Monday, November 14, 2011

Circumcision and Child Sacrifice - Some Fascinating Parallels.

In 2006 (scary! my blog is over 5 years old) I posted this re the Akeida and it generated quite a few interesting comments at the time. To my surprise and I have to admit satisfaction my old posts are read and relevant five years later as I received a thoughtful email commenting on it. The comment triggered some further thoughts on the subject and here they are.

In the earlier post I explained my understanding of Rambam that Avraham was having internal debates about his dedication to God. The question that I did not address is why did his introspection lead to a vision that manifested a human sacrifice? The same thinking could have found other visions that are less jarring that would demonstrate his devotion. Apparently, the idea of sacrificing a child, especially a first born, was very much the custom of the time and that is where Avraham got this idea in his vision. Neviim are realists who live within their time and culture and their vision is formed by that reality.

To expand on this theme - the haftorah to this week’s Parsha is the story in Melachim 2:4 about the Shunamit woman who was helped by Elisha and gave birth to a son whom she almost lost later - a similar theme to Abraham's experience with Yitzchak. That is usually the case with Haftorot; they have some connection to the Parsha that is read before it. What most people miss in our Haftorah is the shouting silence that is heard by what is not read - the end of the story just preceding this one, Melachim 2:3:26-27.

כו  וַיַּרְא מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב, כִּי-חָזַק מִמֶּנּוּ הַמִּלְחָמָה; וַיִּקַּח אוֹתוֹ שְׁבַע-מֵאוֹת אִישׁ שֹׁלֵף חֶרֶב, לְהַבְקִיעַ אֶל-מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם--וְלֹא יָכֹלוּ.       
26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not.
כז  וַיִּקַּח אֶת-בְּנוֹ הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר-יִמְלֹךְ תַּחְתָּיו, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ עֹלָה עַל-הַחֹמָה, וַיְהִי קֶצֶף-גָּדוֹל, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּסְעוּ, מֵעָלָיו, וַיָּשֻׁבוּ, לָאָרֶץ.  {פ}              
27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land. {P}

The rabbis, quoted ad locum by Rashi and Redak explain that the King of Moab asked his advisers, what merits Israel has, that it deserves such miracles which help them in battle.   His advisers told him that their forefather Abraham offered his firstborn as a sacrifice when God asked him to do so. The king of Moab therefore did the same and sacrificed his own firstborn. God was angry because it contrasted the devotion that this man had to his god with Israel’s lack of the same as Israel was sacrificing their sons to strange gods which their own God forbade.  The rabbis clearly connected the two – the popular custom of child sacrifice and the Akeida.  Although it is very much the theme of the Parsha, the Haftorah starts immediately after these verses, skipping them because of God's wrath but the elephant is in the room for one who knows Tanach or bothers to look up the Haftorah in a Tanach.

There is a further connection of child sacrifice to the Mitzvah of Brit Milah. It is quite plausible that one of the reasons[1] for the Mitzvah of Milah is that it was meant as a replacement for human sacrifice, letting blood instead of killing the child. Symbolically the bloodletting is performed on the organ that is responsible for reproduction and future generations - that which this sacrifice, if it had been performed was precluding. In fact, the story of the birth of Yitzchak and subsequently the Akeida follow the instructions Avraham received about the Brit Milah. The Torah is telling us that after the commandment of Milah, child sacrifice has no place in religion. The Mitzvah of Mila that is performed at birth replaces it and if additional manifestations of devotion to God are needed, replace a human sacrifice with one of animals – the ram being a symbol for Korbanot.

The Bracha we make during the Brit Mila is (MT Hilchot Mila 3:3):
ואחר כך מברך אבי הבן, או המל, או אחד מן העומדין שם ברכה זו--ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קידש ידיד מבטן, וחוק בשארו שם, וצאצאיו חתם באות ברית קודש

The words קידש ידיד מבטן, are quite possibly a reference to the ancient cultural custom of child sacrifice. I heard this suggestion close to 30 years ago by Professor Haim Gevaryahu at the Brit Milah of one of his grandsons. I subsequently found it online with an attribution to him by his son Gilad Gevaryahu with a reference to the source for this conjecture.  

Philo of Byblos (64-141 A.D.) described a ritual in Canaanite religion as follows:

Among ancient peoples in critically dangerous situations it
was customary for the rulers of a city or nation, rather than
lose everyone, to give over the dearest of their children as a
propitiatory sacrifice to the avenging deities. The children
thus given up were slaughtered according to a secret ritual.
Now Kronos, whom the Phoenicians call El, who was king of
their land and who was later divinized––after his death––as
the star of Kronos, had an only son by a local bride named
Anobret (and therefore they called him Yedid1; even now
 among the Phoenicians the only son is given this name); when
war’s gravest danger gripped the land, he [Kronos] dressed
his son in royal attire, prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.

(Harold W. Attridge and Robert A. Oden, Jr., Philo of Byblos
The Phoenician Histroy: Introduction, Critical Text, Notes.
Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 9. Washington,
D. C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1981: 61–62.)

See also a post I wrote a few years ago.

[1] BTW Rambam in MN offers three and one more can be found in MT. 

1 comment:

  1. Long time no speak! I am curious what you will think of my latest post. I could see your mind going either way on this issue. It is the first of a three-part series: