The Binding of Isaac, a Sacred Legend for the Jerusalem Temple
Stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Historical Context
One of the most famous, and disturbing, stories in the Bible is the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son, and is only stopped from doing so at the last moment by an angel (Gen 22). Commentators have struggled with this story on theological and ethical grounds, but an equally important, if less explored, angle is historical: Why was this story written, and what political or social purpose does it serve?
Since the mid-1970s, it is been generally accepted among critical scholars that the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis cannot be understood as historical accounts. Whether or not among Israel’s ancestors were men with the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or women named Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, the biblical stories are a part of Israel’s mnemohistory (collective memory), not its history.
Thus, stories set in this period are often best understood through the prism of what they would mean for the people who composed the story and told it. In this case, I suggest the importance of the story, at least in its final form, lies in how it functions as a hieros logos or “sacred legend” explaining the reason behind the founding of a holy place.
The Land of Moriah
The story begins with God’s command to Abraham to take Isaac to the land of Moriah:
בראשית כב:ב וַיֹּאמֶר קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ לְךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
Gen 22:2 And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (NJPS)
Moriah is mentioned nowhere else in the Torah, and even here, we are not told where it is or even in what direction Abraham walks. All we know is that is hilly, and that it took a three-day walk from Beersheba to get there:
בראשית כב:ד בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק.
Gen 22:4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar.
Later in the story, after the angel of YHWH tells Abraham to spare Isaac, the story adds an important parenthetical:
בראשית כב:יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְ־הוָה יִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר יְ־הוָה יֵרָאֶה.
Gen 22:14 Abraham called the name of that place YHWH Sees, as the saying is today, “On YHWH’s mountain (he/it) is seen.”
This parenthetical shows us that the place is identified with an Israelite worship site. The verse gives a new name for the mountain “YHWH Sees,” and even references a popular saying about what worshipers experience on the mountain. Thus, while the story never says the name of the mountain, the reader is assumed to know based on these hints.
A Later Verse?
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) lists this verse as part of “the secret of the twelve,” his code for verses that were written after the time of Moses. The reason ibn Ezra thinks this is an interpolation from a later scribe is spelled out in the Tzafnat Paʿanech (ad loc), a supercommentary on ibn Ezra, written by the 14th century scholar, Joseph Bonfils:
...שאמר "אשר יאמר היום" שמשמע כאלו אמר: זה הוא מה שאומרים עתה בדורנו כשעולים לרגל, "בהר י”י יראה." כלומר, הוא עולה לעשות המועד בירושלם ולהשתחוות בהר י”י. ולא יתכן שיאמרו כן בימי משה. ולפי זה לא כתב משה זה הפסוק רק כתבוהו הנביאים האחרונים...
…It says here “whence the present saying,” the meaning of which is “this is what people say nowadays in our generation when they go up for the festival: ‘on the LORD’s Mountain (he/it) is seen.’” In other words, he is going up to celebrate the festival in Jerusalem and to do obeisance on the Mount of God. It is impossible that people would have said this in the time of Moses. Therefore, Moses could not have written this verse. Instead the later prophets wrote it…
This is a non-issue for critical scholars, who generally assume the Torah was written well after the time of Moses; nevertheless, they understand this verse to be a later addition into the chapter for a different reason.
Southern Redaction of a Northern Story
Source-critical scholars have long noted that the binding of Isaac story has an early and later layer. In the early story, which stems from the Northern/Israelite E (Elohistic) text and uses the divine name Elohim, Abraham sacrifices his son, as commanded. In the revised story, however, which comes from the Southern/Judahite J (Yahwistic) school and uses the name YHWH, Abraham is stopped from killing his son by an angel and offers a ram in his son’s place. The revision is apparent not only from the change in divine names, but also from the double calling out of the angel (vv. 11 and 15), which functions as a resumptive repetition, and most importantly, from the fact that Isaac is not mentioned as returning with Abraham in verse 19.
The story was likely changed because of the redactor’s objection to human sacrifice and to connect Abraham with Jacob through Isaac. Whatever the reason, the parenthetical reference to the future place of worship, which uses the name YHWH and refers to the appearance of YHWH’s angel, was added by the redactor as well. To understand why, we need to look at the political and religious competition between Israel and Judah in the monarchic period.
Powerful Israel and Feeble Judah
At the end of the tenth century B.C.E., the people the Bible calls ancient Israelites were divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, with Tirzah and then Samaria as its capital, and Judah in the south, with Jerusalem as its capital. The two kingdoms were not equal by any means. The territory of the northern kingdom was larger, much more fertile, and economically stronger than its southern counterpart.
Unsurprisingly, the military power of the northern kingdom of Israel was much greater than that of the Kingdom of Judah, as is clear from both extrabiblical and biblical sources. While the Bible sometimes describes the kingdoms as allies, going to war together against common enemies, the king of Judah appears to be at most a junior partner in these scenarios, possibly even a vassal of Israel.
The relative position of the two kingdoms is expressed well in a narrative in which King Amaziah of Judah wishes to go to war against King Jehoash of Israel, לְכָה נִתְרָאֶה פָנִים “come, let us confront each other” (2 Kgs 14:8). The latter responds contemptuously:
מלכים ב יד:ט ...הַחוֹחַ אֲשֶׁר בַּלְּבָנוֹן שָׁלַח אֶל הָאֶרֶז אֲשֶׁר בַּלְּבָנוֹן לֵאמֹר תְּנָה אֶת בִּתְּךָ לִבְנִי לְאִשָּׁה וַתַּעֲבֹר חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בַּלְּבָנוֹן וַתִּרְמֹס אֶת הַחוֹחַ. יד:י הַכֵּה הִכִּיתָ אֶת אֱדוֹם וּנְשָׂאֲךָ לִבֶּךָ הִכָּבֵד וְשֵׁב בְּבֵיתֶךָ וְלָמָּה תִתְגָּרֶה בְּרָעָה וְנָפַלְתָּה אַתָּה וִיהוּדָה עִמָּךְ.
2 Kgs 14:9 …The thistle in Lebanon sent this message to the cedar in Lebanon, “Give your daughter to my son in marriage.” But a wild beast in Lebanon went by and trampled down the thistle. 14:10 Because you have defeated Edom, you have become arrogant. Stay home and enjoy your glory, rather than provoke disaster and fall, dragging Judah down with you.
Naturally, when Amaziah ignores the warning, he is defeated in battle, and booty from the Jerusalem Temple and palace is taken back to Samaria. Two other biblical accounts describe Israel attacking Judah, with Judah feeling sufficiently in danger such that it must turn to a third party to intervene. One case leads to the conquest of most of Israel by Tiglath Pileser III of Assyria. Ten years later, in 722 B.C.E., Samaria was conquered by Sargon II, and the northern kingdom ceased to exist, while the Kingdom of Judah survived by becoming an Assyrian vassal and paying tribute.
Many Israelites escaped death and exile by running to Jerusalem and becoming part of Judah, bringing their texts and traditions with them. This is why we find northern documents such as the Pentateuch E text, the book of Hosea, the stories of the Judges, and the Elijah and Elisha cycles in the Judean corpus known now as the Hebrew Bible.
The inclusion of these texts shows that Northern Israelite traditions were respected by Judahite scribes. Whether this is because of a (real or perceived) shared past, or respect for a more powerful kingdom that had dominated them for so long is unclear. Whatever the reason, Judahite scribes also felt competitive with northern traditions, and responded polemically to certain Israelite claims. We see this kind of polemic with sacred worship sites.
Israelite Religious Centers
The historical reason for why any given holy site was founded is often lost to posterity. Even so, these sites often receive mythic explanations of their significance. For example, the origins of the Esagila, the Marduk Temple in Babylon, is explained in Enuma Elish (“When on high”), which tells how Babylon’s chief deity Marduk defeats chaos in the form of primordial monsters, and creates the world and humanity. As a consequence, the Anunnaki (deities, children of the sky-god An) offer to build him a shrine (tablet 6):
His face lit up greatly, like daylight. “Create Babylon, whose construction you requested! Let its mud bricks be moulded, and build high the shrine!” The Anunnaki began shovelling. For a whole year they made bricks for it. When the second year arrived, they had raised the top of Esagila in front of the Apsu; they had built a high ziggurat for the Apsu…
Thus, the hieros logos for why Esagila is holy is because the spot was chosen by Marduk, and the structure built by the gods themselves.
Many of the Israelite holy sites also have a hieros logos connected to an Israelite ancestor or early hero. Some examples include:
Ebal—Joshua is said to have established an altar on Mount Ebal, just outside Shechem (Josh 8:30–35).
Shechem—The Temple in Shechem is where Joshua makes a covenant with the Israelites, after which he sets up a pillar and places it underneath a tree there (Josh 24:21–26).
Gilgal—After crossing with the Israelites into the land, Joshua circumcises them in Gilgal (Josh 5:9).
Nebo—The Mesha Stele (lns 14–18) states that a YHWH Temple stood in the town of Nebo, the same place where, according to Deuteronomy (32:49, 34:1), Moses is buried.
Penuel/Mahanaim—The holiness of the twin sites of Penuel and Mahanaim is explained by Jacob’s encounter with a divine encampment and his wrestling with an angel (Gen 32).
What we see here is a host of holy sites, most of which are associated with important figures from Israel’s past (Jacob, Moses, and Joshua).
Israel’s Royal Holy Sites: Dan and Beth-El
In addition to these—and many other—holy sites, the Bible states that Israel had two official, royal holy sites on its northern and southern borders, Dan and Beth-El (1 Kgs 12:29, 32–33; Amos 7:13). Establishing holy sites on the borders of a country was customary in the ancient Near East. For instance, temples to the moon-god were built at Ur in the south and Haran in the north of the Babylonian Empire. These two sites delineated the extent of the local gods and goddesses’ power, demonstrating that they reign from such-and-such a point inside this kingdom.
The northern royal holy sites of Dan and Beth-El would have been problematic to Judahite scribes. Thus, they crafted a polemical account of their founding by Israel’s first king, Jeroboam, describing their founding as a result of Jerusalem envy, and describing their golden calves as improper attempts to represent God:
מלכים א יב:כח וַיִּוָּעַץ הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיַּעַשׂ שְׁנֵי עֶגְלֵי זָהָב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם מֵעֲלוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. יב:כט וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת הָאֶחָד בְּבֵית אֵל וְאֶת הָאֶחָד נָתַן בְּדָן. יב:ל וַיְהִי הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְחַטָּאת וַיֵּלְכוּ הָעָם לִפְנֵי הָאֶחָד עַד דָּן.
1 Kgs 12:28 So, the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 12:29He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. 12:30And this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel and before the other as far as Dan.”
This is not the only swipe the Bible takes at these sites.
Mock Hieros Logos of Dan
The Bible contains a mock hieros logos for the sanctuary at Dan. Judges 17–18 describes how Micah, a thieving son of a wealthy lady, establishes a worship site, complete with an idol, and hires a Levite to serve as priest. Soon after, Danite scouts, who wish to move the tribe northward, bribe this priest to leave Micah, steal his idol, and come with them to their new settlement in the north:
שופטים יח:ל וַיָּקִימוּ לָהֶם בְּנֵי דָן אֶת הַפָּסֶל וִיהוֹנָתָן בֶּן גֵּרְשֹׁם בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה הוּא וּבָנָיו הָיוּ כֹהֲנִים לְשֵׁבֶט הַדָּנִי עַד יוֹם גְּלוֹת הָאָרֶץ. יח:לא וַיָּשִׂימוּ לָהֶם אֶת פֶּסֶל מִיכָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כָּל יְמֵי הֱיוֹת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים בְּשִׁלֹה.
Judg 18:30 Then the Danites set up the idol for themselves. Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity. 18:31So they maintained as their own Micah’s idol that he had made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.
According to this, the worship site at Dan was originally founded by a rogue, idol-worshipping priest to serve scoundrels.
The Hieros Logos of Beth-El
Most significant for our purposes, Genesis contains a detailed and impressive hieros logos for Beth-El (Gen 28:10–22; 35:1–7), the royal holy site closest to Israel’s border with Judah. According to this story, the patriarch Jacob sees the ladder (or stairway) to heaven in this spot during a prophetic dream:
בראשית כח:יז וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם.
Gen 28:17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (NRSV)
The claim that a given spot is the gate of heaven is an important ancient Near Eastern trope. Babylon, for instance, means “Gate of God” (Bab-ilu) in Akkadian.
As a result of this vision, Jacob consecrates this spot as a holy site, setting up a pillar and an altar.
The south did not deny the holiness or antiquity of this site’s tradition; J even has its own version of the story. Nevertheless, the association of Beth-El with a revelation to the patriarch Jacob likely posed a challenge to the Judahite scribes and their belief that Jerusalem was even holier. It is against this background that we should try to understand the redacted version of the Akedah story.
David Stops the Plague: Jerusalem’s Hieros Logos
The Jerusalem Temple’s hieros logos appears in 2 Samuel 24. In this story, King David commands his general Joab to conduct a census of the people, and as a result, YHWH becomes angry with David and punishes the Israelites with a deadly plague. When David sees the Angel of Death approach Jerusalem, he begs God for forgiveness, saying that it isn’t the people’s fault.
שמואל ב כד:יח וַיָּבֹא גָד אֶל דָּוִד בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ עֲלֵה הָקֵם לַי־הוָה מִזְבֵּחַ בְּגֹרֶן (ארניה) [אֲרַוְנָה] הַיְבֻסִי.
2 Sam 24:18 That day Gad came to David and said to him, “Go up and erect an altar to YHWH on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.”
David follows Gad’s command, runs to the spot, and purchases it from Araunah for fifty shekels silver, after which:
שמואל ב כד:כה וַיִּבֶן שָׁם דָּוִד מִזְבֵּחַ לַיהוָה וַיַּעַל עֹלוֹת וּשְׁלָמִים וַיֵּעָתֵר יְ־הוָה לָאָרֶץ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
2 Sam 24:25 David built there an altar to YHWH, and offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. So YHWH answered his supplication for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.
The hieros logos thus connects the Temple’s founding to David, and includes a miraculous event and the sighting of an angel. Nevertheless, the story lacks the antiquity that is bestowed by a patriarch. Even worse, it connects only to the founding monarch of the Judahite dynasty, as opposed to a more consensus figure from Israel’s collective past.
Repurposing the Akedah as Jerusalem’s Hieros Logos
To solve this problem, the Judahite editor of the Akedah story took the moving and dramatic Elohistic account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and revised it to include, among other things, a saying about the mountain of YHWH that the audience would connect with the Jerusalem Temple. Thus, the revised version of the story implies that the event—which was no longer an actual sacrifice but a tale about the faith of Abraham and the saving of Isaac—took place at the future site of the Jerusalem Temple. Such a narrative was meant to compete with Jacob’s epiphany at Beth-El.
Abraham was the favorite patriarch of the south, and J has Abraham build altars and/or call on YHWH in the northern holy sites of Shechem (Gen 12:7) and Beth-El (Gen 12:8) as well as the southern holy sites in Hebron (Gen 13:18) and Beersheba (Gen 21:33), thus attributing their founding to him.
This is also the strategy being deployed by the editor of the Akedah story, according to whom the otherwise unidentified mountain in the land of Moriah becomes Mount Zion. This connection is made explicitly in the Second Temple period book of Chronicles:
דברי הימים ב ג:א וַיָּחֶל שְׁלֹמֹה לִבְנוֹת אֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה בִּירוּשָׁלִַם בְּהַר הַמּוֹרִיָּה אֲשֶׁר נִרְאָה לְדָוִיד אָבִיהוּ אֲשֶׁר הֵכִין בִּמְקוֹם דָּוִיד בְּגֹרֶן אָרְנָן הַיְבוּסִי.
2 Chr 3:1 Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had designated, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.
Here the story of David and the threshing floor is connected to the toponym Mount Moriah, thus recalling both sacred myths in his account of the building of the Jerusalem Temple. By this time, the connection between the binding of Isaac and the Jerusalem Temple was firmly established in Judean collective memory, and the sacred spot of Mount Zion was given a very ancient and powerful sacred legend as its foundation myth.
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Prof. Rami Arav is Professor at the Department of Religion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He holds a Ph.D. from New York University and has been the director of the Bethsaida Excavation Project since 1987. Arav is the author of Hellenistic Palestine (London 1989), and co-author (with John J. Rousseau) of the Fortress Press bestseller, Jesus and His World (1995). He is also the editor of Cities through the Looking Glass (2008), and a series of four volumes titled: Bethsaida, a City on the Northern Shores of the Sea of Galilee.
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