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.

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