Commentary Magazine

The Sacred Executioner, by Hyam Maccoby


The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt.
by Hyam Maccoby.
Thames and Hudson. 208 pp. $19.95.

This is a venturesome, provocative book that seeks first to uncover the archaic origins of certain central expressions of biblical religion and then to explain the anti-Jewish bias of Christianity, both early and late, as a swerve back into the archaic. Half the book is devoted to the Hebrew Bible, with most of the attention given to Genesis; four chapters take the argument into the New Testament; another three then follow the Christian sacrificial myth as it bears on the Jews through the Middle Ages to our own period.

The polemic with Christianity, which traces an unbroken line from the accusation of the Jews in the Gospels through their subsequent stigmatization as pariahs to the horrors of modern genocide, is vigorously outspoken, and has earned the book a good deal of critical abuse, especially in the British reviews. “In Christianity,” Maccoby characteristically charges, contrasting the distance at which the Hebrew Bible sets memories of human sacrifice with the way the New Testament embodies them in its myth of the murdered son, “the age-long Jewish process of sublimation disappears as if in a sudden bout of psychosis. We are back at the primitive level at which the abyss opens and panic requires a victim.”

Maccoby draws on a variety of theories about foundation-sacrifices and the displacement of human by animal sacrifice that have been current in both anthropological and biblical studies for a good many decades, and he puts these together with a degree of ingenuity to which my summary here will scarcely do justice. As historical explanation, however, this book is an extended exercise in conjuring with the un-verified, and in that regard it unfortunately represents a characteristic project of modern inquiry into Judaism and Christianity, as I shall try to explain.

The figure of the Sacred Executioner appears, according to Maccoby, in both myth and ritual as an expression of guilt or ambivalence over the necessity for human sacrifice. In the most archaic stage, which is a matriarchal society, the sexual consort of the queen is killed and dismembered, his blood and limbs scattered across the fields to fructify them, the whole homicidal rite being accepted as a proper moment in the annual cycle of the renewal of life. In the subsequent, patriarchal stage, which would be, approximately, the era immediately antecedent to the Bible, human sacrifice becomes an “expression of submission to an angry male god,” one typical form being the foundation-sacrifice, where a first-born son is killed and buried in the foundations of the walls of a city or house to assure its future well-being. This stage of human sacrifice induces guilt in the community that is implicated in the sacrifice, and so a surrogate is invented to bear the burden of the guilt: the man who has been appointed by lot or birth or fate to immolate the victim is driven into the desert, made an accursed wanderer, and yet also endowed with an aura of sanctity or inviolability for having carried out the terrible deed that the community needed in order to survive. In the Bible, Cain is the prototype of this figure, his fratricide being a version of human sacrifice merely masked by the Hebrew writer in monotheistic moral terms. In the central Christian myth, the Jews—and quite pointedly, not the Romans—become collectively the Sacred Executioner, in the course of time losing, for a variety of reasons Maccoby proposes, the shield of inviolability (the “mark of Cain”) and retaining only the guilty pariah status.

Now, even before we glance at any of the texts in which Maccoby tries to anchor this theory, certain difficulties suggest themselves. Has it really been established historically that there was a matriarchal age of the sort Maccoby imagines before the patriarchal age? More crucially, is there persuasive evidence that ancient child-sacrificers felt much guilt over the act, as we moderns imagine they ought to have done? In the Book of Judges, Jephthah is devastated when he has to sacrifice his only daughter in consequence of his own imprudent vow, but that is because he has to cut off his posterity, and the story does not really suggest he felt guilt for what he was about to do. Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers, having read some of the same historical studies as Maccoby, invents a foundation-sacrifice of a first-born son offered by Laban and set into the walls of his Mesopotamian home; but, in what is probably a more accurate representation of the ancient mind, he nowhere intimates that Laban felt guilty for the deed, only regretful that he had deprived himself of male offspring. Unless one can posit this mainspring of guilt about human sacrifice, the tension of attitudes—pariah over against holy figure—that creates the Sacred Executioner collapses.



Turning to the biblical texts with this hypothesis, Maccoby produces a variety of startling and sometimes fascinating readings about which one can say that if only a few are clearly refutable, none is susceptible of demonstration. Working from the barest hints in the etymology or morphology of names or in the formal deployment of genealogies in Genesis, Maccoby, following still another venerable conjecture of biblical research, concludes that

the biblical chronicle of the generations before the Flood is based on a chronicle of the line of Cain only. Such a chronicle must have come from a tribe to whom Cain was a revered ancestor. The tribe must be the Kenites, who were called after Cain and among whom his was a royal or priestly name. We conclude, therefore, that the Israelite writers who compiled the early chapters of Genesis used as one of their main sources a Kenite saga, which recounted the sacred history of the Kenite tribe, tracing it back to its ancestor, Cain.

The use of “must” and “therefore” here (and, indeed, throughout the book) is surely a little unsettling. In passage after passage, a conjecture is proposed, based on necessarily fragmentary and imperfect evidence. Then the conjecture is assumed as established fact and other conjectures are built on it, to become in turn the ground for still further conjectures. Again and again, we are told what can be discerned “beneath the surface picture,” or “what lies behind the monotheistic and civilized surface of the Bible.” By stages, the actual text of the Bible, which has, after all, certain decipherable meanings, dissolves into the supposed Kenite saga and into an imagined pre-world of murdered sons whose sacrificers are driven into the wilderness. The most surprising figures, events, and institutions turn out to be “masks” or “displacements” of human sacrifice. Lamech reciting his cryptic victory chant to his wives in Genesis 4 is really explaining to them why he had to sacrifice their child, in order to found the world again after the Flood (he being, in this elaborate reconstruction, the “Kenite Noah”). The ritual of the scapegoat driven into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement is merely an animal translation of the fate of the Sacred Executioner. And, of course, circumcision is a transparent substitution for child sacrifice.

Some texts are painfully forced in order to sustain these notions. Thus, when in the enigmatic story of the Bridegroom of Blood (Exodus 4:24-26), the text says, “the Lord met him and sought to kill him,” Maccoby interprets the verb “to meet,” pagosh, on utterly farfetched philological grounds, as “afflicted him with divine madness.” In this fashion, he can cast Moses in the temporary role of frenzied Sacred Executioner about to slaughter his own son, with the future lawgiver, in a syntactic improbability, made the subject of the verb “sought” and his son Gershom the object. Equally disconcerting is Maccoby’s predisposition to cite from the Midrash certain stories that happen to jibe with his theory and then to claim that they “derive from a period earlier than the composition of the Hebrew Bible, and . . . were excluded from the Bible because of their primitivism but survived in popular tradition.” This is, admittedly, at least possible, but, as elsewhere, the criterion for evidence in trying to demonstrate the undemonstrable seems to be the conformity of the data with the initial hypothesis.

Maccoby, as I have intimated, is far from being alone in this enterprise of sweeping conjecture about the shadowy past. It is an imaginative project that has its roots in European Romanticism: the attempt to get at the truth, the vital essence, of things by pushing back to ultimate origins, to some powerful Urwelt masked by the world we actually inhabit. Presumably, one gets back to origins by a leap of the imagination (as in some of the Romantic poets) or by patient analysis of shards and traces. But after more than a century of such experiments in historical research, the stubborn fact of the matter is that ultimate origins remain inaccessible.

Especially in the realm of biblical scholarship, the many and diverse analysts who claimed to recover determinative origins have proved to be more poets than historians, and poets of a peculiarly extravagant and obsessive kind. Having all eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, we can scarcely help wondering about what came before the first things tradition has given us, but it behooves us not to mistake our own suggestive fictions for historical explanation.

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