Chapter III

 

 

When a human sacrifice was required to be offered, it was desired to be the ‘first-born’ one. Even if the sacrifice required to be offered was not a human one, but was of an animal or a fruit, it had to be first-born animal or the first-fruit. Some of the authorities are being quoted here to elaborate the point. A New Commentary on Holy Scripture asserts:

  At the time of Abraham human sacrifice was customary and frequent among his Canaanite neighbors, and the early legislation of Ex 2229, which states without modification that first-born sons are to be given to God[1],seems clearly to imply a stage in Israel’s thought which regarded such sacrifices as a religious duty. [2]

The Rev. T.K. Cheyne, while discussing the sacrifice of Isaac in the entry ‘Isaac’, states:

The course that he adopted shows the writer to have been a great teacher. He admits the religious feeling which prompted the sacrifice of a firstborn son.[3]

Marcus Dods records the prevailing tradition of the time that the most exalted form of religious worship was the sacrifice of the first-born, becauseit was unbecoming to offer to God something which was not truly valuable.(Which of the two sons was truly valuable to Abraham, has been discussed elsewhere in this book in detail):

Abraham was familiar with the idea that the most exalted form of religious worship was the sacrifice of the first-born. He felt, in common with godly men in every age, that to offer to God cheap sacrifices while we retain for ourselves what is truly precious, is a kind of worship that betrays our low estimate of God rather than expresses true devotion.[4]

Stanley A. Cook observes that the offering of the firstborn to Yahweh was at one time considered strictly to be as binding as the offering of firstlings and first-fruits:

The firstborn male enjoyed the privileges of which he was not to be deprived (…). Not only were the first-fruits as acceptable an offering as the firstlings, but when (in exceptional cases) a human victim was required it was a firstborn that was preferred (2K. 3:27). (…).No doubt, strictly, the offering of the firstborn to Yahweh was at one time considered to be as binding as the offering of firstlings and first-fruits, and, indeed, the evidence goes to show that in exceptional cases the offering was actually made. However, just as the first-fruits were offered as a part of the whole, it is conceivable that originally the rite of circumcision was instituted upon the same principle to typify the offering of the firstborn.[5]

The very first sentence of the above passage asserts that ‘The firstborn male enjoyed the privileges of which he was not to be deprived’. The Bible itself has also laid it down categorically in the following terms:

If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born children, both the beloved and hated; and if the firstborn son be her’s that was hated: then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn: But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.[6]

It shows that, according to the Bible itself, the privilege of the firstborn son is irrevocable. Even if some father, on account of his inclination towards one of his wives, wishes to deprive the son of the other wife of his due and legitimate right of the firstborn son, he is not allowed to do so. And the exalted form of sacrifice was to offer the firstborn son. Therefore the privilege of being offered to God was Ishma‘el’s irrevocable and irreversible right, which, in no case, could have been transferred to Isaac.

The Book of Jubilees, of course, is not a canonical book; but it is not an outright rejected book either. Scholars of the Bible liberally quote from it to establish their point of view without much reservation. S. Tedesche has dilated upon it in his article on Jubilees, Book ofin the Interpreter’s Dic. of BibleSome of the excerpts are afforded below to acquaint the reader with its real significance:

One of the most important books of the Pseudepigrapha. It gives a graphic picture of Judaism in the two pre-Christian centuries. Its purpose was to show that Judaism, as it then was, had been the same from the very beginning of known history. (…). Emphasis is also placed on Jewish tenets and customs, and the importance of preserving the difference between Jews and Gentiles is stressed. (…). The purpose of the author was to do for Genesis what the Chronicler did for Samuel and Kings¾to rewrite the facts in such a way that it would appear that the law was rigorously observed by the patriarchs. (…). His desire was to save Judaism from the demoralizing effects of Hellenism by [i] glorifying the law and [ii] picturing the patriarchs as irreproachable; by [iii] glorifying Israel and [iv] urging her to preserve the separateness from the Gentiles; and by  [v] denouncing the Gentiles and also Israel’s national enemies. The ‘Angel of the Presence’ reveals to Moses on Sinai the history and religious laws of Gen. 1-Exod. 3 in the form of sermonized translations, or Midrashic Targums, which show only favorable practices and omit anything derogatory. (…). The contrast between Jews and Gentiles is sharply drawn, and Israel is warned to keep separate. (…), and anything is omitted that would put the patriarchs in  an unfavorable light.[7]

It shows about the Book of Jubilees that:

1)  It is One of the most important books of the Pseudepigrapha.

2)  Emphasis is placed on the difference between Jews and Gentiles and

3)  Every effort has been made to depict the superiority of the Jews and the inferiority of the Gentiles. (…), and

4)  ‘The purpose of the author was to do for Genesis what the Chronicler did for Samuel and Kings’ which means that, as far as the themes of Genesis are concerned, the Book of Jubilees is not less reliable than the ‘Chronicles’ is with regards to the ‘Samuel’ and the ‘Kings’.

5)  The desire of its author ‘was to save Judaism from the demoralizing effects of Hellenism by glorifying the law and picturing the patriarchs as irreproachable; by glorifying Israel and urging her to preserve the separateness from the Gentiles; and by denouncing the Gentiles and also Israel’s national enemies.’ It means that he could not have afforded therein anything, which might have been damaging to the pride and interest of the Jews.

6)  As to the patriarchs, he has tried his best to extend every favour and respect to them, 

7)  ‘and anything is omitted that would put the patriarchs in an unfavourable light’.

It can thus be appreciated that the Book of Jubileesis not an unimportant book and it could not include anything in it which be against the interest of the Jews and the patriarchs; and that’s why the scholars of the Bible liberally quote from it to strengthen their themes. This Book of Jubilees asserts:

And he drew near to the place of the mount of God. (…). And I called to him from heaven, and said unto him: ‘Abraham, Abraham;’ and he was terrified and said: ‘Behold, (here) am I.’ And I said unto him: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do you anything to him; for now I have shown that thou fearest the Lord, and hast not withheld thy son, thy first-born son,from me.’[8]

Then again, in 18:15 of the same book, it is stated:

And the Lord called Abraham by his name a second time from heaven, (…). And he said: ‘By Myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, Because thou hast done this thing, And hast not withheld thy son, thy beloved son, from Me, That in blessing I will Bless thee,[9]

The editor has afforded a footnote to ‘thy beloved son’. He asserts in it:

But here c d have ‘thy first-born son’.

The ‘c’ and ‘d’ have been explained in the introduction of this version of the Book of Jubilees on p.2. According to it the ‘c’ signifies the Ethiopic MS (Manuscript) of this book which belongs to the University Library at Tubingen, and the ‘d’ signifies the Ethiopic MS of this book which belongs to the National Library in Paris. It makes quite clear that according to vv 11 and 15 of chapter 18 of the Book of the Jubilees, Abraham was asked to offer ‘thy [Abraham is the addressee of this phrase]first-born son’for sacrifice.

The authorities have thus explained that if, at all, a physical offering was required under some special circumstances, it should have been only the first-born son of his father or the first-born animal. Otherwise, as a general rule, it was required that the first-born son of a father or a first-born animal should be ransomed and redeemed. A number of other scholars also maintain the same theme. Some of them are: Peake’s BC.[10], NJB.[11], Christian Community B.[12]

As to the fact that Ishma‘el is Abraham’s universally acknowledged firstborn son, it has so explicitly been stated in unequivocal terms in the Bible and other relevant record that one feels embarrassed in putting forward some argu-mentation with regard to it. But it is a matter of grave concern that some scholars of the Bible have felt no hesitation in defying and defiling this plain fact. So the theme is being undertaken below quite briefly:

 

Isaac as Abraham’s Son

Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac:[13]

And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.[14]

 

Ishma‘el as Abraham’s Son

And Hagar bare Abram [stress added] a son: and Abram called his son’s [stress added] name, which Hagar bare, Ishma‘el. And Abraham was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishma‘el to Abram [stress added].[15]

And Abram took Ishma‘el his son [stress added], and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. [16]

But the son of the slave woman is also your son [stress added], and I will make his descendants into a great nation.[17]

I will also give many children to the son of the slave-girl, so that they will become a nation. He too is your son [stress added].[18]

Stress has been added to some words and phrases of the above sub-heading ‘Ishma‘el  as Abraham’s Son’, which shows that Ishma‘el is as genuinely and legitimately Abraham’s own real son as Isaac. It thus abundantly makes clear that according to the Bible, Ishma‘el and Isaac, both of them, were Abraham’s equally real, legitimate, and genuine sons. If somebody arbitrarily claims that Ishma‘el was not Abraham’s son, or had ceased to be his son after being cast away, it is quite against the facts and without any justification. God told Abraham that Ishma‘el would remain his son even after being settled elsewhere. Ishma‘el was born when Abraham was eighty-six years old; and Isaac was born when Abraham was a hundred years old. As such, it was Ishma‘el who was the ‘First Born Son of Abraham’. The privilege of being his father (Abraham)’s first-born son was Ishma‘el’s irrevocable and irreversible right and nobody could have deprived him of it. Isaac was Abraham’s second-born son and could not have been called the first-born son of his father at any stage of his life by any stretch of meanings.Then it was Ishma‘elwho retained the status of the only son of Abraham for nearly fourteen years; whereas Isaac could not enjoy the status of an only son of Abraham for even a single day of his life.The son, asked to be offered for sacrifice had to be Abraham’s ‘only son’ (as categorically and repeatedly directed in the Bible) as well as his ‘first-born son’ (as required by the prevalent tradition of offering to make the offering precious). Had God meant to require some ‘only heir’ or ‘Sarah’s only son’, as some scholars have tried to put these words in God’s mouth, He could plainly have used these words. He should not have puzzled Abraham by asking him to offer ‘thy son, thine only son’. How can a man on earth say that it could, in any way, or by any stretch of meaning, be Isaac who was required to be offered for sacrifice! Isaac was neither Abraham’s ‘only son’ nor his ‘first-born’ one at the time of his birth, or at any stage of his life. He was not the ‘only son of Abraham’ as long as Abraham was alive, because Ishma‘el had throughout been very much alive together with him until Abraham breathed his last. Now it is unto the reader to appreciate the truth.

It can thus safely be concluded from the fairly detailed above data regarding the privilege of the first-born son that:

1.    Human sacrifice was customary and frequent among Abraham’s Canaanite neighbours, and the early legislation of Ex 22:29 alsostates that first-born sons are to be given to God.

2.    Not only were the first-fruits as acceptable an offering as the firstlings, but when(in exceptional cases)a human victim was required it was a first-born that was preferred (2K. 3:27).

3.    The first-born male enjoyed the privileges of which he was not to be deprived.

4.    One of the most important books of the Pseudepigrapha, the ‘Book of Jubilees’, reports God as saying: ‘for now I have shown that thou fearest the Lord, and hast not withheld thy son, thy first-born son, from me.’  It means that the son who was offered for sacrifice was the ‘First-born son of Abraham’; not only according to the Bible, but also according to all the available record.

5.    It is a universally acknowledged fact that, inter alia, both Ishma‘el and Isaac are Abraham’s real and legitimate sons.

6.    Only one son of a person can be called his ‘first-born son’; and it was Ishma‘el who was Abraham’s ‘first-born son’; and was born nearly fourteen years prior to Isaac’s birth.

7.    In addition to being Abraham’s ‘first-born son’, Ishma‘el retained the status of being Abraham’s ‘only son’ for nearly fourteen years, whereas Isaac had not enjoyed this privilege at any time of his life. It means that Isaac could neither have been called ‘the only son of Abraham’ nor his ‘firstborn son’ at any stage of his life.

8.    God had asked Abraham to offer his ‘only son’ for sacrifice. Moreover, it should have been the ‘first-born son’ who was customary to be offered. These prerequisites naturally nominate Ishma‘el to be offered for sacrifice. Isaac does not fulfil any of these conditions. So it could have been only Ishma‘elwho was required to be offered for sacrifice; and it could, by no means, have been Isaac. 

9.    The above discussion further suggests that to make the sacrifice more significant, precious, and for attesting the fidelity of Abraham in true sense of the word, it could have been his ‘first-born and the only son’ whom God might have asked Abraham to offer for sacrifice. He was very old. His wife Sarah was also very old, past menopause, and barren. He did not expect any further offspring. He had only one son who had now become of a reasonable age to extend him a helping hand that he extremely needed at such a stage of his life. He had no ray of future hope if he be deprived of his youthful son Ishma‘el. Had it been one of his two sons who was required to be offered for sacrifice, and that too his younger son Isaac, who was less useful, less vigorous, less versatile, and less helpful to him; the test could not have been so grave, meaningful, and perfect; as it could have been in case of the ‘only and the first-born son’ to be required for sacrifice.

10.  In a situation like this: where God is going to ‘tempt’ Abraham through asking him to offer his firstborn and the only son for sacrifice; and that too, at such a stage of his life: it would be redundant if God adds the name of Abraham’s son to ‘your son, [your firstborn son, who is]your only son’.Making the expression grim-grimmer-grimmest with the words ‘your son, [your firstborn son, who is]your only sonthe command has been taken to its climax.It would rather mar the effectiveness and significance of the command if ‘even Isaac’ be inserted into it. The mention of the name of the only son is a useless addition, and cannot be expected by some eloquent, impressive and intelligent communicator. This is an ugly instance of interpolation incorporated by some committed but naive redactor that exposes his guilty conscience and ulterior ‘holy and pious’ motives. 

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