Book Review: The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son

by Jon D. Levenson


The firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me. –Exodus 22:29

Did Israel at one time offer child sacrifice to God? If so, when and how did they overcome this barbaric ritual?

Levenson takes seriously the hints throughout the Bible that Israelites once condoned child sacrifice to Yahweh, though he doubts its practice was widespread. The firstborn belonged to God, and the most pious parents considered the appropriate means of giving him to God to be in sacrifice. Levenson argues that the phrase “beloved son” (yahid) seems to have been, at least on occasion, a technical term for the son sacrificed as a burnt offering. This practice was roundly condemned by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and in time worshipers began to understand that God would accept animal sacrifice in place of one’s favored son. The story of Abraham and Isaac is a key example.

Sibling rivalry is a common Old Testament theme, reinforced often by the outward favoring by the parents of one son over another. One would imagine the “beloved son” to be the firstborn, with all the privileges that go with that station, but the Bible breaks the rules often. Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph, David, the list goes on. The “beloved son” is not only favored by parents but God-chosen, and belongs to God … either in sacrifice or by atonement.

This theme of the sacrificial death of the beloved son was never purged from the Judaic mindset, even to the point of believing Abraham did put the knife to Isaac. Many midrashic interpretations of the sacrifice of Isaac refer to his blood being spilled. Perhaps all of his blood, depending upon which midrashic commentary you read.

Intelligent, deeply researched, and reasonable, this is a look at just about every “beloved son” in the Bible except the one you expect: Jesus. It goes without saying that Jesus is the ultimate beloved son, but he gets only a brief nod here and there. Still, this book will inevitably make you think differently about what the death of Jesus meant. There is a bit of New Testament theology thrown in, but the focus is really the development of a theme through the Old Testament … the theme of giving the one you love most to God.

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