Sunday, November 1, 2009

Looking for clear headed thinking about sacrifice

Someone asked me today what is the meaning of sacrifice - specifically with respect to the binding of Isaac. The Latin word means literally to make holy - but the offering of Isaac and the Levitical 'sacrificial' system do not use such a word for the act of killing. Similarly the Greek προσφέρω (Hebrews) or ἀναφέρω (James) is used of the offering of Isaac - not any word related to 'holy'. Consecration (same root as sacrifice), sanctification (a synonym) are related to holy in English, but the offering עלה of Isaac and the offerings קרבן of Leviticus are different from each other and different again from holy קדש and from sacrifice זבח and are not used in the binding of Isaac.  Sacrifice in the NT consistently translates θυσία related to killing. Consecrate / sanctify translate the Greek ἁγιάζω. How did the conflation of killing θύω with holy ἅγιος happen so that we ended up creating the Latin word 'sacrifice' and we seem to use it carelessly? Do these words just blend into each other's conceptual fog?


rbarenblat said...

As you note, the Hebrew קרבן means drawing-near. The korbanot offered in the Temple of old were a way of of drawing-near to God. There was not the connotation of the Latinate "sacrifice" -- korbanot were not about giving something up but rather about drawing close to God. (And, indeed, in that old system for a time it was only possible to eat meat if one had given it over as a korban -- part went to God, part to the priests, and part to the family who had brought the animal -- so making an offering of, say, a lamb was not an instance of giving up something one wanted but rather getting something one wanted, e.g. both closeness to God and the ability to eat meat for a change.)

עלה comes from the root meaning ascent; it's often rendered "elevation offering." What exactly that meant in its original context is not clear to me; this is not my area of expertise. But I'm pretty sure that there, again, the word does not have the same connotations as "sacrifice."

I don't think of Isaac as a "sacrifice," certainly not as a korban by any stretch of the imagination. We call that story the עקדה (akedah), which is usually rendered "binding" in English (as in "the binding of Isaac.") Given that this is its most common name in Jewish tradition, I have the sense that what the tradition wants us to focus on is the binding (perhaps from Abraham's POV and perhaps from Isaac's), not the moment when Abraham lifts the knife. In that sense, it becomes a story about spiritual submission, not about slaughter.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thank you Rachel for a very helpful start to rethinking this area of assumptions. You are right, I had looked up korban and noted it was related to drawing near but I had not brought to mind the historical aspects of communal sharing and approach to God. I see that this word is largely confined to Leviticus and Numbers (74 uses) and only 4 others outside of Torah - 2 Ezekiel and 2 in Nehemiah. The New Testament shows that the word was still in use later and that the principle was abused to avoid some kinds of obligation. Psalm 27:4 came to my mind related to approach - the word there is בקר - it has two shared letters! I wonder if there is a relationship here ...