Levenson-Sibling rivalry

The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son by Jon Levenson brings us a Jewish point of view on what the Bible means to both traditions. Both Jews and Christians have created interpretations or midrashes that tend to dispossess the other. This pertains especially to the stories of Genesis. While the text of Genesis tends to find ways to include the outcast Cain or Ishmael, both Christian and Jewish interpretations have favored “scenarios of complete dispossession” (p. 232).

He discusses two New Testament passages particularly.  One is Paul’s allegory of Ishmael and Isaac in Galatians 4:21-31. The other is the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen in Mark 12:1-12 and its parallels in the other synoptic gospels. Both talk about the “beloved son.”

Paul identifies the unloved son with Sinai and Jerusalem as a child of slavery. Thus Paul twists it around so that the Jews are the children of Hagar. Christians, on the other hand, descended from Isaac, the child of the free woman. The Jews, like Ishmael, get driven out and dispossessed.

In the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, the landowner keeps sending representatives and his tenants keep rejecting or killing them. Finally, he sends his “beloved son” But they also killed him and cast him out of the vineyard. The landowner then comes and destroys his tenants. He gives the vineyard to others.

Levenson says that the parable shares with the story of Isaac and Ishmael the features of the “beloved son”, murder, and property. Thus the Genesis story is in the background of the parable. I value the imagination of this view, but I think it is a bit of a stretch.

In any case, both Galatians and the parable dispossess Israel and replace it with the Church. They are supersessionist.

Levenson tries to be fair to Paul. He notes that Paul “never blames the Jews for the death of Jesus or ascribes the founding of the Church to God’s wrath against the people of the old covenant” (p. 230). I wish Levenson had dealt with Romans 11:29 where Paul says, “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable.” “Irrevocable” seems to me so strong that Paul cannot think that Israel has been replaced. Perhaps Paul changed his mind or became more nuanced in his thinking between Galatians and Romans. Or, in Galatians Paul speaks not against Judaism but only against the “influencers” who want Gentile Christians to undergo circumcision: the position of Mark Nanos, a Jewish interpreter of Paul here in Kansas City.  See his The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First Century Context.

I should also point out that Levenson knows that the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen is not the historical Jesus. Redactors updated the parable, I would say, to reflect what happened–or was about to happen–to Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Nevertheless, Christians began using both of these passages in bitter polemics against Judaism very early on. And Levenson notes that Jews brought forth their own exclusivist system. He quotes a rabbinic parable about a vineyard and its tenants. In this parable unworthy descendents of Abraham get dispossessed (Ishmael’s descendents). Then unworthy descendents of Isaac get dispossessed (Esau’s descendents). But Jacob has no unworthy descendents. So the children of Jacob finally inherit and repossess the vineyard.

Right at the end of the book comes. I think, a brilliant sentence: “The competition of these two rival midrashic systems for their common biblical legacy reenacts the sibling rivalry at the core of ancient Israel’s account of its own tortured origins” (p. 232).


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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