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


The Doctrine of Election in Judaism and Early Christianity


I would like to conclude this essay with some final considerations about the doctrine of election in order to provide a more complete perspective of the transformation of child sacrifice and also to establish some connections between Judaism and the early Christian world.

The doctrine of election could be schematically summarized as follows. YHWH preferentially chooses, through a free and spontaneous gesture, one person (or more broadly, the people of Israel) over the rest. The chosen one receives a special blessing from YHWH, but this blessing has a very high cost, namely, the complete surrender of the blessed. This stresses the dialectical tension between grace and reciprocity that illuminates the doctrine of election: undoubtedly it is God who takes the initiative of salvation, an unmerited gift; however, the human response is indispensable. So, as we saw in the previous two examples, the absolute submission to the will of God, even when it confronts us with great suffering, is part of the gift of being chosen as the beloved son of God.

Finally, in order to have a more comprehensive view of the problem at hand, let us examine some of the connections between Judaism and Christianity. As Levenson recalls, the scene of Jesus’ baptism makes explicit use of the concept of the beloved son: “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1: 11; also Matt 3: 17; Luke 3: 22; 2 Pet 1: 17). Levenson is very clear in this regard:

 “In light of the mounting importance of the aqedah in the Judaism of the Secon Temple period, it is reasonable to suspect that the early audiences of the synoptic Gospels connected the belovedness of Jesus with his Passion and crucifixion. Jesus’ gory death was not a negation of God’s love (the Gospel was proclaiming), but a manifestation of it, evidence that Jesus was the beloved son first prefigured in Isaac” (200).

This issue, I believe, is the key to the connection between Judaism and Christianity that we mentioned a few lines ago. The beloved son of God, anticipated by Isaac, finds its fullness in Jesus, the Christ. He is the servant of YHWH (Isaiah 42: 1; see Levenson 211) whose life is offered for the forgiveness of sins. The hermeneutic of humiliation-exaltation is active here again, as we can see:

 “[…] like Isaac, the paschal lamb[1], and the suffering servant, Jesus will provide his father in heaven complete pleasure only when he has endured a brutal confrontation with nothing short of death itself. The midrashic equation underlying the heavenly announcement of Mark 1: 11 and its parallels makes explicit the theology if chosenness that lies at the foundation of the already ancient and well-established idea of the beloved son: the chosen one is singled out for both exaltation and humiliation, for glory and for death, but the confrontation with death must come first” (201-202).

Some concluding remarks are pertinent at this moment in our discussion of Levenson’s book. I believe that the author provides a robust hermeneutical key to understand one of the main features of the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. The dialectical tension between humiliation and exaltation sheds light on the doctrine of election, i. e., the unmerited preference of God for His beloved son. This preference demands an absolute surrender of the will, the negation of that which one loves most; only after that can the grace of YHWH be fully disclosed. It is through this dialectic that the people of Israel reinterpreted the role of child sacrifice. The sense in which the Israelites understood the transformation is very clear after reading Levenson’s book, some things change, some things remain.

The intense human desire to show God love and obedience remains, but, the way to do so is transformed. Instead of offering the life of the first-born in holocaust, which not only involves a cruel action, but also entails a cultural habit that could easily lose its meaning, the theology of the beloved son takes us beyond cultural conditions and the conventional sense of cruelty and suffering. This theology, a language about God and a mode of interpreting His designs, proposes something even more demanding and complex. It is a paradigm for the life of faith that challenges our understanding of reality and asks a new kind of holocaust, the sacrifice of what we love most, our absolute willingness to lose everything, our full obedience to demands that frequently we do not and cannot understand, even absurd demands if construed from the categories of this world. When life is totally surrendered, just at that moment, not before not after, we find the true meaning of our life (Matt 16: 25). Only through humiliation comes the exaltation of God’s beloved son.

[1] It should be remembered, as Levenson does, that the identification of Jesus as the beloved son is favored by the time of his death: “One of the few things upon which all four canonical Gospels agree is that his death occurred in the season of Passover” (206). Then, the death of Jesus, at least in the narrative of Saint John, replaces the sacrifice of the paschal lamb: He is the new Passover lamb (207-208). This interpretation was strong even before the narratives of the Synoptics and John, in Saint Paul (1 Cor 5: 6-8, see Levenson 209).

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