The Binding of Isaac or His Sacrifice? Christian and Jewish Perspectives

September 1, 2011
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Joshua Holo

The dense, taut style of the Akedah’s narration seems to reflect the religious tension of its content. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of the three monotheistic faiths picks up on and plays into that tension to make very pointed religious claims. Judaism and Christianity, in particular, interpret the story in such a way as to expose the irreconcilability of their respective underpinnings. To be sure, both Christian and Jewish thinkers grapple with some of the same, more or less obvious, difficulties: God’s apparent cruelty, the suffering of the protagonists, the complexity of faith, etc. Ultimately, however, Jewish and Christian thought diverge on how to read the crux of the story, namely, the struggle with and promise of child sacrifice.

By and large, Jewish thinkers treat God’s position as fixed; Abraham undergoes the drama. They reduce the sacrifice to an unrealized hypothetical question — a thought experiment — to test Abraham’s mettle without implicating God in the ritual act. Meanwhile, Christian theologians take the sacrificial part of the story very seriously because, though unrealized, it presages the Passion, the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus that defines the nature of the Christian God. In short, Judaism reads the story as a drama of the religious man, whereas Christianity, in addition to reading it this way, also reads it as part of the drama of God Himself.

Only in light of the introductory verse, “and God tested Abraham,” can Jews read beyond the next verse, in which God instructs Abraham to “take your son… and offer him there as a burnt offering.” The story can imagine divine blood thirst for human sacrifice, but only insofar as the opening verse dismisses that appetite as a mere heuristic, a contrary-to-fact narrative artifice. The story queries human theology, but God’s nature is above question.

Without that initial disclaimer, the story cannot be Jewish. A God who so much as appears to desire — much less command — human sacrifice is a non-God, an unresolvable paradox, hence a falsehood. In other words, the genuine possibility that child sacrifice might actually be on the right side of a moral dilemma simply belies the dilemma and deflates the Akedah’s narrative force for a Jewish readership. So, the omniscient narrator reassures us, in an aside and unbeknownst to Abraham: There is a lesson to be derived from Abraham’s struggle, but only insofar as we all agree beforehand that God does not really want the sacrifice.

In this manner, the medieval commentators treat it as axiomatic that God has no interest in Abraham’s actual sacrificing of Isaac. According to Ibn Ezra, for example, some scholars (including Rashi) argue that Abraham misunderstood God’s meaning on account of his unfamiliarity with the obscure idiom of prophecy. Presumably, Abraham mistook the command Ha’alehu to mean “Sacrifice him,” rather than the more prosaic and harmless meaning of “Take him up” to the top of Mount Moriah. Some midrashim go so far as to imply that Abraham failed the test; he failed to recognize the self-contradiction of God’s command.

In contrast, Christianity embraces — depends on — the redemptive power of child sacrifice, not in spite of the fact but because of the fact that it comes from God. Traditionally, therefore, the Akedah can hardly avoid serving as a model. In this manner, Christian thinkers have argued — in parallel to Jewish interpretations — that the story delegitimizes child sacrifice by human beings. But they have, at the same time, promoted an interpretive tradition that points to precisely such a sacrifice by God.

Though Abraham did not, in the end, sacrifice his son, the Akedah prefigures the crucifixion, harking back to Hebrews 11: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice…. Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” According to St. Augustine, Isaac represents Jesus in his willingness to go to the slaughter, in his bearing the wood for the pyre in the same way that Jesus bears his cross, and in the expectation, attributed to Abraham, of his resurrection. The ram, caught in the thicket like the crown of thorns, also prefigures Jesus, actually undergoing sacrifice.

Is there any convergence or even some closing of the gap between the Jewish and Christian readings? The late Rabbi Louis Jacobs reminds us that various Jewish interpretations of the Akedah do not necessarily reduce its lesson to the argument that God abhors human sacrifice. And more than that, Shalom Spiegel, one of the 20th century’s leading scholars of medieval Jewish literature, argues that the Akedah’s protestations constitute a “partial admission of the vitality of pagan ways” among Israelites.
He even investigates ways in which Jewish
tradition toyed with the idea of Isaac’s metaphorical, partial, or even complete sacrifice.

However, when Jews have taken the sacrificial motif beyond the limits of the text, they have done so as a consolation for their own persecution. That is, they read the Akedah to justify their martyrdom as a negation, as a way to fend off catastrophe and blasphemy, rather than affirmatively, as a propitious act of divine grace.

Thus, Christianity has inflected Jewish textual interpretation, but it did not penetrate its DNA. Ultimately, Jacobs is right: Jewish interpreters do not necessarily argue that the Akedah’s sole purpose is simply to prove that God rejects human sacrifice. Rather more pointedly, they understand the text to take that fact for granted. Christianity, meanwhile, offers a new, promising view of divine sacrifice. This difference resides, together with other factors, at the very core of the two religions’ historical divorce from one another.

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Dr. Joshua Holo is the dean and associate professor of Jewish history at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. His publications focus on Medieval Jews of the Mediterranean, particularly in the Christian realm. His book, Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.

1 Comment

  1. Without interfering with the core topic of the article I would like to add to the beautiful midrash related to the possible misinterpretation of G-od’s order by Abraham. In my opinion we can find a trace or a fine “remez” of this is the analysis of the teamim of the chapter.
    Basiscally Teamim are of two categories “mafsikim” and “mehoubarim” or disruptive and inclusive. Teamim disruptive request the reader to mark a very tiny pause whereas the inclusive teamim request a flowing reading.
    Having said that in a very basic way one can see that every time when the Text refers to “Ola” the teamim are disruptive Except for the last “Ola” which is the “real” one with the ram. Then the teamim are indeed inclusive.
    Did the Sages of the Massoret want to give us a hint on how we should understand the wgole story?
    It is also worth mentioning that Sefardim do read at Rosh Hashana before the sounds of shofara a very poignant poem on the Akedah whis is called by is first words “Et Shaare ratson lehipateah”: It is time for the doors of Willingness to open.

    Posted by
    Guylain-David Sitbon
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