In reading Jon Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, I have come to a chapter called The Displacement of Isaac and the Birth of the Church.
As we have seen, Isaac was the beloved son whom Abraham almost gave back to God by sacrifice. Jewish tradition transformed that story and rewrote it. A major development was that Isaac became associated with the lamb sacrificed at Passover and with Jewish martyrs who gave their lives in the struggles against the Seleucids. The story, as retold, had Isaac as a joyful and willing participant in the sacrifice. Some of this transformation may have taken place after Christianity arose and in response to it. But the main outline of this approach was already in place by the 1st century.
This sets the stage for the New Testament. In all the synoptic gospels we read that at Jesus’ baptism God said, “This is my beloved son.” The gospels report the same words at the Transfiguration. We often miss that these words identify Jesus with Isaac.
“The midrashic equation underlying the heavenly announcement of Mark 1:11 and its parallels makes explicit the theology of 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” (202).
Levenson says that the story of the virgin birth picks up the Jewish theme that the beloved son, like Isaac, comes to birth in an extraordinary way. This gets linked also to the old idea that the Davidic king is God’s son as in Psalm 2:7. You have two ideas. First, the beloved son is an Isaac-like sacrifice. Second, the beloved son is king. Put these two ideas together and you get the New Testament view of the Messiah.
Levenson talks about the association of Jesus with the Passover in the Lord’s Supper. And he talks about how the gospel of John hooks Passover language up with the crucifixion to make Jesus “the lamb of God”.
In about 54 C.E., before the gospels, Paul had already stated this idea: “Purge out the old yeast, that you may be a new lump, even as you are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed in our place” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Levenson goes on to give a kind of critique of Paul’s idea in Galatians 3:13-16 that Jesus is the “descendent” of Abraham refered to in Genesis. Paul makes a big deal of the fact that the word is singular (Galatians 3:16). In Genesis 13:15 and 16 “descendent” refers to Isaac as a collective noun. In other words, Isaac includes all of Israel. But to Paul the singular descendent of Abraham is Christ.
Levenson says that in this interpretation of Paul “looms the future separation of Christianity from Judaism and their crystallization into mutually exclusive traditions.” (p. 211). When Jesus takes Isaac’s place then the outcome is that blessings of Abraham becomes available through Christ. Where does this leave the Jewish people?
At this point it seems that Levenson says that Christian replacement theology, supercessionism, becomes inescapable if you follow Paul. He is skeptical of the suggestion (by Nils Dahl) that the cursed man hanging on a tree (Galatians 3:13) represents the ram caught in the brush, so that the ram and not Isaac typifies Christ. Levenson has more on Paul in the next chapter, which I haven’t read yet.