A New Year

I have recently thought about the literalness of texts, and have concluded that the injunction not to change a single word or letter in many of the sacred texts likely refers to gematria, and probably not to any injunction that would jeopardize world peace etc.  These injunctions are found with respect to the Torah, the book of Revelations, the Qur’an, etc.  I find the middle book to be quite obscure, but the other 2 books are both copied letter for letter, even where there is a grammatical or flawed letter.  The error is copied – and the rabbis do know where the mistakes are.  They are preserved.

The New Year is the time of year to review the Abraham-Isaac story. Muslims believe this to be the Abraham-Ishmael story, and reenact it yearly at the Hajj.  Having recently reviewed the story of David and Goliath, I had hypothesized that the DG story is a doublet as defined by Friedman:  the first story is told in 1 Samuel 17, the second one at the end of 2 Samuel 21.  The common points are: 1) war at Gath, 2) Goliath, 3) war with the Philistines, 4) taunting of Israel, 5) staff of spear like a weaver’s beam, 6) giants 7) (5 stones and 4 deaths).  One point that is close, but not exact, is that in the 2nd story, it is the son of David’s brother who slays a giant.  Analyzing why 2 stories might have evolved, I believe the 1 Samuel version may have been a version for children reenacted with the slingshot and 5 pebbles over and over, like cowboys and Indians are played in the west.  The second version 2 Samuel, is within the context of an accounting of wars, so for the courts, perhaps even derived from the missing Book of Wars.  The story is apparently again repeated with a slightly different correction in Chronicles.

So, if Abraham-Isaac is a story, who is its audience?  I would argue that it is most certainly not the adults (who don’t want to hear that they cannot care for or protect their child), but rather the children.  When looked at in this context, then, one sees the child being told that a higher calling might require his sacrifice, but that G_d (and not his father) may indeed spare him in the end.  Such a teaching justifies military service, or indeed any heroic activity such as fire-fighting, etc.  It is the conquering of the fear of death.

The story is argued to be the end of child sacrifice.  The ram replacement for child sacrifice may have also been a precursor to פדיון הבן‎ (pidyon haben), or the redemption of the first born, which today is financial – the ram being a replacement for sheckels.  This redemption money/first fruits concept may even predate Judaism (a defense of rank, or acknowledgement of submission, possibly even a selling of the first born into slavery during times of necessity if one wanted to argue a generalization of the concept of אֲדֹנָי Adonai Gen 18:27, – the word וְהָאֱלֹהִים or rulers of Ugartic origin is used at the beginning of the passage Gen 22:1).  Redemption of the first born was obviously a distinguishing characteristic between Egyptian and Hebrew cultures during the Egyptian enslavement of the Hebrews as recounted in the Passover story.  The redemption of the first born apparently does have references in Akkadian culture.  The closest ritual I could find in contemporary Muslim culture is the Aqiqah, performed for all children, a partial analog of the Brit Milah in Jewish culture.

If Ishmael were indeed the first born and kicked out of the house, he would have been redeemed, and when kicked out, a new ceremony to institute Isaac as the truly first born in the family could have been initiated.  Alternatively, it is reported by some rabbis that in cases of polygamy, each first born child would have been separately redeemed.  If so, then the ceremonies were likely performed when both children were quite young for traditional as opposed to financial reasons, although the mentioning of Ishmael’s late circumcision is of note here.  Isaac is old enough to question the redemption sacrifice,  and arguably may have carried the wood.  I think therefore that both Abrahamic stories could have truth – that is that this child sacrifice ritual was traditionally performed on mountains at a time when children were less valuable (famine, war, Swift’s modest proposal, etc.).  The father took the child up the mountain, and if a ram appeared, the child was spared.  It probably happened with children within both Abrahamic traditions for many centuries, before finally ending.  This may be consistent with  an indirect reference from Ezekiel 16:20 (Reuven Firestone, Judaism and Islam…) and also Amos 7:9 – the word “high places” or בָּמוֹת  is used,  definitely plural.  Isaac’s name is also spelled slightly differently in the latter passage:  looking closely I had never realized how close the Shin ש was to the Tzadei צ- a slight rotation and asymmetry will convert one to the other.

Friedman points out a discontinuity in the narrative at the point where Isaac is saved.

The language shifts from G_d (הָאֱלֹהִים) speaking to Abraham directly, to an angel of G_d (מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה) telling him to spare Isaac, and then within the narrative of Sarah’s burial to the words אֲדֹנִי and נְשִׂיא אֱלֹהִים being used to address Abraham.  Friedman, with some midrash support, then questions whether Isaac was indeed spared.  The narrative of Abraham is unique in that angels of G_d often appear to do G_d’s work, with the foretelling of the birth of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the saving of Ishmael and Isaac, the naming of Israel.  The split in the narrative is compelling, but I would place the sparing of Isaac and use of angels to be more consistent with the overall tone of Abraham’s other stories.  In summary, Abraham leaves his homeland to form a nation, and he expects his sons to do similarly, although he keeps Isaac very close to him after the sacrificial rite.

Given the common background (the stories), and the fact that Isaac and Ishmael are said to have buried their father together in spite of their history, why can’t the 2 sides of the family get along today?  Traditional discord aside, one side has evolved more recently in diaspora.  This side has westernized relative to the Muslim side, and one has a divide which if not exploited, has widened to separate those who would have freedom at any cost, from those who would argue for submission.  I think that it was beauty to plant the first group within the environment of the second group, and watch the system evolve to a point of tolerance.  I don’t know if absolute peace will be wanted by either side (giving up the drive for freedom,  security, and a home/identity that can be protected or giving up heavily invested structured submission), but I think that if both sides could recognize their value to one another within the whole, and their common background (and historical use of strife against one another), there could be peace enough to allow quibbling, in much the same way as a Freudian id might quibble with a Super Ego.  The situation in the Middle East can be more generally seen in analogy to any kind of integration/identity crisis with/within a system.

Within this context, I found it enlightening to review the 613 mitzvot.  A new year: looking specifically at those that I think will make me a better person, and analyzing those that might not.

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