Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press: 1993) xiv + 258. *


Jon Levenson has written another fascinating book. In his earlier book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (San Francisco, Harper and Row: 1988; reviewed by me in Modern Judaism 10 [1990] 105-10), Levenson used internal literary analysis, ancient near eastern parallels, and rabbinic and Christian midrash to make three claims. First, creation in the Tanakh was originally an ongoing containing of the primal forces of chaos. Second, only later was a theology of uncontested order-making developed. And third, the containing-of-forces view generates a theology of "fragile lordship." (I affirmed the first and the third propositions and differed on the second.) In this book Levenson, again, very elegantly invokes internal literary analysis, ancient near eastern parallels, and Jewish and Christian midrash to develop a series of profound insights.

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 reenacted 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 favoring 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 favored: 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 Bible. 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.

The book is, as I said, very elegant and I agree with its central theses. It is, however, on two issues in Part Two that I differ with Levenson. First, Levenson maintains that the stories of God's choosing one person over another, even unto violating the principle of birth order, are a function of "God's inegalitarian character" (67), are "unpredictable acts ... grace" (70), and "testify ... to the freedom and authority of God" (76). Because these stories make so little theological sense to Levenson, he interprets them "from an ethno-political perspective" (109), noting "their function is to justify privileged bloodlines" (70) -- the Jewish people, the Judean royal family, and the priesthood (80). The general rule about biblical texts, however, is that they must make theological sense even when they also serve ethno-political functions. Thus, I would argue that the purpose of these stories is to show that God, at crucial moments in history, chooses the spiritual heir and then turns that choice into biology. It is the spiritual readiness of each of God's choices that justify the choice and the subsequent ethno-political embodiment (unlike Paul who draws no genealogical conclusions from the presence of the spirit).

Second, recognizing that the Akeda is a crucial moment in holy history, Levenson argues that the Akeda takes the earlier promises of God (e.g., Gen. 12) which were rooted only in God's grace and grounds those promises "on the basis of Abraham's willingess to donate Isaac for sacrifice" (139). The force of the promises is now based on Abraham's act, not on God's Word. Here, too, Levenson has shifted to an anthropocentric interpretation, and he has ample precedent for this in the sources. The theocentric interpretation, however, poses the question, what did God do in the Akeda that God had not previously done? The answer is clear: God swears. At the end of the Akeda, God swears by Godself that God will keep the promises God had made earlier. For Abraham and the biblical tradition, God's Word was not enough; God's grace, God's promise was not enough. In the Akeda, Abraham forces God to go all the way and to actually swear by God's very own Self. (I have dealt with this more fully in "Confronting the Character of God: Text and Praxis" in God in the Fray: Divine Ambivalence in the Hebrew Bible, a Festschrift in honor of Walter Brueggemann, ed. T. Linafelt and T. Beal, Fortress Press, forthcoming.)

As always, there are a few minor disagreements on text interpretation. A symbolic seven: [1] Jacob and Esau are not reconciled (67-68), nor are Joseph and his brothers (166-67); they barely maintain a cold peace among themselves. [2] The un-chosen do not need to bear their status with grace and regard for the common good (155,164); they need only submit. [3] The patriarchal blessing is not given to either child in Gen. 27 (62); it is given by God to Jacob in Gen. 28 (see Thomas Mann on this). [4] The "lamb who takes away the sins of the world" is, as Levenson says, not the Paschal lamb; it is the tamid (Bamidbar Rabba 21:21 with numerous parallels). [5] Ephraim and Menashe are the double portion of primogeniture (55). [6] Jacob bows to God, not to Joseph, in Gen. 47:31 (167). [7] Judah gets the Davidic-messianic kingship and does not come out second to Joseph (167).

By any standard, this is a fine book -- scholarly, insightful, true to the original texts, and transformative of our thinking. It will be read for a long time.


* Appeared in Revue des études juives, 160:1-2 (janv. 2001) 265-68..

return to head of document

return to index of Selected Book Reviews

David Blumenthal's HomePage