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19. Jon D. Levenson

*Levenson is currently the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. 

*Education: AB in English, Harvard College (1971); MA, PhD in the Dept of NELC, Harvard University (1974, 1975)

Levinson's work concentrates on the theological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, including its reinterpretations in the "rewritten Bible" of Second Temple Judaism and rabbinic midrash. He has a strong interest in the philosophical and theological issues of the biblical and rabbinic periods; additionally, he is interested especially in the relationship of premodern modes of interpretation to modern historical criticism. Much of Levenson's work centers on the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, both in antiquity and in modernity, and he has long been active in Jewish-Christian dialogue. He is particularly interested in reading the Bible with attention to its theology as it applies to the Jewish and Christian sectors. 

In all his work, Professor Levenson's emphasis falls on the close reading of texts for purposes of literary and theological understanding. In essence, Levinson's work is exegesis. He reads texts to interpret their theology and philosophy, rather than for their philological or historical features. Philology and the historical approach are not the end, but the means that Levinson employs to reach his goal of interpreting the text.

In his well-known book, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, Levinson argues that child sacrifice of the first-born was initially allowed and commanded by God in Yahwism. Later, it was transformed into the traditions and blessings that set the first-born in a special status within Israelite society. In another book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, Levenson argues that the idea of resurrection is not all that foreign to pre-exilic Israelite theology. He considers texts like Daniel 12, 2Kgs 4 (resurrection story of child by Elisha), and Ezek 37 (dry bones come to life) and shows that resurrection is hardly a foreign idea to Israelite thought. Rather, he argues that resurrection developed from the pre-exilic portions of the Hebrew Bible.

His book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (2006) won a National Jewish Book Award and the Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Award. His most recent book is Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2012). 

Selected Publications

1) Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press, 2012)

*Analyzes the traditions of Abraham in the three religions. Argues that although three religions claim Abraham as father of the religion, in reality, each religion is quite distinct from each other and developed differently. Each tradition of Abraham has differences and therefore is too simplistic to assume that simply because the three faiths have a tradition of Abraham, therefore, they will have a large common ground. In the actuality, the traditions are different.

2) Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale University Press, 2008) 

*In this joint book, Levenson and Madigan show that belief in resurrection by the Jews and Christians stems from the Hebrew Bible which does in fact have a tradition of resurrection, although it developed slowly over time. This book is a type of continuation of the previous work "Resurrection and the Restoration of israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life."

3) Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (Yale University Press, 2006) 

*Levenson argues that the idea of resurrection is not all that foreign to pre-exilic Israelite theology. He considers texts like Daniel 12, 2Kgs 4 (resurrection story of child by Elisha), and Ezek 37 (dry bones come to life) and shows that resurrection is hardly a foreign idea to Israelite thought.

He argues that Jewish believe in the resurrection did not arise from Zoroastianism or from theological crisis that martyrdom posed. Rather, resurrection arose over time primarily from the believe that God would prove faithful to his promises for life for his people. Leveonson also finds hints of a belief in resurrection in the Elijah and Enoch stories, the nations longing for the restoration of the temple, and in Psa 49 (v.15 "God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave") and 73. 

*Levenson also argues that the Israelites saw all illness and evil as related to death. Thus, anything that has to do with disease, etc. was viewed by Israelites as death. Any reversal of disease was in the realm of resurrection! If God could heal disease and destruction, as He did in the OT on certain occasions, why couldn't He do this for the greater death–cessation of life? Such was the thought process of ancient Israelites, write Levenson.

4) The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (Yale University Press, 1995) Publisher page

*In this book, Levinson argues that child sacrifice of the first-born was initially allowed and commanded by God in Yahwism. He bases this argument on the following keys passages:

Exod 22:28 ("you shall give Me the first-born among your sons"); 34:19-20 ("you must redeem the first-born among your sons"); Ezek 20:25-6 ("I...gave them laws that were not good...when they set aside every first issue of the womb..."); Isa 30:30-3 (suggests that the Tophet, a place of child sacrifice, existed in Yahwism); Micah 6:6-8 (compares child sacrifice with animal sacrifice); Gen 22 (binding of Isaac); Judg 11:29-40 (sacrificing of Jephthah's daughter); 2Kgs 3:26-27 (sacrifice of Mesha's firstborn to presumably Chemosh; in result, Mesha wins the battle; thus, the sacrifice works! Child sacrifice was not unfamiliar in Israelite society).

Levinson argues that later writers condemned child sacrifice; e.g., Jer 19:5-6 ("...put children to the fire as burnt offerings to Baal...which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never came into My mind"). But, this seems to be a polemic of Jeremiah against child sacrifice because it was viewed as idolatrous by the prophets.

Levinson goes on to argue that in Ancient Israel and in Canaan, child sacrifice was not always practiced but rather, animals were substituted for child sacrifice (i.e., the animal redeemed the child). Eventually, child sacrifice was banished as a practice, but it was also transformed into other institutions. Levinson argues that the blessings of the first-born reflect the special nature of the first-born status which has its root in the special offering of the first born to YHWH; Deut 21:15-17.The first born, therefore, undergoes a symbolic death b/c he is no longer the mortal father’s son. The first-born son is destined to both exaltation and humiliation. The chosen son is the loved son is the son who inherits the status of the first-born.

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