Academic journal article Shofar

What Was at Stake in the Parting of the Ways between Judaism and Christianity?

Academic journal article Shofar

What Was at Stake in the Parting of the Ways between Judaism and Christianity?

Article excerpt

Sacrificial religion, especially the sacrifice of the first born, is crucial for understanding the continuities and discontinuities between Judaism and Christianity. Human sacrifice was prevalent in the ancient Middle East, even among the Hebrews as late as 500 B.C.E. In the Aqedah (Gen. 22: 1-19), God's command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac is only averted when Abraham demonstrates unquestioning obedience. Because of that obethence, God accepts an animal surrogate and bestows His election on Abraham and his progeny.

The sequence is reversed in Christianity. Jesus is first identified with the surrogate, the Passover lamb that redeems Israel's first born, and later becomes himself the sacrifice. By his unquestioning obethence on the cross, Jesus becomes the perfect Isaac. Early Christianity regarded Jesus as the only perfectly obedient human being and also the perfect human sacrifice. As such, Christ brings to manifest expression much that remained latent in Judaism. The author believes that this spells out the difference between the two traditions.

In this paper, I should like to explore the question of what was at stake culturally, religiously and psychologically in the parting of the ways between Judaism and early Christianity. Since the issues involved are multi-faceted, I have chosen to focus primarily on religious sacrifice. I believe that that issue exhibits simultaneously elements of both continuity and discontinuity between the two traditions.

Let us begin with the narrative of the Aqedah in Scripture (Gen 22:1-19). As is well known, on one of the holiest days of the Jewish religious calendar, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the reading from the Torah deals primarily with the Aqedah, in which Abraham is unconditionally commanded, "Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you" (Gen 22:2).

This is a story of an aborted infanticide demanded by God. According to the eminent Jewish scholar, the late Shalom Spiegel, "The primary purpose of the Akedah story may have been only this: to attach to a real pillar of the folk and a revered reputation the new norm-abolish human sacrifice, substitute animals instead."1 It would appear that most, but by no means all, modern Jewish scholars agree with Spiegel.

There is, however, a minority opinion persuasively expressed by Harvard's Jon Levenson that"Gen. 22:1-19 is frighteningly unequivocal about YHVH's ordering a father to offer up his son as a sacrifice."2 I share that opinion. Although Shalom Spiegel was my teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I must respectfully disagree with him.

An important reason for this difference of opinion is that there are verses in Scripture in which the divine command to sacrifice the first-born male appears to be unconditional. For example, Exod 13:1-2 stipulates: "The Lord spoke further to Moses, saying, "Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine." Exod 22:2829 reads, "You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats. 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." In neither verse do we find a mitigating qualification.

Elsewhere in Exodus, Scripture does call for a surrogate offering to take the place of and redeem the male child: "And when the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites . . . you shall set apart for the Lord every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be the LORD'S. But every firstling ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born male among your children" (Exod 13:11-13).

There is also evidence in Scripture that child sacrifice was not only practiced in Israel, perhaps as late as 500 B. …

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