The Sacrifice of Isaac in Context: Recovering a Lost Ending of the Akedah
Abraham’s Frightening Silence
All stories have beginnings, but some never end. The analysis of Isaac’s sacrifice, an account generally acknowledged as one of the seminal texts of the western canon in general, and Judaism in particular, usually begins with God’s command to Abraham go forth to the land of Moriah and sacrifice his son. Abraham silently obeys and history is forever changed.
Abraham’s silence is one of the biggest mysteries of the Akedah. The existential philosopher Soren Kieregaard was frightened by it: “Silence is the snare of the demon,” he says, “and the more one keeps silent, the more terrifying the demon becomes.” Despite this, Kierkegard appreciated the aesthetics of the terse Biblical text and continues his observation by saying that “silence is also the mutual understanding between the Deity and the individual.”
Kierkegaard, however wished to advance beyond the appreciation of aesthetics and understand the “why,” and in this, I believe, he failed. In this piece, I will attempt to explain the “why” of God’s command and Abraham’s silent obeisance; but to do so I must begin my account elsewhere.
Sarah in Abimelech’s House: The Background to the Akeda
The story of the Binding of Isaac begins with Abraham the wanderer arriving in Gerar (NRSV):
בראשׁית כ:ב וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ אֲחֹתִי הִוא וַיִּשְׁלַח אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר וַיִּקַּח אֶת שָׂרָה. כ:ג וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בַּחֲלוֹם הַלָּיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ הִנְּךָ מֵת עַל הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתָּ וְהִוא בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל.
Gen 20:2 Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” And King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.”
The story unfolds quickly. One would think that Abimelech must have “taken” Sarah in the intimate sense as the Hebrew verb “to take” may imply (especially in contexts where men “take” women). Otherwise, why would God threaten him with death? And yet, when Abimelech declares his innocence in the matter, reminding God that Abraham had identified Sarah as his sister, God responds:
בראשׁית כ:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם גַּם אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי בְתָם לְבָבְךָ עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת וָאֶחְשֹׂךְ גַּם אָנֹכִי אוֹתְךָ מֵחֲטוֹ לִי עַל כֵּן לֹא נְתַתִּיךָ לִנְגֹּעַ אֵלֶיהָ. כ:ז וְעַתָּה הָשֵׁב אֵשֶׁת הָאִישׁ כִּי נָבִיא הוּא וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעַדְךָ וֶחְיֵה וְאִם אֵינְךָ מֵשִׁיב דַּע כִּי מוֹת תָּמוּת אַתָּה וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לָךְ.
Gen 20:6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore, I did not let you touch her. 20:7 Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”
According to this, Abimelech did not actually lay with Sarah after all.
Abimelech Defends His Innocence in a Dream
That Abimelech answers the all-powerful accuser and wins the argument while he is still asleep is amazing! This dream dialogue is, in fact, sui generis in the Bible, which records no other such occasion. Usually dream revelations are one sided, with only God speaking, and the dreamer listening. Solomon’s dream in 1 Kings 3:5–14 is a notable exception, but even here Solomon simply answers a question, he does not win a debate.
The author, cognizant of this anomaly, explicitly reminds the reader that Abimelech is still in a dream: וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם “Then God said to Him in the dream” (v. 6). Biblical scholars call this a resumptive repetition (more commonly with the German term Wiederaufnahme). It often indicates that another, later author inserted material into the intervening part of the text. If we assume that vv. 4–6 are a later editorial insertion, then we are left with the following:
בראשׁית כ:ג וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בַּחֲלוֹם הַלָּיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ הִנְּךָ מֵת עַל הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתָּ וְהִוא בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל.// כ:ז וְעַתָּה הָשֵׁב אֵשֶׁת הָאִישׁ כִּי נָבִיא הוּא וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעַדְךָ וֶחְיֵה וְאִם אֵינְךָ מֵשִׁיב דַּע כִּי מוֹת תָּמוּת אַתָּה וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לָךְ.
Gen 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman. // 20:7 Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”
We the protestation of innocence removed, we can return to the simple meaning of verse 2: Abimelech takes Sarah in the biblical sense, i.e., he consummates his relationship with her. If he hadn’t, he would have had little reason to be so afraid, as the next verse relates::
בראשׁית כ:ח וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקְרָא לְכָל עֲבָדָיו וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים מְאֹד.
Gen 20:8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid.
“Fear” is the key word, Abimelech is afraid, and his servants are afraid—all for good reason. Abimelech had slept with the wife of Abraham, God’s chosen one, and punishment for abusing God’s chosen ones is often swift and terrible.
Abraham’s Inappropriate Fear
In the story, Abraham is also afraid, but for all the wrong reasons:
בראשׁית כ:י וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ אֶל אַבְרָהָם מָה רָאִיתָ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה. כ:יא וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי.
Gen 20:10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” 20:11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘there is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’”
Instead of trusting in God’s helping hand to protect him, Abraham was worried that “there was no fear of God” in Gerar and that he would be killed on account of his wife. The continuation of the story, suggesting that God protects Abraham, shows that his fears were baseless. (Abimelech comes off contrite and willing to make restitution.) Abraham later offers another excuse for his behaviour:
בראשׁית כ:יב וְגַם אָמְנָה אֲחֹתִי בַת אָבִי הִוא אַךְ לֹא בַת אִמִּי וַתְּהִי לִי לְאִשָּׁה. כ:יג וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִתְעוּ אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים מִבֵּית אָבִי וָאֹמַר לָהּ זֶה חַסְדֵּךְ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂי עִמָּדִי אֶל כָּל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָבוֹא שָׁמָּה אִמְרִי לִי אָחִי הוּא.
Gen 20:12 “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. 20:13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”
This excuse really stretches the readers’ credulity and is self-derisive—it certainly does nothing to commend Abraham in our eyes. Even if Sarah is indeed his sister—the small matter of the incest taboo notwithstanding—he is still married to her. The narrative account accentuates the matter, by placing this excuse second, as if to say: “besides the real reason (the fear of God issue), I wish to note that…”
Abraham’s behavior is part of a pattern; as he notes: “at every place to which we come, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’” Critical scholars often attribute remarks that attempt to explain a pattern to a later layer of the text. Therefore, it seems likely that verses 12–13, which attempt to explain Abraham’s “usual behavior” of lying about Sarah, may have been put into Abraham’s mouth by a later editor.
As the story ends, Abimelech follows God’s directive and returns Sarah to Abraham. He also provides Abraham with remuneration in the form of cattle and slaves. He then invites Abraham to remain in the land:
בראשׁית כ:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ הִנֵּה אַרְצִי לְפָנֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ שֵׁב. כ:טז וּלְשָׂרָה אָמַר הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי אֶלֶף כֶּסֶף לְאָחִיךְ הִנֵּה הוּא לָךְ כְּסוּת עֵינַיִם לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ וְאֵת כֹּל וְנֹכָחַת. כ:יז וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אַבְרָהָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּרְפָּא אֱלֹהִים אֶת אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וְאֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאַמְהֹתָיו וַיֵּלֵדוּ.
Gen 20:15Abimelech said, “My land is before you; settle where it pleases you.” 20:16 To Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your 'brother' a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.” 20:17 Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.
Is the payment to ensure that Abraham prays for him, or is it suggestive of the transaction in Genesis 12:15–16 in which sex is traded for money?
Healing Abimelech’s Infertile Female Household
As God promised, Abraham prays for Abimelech, and Abimelech is cured of a problem he did not know he had: his sexual impotence, and the infertility of his wife and female slaves (v. 17). This statement is very suggestive, implying that Abimelech’s impotence is of import to the story.
If Abimelech did lie with Sarah, as the original story implies, we would certainly want to know whether he could consummate the relationship. The text here states that Abimelech is impotent, but the critical question remains, did his impotence occur before he slept with Sarah or afterwards? The text does not tell us.
The text does, however, add a final note:
בראשׁית כ:יח כִּי עָצֹר עָצַר יְ־הוָה בְּעַד כָּל רֶחֶם לְבֵית אֲבִימֶלֶךְ עַל דְּבַר שָׂרָה אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָהָם.
Gen 20:18 For YHWH had closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
This verse is widely acknowledged as an addendum to the chapter; it uses a different name for the deity: YHWH as opposed to “God” (Elohim). Furthermore, it accentuates the infertility of Abimelech’s female consorts, thus heavily implying that Sarah, who had been part of Abimelech’s household, was herself also infertile, at least when she was with Abimelech. The editor has added this information to clarify the identity of the father of the baby that will be born in the very next verse.
The Birth of Isaac: The Son of Abraham
The announcement of Isaac’s birth includes the detail that Abraham is his father:
בראשׁית כא:ב וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּן לִזְקֻנָיו לַמּוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים.
Gen 21:2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.
This point is reiterated three times in the subsequent verse and no less than six times in the section:
בראשׁית כא:ג וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם אֶת שֶׁם בְּנוֹ הַנּוֹלַד לוֹ אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לּוֹ שָׂרָה יִצְחָק. כא:ד וַיָּמָל אַבְרָהָם אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בֶּן שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים. כא:ה וְאַבְרָהָם בֶּן מְאַת שָׁנָה בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ.
Gen 21:3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son who was born unto him whom Sarah bore him. 21:4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 21:5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
The text is clearly afraid of errant thoughts creeping into the target audience’s mind concerning Isaac’s paternity and reiterates too vehemently (“the gentleman doth protest too much”) that Isaac is Abraham’s son. Most of this emphasis is safely attributed to a concerned editor or editors (specifically verses 4 and 5 which use Priestly ideas such as circumcision, and the Priestly form “born to him,” but maybe also part of verse 3). Many Rabbinic post-biblical sources recognize this embarrassing pattern and address it in a less circumspect manner (Midrash Aggadah [Buber], Genesis 25):
אברהם הוליד את יצחק. לפי שהיו אומרים בני אדם שיצחק בן אבימלך היה, לכך עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא פרצוף יצחק דומה לאברהם, כדי שידעו הכל שיצחק בן אברהם הוא, ולא בן אבימלך, לכך נאמר אברהם הוליד את יצחק, וכל מי שהיה רואה ליצחק היה אומר בוודאי בן אברהם הוא, שאברהם הוליד את יצחק:
“[These are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham], Abraham begat Isaac (Gen 25:19)”—For people would have said that Isaac was the son of Abimelech. Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, made Isaac’s face similar to Abraham’s so that it would be known that Isaac was Abraham’s son and not Abimelech’s son. For this reason it says: “Abraham begat Isaac,” and everyone that would see Isaac would say he is surely the son of Abraham since “Abraham begat Isaac”
The Akedah in Context
Thus far, I have made scant reference to different sources or documents in this section of the Torah. I wanted my arguments to be accessible to people who are unfamiliar with source criticism and its terminology. In addition, for those who are familiar with source criticism, I felt my arguments would be clearer without reference to classical source criticism. At this point, however, it may be confusing if I don’t offer more information.
I subscribe to the supplementary hypothesis, which argues that the Torah developed accretively rather than through the combination of individual, complete sources. The original story over the generations was supplemented in order to make the account relevant for new generations of readers. The original story is largely identical to what other scholars call “E” or the Elohistic source, since it uses the name “Elohim” (almost) exclusively (at least up until Exodus 3—afterwards there is some disagreement).
The editors or supplementers I refer to are Judean redactors of later periods (as opposed to E which was composed in Northern Israel before the kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians). The most prominent among these redactors is “J” who preferred to use YHWH (the Tetragrammaton) as the deity’s name. (In the Akedah account of Genesis 22 the Yahwistic editor I refer to is always J.)
We can now read the Akedah in Genesis 22 as God’s response to Sarah’s cohabitation with Abimelech (Gen 20) and Isaac’s birth (Gen 21):
בראשׁית כב:א וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 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 22:1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 22:2 He (God) said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
The Akedah is an enactment of the most brutal poetic justice. Abraham sinned and did not trust in God. His sin may (or may not, we as readers are not privy) have led to Sarah’s impregnation and the birth of Isaac. Not having trusted in God once, God demands from Abraham a far higher level of trust. The vehicle of Abraham’s renewed devotion and fear is the unintended result of his previous lack of devotion—his son, Isaac.
It does not matter that Isaac is an innocent. Here, Isaac is no more than God’s instrument; his life is no more (and no less) than a cosmic joke and is inconsequential when God’s purpose is to teach humans proper respect. Isaac’s sacrifice is meant to demonstrate the importance of fearing God, and that trumps any importance of Isaac as a person.
What Really Happens to Isaac?
Is Isaac then sacrificed as Elohim commands? Not according to the received canonical text:
בראשׁית 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. כב:י וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת בְּנוֹ. כב:יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. כב:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָּה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי. כב:יג וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה אַיִל אַחַר נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת הָאַיִל וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ.
Gen 22:9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 22:10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 22:11 But the angel of YHWH called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 22:12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 22:13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
But is this narrative of substitution so clear? The narrative later seems to imply a slightly different version of events.
בראשׁית כב:יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.
Gen 22:19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
Where has Isaac disappeared to? Why is Abraham returning alone? Shouldn’t Isaac have been with him? Before the sacrifice, the text certainly emphasizes that the two walk together:
בראשׁית כב:ו וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה וַיָּשֶׂם עַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ אֶת הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו. כב:ז וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה. כב:ח וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו.
Gen 22:6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 22:7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 22:8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
Had verses 11–12 not said otherwise, it would seem obvious that something had happened to Isaac, something involving a knife and a burning fire.
The juxtaposition between verses 6 and 8 on the one hand and verse 19 on the other hand, suggested other narrative options to midrashic reenactors of the tale throughout the generations, namely that Isaac was in fact killed on the altar:
“O, do Thou regard the ashes of Father Isaac heaped up on top of the altar, and deal with Thy children in accordance with the Mercy Attribute.” (Supplication prior to sounding the ram’s horn, Heidenheim Machzor, Vienna, 1827)
א"ל אבא: אל תירא, יהי רצון (שיתן) [שיתקבל] כל (דם) רביעית [דם] שלי [ב]רצון לפני מי שצוך עלי.
Isaac said to him: “Father have no fears. May it be His will that one quarter of my blood serve as an atonement for all Israel.” (Bereshit Rabbati 22:8, ed. Albeck, p. 90)
The liturgical power of these midrashic traditions rests upon a narrative in which Isaac was ultimately sacrificed. Furthermore, this is not the only tension / contradiction in chapter 22. At the crux of all the critical issues in the chapter stands the angel’s revelation to Abraham:
בראשׁית כב:יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. כב:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָּה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי.
Gen 22:11 But the angel of YHWH called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 22:12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Verses 11–12, where Abraham is stopped from killing Isaac, are part of the earliest version of the story according to many scholars, but this is not as straightforward as may seem. It ignores the fact that verse 11 uses YHWH, in contrast with verses 1–10, which consistently employ Elohim (God). This may suggest that two sources are at play here. The earlier Elohistic source originally read:
The angel of Elohim called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Now I know that you fear Elohim, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
The later Yahwistic later added half a verse and changed the deity’s name to YHWH.
Gen 22:11 But the angel of the YHWH called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 22:12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear Elohim, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
In other words, in the original E story, Isaac, the tiny wisp of Sarah’s laughter, is sacrificed by his zealous father Abraham to atone for his past indiscretions. Thus, the midrashic traditions that suggest this are not reading the text creatively, but preserving an older, original tradition concerning the Akedah. The J editor (the later source that consistently uses the YHWH sobriquet) could not accept this outcome, and altered the narrative, turning a story of ultimate sacrifice and the cruelty of zeal into a story of redemption. The addition of verse 12a (Do not raise your hand) and verses 13–14 (the substitution) elegantly overturn the meaning of the original revelation.
Does it ever say Abraham killed his son?
This proposal would seem to have one weak point; there is no explicit mention of Isaac’s sacrifice! It is possible that such a clause once existed (וישחט את בנו) but that J deleted it when he changed the story. There is no need to suggest a deletion, however, since nothing is really missing. The sentence וַיִּקַּח אֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת בְּנוֹ, “He picked up his knife to slay his son” (v. 10), can be understood as elliptic.
The words “and he slew his son” are implied and hence need not be written, since they would basically have been no more than a rhetorical flourish providing a repetition of the extant clause: “to slay his son.” In other words, verse 10b could conceivably be understood: “And Abraham took the knife to slay his son (and he slew his son).” The omission of such clauses is well documented in the Bible, and this proposed reading is possible.
If this suggestion is correct, why did E rely on the implied meaning and omit this tiny but telling clause? We shall, of course never know—but perhaps the author felt guilty and couldn’t kill Isaac thoroughly and explicitly, inadvertently leaving space for the more merciful hand of the editor.
Abraham Sacrifices His Son as Penance
According to this analysis, in the original E story, Abraham needed to be punished—he did not believe Elohim would protect him, and thus lied to Abimelech and doubted his rectitude, not to mention that he abandoned his wife to another man. As a result, Elohim punishes Abraham with the death of “his” son, just as he punishes all those who do not fear him. Elohim demands that Abraham sacrifice “his” son—ironically appropriate, since Isaac may have been the unlucky issue of the adulterous relationship between Abimelech and Sarah.
Abraham sacrifices his son, and Elohim once again recognizes Abraham as a true fearer of Elohim. Needless to say, we should be more than happy that at least canonically “the name YHWH [consistently] overrules the numinous [irrational and awesome] dimension symbolized by the name Elohim.”
The Original E Account
Abraham in Gerar
וַיִּסַּע אַבְרָהָם אַרְצָה הַנֶּגֶב וַיֵּשֶׁב בֵּין־קָדֵשׁ וּבֵין שׁוּר וַיָּגָר בִּגְרָר: וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל־שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ אֲחֹתִי הִוא וַיִּשְׁלַח אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר וַיִּקַּח אֶת־שָׂרָה: וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל־אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בַּחֲלוֹם הַלָּיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ הִנְּךָ מֵת עַל־הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר־לָקַחְתָּ וְהִוא בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל: וְעַתָּה הָשֵׁב אֵשֶׁת־הָאִישׁ כִּֽי־נָבִיא הוּא וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּֽעַדְךָ וֶֽחְיֵה וְאִם־אֵֽינְךָ מֵשִׁיב דַּע כִּי מוֹת תָּמוּת אַתָּה וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לָךְ: וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקְרָא לְכָל־עֲבָדָיו וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת־כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים מְאֹד:
Abraham traveled from there toward the land of the South, and lived between Kadesh and Shur. He lived as a foreigner in Gerar. Abraham said about Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now therefore, restore the man’s wife. For he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live. If you don’t restore her, know for sure that you will die, you, and all who are yours.” Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ear. The men were very scared.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ אֶל אַבְרָהָם מָה רָאִיתָ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה: וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַהֲרָגוּנִי עַל דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי: וַיִּקַּח אֲבִימֶלֶךְ צֹאן וּבָקָר וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַיִּתֵּן לְאַבְרָהָם וַיָּשֶׁב לוֹ אֵת שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ: וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ הִנֵּה אַרְצִי לְפָנֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ שֵׁב: וּלְשָׂרָה אָמַר הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי אֶלֶף כֶּסֶף לְאָחִיךְ הִנֵּה הוּא־לָךְ כְּסוּת עֵינַיִם לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ וְאֵת כֹּל וְנֹכָחַת: וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אַבְרָהָם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּרְפָּא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וְאֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאַמְהֹתָיו וַיֵּלֵדוּ:
Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you have done this thing?” Abraham said, “Because I thought, ‘Surely the fear of God is not in this place. They will kill me for my wife’s sake.’ Abimelech took sheep and cattle, male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah, his wife, to him. Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you. Dwell where it pleases you.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. Behold, it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you. In front of all you are vindicated.” Abraham prayed to God. God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his female servants, and they bore children.
The Birth of Isaac
וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּן לִזְקֻנָיו: וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם אֶת שֶׁם בְּנוֹ אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לּוֹ שָׂרָה יִצְחָק: וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצְחַק לִי: וַתֹּאמֶר מִי מִלֵּל לְאַבְרָהָם הֵינִיקָה בָנִים שָׂרָה כִּי יָלַדְתִּי בֵן לִזְקֻנָיו:
Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age. Abraham called his son whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Sarah said, “God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.” She said, “Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.”
The Sacrifice of Isaac
וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי: 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: וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ, וְאֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ; וַיְבַקַּע, עֲצֵי עֹלָה, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ, אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַרלוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים: בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶתהַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק: וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו, שְׁבוּ לָכֶם פֹּה עִם הַחֲמוֹר, וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר, נֵלְכָה עַד כֹּה; וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם: וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה, וַיָּשֶׂם עַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ, אֶת-הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו: וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים, וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה, לְעֹלָה: וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו: 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: וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת בְּנוֹ: וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי: וַיֹּאמֶר עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי: וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע:
After these things, God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” He said, “Here I am.” He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far off. Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go yonder. We will worship, and come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. He took in his hand the fire and the knife. They both went together. Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “My father?” He said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they both went together. They came to the place which God had told him of. Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, on the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to kill his son. God’s angel called to him out of the sky, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” He said, “Here I am.” He said, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba. Abraham lived at Beersheba.
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September 24, 2014
May 31, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.
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