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livredor
Akedah thoughts
Sunday, 02 October 2005 at 03:20 pm
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I went to a talk by Ed Kessler on the Isaac story in Jewish–Christian relations. He tried to cram way too much into a short talk, covering a close reading of the text, Jewish and early Christian commentaries, the Isaac story in art (which I missed because I had to be home for lunch), the general history of Jewish–Christian relations, and his basic thesis that Jewish commentators have been aware of the Christian intellectual context to a much greater extent than is usually acknowledged. And he was trying to run a discussion on all these, not just talking about them. But anyway, some interesting tidbits:

Kessler's most striking example was of Jewish commentators comparing Isaac carrying his wood to "a man who carries his own cross". The background is that the traditional Christian reading of the Isaac story is in the context of the Crucifixion. There are various elements that reflect the Passion story, including of course the key thematic element of a father sacrificing his son. There are also important differences, the fact that in Christian tradition Isaac is seen as a child, whereas Jesus is an adult who is fully aware and acquiescent to the sacrifice. Isaac is saved at the last minute; Jesus' sacrifice actually goes the whole way.

Obviously Jewish commentators would generally reject any connection between the (potential) sacrifice of Isaac and the NT story. However, Kessler thinks that some of the midrash is directly countering Christian views of the story, ie the Jewish tradition is aware of the Christian reading, rather than just ignoring it. So where Christians say that Isaac's carrying the wood for his own sacrifice is like Jesus carrying the cross for his, this midrash makes the point that Jesus is not the only person who was crucified.

Both Jews and Christians comment on Abraham's authority to make the sacrifice, and how that plays into their understanding of priesthood. Fascinatingly, both quote the same verse from Psalms: 110 v4 (The Eternal has sworn it, and will not repent: you are a priest for ever, in the order of Malchi-Tzedek). The Christian writers1 use this verse to show that the priesthood has passed from the Temple priests to the Church (because Abraham took over the priestly role from the pagan priest Melchitzedek), the Jews use the same verse to show that the priesthood remains with the priests (because the Psalm says you are a priest forever). Since both that verse from Psalms and its connection with the Genesis story are pretty obscure, it seems reasonable to assume that the reason the Jewish commentators quoted it was because they were directly refuting the Christian interpretation.

Another connection revolves around the legal technical term συνηγυρία [sinegoria], which is apparently a Greek word meaning defence lawyer. (Do any classicists want to guess how to spell that in Greek?) Early Christian commentary on the Isaac story mentions that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and did not ask for a defence lawyer to plead his cause against the accusation of heaven. The midrashic tradition mentions that whenever a descendant of Abraham is accused by the heavenly court, Isaac and God's remembrance of this act of ultimate obedience will act as their defence lawyer, using the same Greek word directly transliterated into Hebrew.

In the Jewish tradition, Isaac is generally held to be a young man rather than a child, so there is emphasis that he too, and not just Abraham, was willing to be sacrificed. Could this be a direct, if subtle, counter to the Christian view that Jesus was the only person in history who went so willingly to be sacrificed?

Then you get into the really weird bit, which is the Jewish resurrection stories around Isaac. The pshat says that Isaac was never killed, but there's a very persistent and very odd Jewish tradition that says he was in fact sacrificed and then brought back to life. There are lot of references not just to the binding of Isaac, but to the blood of Isaac, or the ashes of Isaac. And Isaac is traditionally associated with the blessing which names God as the one who gives life to the dead in the Amidah, the main prayer in Jewish liturgy. There is one midrash, (IIRC this is the Pirke d'Rav Eliezer from the 8th century), which goes even further, saying in so many words that Isaac's soul fled from his body at the moment of sacrifice, and when the angel called out to Abraham, he called Isaac's soul back to his body. This is said to be how we know that the dead will be resurrected.

Quite a lot of discussion about how you can draw conclusions from a largely oral tradition and one which was subject to a lot of censorship. The Jewish tradition never directly and explicitly quotes Christian writings, which means that apparent similarities could just be a coincidence, or maybe drawing on a common but unrecorded earlier tradition. Or maybe all the traffic was one way, the Christians were quoting (post-Biblical) Jewish sources but not vice versa. This seems intuitively unlikely to me (I mean, one-way intellectual influences require a highly artificial situation. And why on earth would the Jews have come up with the idea of carrying the wood being like carrying a cross?!), but it can't be formally ruled out on the basis of the very skimpy evidence.

And then of course the consequences for modern Jewish–Christian relations. Kessler pointed out that the Jewish context of the NT is now accepted by most Christian scholars, leading to an effort on the part of Christians to understand Judaism. But what about the other way round? If his examples are to be interpreted in the way he's suggesting, Christian thought was an important influence on Judaism throughout the main period of rabbinic Judaism (first century through eighth century). Should Jewish scholars therefore be paying more attention to Christianity? And what is a good way to engage with Christian influences without letting go of our own, uniquely Jewish, understanding of Torah (and also without imposing our own framework unfairly on Christian thought, as Christianity historically tended to do with Jewish scriptures)?

1] See pw201's comment which expands the New Testament context for this connection.


Moooood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Tuuuuune: Placebo: Bionic
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:October 2nd, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 06:00 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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That is fascinating; thanks for posting it.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:October 3rd, 2005 09:33 am (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 09:33 am (livredor's time)

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It reminded me of some of the stuff we've been discussing with rysmiel, but with more direct evidence to add to our speculation.
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pseudomonas: default
From:pseudomonas
Date:October 2nd, 2005 06:51 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 06:51 pm (pseudomonas's time)
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Jastrow: סְנִיגוֹרְיָא (συνηγυρία) Defence, speaking in behalf of
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livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:October 3rd, 2005 09:34 am (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 09:34 am (livredor's time)
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Thank you, badger! I should have thought that Jastrow would provide the original Greek, good thought.
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pw201: default
From:pw201
Date:October 2nd, 2005 07:27 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 07:27 pm (pw201's time)

Melchizedek

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I'm not aware of NT commentary specifically relating the Isaac story to Melchizedek, however, I'd expect Christian views of priesthood to be strongly influenced by the argument of Hebrews 7, which seems to be that Jesus is a priest of a different order to that of Aaron, but still one ordained by God. The writer quotes that Psalm several times to make this point.

The entire Epistle to the Hebrews is an extended discourse which seems to be about how Jewish Christians (which is probably a loaded phrase, but I use it here to mean Jews who became Christians as opposed to Gentile converts to Christianity) should now understand about the place of Torah and the priesthood. It's likely that this letter would have considerably influenced Christian doctrine on the Torah.

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia's article on the epistle, there seems to have been a group of Jewish believers in Jesus called the Ebionites, who didn't win out in the end as Paul's version of Christianity became the accepted one. There are apparently modern people who identify themselves as Ebionites, too, but it's not clear to me whether that's a meaningful thing to do.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:October 3rd, 2005 09:40 am (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 09:40 am (livredor's time)

Re: Melchizedek

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Oh, thanks so much for this, that really makes things a lot clearer. If Melchizedek and that odd Psalm verse are discussed in the NT itself, it makes it much more obvious that the midrash quoting Psalm 110 is referring to Christian tradition.
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usuakari: default
From:usuakari
Date:October 3rd, 2005 01:20 pm (UTC)
21 hours after journal entry, October 4th, 2005 12:20 am (usuakari's time)
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Interesting...

Fascinatingly, both quote the same verse from Psalms: 110 v4 (The Eternal has sworn it, and will not repent: you are a priest for ever, in the order of Malchi-Tzedek). The Christian writers1 use this verse to show that the priesthood has passed from the Temple priests to the Church (because Abraham took over the priestly role from the pagan priest Melchitzedek), the Jews use the same verse to show that the priesthood remains with the priests (because the Psalm says you are a priest forever).

My inclination is actually to side with the Jewish interpretation of the the verse, although that's only when considering the verse out of the context of the rest of the chapter. The idea of being a priest in the order of Melchitzedek (rather than Levi) seems somewhat problematical though, especially if Melchitzedek was a pagan (and I assume that he must be regarded as one if he lived prior to Abraham's covenant, or the revelation at Sinai?).

In the Jewish tradition, Isaac is generally held to be a young man rather than a child, so there is emphasis that he too, and not just Abraham, was willing to be sacrificed. Could this be a direct, if subtle, counter to the Christian view that Jesus was the only person in history who went so willingly to be sacrificed?

I was always under the impression (since Sunday School I think) that Isaac was a young man. I don't recall an age ever being put to that term, but I was certainly left with the impression of someone older than 6 or 7, and with their own opinions on things, even if they didn't get any say over events. I've always assumed a certain complicity on Isaac's part, and never thought to argue that Jesus's sacrifice was the only willing one made in the Bible. Odd. I'm sure I can find other examples of at-least acceptance on the part of other Biblical people, even if the stakes were not necessarily mortal.

The pshat says that Isaac was never killed, but there's a very persistent and very odd Jewish tradition that says he was in fact sacrificed and then brought back to life.

Now that's just fascinating. I've never been taught that the sacrifice was completed, and Isaac then resurrected. Why would the element of the ram then be included in the story? Maybe because Isaac's sacrifice wasn't permanent perhaps?

There is one midrash, (IIRC this is the Pirke d'Rav Eliezer from the 8th century), which goes even further, saying in so many words that Isaac's soul fled from his body at the moment of sacrifice, and when the angel called out to Abraham, he called Isaac's soul back to his body.

I wonder if the soul can flee the body before death? Physical death at least? Can it then be called back? It could just be poetic language, but the thought raises some interesting questions about death and the soul...

Or maybe all the traffic was one way, the Christians were quoting (post-Biblical) Jewish sources but not vice versa. This seems intuitively unlikely to me (I mean, one-way intellectual influences require a highly artificial situation.

Oh, I don't know... I can see that happening. I can see the conservative elements of Judaism refusing to acknowledge the new religion as anything other than a corruption or heresy and certainly not worth studying or responding to with anything other than condemnation. I don't have any evidence for that of course, except for certain opinions of human nature and politics.

Introspection and resistance to outside influences strike me as both great strengths and weaknesses in all religions. I try not to get to worried about the doctrinal schisms and debates within Christianity in general (and the C of E in particular) on the grounds that I think the religion needs all points of view to provide balance, and that the debate is healthy in the long run.

And what is a good way to engage with Christian influences without letting go of our own, uniquely Jewish, understanding of Torah (and also without imposing our own framework unfairly on Christian thought, as Christianity historically tended to do with Jewish scriptures)?

Interesting question. Stuff like this seems to be as good a way of appreciating the influence that each brings to the other as anything else.
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usuakari: Coyote Woman Dreaming
From:usuakari
Date:October 3rd, 2005 02:19 pm (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, October 4th, 2005 01:19 am (usuakari's time)
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LJ's word limits were forcing me to be briefer than I would have liked. All the rest will keep, exceping...

Thanks for the thought provocation, and...

Happy New Year to you too.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:October 8th, 2005 04:43 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 04:43 pm (livredor's time)
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The idea of being a priest in the order of Melchitzedek (rather than Levi) seems somewhat problematical though
I think the interpretation of the Psalm is really not at all obvious. For a start it's really hard to tell whether Melchitzedek is a personal name or a title (it literally means my king is righteous; make of that what you will). And I'm following KJV with in the order of, but the phrasing is pretty obscure, I'm not sure what it actually means.

especially if Melchitzedek was a pagan (and I assume that he must be regarded as one if he lived prior to Abraham's covenant
The whole Melchizedek thing in Genesis is really odd; he appears from nowhere, is described as priest of God the most high, he does some weird ritual thing and then disappears again. Abraham seems to take him seriously as a priest, accepting a blessing and giving tithes. And normally God the most high is a title for God, not any pagan deity. It's a fairly rare title for God, but still. The Bible does seem to have a concept of God-fearing which it commonly uses to refer to pagans who are decent people and apparently monotheists of some kind. So it seems that it is possible to worship the true God without being part of Abraham's covenant. I can't really tell how to deal with this bit, and I think the NT bit pw201 quoted is trying to provide an explanation for this weird text.
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usuakari: default
From:usuakari
Date:October 12th, 2005 03:18 am (UTC)
9 days after journal entry, 02:18 pm (usuakari's time)
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So it seems that it is possible to worship the true God without being part of Abraham's covenant.

Agreed. I assume that Adam & Eve, Cain and Abel, and at least some of their descendants such as Enoch, Noah, and so on, could be described as 'God fearing' at a bare minimum. But, could they be regarded as Jewish prior to Abraham's covenant? I was using 'pagan' slightly tongue-in-cheek.

I can't really tell how to deal with this bit, and I think the NT bit pw201 quoted is trying to provide an explanation for this weird text.

Hmmm... I find Hebrews 7:1-10 more than a little unclear in itself. The next section (11-28), explaining the point and authority of Jesus is fine, but the preceeeding section, with the bit about Abraham and Melchizedek is as weird as the original Genesis passage, and more torturously worded at that.

I think I'll go chuckle at the scene in Firefly again where River 'fixes' the Bible....
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