Boehm Childsacr | Abraham | Book Of Genesis

CHILD SACRIFICE, ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE EXISTENCE OF THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL

*
by OMRI BOEHM
Yale University, USA

I The biblical narrative was not created in a vacuum. Biblical stories often draw their ideas, beliefs and motifs from the variety of traditions known in their cultural surroundings—the ancient Near East. Therefore, in studying a story’s historico-ideological content, one should take into account its relationship with the whole cultural system. In other words, we should ask if a biblical story has any interrelation with similar traditions in the Near East; if such exist we must examine their meaning and be able to explain their signi cance: what is the nature of these relations? Is there any purpose (for example a polemical interest) in their textual expression? The cycle of the Abraham stories, the Akedah in particular, is not an exception in this respect. We can immediately observe some motifs—both of style and of content—that they have in common with similar tales of the ancient Near East. Here too, one has to consider the signi cance of such similarities. The traditional approach, which was widely adopted in the literature, is that the Abraham stories—especially the Akedah—are constructed as a polemic against the ritual of child sacri ce. They present a well known myth of child sacri ce but change the ending: God does not wish the death of the son. Thus the stories have been regarded as an important turning point, marking a transition in the history of religious thought.1

* I wish to thank Prof. E. Greenstein for his comments. This paper was rst read as a short paper in the IOSOT conference, Basel 2001. I thank many of the audience for some crucial comments. 1 See, e.g., S. Spiegel, The Last Trial (New York, 1967), p. 64. © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2004 Also available online – www.brill.nl Vetus Testamentum LIV,2

it seems to me that Sarna. by the account of the sacri ces oVered in the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. p. no impending disaster to be warded oV. in saying that the Akedah has nothing in common with the ancient tradition of child sacri ce. Nevertheless. for instance. there is no emergency. His conclusion is that the traditional interpretation of the Akedah as a polemic against human sacri ce “cannot be supported”.146 omri boehm More recent interpretations. N. this is not enough to allow us to dismiss the striking similarities altogether— both verbal and narratical—between the stories. however. The Anchor Bible: Genesis (New York. In support of this claim he brie y outlines the leading motifs of this myth. He concludes that “certainly. went too far. not human sacri ce. human sacri ce could not have been an actively practiced ritual. indicating their absence in the stories of Abraham: “The Akedah has nothing in common with pagan human sacri ce. arguing that there is nothing in common—of any sort or kind—between the story of the Akedah and the traditional Near Eastern myth of child sacri ce. says Speiser. Both assume animal.3 Sarna went further. argues that at the time when the Abraham stories were written down. the object of the story has to be something other than a protest against human sacri ce”. Sarna. the traditional interpretation of the Akedah as a polemic against the ritual of child sacri ce is untenable. E. In the case of Abraham. which was practiced in order to appease an angry or inattentive deity. p. inconceivable demand. He adds that Isaac’s innocent question in the thick of the Akedah “and where is the sheep for burnt oVering?” (Gen. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia. as in 2 Kings iii 27. . See below for a full discussion. A. xxii 8) obviously also assumes animal—not human—sacri ce. iv 3) and those made by Noah. object to this view and today it seems hard—even impossible—to accept it.5 It is not much of a 2 3 4 5 N. it would have been diVerently formulated. and it is God who interrupts the sacri ce.2 E.”4 However. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 153. He observes that the demand imposed on Abraham by God is at the outset regarded by the author as something “not normally expected”. Speiser. This is proved. 1964). Indeed. 165. p. In such cases it is the worshipper who takes the initiative. 1989). Sarna. Speiser is no less persuasive. Had it been intended as a polemic against a barbaric ritual. 153. but as a terrifying. It is God himself who makes the request. See Sarna. he says.

J. what is it? What is the connection between the stories? I wish here to re-address the problem. Bindung Isaaks. Neukirchen-Vluyn. 8 J. allowing them to “echo” in his narrative. Westermann has argued that the writer of the Akedah was familiar with similar stories of child sacri ce. Gunkel and others emphasize the striking parallels between Philo’s testimony concerning the Phoenician ritual of child sacri ce and the Akedah. appear to form a polemic against the Near Eastern tradition associated with the myth of child sacri ce.child sacrifice 147 solution to explain such similarities as a “mere coincidence” relinquishing the eVort to interpret them. also L. To mention only a few scholars who have worked towards a solution: C. we are able to examine more accurately the kind of a polemic that may be intended. . “Re ection stories”. Gunkel. however. well established accounts. . 7 H. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven. pp. We are obliged then. Levenson has asserted “without reference to the ancient myth associated with child sacri ce. 6 H. cannot be properly understood”. in fact. Blum. Sarna’s observations are telling. 1. 54. It is a diVerent kind of polemic. but in inverted form. 1987). N. p. Zakovitch. p. 324. Genesis 12-36 (Grand Rapids. 37. D. 6 C. 1998). 1910). Bd 1 (Neukirchen-Vluyn.8 It may be concluded that there is a gap between two. diVerent story. 1984). Levenson. On the one hand. D. Genesis (HAT. Like an image and its re ection in a mirror. Westermann. p. the inverted image and its movements become an “antithesis” of the “original” one. to return to the initial question: if not a polemic against the myth of child sacri ce. 363. than the one de ned in the problematic “traditional interpretation”. A “re ection story” is one in which we can nd the same motives as in another. E. The comparison will show that the Abraham stories are constructed as a “re ection story” of the ancient myth of child sacri ce. are a well-known feature in the biblical narrative. On the other hand. as de ned by Y. . certain biblical narratives . Die Komposition der Vätergeschichte (WMANT 57. 1993). Die Opferung. When we recognize the re ection. p. it is hard to deny that an ancient myth of child sacri ce reverberates—one way or another—in the stories of Abraham. Kundert. drawing a more precisely detailed comparison between the stories.7 More recently. The stories do. It is doubtful that we can explain the “reverberations” in the traditional way—as a polemic against the ancient myth. 240-43. however. Göttingen.

4. Jephthah sacri ces his only daughter. actions and contents. In other words. pp. The present study will assume that such a tradition in fact existed and that we are able to identify and reconstruct a pattern of its main motifs. xi 34) is the one who welcomes him. as well as our ability to know its content and main motifs. Jephthah comes back safely. Zakovitch. Other than the Akedah. The story of Jephthah’s vow is easily outlined: 1. 2. we know of two stories of child sacri ce in the Hebrew Bible: the story of Jephthah’s vow ( Jud. 10 Some have doubted this and suggested that the text is deliberately ambiguous on . On the contrary. xi) and the story of Mesha the king of Moab (1 Kings i 27). they will appear as “opposite parallels”. even so.9 It will become clear that the striking resemblances between the Abraham stories and the ancient myth of child sacri ce. showing how important this phenomenon is for the understanding of the biblical texts. 3. 165-76 (in Hebrew).148 omri boehm A “sophisticated reader” who is able to trace the relation between the stories and understand it—in similarities but especially in diVerences— will be able to re-evaluate the stories. II The evidence for the existence of a “myth of child sacri ce” is not preserved at “ rst hand”. Many re ection stories have been pointed out by Zakovitch and others. showing the existence of such a myth is beyond reasonable doubt. Tarbitz 54/2 (1985). Jephthah vows to sacri ce whomever welcomes him if he comes back safe from battle. This reconstruction will enable me to go on to a more precise comparison of the myth to the narrative of the Abraham stories. indicating the primitive patterns of style and content that they all share. I will describe the basic elements of each tale. together with the equally striking contrasts (such as those that caused Sarna to argue that there is no relation between the stories at all). their actors. It is known in the extant literature from several diVerent kinds of sources and. In what follows. one can question the existence of such a myth. “Re ection Story—Another Dimension of the Evaluation of Characters in Biblical Narrative”. form such a re ection formation. His only daughter. I shall attempt such a reconstruction. xi 31). is a brief synopsis of some well known stories and attestations of child sacri ce. ( Jud. the dissimilarities will turn out to be not without meaning. nally.10 The verbal similarities to the 9 See Y. ( Jud. then. The following.

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.11 Levenson remarks in this respect that “It should not go unnoticed. p. and others. . the king of Moab. The same verbal similarities. like Isaac (Gen. but not relevant to the present work. xxii 2). occupies only two verses (2 Kings iii 26-27): “When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him. 153.e. Thus. . that the Akedah has “nothing in common with the pagan myth of child sacri ce. xxii 2) which is found also in the story of Jephthah’s vow ( Jud.. while Abraham sacri ces the ram “under [i. this is only “second this matter. The story of Mesha. And there came great wrath upon Israel. Marcus. and the city is saved. At the very least. after] him” (2 Kings iii 27). Once again. is called “the only one” and in both cases the act of sacri ce is called “to oVer a burnt oVering” ( Jud. Again we nd verbal similarities. that the terminology of Mesha’s sacri ce of his rst born is almost identical to the language of YHWH’s initial command to Abraham . See D. xxii 2). can see the approaching destruction of his city. xi 31. and oVered him for a burnt oVering upon the wall. xxii 2). 12 Levenson. opposite the king of Edom.child sacrifice 149 story of the Akedah are striking. Moab is loosing its war with the Israelites. xxii 13). this argues for more continuity between Israel and its neighbors to the east . he took with him seven hundred swords-men to break through. and to that of Jephthah’s vow. Mesha. . Jephthah’s daughter. the king of Moab sacri ces “his son” who will rule “under [i. Then he took his eldest son who was to reign in his stead. . Texas. the king. are found in the following story as well. 15. . and “he oVered him for a burnt oVering” (2 Kings iii 27) with “oVer him there as a burnt oVering” in the Akedah (Gen. . Gen. It is thus diYcult to argue. Furthermore. p.”12 III Non-biblical evidence for the existence of the myth of child sacri ce is given by Eusebius of Caesarea. but they could not. and they withdrew from him and returned to their own land”. which was practiced in order to appease an angry deity”. . xi 31). Compare “he took his son” (2 Kings iii 27) with “take your son” in the Akedah (Gen. 11 See Sarna. he sacri ces his son. 1986). Jephthah and his Vow (Lubbock. This is an important observation. . The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. instead of ] his son” (Gen.e. as Sarna does.

with all due caution. the son is called the “only son”. The basic elements of those testimonies meet the story of Mesha who practices child sacri ce in order to save his city. speculate that they all re ect a pattern . . 1. IV The evidence suggests that all the stories share and refer to a common origin.150 omri boehm hand” testimony and yet it seems that. saying that at times of danger to a city or population. then it is clearly one with rich set of re exes in the Hebrew Bible . As Levenson remarks. If such a pattern is indeed to be detected in Canaanite religion. Here too. 2. with all due caution. The son therefore has an impor- 13 Levenson. 10. p. 33) which follows the same pattern: 1. a well known myth of child sacri ce. 117. 11). Circumcision carried out in order to appease the gods. This leader would also circumcise himself and his close man for the same purpose (Praeparatio Evangelica [= PE ] 4. 3. . we can. Jephthah’s daughter and the son of the Phoenician leader. Philo also mentions a tradition about El (PE 1. Moreover. Eusebius likewise cites another testimony. the motif of circumcision echoes the circumcision of Abraham in Gen. like Isaac. 44). The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. as well as the testimonies of Philo. According to Eusebius. Once again. Philo refers to the sacri ced son as the only son. leaders would sacri ce their sons to appease the gods and save their people (PE 1. . The context of the story is a time of a disaster threating a city or a people. “Piecing together these texts. Philo of Byblos attests that at a time of danger to the Phoenicians the leader would sacri ce his son to the gods in order to appease them. xvii. 16. Sacri ce of the son. we can trace the common pattern. one can trace a verbal pattern. It is the sacri ce of the son of the king indeed—“his (eldest) son”. In this context. A time of danger.”13 Let us then reconstruct this pattern. . using Ieoæd which is equivalent to the Hebrew . 10. This is true of the stories of Mesha and Jephthah. . the sacri ce of the son is not regarded as an everyday kind of act carried out by ordinary people. giving an explicit explanation of the tradition. who is to rule after him.

tant role in the future of the relevant people. and the son in the testimonies of Philo. . Once again. Isaac ts this description. This is also the case with Philo’s testimony. The son of Mesha was the one who was to reign “in his stead” while the ram that was sacri ced in the Akedah was sacri ced by Abraham “instead of his son” (Gen. The hero of the story initiates the sacri ce of his son in order to appease his gods. who is the leader of the city or people. it is present. being the one who will one day replace the king (this is even explicitly pointed out in the story of Mesha—the son is the one “who was to reign in his stead”. In addition to the reconstructed narrative. The sacri ce and/or circumcision is eVective. there must have been some “authority” supporting it. If such a common belief existed. xxii 13). 2. 4. the king of Moab. in the stories of Abraham. Isaac’s being the only son is highly relevant. the daughter of Jephthah. of course. Jephthah makes his vow since he believes that this may help him to victory. Such are Isaac. the common verbal pattern may also be collated: 1. Moab is saved from the Israelites because of Mesha’s sacri ce. 3. and the story of Mesha. 5.child sacrifice 151 2. The phrase “to oVer a burnt oVering” occurs in the Akedah. So also in Philo. It seems to be an accepted belief—which the Bible shares—that the sacri ce of the son is a good way to appease the gods and save the city. not on his death. The circumcision motif occurs in this context as a part of the attempt to appease the gods. . The sacri ced one is referred to as the only one. This motif appears in Philo. 3. and of Jephthah. the existence of the people (and of God’s promise) depends on his life. This is important evidence for the existence of the tradition of child sacri ce. though it is absent in the biblical stories of Jephthah and Mesha. The hero of the story. the story of Jephthah’s vow. iniatiates an action in order to save his people. I shall return to this. It is reasonable to speculate that this term is so important because it emphasizes the fact that the sacri ced one has an important role in the future of the relevant people. Both Mesha and Jephthah make a vow on their own initiative and responsibility. Such are the actions of Mesha.

26-37. p. V. What is the meaning that lies beyond the echoes of the ancient myth in the stories of Abraham? When looking for a polemical argument in a story. 18 Sasson argues that the Abraham stories are constructed in such a way that the reader will have to search for their comprehensive meaning on his own. Amit. a myth of child sacri ce. even though we do not actually know such a myth at rst hand. For instance Levenson. 16 Westermann suggests that there is an echo of this tradition but tends to avoid a detailed treatment of it (Genesis 12-36 . the motifs of which were reconstituted above. one that caries with it an important “teaching” for the sophisticated reader. we are able to distinguish its echoes in many diVerent stories. Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative (Leiden. 6-9. In other words. If the attention of a modern scholar is so strongly attracted. 14 15 .15 others casting some doubt on the relation. 363). it is their joint recurrence that really puts beyond reasonable doubt the existence of some common origin. pp. p. All the scholars who have dealt with these stories have referred to similarities in other texts. 17 To me the circumstance that none of these scholars could simply avoid comparison is striking. 16 while some have even tried to dismiss it altogether. 2000). Sasson. Any person aware of such a background certainly cannot avoid the comparison when reading the Abraham stories. 17 Sarna is the most extreme example of such a view.152 omri boehm The recurrence of similar terms is telling.14 The ancient myth of child sacri ce was such a meaningful background for an early Near Eastern reader. pp. 153. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. the stories of Abraham are intended to invite the reader to make a comparison. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Y. some arguing that there is a strong connection between all the accounts. Only out of such familiarity (with some kind of tradition or text) can the attention of the “target audience” be drawn to the polemical “teaching”. V Let us now return to our initial question. This is clearly suggested by the fact that. one must assume that the background at which the polemic is aimed must be well known to its “target audience”. so must have been—and was meant to be—the attention of the ancient reader. “The Biographic Mode in Hebrew Historiography”. 304-12.18 This is an invitation to see a “re ection relation” between the stories. JSOTS 31 (1984). pp. Moreover.

Abraham. though lacking in precision. In the case of Abraham. Furthermore. Yet there is more than mere diVerence. 3. . This proposal seems to me to be going in the right direction. here too the hero of the story. it is God himself who demands it.19 Some. the coexistence of motifs (1. . Others have suggested that an earlier version of the Abraham’s narrative may have contained the motif of the “impending disaster”. . the hero of this story—Abraham—does not initiate the act. xxii) and circumcision (Gen. the verbal patterns) must necessary be of signi cance. Even though here this motif is seen under an entirely diVerent angle from that found in the myth of child sacri ce. noting that while both elements are found in Genesis. in Abraham’s case it occurs out of any such context. since the motif of the city under impending disaster does in fact appear—the city of Sodom (Gen. While in the myth the circumcision is performed in the thick of the story. city under an impending destruction. and that motifs of circumcision and sacri ce were related to safeguarding it from an impending disaster. deity. It is not precise or accurate enough. With this the meaning of 19 Sarna. . they are very diVerent from the variants current in other versions of the myth. no impending disaster to be warded oV ”.child sacrifice 153 On a rst comparison two important motives are evident: child sacri ce (Gen. that those motifs occur out of their expected context: “[child sacri ce] was practiced in order to appease an angry . circumcision. there is no emergency. and even more important. xvii). This is well observed by Sarna. . it is suggested that in an early version of the story Abraham was the leader of a city or a people. the motifs are not only diVerent but opposed: 1. devises a plan to save the city from the angry deity. 153. Yet. refer to this deference in order to argue that there is no real relation between the stories. like Sarna. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. child sacri ce 4. In other words. xviii). 2. In addition. There is a considerable diVerence between the role it plays here and the one it has in the ancient myth of child sacri ce. this is not a tenable conclusion. Many have pointed this out. who points out that it is not Abraham who takes the initiative (like the hero of the ancient myth) but God himself. p. The rst motif in the stories of Abraham is circumcision. as we have seen. initiated by the leader in order to save his city. The story of Sodom gures only latter. .

not by his own. Abraham is circumcised on God’s initiative. Abraham learns about the coming destruction of the city. A hero adopting a plan in order to save it. after the sinners of the city—and only they—have perished in an earlier chapter. making him “the father of many nations”. Circumcision. acting as the one who is “doing righteousness and justice” (v. there would have been no people. The circumcision motif appears in Genesis before the motif of the city in danger of destruction. 3. Finally in the original story the son dies and the city is saved. The sacri ce of the son is also out of context—after this context has already been resolved. 4. He then learns of the coming . A city facing impending disaster. in order to obtain the Covenant. 4. The opposition of the fate of the city to the fate of the child. it is God himself. Here the circumcision motif is heard very loudly in the background: Abraham learns about the destruction of Sodom after circumcision has made him “the father of many nations”. in order to seal a covenant with Abraham. The content of the motifs is the same: 1. But this is when Abraham. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. At this point the ancient leader would turn to circumcision or to the sacri cing of his son in order to appease his god.. The form of the stories. 5. and 5. at God’s own wish. is inverted.e. . The verbal resemblances suggest that the similarity of the motifs was consciously constructed by the author of the Abraham stories. . In the Abraham story the son descends safely from the altar. however. Like the ancient leader. Abraham does not even live in it. Child sacri ce. the order and the meaning of those motifs. Abraham devises a plan to save the city of Sodom. not the ancient leader. arguing against the immoral act of the destruction “Far be it from Thee to do such a thing . 3. Here too. 19). rises to protest. carrying with him the Covenant that God has sealed with him. circumcision is changed: it is not carried out in order to appease an angry deity but rather. while the hero of the traditional myth is the leader of this city. Yet. The motif will echo again—by its absence—in the next motif as well: Abraham’s attempt to save the city. The comparison can be summarized as follows. who demands the sacri ce. xviii 25). i. Had he not survived. Abraham thus actually justi es his covenant with God. Like the ancient leader. 2. This is “the only son” upon whom the existence of his people depends.154 omri boehm 2.

Whereas in the traditional myth of child sacri ce there is an opposition of the fate of the city and the fate of the son (the son dies and the city is saved) in the biblical story this opposition is inverted: the son survives and the city is destroyed. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. Abraham (who is already circumcised) stands up to God. 21 O. which is usually regarded as such) in the original text. as the circumcision motif appeared before the context of Sodom. there would have been no people and the promise of God to Abraham would have been unful lled. sacri cing the ram “instead of his son” (Gen. . is very similar in this very respect. pp. pp. This last point is crucial. xxii 14-19. xxii 11-12 (the rst speech of the angel of YHWH. it is a common motif of the ancient myth that the sacri ced son is the “only son” of the leader. God’s command to slay him is even more incomprehensible in view of the fact that he represents the future of the people. Further. as is well known. Yet while the ancient Near Eastern hero circumcises himself and his men and then sacri ces his son. . Like the ancient leader who undertakes to save his city from an angry deity. VT 52 (2002). hence possessing a role of signi cance in the city’s future. The motif of child sacri ce then appears and. once again. but Abraham himself. the people will exist because the son has survived. It is hard to doubt that this was deliberately constructed in such a way since Isaac is referred to as an “only son”. 26-31.21 With this in mind the 20 For a full discussion. the child sacri ce appears only after the dilemma of Sodom has been resolved. the preservation of the son.child sacrifice 155 destruction of the city but is not its leader nor even a resident in it. Boehm. the existence of the people. Thus the story is inverted precisely at the crucial point.20 In the end. xxii 13) on his own responsibility. . The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. the second angelic speech. arguing “Far be it from Thee to do such a thing . Isaac. not on Abraham’s initiative but of God’s. Elsewhere I have argued that in the original story of the Akedah it was not the Angel of God who stopped the sacri ce of Isaac at the last moment. then in the original story Abraham actually disobeyed the divine command to sacri ce Isaac. xviii 25). If this is so. “The binding of Isaac: An inner-biblical polemic on the question of ‘disobeying’ a manifestly illegal order”. see Levenson. I suggested that Gen. Had he not survived. As mentioned above. apparently stopping Abraham) is a later interpolation (together with Gen. 1-12. Abraham too acts in order to save it from God.

in this story it is preserved because of his refusal to do so. It is God who asks for the sacri ce of the “only son” and it is Abraham who stops the sacri ce. but the order and content are the logical opposite. . it proposes to teach an ethical lesson: the existence of the Israelite people does not depend on the sacri ce of the son. 22 One does not have to accept this view in order to be aware of the re ection eVect. . for further study. xviii. This mirror image re ects a polemic against the Near Eastern tradition. . but it becomes more striking. . Abraham again makes an ethical stand by stopping the sacri ce of Isaac. however. The re ection eVect is in this case very clear: While in the myth of child sacri ce the people is preserved because the readiness of its leader to slay his son. therefore. object to this view. Gen. This permits us to approach and compare the main motives of the Abraham narrative (Gen. xvii. In the story of Sodom instead of committing the sacri ce Abraham made an ethical stand: “. . far be it from Thee . what is it? What purpose does it serve? In this article a reconstruction (of the verbal and narratorial content) of the ancient myth of child sacri ce is made. xxii).156 omri boehm “re ection” formation may become even more distinct. though it is not concerned with the ritual of child sacri ce. It emerges that the Abraham stories are formed as “re ection stories” of the myth of child sacri ce in the Near East. Gen. far be it to do such a thing” thereby justifying his being told in advance about the destruction of the city. If not a polemic against child sacri ce. The similarities of the biblical stories of Abraham to their ancient Near Eastern parallels call. the motifs are the same. It depends on the “only son’s” survival. xxii) and similar tales of child sacri ce in the near East? Traditional interpretations argue that it re ects a polemic against the ritual of child sacri ce. More recent ones. Rather. and his father’s ethical responsibility.22 Abstract What is the nature of the relationship between the story of the Akedah (Gen.

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