Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: algo así como una reseña (II)

§ 2

Isaac, Joseph and the Narrative Sublimation of the Sacrifice of the First-Born


As noted, child sacrifice was transformed both in practice and in its theological and symbolic interpretation. There are many examples of this, but I want to focus on the cases of Isaac and Joseph. As we shall see, there is no room for the literal sacrifice of the first-born[1]; the new offering will consist of a process of extreme humiliation conditio sine qua non of the subsequent exaltation. It is also a process that encompasses the very history of Israel, the first-born son of God (Exod 4: 22). In this sense, referring to the cases of Jacob and Joseph, Levenson argues:

“[…] these two narrative cycles adumbrate the great national epic in which the people of God […] leaves the promises land in extremis, endures enslavement and attempted genocide in Egypt, and yet, because of the mysterious grace of God, marches out triumphantly. The story of the humiliation and exaltation of the beloved son reverberates throughout the Bible because it is the story of the people about whom and to whom it is told. It is the story of Israel the beloved son, the first-born of God” (67).

Let us consider our two examples. Isaac’s case is undoubtedly the most emblematic: its material configuration is exactly that of a human sacrifice, but, as we know, the sacrifice does not happen. To what extent does this history allows us to understand the transformation of child sacrifice? Through a more precise understanding of the type of sacrifice required of Abraham. The fact that Levenson remembers Kierkegaard’s interpretation of these events is significant. As is known, the Danish philosopher emphasizes that Abraham’s sacrifice implies a leap of faith that, by all accounts, seems absurd: we face the knight of faith that suspends ethics by his hope in God’s promises. However, as noted by Levenson, “To say, with Kierkegaard and von Rad, that he is prepared so to do because through faith he expects to receive Isaac anew (as indeed happens) is to minimize the frightfulness of what Abraham is commanded to do” (126). This idea becomes even more precise towards the end of the chapter:

 “Abraham may have been the knight of faith that Kierkegaard, like most Christian and Jewish thinkers, have seen in him. But texts like Gen 22: 1-19 and 26:2b-5 stress another side of the Patriarch-Abraham as the knight of observance, rigorously keeping his divine master’s charge. For the ongoing Jewish tradition, one item in that enormous charge, ironically, is the Pentateuchal prohibition on child sacrifice” (141).

Herein lies the centrality of this story for the fate of Israel and for Levenson’s interpretation. This is a test of Abraham’s obedience, of his ability to give up everything in the name of his love of God’s plan: “The test announced in v. 1, then, is a test of which is stronger, Abraham’s fear of God or his love of Isaac, and once the answer is in, the sacrifice therein commanded can be called off” (137, my emphasis). The consequences of this absolute surrender are even more fully understood if we perceive the relevance of the angel’s second intervention:

“The effect of all the superabundant allusiveness of the second angelic address in Gen 22:15-18 is to reconceive the aqedah as a foundational act. It is not only that the binding of Isaac vindicates God’s mysterious singling out of Abram. It is also the case that Abraham’s obedience to the God who demands the death of his beloved son now becomes the basis for the blessedness of the people descended from him through that very son” (140, my emphasis).

From the ideas above, we can conclude that the aqedah becomes the paradigm for the transformed meaning of the sacrifice of the first-born. First, it is worth mentioning that Isaac was not the first-born because, as we know, Ishmael is Abraham’s first son. What the story shows, then, is a meaning beyond chronological birth order: Isaac is the first because he is the beloved son of Abraham[2], the favorite, the most hoped for (Gen 22: 2), as the sacred writer recalls with keen sense of that dramatic situation[3]. Secondly, the first-born in the order of love is precisely the one required by God in holocaust.

Contrary to the assertions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, YHWH Himself asked the Patriarch to offer his son’s life, something sufficiently horrendous in itself, but even more terrible if we remember that the whole promise of salvation depends on Isaac. Abraham, despite this and certainly devastated by the commandment, decides to obey God as he always did. He proceeds without the expectation of any reward, it is an act of strict obedience. YHWH, in response to the absolute surrender of the will of Abraham, stops the sacrifice in the nick of time. After that, through his angel, God renews His promise to the Patriarch, exalting his position and rewarding his obedience. As can be seen, the dialectic of humiliation and exaltation operates here and it clearly shows the way in which the literal sense of the sacrifice of the first-born is re-signified. What remains, however, is the requirement of total surrender, total surrender of what we love most. Only when that happens, God extends His grace, completely transforming our lives.

Let us now turn to the story of Joseph. The narrative begins with a paradox: Joseph is relegated to “the most menial task —to assist the sons of his father’s wives, the slaves Bilhah and Zilpah” (143), yet he is also recognized as a shepherd, a title, Levenson reminds us, equivalent to ruler or king in the context of the Near East (144). This symbolic structure shapes the rest of the story: Joseph, like Abraham, will experience the tension between humiliation and exaltation: “the ruler is to be the servant of his people” (145). This is one of the central messages of the story.

Several significant passages of the Joseph story establish the way in which Joseph’s life embodies the transformation of child sacrifice. For instance, at the beginning of the text, Joseph’s dreams show the absence of subordination to the will of God. His dreams, rather, put him in a position of greatness in which God is absent. What seems to prevail is Joseph’s ego (155). Despite the greatness revealed in dreams, Joseph suffers humiliation, reduced to slavery status because of the hatred of his brothers, who decide to sell him. Joseph was enslaved and imprisoned in Egypt before his final liberation and exaltation. Given these painful experiences, Levenson suggests that “chosenness seems to have proven fatal not only for the chosen, but also for common good, leaving the family in emotional ruin” (155). Furthermore, “the cost of chosenness has never been clearer: the chosen son has become the rejected brother, his life has turned into living death, and the exaltation of which he dreamt has become a nightmare of humiliations from which it seems impossible that he will ever awaken” (152). Yet, there is a final exaltation and it happens due to Joseph’s “explicit acknowledgment of the role of providence” (153). The crux here, as in Abraham’s story, is the openness to God’s will, the absolute surrender of the human will to follow His. Therefore, at the end of the story when Joseph reencounters his brothers during the famine, Levenson concludes: “now the weak brother who have become strong serves those who do him homage, and the strong who have become weak gladly live by the favor of the Little brother whose favor they once resented” (166). Through the humiliation, Joseph is exaltated, a counter-intuitive logic, but the logic of the love of YHWH.

The transformations in the spiritual experience of Joseph, on the other hand, find a parallel in the transformation of his family: when Jacob and Judah, after much hesitation, understand that “the son’s presence can be enjoyed and the family preserved only if the son is given up to death itself” (161). Thus, when Jacob finally surrenders Benjamin, the beloved son who replaced Joseph, “he receives anew not only Simeon, but even Joseph, whom he has given up for dead” (162). Similarly with Judah, when he decides to take the place of Benjamin and offer his own life “he has freely accepted Joseph’s rule and his own status as the unfavored brother doing obeisance to the beloved son” (164).

In sum, we must say that the acceptance of chosenness is not a simple feat. Chosenness can be, rather, a matter of humiliation and despair, as in the case of Joseph. However, we must remember that the gratuitous designs of God become clearer when a human response is obtained, when human beings are opened to God’s will. This becomes evident in the Joseph story, but also in other places such as the binding of Isaac mentioned above (149): only when man is willing to put everything in the hands of God and trust Him, only then the exaltation comes and the chosenness acquires full meaning. As Joseph reminds us at the end of this biblical narrative, “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people (Gen 50: 20)”. This passage strongly indicates the direction of the whole story: God works in human history despite our numerous errors and limitations. Furthermore, chosenness requires our response, our complete surrender in the hands of God.

[1] It should be remembered, however, that both in the cases of Abel and Jesus, unlike all other paradigmatic examples of the beloved son, they are actually killed. This, however, doesn’t place these stories outside the interpretative key offered by Levenson. Abel does not return to life, but his exaltation comes through his brother Seth, who becomes the father of the rest of humanity (see Levenson, 80-81). Jesus, although this is obviously a different case because of his divine and human nature, is raised on the third day and the whole creation depends on Him.

[2] See Levenson, 59-60.

[3] A reconstruction of the dialogue between Abraham and YHWH was beautifully brought up in a midrash quoted by Levenson (127).

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