Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac (in Hebrew the עֲקֵידַת יִצְחַק, Akedát Yitzḥák, also known as "The Binding" הָ)עֲקֵידָה), the Akedah or Aqedah, is a story from the Hebrew Bible in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. The account states that Abraham "bound Isaac, his son" before placing him on the altar.
According to the Hebrew Bible, God commands Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice[Gen 22:2-8]. After Isaac is bound to an altar, the angel of God stops Abraham at the last minute, saying "now I know you fear God." At this point, Abraham sees a ram caught in some nearby bushes and sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac.
The Book of Genesis does not tell the age of Isaac at the time. The Talmudic sages teach that Isaac was thirty-seven, likely based on the next biblical story, which is of Sarah's death at 127[Genesis 23:1], being 90 when Isaac was born[Genesis 17:17, 21].
Genesis 22:14 states that the event occurred at "the mount of the LORD". 2 Chronicles 3:1; Psalm 24:3; Isaiah 2:3 & 30:29; and Zechariah 8:3, identify the location of this event as the hill on which Solomon was said to later build the Temple, now believed to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The majority of Jewish religious commentators argue that God was testing Abraham to see if he would actually kill his own son, as a test of his loyalty. However, a number of Jewish Biblical commentators from the medieval era, and many in the modern era, read the text in another way.
The early rabbinic midrash Genesis Rabbah imagines God as saying "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac (using the Hebrew root letters for "slaughter", not "sacrifice")". Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach (Spain, 11th century) wrote that God demanded only a symbolic sacrifice. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham's "imagination" led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes "How could God command such a revolting thing?" But according to Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), child sacrifice was actually "rife among the Semitic peoples," and suggests that "in that age, it was astounding that Abraham's God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it." Hertz interprets the Akedah as demonstrating to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent. "Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required." In Jeremiah 32:35, God states that the later Israelite practice of child sacrifice to the deity Molech "had [never] entered My mind that they should do this abomination."
Other rabbinic scholars[who?] also note that Abraham was willing to do everything to spare his son, even if it meant going against the divine command: while it was God who ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, it was an angel, a lesser being in the celestial hierarchy, that commanded him to stop. However, the actions and words of angels (from the Greek for "messenger") are generally understood to derive directly from God's will.
In some later Jewish writings, the theology of a "divine test" is rejected, and the sacrifice of Isaac is interpreted as a "punishment" for Abraham's earlier "mistreatment" of Ishmael, his elder son, whom he expelled from his household at the request of his wife, Sarah. According to this view, Abraham failed to show compassion for his son, so God punished him by ostensibly failing to show compassion for Abraham's son. This is a somewhat flawed theory, since the Bible says that God agreed with Sarah, and it was only at His insistence that Abraham actually had Ishmael leave. In The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel argues that these commentators were interpreting the Biblical narration as an implicit rebuke against Christianity's claim that God would sacrifice His own son.
The Tzemach Tzedek cites a question asked by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk: At first glance, this appears to have been mainly a test of Isaac, for he was the one to be giving up his life al kiddush Hashem (in order to sanctify God’s Name). However the Torah states (Gen. 22:1) that God meant to test Abraham, not Isaac. Rabbi Menachem Mendel answers that although it is a very great Mitzvah to give up one’s life, it is unremarkable in the annals of Jewish history. Even the most unlettered and "ordinary" Jews would surrender their lives in martyrdom. Thus, as great a Mitzvah as it is, this test is considered trivial for someone of the spiritual stature of Isaac, who, as one of our forefathers, was likened to God’s "chariot" (Gen. Rabba 47:6) for he served as a vehicle for the divine traits of kindness, strictness, and compassion.
Rather, at the binding the main one tested was Abraham. It was a test of faith to see whether he would doubt God's words. Abraham had been assured by God that "Your seed will be called through Isaac" (Gen. 21:12), i.e., Isaac (and not Ishmael) would father a great nation—the Jewish people. However, Abraham could apparently have asked a very glaring question: at the time that God commanded him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, Isaac was still single, and if Isaac would die now, how could he possibly father the nation which was to be born from Abraham? Moreover, isn’t God eternal and unchanging, as God declares: "I have not changed" (Malachi 3:6), implying that He does not change His mind.
Abraham believed with faith that what God told him to do now was surely the right thing to do. It was passing this test that was remarkable even for someone of Abraham's stature.
In The Binding of Isaac, Religious Murders & Kabbalah, Lippman Bodoff argues that Abraham never intended to actually sacrifice his son, and that he had faith that God had no intention that he do so. Rabbi Ari Kahn (on the Orthodox Union website) elaborates this view as follows: Yitzchak’s death was never a possibility – not as far as Avraham was concerned, and not as far as God was concerned. God’s commandment to Avraham was very specific, and Avraham understood it very precisely: Yitzchak was to be "raised up as an offering," and God would use the opportunity to teach humankind, once and for all, that human sacrifice, child sacrifice, is not acceptable. This is precisely how the sages of the Talmud (Taanit 4a) understood Akeidat Yitzchak. Citing the Prophet Jeremiah’s exhortation against child sacrifice (Chapter 19), they state unequivocally that such behavior "never crossed God’s mind" -referring specifically to the sacrificial slaughter of Yitzchak. Though readers of this parashah throughout the generations have been disturbed, even horrified, by the Akeida, there was no miscommunication between God and Avraham. The thought of actually killing Yitzchak never crossed their minds. Others suggest[who?] that Abraham's apparent complicity with the sacrifice was actually his way of testing God. Abraham had previously argued with God to save lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. By silently complying with God's instructions to kill Isaac, Abraham was putting pressure on God to act in a moral way to preserve life. More evidence that Abraham thought that he won't actually sacrifice Isaac comes from Genesis 22:5, where Abraham said to his servants, "You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you." By saying that we (as opposed to I), he meant that both he and Isaac will return. Thus, he didn't believe that Isaac would be sacrificed in the end.
In The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides argues that the story of the Binding of Isaac contains two "great notions." First, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac demonstrates the limit of humanity's capability to both love and fear God. Second, because Abraham acted on a prophetic vision of what God had asked him to do, the story exemplifies how prophetic revelation has the same truth value as philosophical argument and thus carries equal certainty, notwithstanding the fact that it comes in a dream or vision.
In Glory and Agony: Isaac's Sacrifice and National Narrative, Yael S. Feldman argues that the story of Isaac's Binding, in both its biblical and post-biblical versions (the New Testament included) has had a great impact on the ethos of altruist heroism and self-sacrifice in modern Hebrew national culture. As her study demonstrates, over the last century the "Binding of Isaac" has morphed into the "Sacrifice of Isaac," connoting both the glory and agony of heroic death on the battlefield.
The Binding of Isaac is mentioned in the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews among many acts of faith recorded in the Old Testament: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, "In Isaac your seed shall be called," concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. (Hebrews 11:17–19, NKJV)
Abraham's faith in God is such that he felt God would be able to resurrect the slain Isaac, in order that his prophecy (Genesis 21:12) might be fulfilled. Early Christian preaching sometimes accepted Jewish interpretations of the binding of Isaac without elaborating. For example, Hippolytus of Rome says in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, "The blessed Isaac became desirous of the anointing and he wished to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world" (On the Song 2:15). Other Christians from the period saw Isaac as a type of the "Word of God" who prefigured Christ. (Origen, Homilies on Genesis 11–13) The majority of Christian Biblical commentators view this episode as prefiguring God's plan to have his own Son, Jesus, die on the cross as a substitute for humanity, much like the ram God provided for Abraham. This fulfilled Abraham's reply to Isaac's question of where was the animal that would be used for the sacrifice; Abraham's affirmation that "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering" is seen as a prophetic foreshadow of the promise of the Lamb of God. Abraham's willingness to give up his own son Isaac is seen, in this view, as foreshadowing the willingness of God the Father to sacrifice his Son; also contrasted is Isaac's submission in the whole ordeal with Christ's, the two choosing to lay down their own lives in order for the will of God to be accomplished, as no struggle is mentioned in the Genesis account. Indeed, both stories portray the participants carrying the wood for their own sacrifice up a mountain.
Genesis 22:2 states that it occurred "in the region of Moriah". There has been speculation within Christianity whether the Binding occurred upon the Temple Mount or upon Calvary, the hill upon which Christ was crucified, or somewhere else. An alternate interpretation proposes that Calvary was on a section of Mount Moriah, the temple mount, which has subsequently been divided from the main part for the purpose of defending Jerusalem. As such the crucifixion would occur on the same mountain.
The Islamic version differs from the Bible. In Islamic sources, when Abraham tells his son about the vision, his son accepted to be sacrificed for fulfillment of God's command, and no binding to the altar occurred.
The Quran states that when Abraham asked for a righteous son, God granted him a son possessing forbearance. The son is not however named directly in the Quran. When the son was able to walk and work with him, Abraham saw a vision about sacrificing his son. When he told his son about it, his son agreed to fulfill the command of God in the vision. When they both had submitted their will to God and were ready for the sacrifice, God told Abraham he had fulfilled the vision, and provided him with a ram to sacrifice instead. God promised to reward Abraham. The next two verses state God also granted Abraham the righteous son Isaac, and promised more rewards.
Muslim scholars have endorsed the belief that it was the first-born son Ismail, not Isaac, who was asked to be sacrificed in the vision, and that the second son Isaac was born later as one of the rewards for Abraham's fulfillment of his vision.
Among early Muslim scholars, however, there was a dispute over the identity of the son. The argument of those early scholars who believed it was Isaac rather than Ishmael (notably Ibn Ḳutayba, and al-Ṭabarī) was that "God's perfecting his mercy on Abraham and Isaac" referred to his making Abraham his friend, and to his rescuing Isaac. On the contrary, the other parties held that the promise to Sarah was of a son, Isaac, and a grandson, Jacob, excluded the possibility of a premature death of Isaac.
Muslims consider that visions experienced by prophets are revelations from God, and as such it was a divine order to Abraham. The entire episode of the sacrifice is regarded as a trial of God for Abraham and his son, and both are seen as having passed the test by submitting to God and showing their awareness that God is the Owner and Giver of all that we have and cherish, including life and offspring. The submission of Abraham and his son is celebrated and commemorated by Muslims on the days of Eid al-Adha. During the festival, those who can afford and the ones in the pilgrimage sacrifice a ram, cow, sheep or a camel. Part of the sacrifice meat is eaten by the household and remaining is distributed to the neighbors and the needy. The festival marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
The well-known site of Marwah (Arabic مروة) may be identified with the biblical Moriah (Hebrew מוריה) in Gn 22:2. Marwah being the mount just outside the perimeter of the Kaaba. However, it should be noted that the Hebrew Bible identifies the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as Mount Moriah, as early as the First Temple period in the book of Second Chronicles chapter 3 s:Bible (American Standard)/2 Chronicles#3, around 1,700 years predating Islam's account.
Modern-critical scholars operating under the framework of the documentary hypothesis commonly ascribe the Binding's narrative to the biblical source E, on the grounds that it generally uses God (אלוהים) for the deity, and also parallels characteristic E compositions. On that view, the second angelic appearance to Abraham (v. 14–18), praising his obedience and blessing his offspring, is in fact a later interpolation to E’s original account (v.1-13, 19). This is supported by the style and composition of these verses, as well as by the use of YHWH (יהוה) for the deity.
More recent studies question this analysis. It is argued that Abraham’s obedience to God’s command in fact necessitates praise and blessing, which he only receives in the second angelic speech. That speech, therefore, could not have been simply interpolated into E’s original account. This has suggested to many that the author responsible for the interpolation of the second angelic appearance has left his mark also on the original account (v. 1-13-19). More recently it has been suggested that these traces are in fact the first angelic appearance (v. 11–12), in which the Angel of YHWH stops Abraham before he kills Isaac. The style and composition of these verses resemble that of the second angelic speech, and YHWH is used for the deity rather than God. On that reading, in the original E version of the Binding Abraham disobeys God’s command, sacrificing the ram "instead of his son" (v.13) on his own responsibility and without being stopped by an angel: "And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son; but Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and beheld, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went, and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son" (v. 10,13). By interpolating the first appearance of the angel, a later redactor shifted responsibility for halting the test from Abraham to the angel (v. 11–12); due to that shift of responsibility, the second angelic appearance, in which Abraham is rewarded for his obedience (v. 14–18), became necessary. This analysis of the story sheds light on the connection between the Binding and the story of Sodom (Genesis 18), in which Abraham protests against God's unethical plan to destroy the city, without distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked: "Far be it from you to do such a thing.. Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?" Abraham's ethical rebellion against God in Sodom culminates in his disobedience to God, refusing to sacrifice Isaac.
Francesca Stavrakopoulou has speculated that it is possible that the story "contains traces of a tradition in which Abraham does sacrifice Isaac. Richard Elliott Friedman has argued that in the original E story Abraham may have carried out the sacrifice of Isaac, but that later repugnance at the idea of a human sacrifice led the redactor of JE to add the lines in which a ram is substituted for Isaac.
Richard Dawkins wrote about the ' binding of Isaac ', " A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ' I was only obeying orders ' Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions."
Terence Fretheim wrote that 'the text bears no specific mark of being a polemic against child sacrifice'.
The Binding also figures prominently in the writings of several of the more important modern theologians, such as Søren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling and Shalom Spiegel in The Last Trial. Jewish communities regularly review this literature, for instance the recent mock trial held by more than 600 members of the University Synagogue of Orange County, California. Jacques Derrida also looks at the story of the sacrifice as well as Kierkegaard's reading in The Gift of Death.
In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, the literary critic Erich Auerbach considers the Hebrew narrative of the Binding of Isaac, along with Homer's description of Odysseus's scar, as the two paradigmatic models for the representation of reality in literature. Auerbach contrasts Homer's attention to detail and foregrounding of the spatial, historical, as well as personal contexts for events to the Bible's sparse account, in which virtually all context is kept in the background or left outside of the narrative. As Auerbach observes, this narrative strategy virtually compels readers to add their own interpretations to the text.
Some scholars also point at the genealogical snippet (verses 20-24) as containing a hint to the question whether Abraham sacrificed Isaac or not. First of all, the description of a rash of newborns placed right after the main story suggests the existence of some direct cause-effect connection between the two. From the perspective of a sacrificial economy, such a numerous progeny could not have been conceived without the preceding payment in an appropriate "currency". Secondly, the said passage is problematic due to its onomastic content. The verses 20-23 list the progeny of Nahor and Milkah while v. 24 adds the offspring conceived with Re’umah, said to be his concubine. However, whereas verses 20-23 have some significant links with other parts of the Hebrew Bible as well as with the historical and cultural entourage of the ancient Near East, such connections are absent in v. 24. The very name of Nahor’s concubine appears here exclusively and in no other place in the Hebrew Bible is Re’umah mentioned. The same applies to her children’s names with the exception of Ma‘akah which is sometimes utilized in the historical books. The extreme rarity of these appellations demands some alternative interpretation with regards to its purpose. Accordingly, the personal list may contain some "coded" explanation concerning the rest of the story: Re’umah (ראומה) – "see what"; Tevah (טבח) – "slaughtering" or "slaughtered"; Gaham (גחם) – "flame" or "burning"; Tahash (תחש) – "skin" often used to cover the tabernacle; Ma‘akah (מעכה) – "blown" or "crushed". In other words, v. 24 begins with an interpretational invitation and continues with the names which seem to explain the cause of the rash of newborns present at the conclusion of the pericope: somebody had been blown, slaughtered, put on the tabernacle and burned.
- 1920 (c.): "The Parable of the Old Men and the Young": World War I, a poem by Wilfred Owen in which the sacrifice of the young men killed in the war is compared to the binding of Isaac, with the difference that in the poem, Abraham refuses to substitute the ram and proceeds to kill Isaac.
- 1952: Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, for alto, tenor, and piano, Op. 51, a song/opera by Benjamin Britten. Text adapted from the medieval Chester Mystery Plays. One voice sings the role of Abraham, the other Isaac. The two voices sing homophonically to create a third voice for God.
- 1965: "Highway 61 Revisited", a song by Bob Dylan from the album of the same name. Lyrics reference the binding of Isaac ("Oh, God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son'/Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on..."). U.S. Highway 61 generally follows the course of the Mississippi River, and both river and highway start in Dylan's native Minnesota; Bob Dylan's father was named Abraham.
- 1969: "Story of Isaac", a song by Leonard Cohen from the album Songs from a Room.
- 1987: "Beautiful Child", a song by Swans from the album Children of God.
- 1990: Hyperion, a science-fiction novel. The character Sol Weintraub analyses the Binding often during the novel, coming to the conclusion that it is Abraham who is testing God, and if God is serious about killing an innocent child for him, he would not be worthy to be followed or obeyed.
- 1992: "Isaac and Abraham", a song by Joan Baez from the album Play Me Backwards.
- 1993: The Cave, an opera by Steve Reich is about the story of Abraham including this "near sacrifice"; the piece is based on interviews with people from Israel, Palestine and the USA.
- 2004: "Abraham", a song by Sufjan Stevens from the album Seven Swans, discusses the binding of Isaac from a Christian perspective.
- 2006: "Akeda for viola solo", a musical composition by Gilad Hochman.
- 2007: "Mr. Shiny Cadillackness", a song by Clutch from the album From Beale Street to Oblivion, references the binding of Isaac with the lyrics, "Will you sacrifice your first born like Abraham would his Isaac?"
- 2011: The Binding of Isaac, a video game by Edmund McMillen has a similar name and plot to the biblical story.
- 2012: "Abraham's Daughter", by Arcade Fire, from the soundtrack of the movie The Hunger Games, refers to the biblical incident and also mentions an angel who talks to an apocryphal Abraham's daughter, who raised her bow to stop the sacrifice.
- 2012: "Dyin' Day", a song by Anaïs Mitchell from the album Young Man in America.
- 2014: Sleepy Hollow episode "The Akeda", the Horseman of War pronounces: "You tell me of Abraham's sacrifice. The Akeda, the story of a cruel and merciless God who designed a cruel and merciless world. Who could worship a deity who commands a man to sacrifice his own son? Those days have come to an end. The true lesson of the story comes not from Abraham, but from Isaac. The chasm between father and son was never bridged. They never spoke again. And justly so! For any man willing to sacrifice his child... should die. As should any god!" then slays his creator/father, Molech the demon/god that was willing to sacrifice his creation, the Horseman of War.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sacrifice of Isaac.|
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- Shofar Callin' (G-dcast's animated retelling of the Binding of Isaac, to a hip hop soundtrack)