נתן נפשוֹ: Paradigms of Self-Sacrifice in Early Judaism and Christianity -- By: Elaine A. Phillips

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 09:1 (NA 1999)
Article: נתן נפשוֹ: Paradigms of Self-Sacrifice in Early Judaism and Christianity
Author: Elaine A. Phillips


נתן נפשוֹ: Paradigms of Self-Sacrifice in
Early Judaism and Christianity

Elaine A. Phillips

Gordon College

Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael presents Moses and David as key figures whose willingness to sacrifice themselves on behalf of Torah, Israel, the Temple, and justice was exemplary. Attaching their names to these symbols ensured memory and continuity in the face of difficult circumstances. The Sages further suggested that being faithful meant all Israelites’ willingness likewise to give themselves. This may have been a subtle response to the Christian communities who were appropriating the symbols of Torah associated with the redemptive process.

Key words: aqedah, sacrifice, Moses, David, Passover, Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, midrash

Introduction

The phrase נתן נפשׁוֹ literally means “he gave himself.” It may connote anything from “he gave his very life (נפשׁ)” to “he denied himself” or “he devoted himself.” The expression also appears in the plural (נוֹתנים נפשׁם or נתנו). A paradigm is a pattern and, in this case, a pattern of exemplary behavior, one which was set by noteworthy individuals who were recognized by Sages of Late Antiquity as having been distinctly self-sacrificing.1 These exemplars, drawn from the

Author’s note: Earlier versions of this paper were presented as the Knippa Lecture in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in February of 1996 and, in abbreviated form as “Natan Naphsho: Paradigms of Self-Sacrifice in Early Judaism,” at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in November of 1996.

biblical narratives, appear in selected texts from Early Judaism.2 The pattern also is at the heart of Christian theology. The presentations of these paradigmatic figures from both communities’ texts are illustrative of a paradox of biblical interpretation. Continuity was established with the canonical text and thus there are profound similarities between the world views of the communities. At the same time, the canonical text was re-presented for the contemporary circumstances of each community, and the divergences are radical.3

Texts, Themes, And Communities

Foundational to the presentations of both communities were the persons, events, and institutions in the Hebrew Bible. Because this was true and because the church had claimed the hi...

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