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.

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