Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Sacred Executioner Part 2

This is the second part of my review of The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt by Hyam Maccoby


Next, Maccoby tackles another confusing Biblical passage in which Moses' wife circumcises his son.

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. (Exodus 4:24-26)

There have been numerous different explanations for what's going on here. A big part of the confusion has to do with figuring out which pronoun refers to whom. Maccoby translates the Hebrew as follows:

And it came to pass on the way at the lodging place, that the Lord afflicted him (with madness), and he (Moses) sought to kill him (the child). And Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his (Moses') feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.' So He (God) withdrew from him (Moses, i.e. the fit of madness left him). Then she said, 'Bridegroom of blood for the circumcision.' (Exodus 4:24-26)

This translation indicates that Moses was about to perform a child sacrifice, but God decided that sacrificing the foreskin was enough. Thus circumcision, like animal sacrifice, was used in place of human sacrifice as religion evolved. A further clue that this passage is about human sacrifice is found in the passage immediately preceding:

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22-23)

Maccoby cites another interpretation of this passage from the scholar Julius Wellhausen. He points out the Hebrew word for "bridegroom" is derived from a Semitic root which means "to circumcise". The Hebrew word for "father-in-law" also derives from the same root. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, was also known as hoten Mosheh (the circumciser of Moses). This indicates to Wellhausen that this passage marks a transition from the practice of circumcising young males just before marriage to circumcising males at birth.

An example of puberty circumcision still in the Bible is found in Genesis 17:24 where Ishmael is said to be thirteen at the time of his circumcision. Another possible instance of pre-marital circumcision is found in Genesis 34 in which the inhabitants of Shechem agree to be circumcised in preperation for an intermarriage with the family of Jacob. Also Joshua circumcises the young men of Israel to prepare for the invastion of Canaan (Joshua 5).


The sacrifice of Jesus parallels the sacrifice of Isaac and is described in the same language. However, in the case of Jesus, God isn't asking someone else to sacrifice their only son, He is making Himself sacrifice His only son to appease His own anger. As is common with human sacrifice, the victim becomes deified as a way of justifying the slaughter. So too with Jesus.

The Jewish people as a whole are the Sacred Executioner in the story of Jesus. It is they who cry out "His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25). They are the ones who are blamed and held responsible for the death of Jesus. Sharing in their blame and in the role of Sacred Executioner are Judas Iscariot (in a way a personification of the Jewish race), the Wandering Jew, and Pilate.

Judas is like a brother to Jesus. This is because the Sacred Executioner cannot be an outsider. Just as with Cain and Abel, a close relationship is required between executioner and victim. Judas may have even been the brother of Jesus if all the characters named Judas in the Gospels are the same person. In the Acts of Thomas, Judas Thomas is considered the twin of Jesus. In fact, the Hebrew word "Thomas" simply means "twin".

Further evidence that Judas was a Sacred Executioner is the fact that his motive for betraying Jesus is flimsy and contradictory. However, since he dies instead of being cursed with immortality, he doesn't fit the role of Sacred Executioner exactly. This part of the role is taken up by the Wandering Jew and the Jewish people as a whole.

The Jews are cursed to eternally wander the earth. As in previous human sacrifices, the death of Jesus, necessary as it was, is both a crime for which the Jews must be punished and a saving event by which all Christians can profit.

Pilate symbolizes the role of the community. He orders the execution, yet washes his hands of it. Just like earlier communities which demanded, but were horrified by human sacrifice.

As an aside, I found it interesting that the reforms Jesus set out to accomplish in spite of the Pharisees in the Gospels, were the same reforms already instituted by the Pharisee movement in history. I was also interested to learn that during the Middle Ages, Christianity turned its focus from the adult Jesus to the infant Jesus held in the arms of the Virgin Mary. Maccoby refers to this change in focus as a regression.


Maccoby sees the goat for Azazel (Leviticus 16:9-10) as being a later version of the Sacred Executioner when animal sacrifice has replaced human sacrifice. He also suspects the death of Achan (Joshua 7) was originally a human sacrifice. Of course, Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11:30-40) is an explicit human sacrifice taking place in the Bible.

In the ancient world, sacrifice was required each spring to renew the earth. God seems to be calling for an end to human sacrifice when he says "While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease." (Genesis 8:22) God is saying the seasons will continue on their own, they no longer require human sacrifice to be initiated.

The last few chapters of the book get away from the Bible and the Sacred Executioner to focus on the poor treatment of Jews by Christians during the Middle Ages and the Holocaust. There's some interesting information here, but it's off topic.

I think Maccoby makes several unjustified leaps in this book. He tends to read too much into the Bible and is sometimes found harmonizing contradictions. I wish he would have cited his sources better (sometimes he doesn't even give the Biblical verse he is discussing). However, he does provide some thought provoking interpretations of the Biblical text. While his interpretation of the text is certainly possible, I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the most probable.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Sacred Executioner Part 1

This post is part one of my review of The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt by Hyam Maccoby

According to Hyam Maccoby, the Sacred Executioner is a figure appearing in various ancient religions who performs a necessary function to society in the form of human sacrifice, but is then cursed and banished from society for doing such a despicable deed. In this book, Maccoby attempts to prove that there are traces of the Sacred Executioner in the Bible.


According to the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel because God accepted Abel's animal sacrifice, but not Cain's vegetable sacrifice. If the story of Cain and Abel is simply one of murder, why does God then place a mark upon Cain and declare that if someone kills Cain, Cain will be avenged sevenfold? Here, Maccoby sees the traces of an earlier version of the story in which Cain is a Sacred Executioner. He performed a needed human sacrifice, so he cannot be punished for his actions. However, the act is so horrible that he cannot remain a part of society.

Maccoby thinks that Abel (whose name in Hebrew means "vapour" or nothingness) wasn't the name of the person Cain originally killed. Rather, Cain killed his son Enoch. The evidence for this is the fact that human sacrifices were commonly performed in the ancient world in order to dedicate a new city and Cain named the city he built after his son Enoch. Enoch died young, at the sun-god age of 365 during a time when most people lived to be about 900. Also, the Bible doesn't say that Enoch died, but rather that he "walked with God, and he was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24) which implies human sacrifice to Maccoby.

Further, Maccoby supposes that Cain was originally the first man, not Adam (whose name simply means "man"). Like Adam, Cain was punished by having to toil agriculturally (Genesis 4:12) and he was also banished to the east of Eden to the land of Nod (literally "land of exile"). This implies that Cain was originally from Eden, but got kicked out. It is said that Adam "knew his wife" when he fathered Cain. Likewise, Cain "knew his wife" when he fathered Enoch. Since the phrase "knew his wife" isn't used again until the time of Noah, this implies that knowing one's wife isn't simply the act of conception, but rather the initiation of a new race.

The name Cain means "smith" in Hebrew, and indeed his descendants (particularly Tubal-Cain) are said to be blacksmiths and metalworkers. There is a tribe of smiths in the Bible called the Kenites whose name is derived from Cain and in fact their name is sometimes translated as Cain (Numbers 24:22). The father-in-law of Moses was a Kenite (Judges 4:11) and in another verse is even named Cain. Saul spares the Kenites because they showed kindness to Israel in the past (1 Samuel 15:6). The Israelites seem to have been on good terms with the Kenites since there is only one hostile reference to them in the Bible (Number 24:21-22).

Maccoby thinks that the original Kenite creation story in which Cain is the first man was replaced by the Israelite version in which Adam was the first man. Further evidence of this is the genealogy given for Adam's son Seth. The descendants of Seth listed in the Bible are based on the descendants of Cain. Their names are only spelled slightly differently: Cain, Kenan; Irad, Jared; Mehujael, Mahalalel; Mathushael, Methuselah. Also, both Cain and Seth have descendents named Enoch and Lamech.


Very few verses are spent on Lamech in the Bible (only Genesis 4:17-24), but Maccoby suspects he was an important figure in the Kenite myth. Like his ancestor Cain, Lamech is also a murderer and in fact boasts that "If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, Truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold." Lamech lives to be 777 years old, in reference to this statement. Lamech's sons are said to be the fathers of tent-dwellers, cattle raisers, musicians, and metal workers. How can this be since according to Biblical chronology they all died in the Flood? Maccoby's answer is that in the original Kenite myth, Lamech and his three sons were the ones to survive the Flood, not Noah and his three sons. Noah's wife is the first wife mentioned since Eve in the Sethian line, likewise Lamech's wives are the first mentioned since Cain's in the Cainite line.

Evidence that the Kenite/Cainite line continued after the flood is found in the geneology of Genesis 10:21-24 and 11:11-13. In the Greek Septuagint, the name Cainan, a variation on Cain, appears seven times (although it appears to have been edited out of the Masoretic text.) Cainan appears to have been used as a title since Noah's son Shem has both a son and grandson named Cainan.

Maccoby supposes that Noah's animal sacrifice giving thanks to God after the Flood had a parallel human sacrifice in the hypothetical Kenite myth. This is why Lamech claims he will be avenged like Cain; he was also a Sacred Executioner. Further, Maccoby points out the Hebrew can be translated in such a way to indicate that Lamech killed not just any man, but his own child, a theory which finds support in Midrash Tanhuma which gives the following story: Lamech was blind and would often go hunting with his son Tubal-Cain who would point him in the right direction. One day, they accidentally kill a man with a horn coming out of his head. This man is Lamech's ancestor Cain whose "mark" was the horn. Lamech claps his hands together in grief, but unfortunately, his son is standing between his hands and dies from the blow. Lamech's wives refuse to have intercourse with him for fear that any offspring they have will be under the curse. Lamech explains that even though Cain was cursed, he was allowed to have seven generations of descendants before he died, therefore Lamech would be allowed seventy seven generations. 

Maccoby supposes that in the original version of this myth, Lamech made a human sacrifice of his son, Tubal-Cain. Perhaps Cain was a god in the Kenite religion and when a child was sacrificed to him, the child became deified and associated with the god. This might be why Tubal was given the odd double name of Tubal-Cain.


Another part of the Bible that contains textual difficulty is the scene in which Noah gets drunk and passes out naked in his tent. His son Ham then sees him naked. When Noah wakes up, he somehow knows that his son saw his nakedness and responds by cursing his grandson Canaan (whose name in Hebrew actually has nothing to do with Cain even though the names are similar in English). How did Noah know what happened? Why was his son seeing him naked such a big deal? Why did he curse his grandson instead of his son?

According to the Midrash (See Genesis Rabbah 36:7; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a; Yalqut Shimoni Noah 61) , Ham didn't just see his father naked, but he castrated him. He did this so Noah couldn't have anymore sons. The more sons Noah had, the less inheritance Ham would get, and in the case of Noah, his inheritance was the entire world. Maccoby then links this story to Greek and Egyptian myths involving castration and further supposes that in the original version of this myth, Canaan was the hero like when Cronus castrated Uranus. He then became the villian in the Kenite version, and finally Ham was made to share his blame in the Israelite form of the myth.

Genesis 9:24 states that "Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done to him." Ham is not Noah's youngest son, but Canaan was the youngest son of Ham. This is further evidence of tampering done with the text and points to Cronus, the youngest son of Uranus who castrated his father at his mother's urging. (The youngest son is often the champion and favorite of the mother in matriarchal myths.)


There is no devil in the Hebrew Bible. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was not thought to be Satan in disguise before the Christian era. Satan does appear in the Book of Job, but he is not the devil, but rather one of God's angels whose job it was to reveal mankind's faults before God. This is how Satan is presented in the Talmud as well.

In the Bible, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but substitutes an animal at the last minute. In the Book of Jubilees, the dark angel Mastema is the one who suggests God test Abraham in this way, providing the same role as Satan in the Book of Job. In later Midrash, Satan is presented as trying to prevent the sacrifice, jogging Abraham's hand to make him drop the knife (Tanhuma, Vayera 23). This is in stark contrast to the sacrifice of Jesus in which Satan helps God make the sacrifice happen. Even though God is demanding the sacrifice of Jesus just like earlier gods demanded human sacrifice in general, God is absolved of the blame. This is another aspect of the Sacred Executioner, that not only the tribe, but also their god are absolved of blame for performing a human sacrifice.

Perhaps in an earlier version of the story, Abraham actually did sacrifice Isaac. A trace of this is found in Genesis 22:19 in which only Abraham, not Isaac departs Mount Moriah after the sacrifice. One Midrash (Shibbolei ha-Leket 9a-9b) even states that Isaac was killed and burnt to ashes but brought back to life.