parshat Hayei Sarah
Picking up where divine birthers I left off, the death of Sarah is the final separation of Isaac’s natural mother from the divinely born and re-born Isaac. “The final denial of Sarah’s role in Isaac’s birth comes after the sacrifice of Isaac. Prior to Isaac’s symbolic ‘divine birth’ [at the Akedah] Sarah dies, emphasizing that she had no part in the transformation which can be seen as a symbolic ‘divine birth’ (as Isaac is symbolically sacrificed).” [Kunin p 97]
We have explored in the previous post, the major elements in the structure of the divine birth of biblical leaders. While Isaac provides the clearest example of a miraculous/divine birth to a barren mother and impotent father, and re-birth/resurrection at the hand of God (the akedah/sacrifice of Isaac), Isaac is not an isolated case. Once we recognize the structural elements of divine birth, it is easy to see how important it was for Isaac’s son; Jacob to be separated (exiled) from his parents and to die and be re-born (see story of angels going up to heaven = death, and coming down = re-birth Kunin p 119-20) and struggle and die and be reborn and re-named again (see story of death struggle with angel and new name ‘Israel” Kunin p 129). Once one recognizes the pattern one comes to expect that biblical leaders are never the first born, are born to barren mothers, rejected and abused by their community, struggle and consigned to symbolic death and reborn.
What is key, is that divine birth in the bible is not an isolated or unique incident. There is not one single divine birth. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that, to a degree, every human has an element of divine birth. Thus the rabbinic notion that everyone has three parents… Our Rabbis taught: there are three partners in every person, the Holy One Blessed be He, the father and the mother. (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30b)
It was only later, after the destruction of the First Temple and with the emergence of the idea of a single savior, that the structure of the ‘divine birth’ became identified with a single, unique individual and a unique eschatological moment in history. It was only later that the emphasis on divine birth became the miraculous as opposed to the not-natural.
Daniel Boyarin, in his best seller; The Jewish Gospels; The Story of the Jewish Christ, shows how many concepts, previously thought to have been innovations of Christianity, actually have clear antecedents in Judaism.
According to Boyarin (who follows Leo Baeck), divine birth as a prerequisite for a redeemer of Israel appears first in the post exilic book of Daniel 7
13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the Ancient of days, and he was brought near before Him.
14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Boyarin writes: “At a certain point these traditions became merged in Jewish minds with the expectation of a return of a Davidic king, and the idea of a divine-human Messiah was born. This figure was then named “Son of Man,” alluding to his origins in the divine figure named “one like a Son of Man/a human being” in Daniel. In other words, a simile, a God who looks like a human being (literally Son of Man) has become the name for that God, who is now called “Son of Man,” a reference to his human-appearing divinity.
So just as the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac” actually refers to the survival and re-birth of Isaac… the ‘not-sacrifice of Isaac’, so too the reference to the awaited messiah as the son of man was actually a tag for he who was divine and only ‘like’ a son of man… the ‘not-son-of-man’.
Earlier references to God giving birth to a King did not originally have any hints of incarnation of the deity as king, but were taken as a sign of intimacy: “I will be to you as a father, and you will be to me as a son.” (Boyarin pp 28-29), but once the “one like a Son of Man” concept emerged, along with the messianic king, it changed the way these references were read by pre-Christian Jews.
For instance in Psalm 2: 6-7
6 ‘Truly it is I that have established My king upon Zion, My holy mountain.’
7 I will tell of the decree: the LORD said unto me: ‘Thou art My son, this day have I begotten thee.
The next element of this singular divine human was that his suffering would bring redemption. Here Boyarin draws on the famous suffering servant of God found in Isaiah 53
3 He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself an offering, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand:
Boyarin writes: “I cannot overstate the extent to which the interpretation of this passage has anchored the conventional view of Judaism’s relationship to Messianism. It has been generally assumed by modern folks that Jews have always given the passage a metaphorical reading, understanding the suffering servant to refer to the People of Israel, and that it was the Christians who changed and distorted its meaning to make it refer to Jesus. Quite to the contrary, we now know that many Jewish authorities, maybe even most, until nearly the modern period have read Isaiah 53 as being about the Messiah; until the last few centuries, the allegorical reading was a minority position. (Boyarin p 152)
By showing that the concepts of a divine birth, suffering and sacrifice of a redeemer are found in Judaism prior to Jesus and before the advent of Christianity, Boyarin is out to make an important point about Christianity:
“the Christ was not invented to explain Jesus’ life and death. Versions of this narrative, the Son of Man story (the story that is later named Christology), were widespread among Jews before the advent of Jesus; Jesus entered into a role that existed prior to his birth, and this is why so many Jews were prepared to accept him as the Christ, as the Messiah, Son of Man. This way of looking at things is quite opposite to a scholarly tradition that assumes that Jesus came first and that Christology was created after the fact in order to explain his amazing career. The job description—Required: one Christ, will be divine, will be called Son of Man, will be sovereign and savior of the Jews and the world—was there already and Jesus fit (or did not according to other Jews) the bill. The job description was not a put-up job tailored to fit Jesus!” (Boyarin p 73)
“the New Testament is much more deeply embedded within Second Temple Jewish life and thought than many have imagined, even—and this I emphasize again—in the very moments that we take to be most characteristically Christian as opposed to Jewish: the notion of a dual godhead with a Father and a Son, the notion of a Redeemer who himself will be both God and man, and the notion that this Redeemer would suffer and die as part of the salvational process. At least some of these ideas, the Father/Son godhead and the suffering savior, have deep roots in the Hebrew Bible as well and may be among some of the most ancient ideas about God and the world that the Israelite people ever held.” Boyarin p 157-8)
I would add to Boyarin that not only does Christianity draw many of its core theological concepts from prior Biblical traditions, but in so doing, Christianity becomes a receptacle and valuable resource for Biblical students to uncover those concepts which may have been suppressed, repressed, fallen into misfavor, or just forgotten.
It seems to me that divine birth as it appears in Genesis is one such core concept that has been eclipsed. The fact that latter Jewish messianists and Christians modified it to refer to a singular individual and put the emphasis on the redemptive and supernatural (magical) divine powers of this not-son-of-man, should not dissuade us from uncovering the original function and meaning of divine birth.
It seems to me, that the divine birth revealed in Genesis emphasizes, not so much the divine nature of the biblical leader, but rather a disruption with the constraints of his natural birth.
The divinely born breaks free from the ties to his place of birth and his parents. The divinely born does not benefit from the natural birth order and primogeniture… he breaks down a culture of entitlement and ‘natural’ hierarchy of class. The divinely born succeeds through the sweat of his brow, overcomes rejection and suffering, and finally, the divinely born believes that he can be re-born, that nothing is impossible and nothing, not even his persona (name), and least of all, his destiny, can not be changed. The divine birth I find in Genesis introduces a covenant with God (cut between the pieces) which is a rejection of natural law (and natural birth) and embraces culture, learning, and other human/divine conventions where change, sanctioned by the divine is possible and blessed. Divine birth presupposes a covenant with the divine which transcends any contract or deal with the powers that be. Divine birth presupposes a divine covenant which breaks with the accepted political structure… it speaks truth to power. Divine birth was and is a true gift of the Jews.