My dear readers, this blog had never been meant to be a reaction to the events around us – and in all these years I’ve done my best to stick with biblical studies only, and not comment on events which, at one point or another, were filling the media (and trust me, that’s not an easy task when you live in Jerusalem). But of course the crisis that the whole world is now facing can’t be ignored, even on these pages, so for the past few weeks, I have been trying to find a balance between commenting on the situation in the world, and the teaching that I am supposed to present here. It’s not so difficult, in fact, since the Bible does give us the answers.
Last time, we spoke about the plague in the book of Numbers – and how this plague was stopped; this time, we will speak about the plague in 1 Chronicles – and how this plague was stopped. I hope and pray that somehow, the words of this blog might bring hope and encouragement (and maybe even revelation) to you in these trying days.
In 1 Chron. 21 we learn about a plague that was sent on Israel:
14 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead. 15 And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem.”
– and then we read a very enigmatic line:
“But as the angel was doing so, the Lord saw it and relented concerning the disaster”
What did the Lord see? The English translations usually insert “it” here, and even though it is not clear at all what this “it” might mean, an English reader can still suppose that the Lord saw some object – some concrete, tangible item. However, when we read it in Hebrew, it is very obvious that the sentence doesn’t specify just what the Lord saw. The Lord saw (ראה יהוה) —but, what did He see? What did stop Him? Why did He stop the plague and relent concerning the disaster? Isn’t that the most vital question for us today?
Of course, Jewish commentators noticed this omission and asked this question long ago. For instance, these are the comments that we find in Midrash Mekilta de-Rabbi Ismael:
“And as he was about to destroy, the Lord beheld and He repented Him of the evil” (1 Chron. 21:15). What did He behold? He beheld the blood of Isaac’s Aqedah—and immediately His compassion conquers His anger and He redeems and delivers.”
What does this comment refer to? During our Discovering the Hebrew Torah classes, I would usually tell my students about a haggadic tradition that not many Christians are aware of: at some point, a tradition existed in Judaism, stating that Isaac was actually slain or burnt and then rose from the dead. In these midrashim, Isaac is explicitly said to be the lamb of burnt offering: אתה השה לעלה בני – “You are the lamb, my son”. “The ashes of Isaac” and “the blood of Isaac,” though contradicting the plain meaning of Scripture, are carefully preserved by this tradition. Some midrashim clearly state that Abraham offered up two sacrifices—he began with the sacrifice of his son and ended with the sacrifice of the ram—but even the commentaries that don’t state this explicitly, still share the same intuition: the important common point is that “the blood of Isaac’s Aqedah'” is to serve forever as atonement and advocate of Israel in every generation. “And whenever Isaac’s descendants are in straits, He… beholds the blood of his Aqedah, and pity fills Him so that He turns away the wrath of His anger from His city and His people” (1,57). According to the midrashim, that is exactly what Abraham is asking for on Mount Moriah. For instance, in midrash Bereshit Rabbah, R. Phineas said in R. Banai’s name: “He prayed: Sovereign of the Universe! Regard it as though I had sacrificed my son Isaac first and then this ram instead of him (in the stead, tahat, being understood as in the verse And Jotham his son reigned in his stead (2 Kings 15, 7),” where the meaning must be after him). Abraham continues (at least in midrash): “Even so it may be Thy will, O Lord our God, that when Isaac’s children are in trouble, Thou wilt remember that binding in their favour and be filled with compassion with them!”
According to scholarly opinion, sometime between the middle of the second century BC and the beginning of the Christian era, a new doctrine established itself: the atonement for the sins of Israel resulted both from Isaac’s self-offering and from the spilling of his blood. Not only was the Aqedah indeed considered a true and genuine sacrifice, but because of the free consent of the victim – a unique feature distinguishing it from, and raising it above, all other sacrifices – it became the sacrifice par excellence, whose lasting benefits would be felt for all time. Since that time, the Binding of Isaac was thought to have played a unique role in the whole economy of the salvation of Israel and to have a permanent redemptive effect on behalf of its people – and we can see this clearly from our story in 1 Chronicles 21.
Why are we discussing this story today? Even though modern Christianity, whatever its form (Catholic, Orthodox or evangelical), is worlds apart from modern Judaism, we cannot miss the important point here: that nascent Christianity (which at that time was not “Christianity”), and nascent Judaism shared the same intuition of development of the biblical theory of Redemption—a fact that brings both religions closer together, because we see the same motif of redemptive death of the Righteous bringing salvation—but with a different redemptive personage in the center. I believe that now, with all that being said, you are able to read the story from 1 Chronicles in a different light: What did the Lord see?
 1 Chr.21:14,15 (NIV)
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