matt 21:45-46; Lk 20:19; Mk 11:27, 12:12). Underlying these controversy stories is an intra-Jewish dispute over authority to interpret Scripture. Matthew, for example, pits Jesus unrelentingly against the Pharisees, but the issue is not one of "Jew" against "Christian," no matter how badly the gospel of Matthew has been used and abused by both Christians and Jews. "...[T]ill heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (Matt 5:18).

At the core of the biblical legacy is not sibling rivalry but the call to the beloved son and all his descendants to bring good news of peace (Isa 52:7) and, even if through suffering, to be agents of healing (Isa 53:5).

James G. Williams