Abraham’s Spiritual Journey – A Chiasm that Climaxes with the Akedah
The Binding of Isaac and the Root ע.ק.ד
Genesis 22 narrates the dramatic story of Abraham’s bringing Isaac to Mount Moriah in order to sacrifice him, an act prevented only by the last-minute intervention of an angel/messenger of YHWH. In Christian tradition, this story is known as “the sacrifice of Isaac,” as Christians are wont to see Isaac’s experience as the prefiguration of Jesus, even if, of course, Isaac was not sacrificed in the biblical story.
In Jewish tradition, however, the story is referred to as Aqedat Yiṣhaq, “the binding of Isaac,” or in short, just the Aqedah, “the binding.” This derives from the central verse in the drama:
בראשית כב:ט וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת הָעֵצִים וַיַּעֲקֹד אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים.
Gen 22:9 And they came to the place which God had told him, and Abraham built an altar there, and he arranged the wood; and he bound Isaac his son, and he placed him on the altar, on top of the wood.
The root ע.ק.ד (ʿ.q.d) with the meaning “bind” appears only here in the Hebrew Bible. Technically, וַיַּעֲקֹד is not a strict or absolute hapax legomenon, that is, a word from a root that appears only once in a given corpus, in this case the Bible, since the same root occurs 7x in the story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 30‒31.
In this story, Jacob and Laban negotiate which type of sheep goes to Laban and which to Jacob, some of which are עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּבְרֻדִּים, “brindled, spotted, and speckled.” Thus, we see the same root, but with a totally different meaning. The two uses of the root may not even be related; all languages have homonyms, and ע.ק.ד appears to be such a case in ancient Hebrew.
The root ע.ק.ד in the sense of “tie” or “bind” is actually rare in post-biblical texts as well, though it is the common verb for this action in Arabic and several Ethiopian languages (Tigre, Tigrinya, and Gafat). The more common root for “tie/bind” in Hebrew is ק.שׁ.ר (see, e.g., Gen 38:28, Josh 2:18, 2:21, Job 39:10, etc.). Why, then, does the author of Genesis 22 choose the rare verb ע.ק.ד ʿ-q-d instead of the common verb ק.שׁ.ר q-š-r for use at this key point in the narrative?
Lack of Alliteration
Rare and unique words in the Bible are frequently employed alliterationis causa, that is, for the sake of alliteration. For example, when Phinehas follows the Midianite woman Kozbi into a tent (Num 25:8), and then kills her by stabbing her in the קֵבָה “abdomen” (itself a rare word), the text uses the hapax legomenon קֻבָּה “tent” instead of the more common אֹהֶל, undoubtedly to produce the alliteration: qēbā / qūbbā.
In Genesis 22, however, there are no like-sounding words surrounding the key word. Instead, we must broaden our horizon and look at the greater Abraham narrative, which stretches from Gen 11:27 through Gen 22:24.
Chiastic Structure of the Abraham Narrative
Several scholars have noticed that the Abraham Cycle unfolds in a chiastic structure, as follows:
A – Genealogy of Terah (11:27‒32)
B – Command to “go forth”; Start of Abram’s Spiritual Odyssey (12:1‒9)
C – Sarai in foreign palace; peace and success follow; Abram and Lot part (12:1‒13:18)
D – Defeat of Sodom, Abram rescues Lot and saves Sodom (14:1‒24)
E – Covenant between the parts with Abram; annunciation of Ishmael (15:1‒16:16)
Focal Point: 17:1‒5: Abram > Abraham | Elohim introduced | covenant
Eʹ – Covenant of circumcision with Abraham; annunciation of Isaac (17:1‒18:15)
Dʹ – Abraham tries to save Sodom, Lot rescued, Sodom destroyed (18:16‒19:38)
Cʹ – Sarah in foreign palace; Abraham and Ishmael part; peace and success follow (20:1‒21:34)
Bʹ – Command to “go forth”; climax of Abraham’s Spiritual Odyssey (22:1‒19)
Aʹ – Genealogy of Nahor (22:20‒24)
Five units, labeled A through E, comprise the first half of the Abraham cycle. Throughout these episodes:
- The patriarch is called Abram;
- God is referred to as YHWH;
- The word bərit “covenant” is mentioned only once, in the voice of the narrator (15:18).
As we reach the focal point of the narrative in 17:1‒5, all three shift:
- Abram’s name is changed to Abraham (v. 5), and he will be called such for the remainder of his life;
- The word Elohim “God” is introduced (v. 3), and the term will appear alongside YHWH for the remainder of the Abraham cycle;
- The word bərit “covenant” occurs in the voice of God (2x in the focal point verses, and 13x altogether in ch. 17), with the covenant concept elucidated in great detail.
The five matching units, labeled Eʹ through Aʹ, which comprise the second half of the Abraham cycle, employ the same themes and motifs that occur in units A through E, thereby creating an alignment of A and Aʹ, B and Bʹ, and so on.
The Interconnections between Abram’s Journey (ch. 12) and the Akedah (ch. 22)
The parallels between the two sections go beyond themes, though, for one also notes the deployment of parallel language. For example, the two matching units B and Bʹ both begin with the command “go forth,” expressed using rare and identical language:
לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
Go-you-forth from your land, and from your birthplace, and from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.
קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ לְךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
Take, pray, your son, your only-one, whom you love, Isaac, and go-you-forth to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as an offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you.
These are the only two places in the entire Bible where this key phrase, לֶךְ־לְךָ lɛk ləka “go-you-forth,” occurs. Beyond this shared command language, other parallels between the two sections (B and Bʹ) can be found, many of which have been noted by other scholars:
1. God’s first and last communication
In 12:1‒3 (Abram’s Journey), God speaks to Abram for the first time. In 22:16‒18 (the Akedah), God speaks to Abraham for the final time.
2. Travel to an undisclosed location
יב:א אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
12:1 to the land that I will show you
כב:ב אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה... עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ
22:2 to the land of Moriah… on one of the mountains that I will tell you
3. Three-fold use of “you”/“your”
יב:א מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ
12:1 from your land, and from your birthplace, and from the house of your father”
כב:ב אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ
22:2 your son, your only-one, whom you love, Isaac”
4. Moreh/Moriah – alliterative toponyms
יב:ו עַד אֵלוֹן מוֹרֶה
12:6 until the terebinth of Moreh.
כב:ב אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה
22:2 to the land of Moriah.
5. Building altars
יב:ז וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ
12:7 And he built there an altar
כב:ט וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ
22:9 And Abraham built there the altar.
6. Blessed through Abraham
יב:ג וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה
12:3 And all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you
כב:יח וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ
22:18 And all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through your seed
7. “The Place”
יב:ו עַד מְקוֹם שְׁכֶם
12:6 to the place of Shechem (=an unusual phrase)
כב:ג אֶל הַמָּקוֹם
22:3 to the place
8. YHWH Appears… Twice
יב:ז וַיֵּרָא יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם... לַי־הוָה הַנִּרְאֶה אֵלָיו.
12:7 and YHWH appeared to Abram… to YHWH who appeared to him
כב:יד יְ־הוָה יִרְאֶה... בְּהַר יְ־הוָה יֵרָאֶה.
22:14 YHWH of Appearance (Yhwh-yirʾɛ)… on the mount of YHWH who appeared
9. Journey to the Negev/Beersheba
יב:ט וַיִּסַּע אַבְרָם הָלוֹךְ וְנָסוֹעַ הַנֶּגְבָּה.
12:9 And Abram journeyed by stages towards the Negeb.
כב:יט וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.
22:19 And they went together to Beersheba (=the largest city in the Negev); and Abraham dwelled in Beersheba.
10. Unit unfolds in stages
Abram’s journey to Canaan (12:1‒9) unfolds in stages: God speaks to Abram (vv. 1–3), after which he journeys to Shechem and builds an altar (vv. 4‒7). YHWH then speaks to Abram again (v. 8), after which he moves on to the area between Beth-El and Ai, and builds another altar (v. 9). After this, Abram heads to the Negev.
The Akedah (Gen 22:1–19) unfolds in parallel stages: God speaks to Abraham (vv. 1–2), after which Abraham goes to Moriah, builds an altar and almost offers his son (vv. 3–10). An angel of YHWH then intervenes (vv. 11–12), and Abraham offers a ram in his son’s place (13–14). The story concludes with a second (šenit) divine speech (vv. 15–18), after which Abraham heads to Beersheba in the Negev.
Alliteration Between Parallel Units
In light of these parallels, demonstrating the interconnectedness of units B and Bʹ in the chiasm, we can explain the use of the unique word וַיַּעֲקֹד in 22:9. As noted above, unusual word choices are often explained by their alliterative qualities, and once we take into consideration alliteration between parallel units, we can explain the hapax here.
After Abram builds the altar in Shechem, and YHWH speaks to him a second time, the text continues:
בראשית יב:ח וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה מִקֶּדֶם לְבֵית אֵל וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה בֵּית אֵל מִיָּם וְהָעַי מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַיהוָה וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה.
Gen 12:8 And he moved from there to the hill country east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to YHWH, and he called on the name of YHWH.
This verb וַיַּעְתֵּק is unusual, occurring only here in Gen 12:8 and (as a clear echo) in Gen 26:22, in the story of how Isaac ended up moving from well to well until arriving in Beersheba. Anyone listening to (or reading) Genesis 12 may wonder why the author has chosen to employ such an atypical lexeme.
The reason for both of these unusual word choices, וַיַּעְתֵּק wayyaʿteq and וַיַּעֲקֹד wayyaʿqod, is that they alliterate with each other, further strengthening the parallelism between these two units. Of course, the two words are not identical, but note the precise equivalences of /ʿ/ and /q/ in both verbs, along with the corresponding voiced and voiceless dentals /d/ ~ /t/. To my mind, the author of these two stories selected these rare lexemes deliberately, as one additional long-range nexus to solidify the association of the two pericopes.
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Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
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