A closer look at one of the strangest stories in all of Scripture.
by Rich Robinson | January 01 1986
Every Rosh Hashanah, synagogue readings include the story of the Akedah from Genesis 22. Akedah is Hebrew for “binding” and refers to the central action in the story when Abraham binds his son Isaac on the altar in order to sacrifice him.
God calls to Abraham, presumably from heaven, and Abraham replies, “Here I am!” In Hebrew, Abraham said, “Hineni!”, a phrase sometimes used by others to demonstrate their readiness to respond to God. But God makes a very strange request:
“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 of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:1)
One reason this request is so jarring is that in the Scriptures, God forbids human sacrifice. Yet we do not read that Abraham complained, or remonstrated with God, or raised any objection whatsoever. We simply read that he took some helpers, his son Isaac, and some wood for the sacrifice, and traveled up the mountain.
And then, to compound the strangeness, Abraham tells his helpers, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (v. 5). Really? We thought Isaac was going to his death. Is Abraham lying—or does he know something we don’t? When Isaac next asks where is the lamb for the burnt offering—the chief requirement!—Abraham simply responds, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). Again, does Abraham know something that Isaac doesn’t, or is he just covering his tracks?
Finally, they arrive at the place of sacrifice. Abraham proceeds to bind his apparently uncomplaining son upon the wood and raises his knife to slay him. At the very last moment, the angel of the Lord calls out to Abraham. Once again, he responds to God with hineni!1 And the angel of Lord tells Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (v. 12). As Abraham looks up, he sees a ram caught in a bush, which becomes the burnt offering in place of Isaac.
A few verses later God elaborates:
By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:16–18)
This is one of the strangest stories in the entire Scripture. Every Rosh Hashanah, sermons are given, thought pieces are written, and discussions ensue. Is it an example of Abraham’s great faith? Is it meant to warn us against human sacrifice? Does it tell us that God can even command us to do what is unethical? Perhaps it is forever a mystery, or is meant to get us to discuss the text and tease out its implications. The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is also said to be based on the Akedah, since God provided a ram from whose horns a shofar is made.
One of the most intriguing interpretations of the Akedah sees the sacrifice as actually having been consummated and as effecting atonement for Israel in the same manner as animal sacrifices. Writes W. Gunther Plaut:
There was … a remarkable tradition that insisted that Abraham completed the sacrifice and that afterward Isaac was miraculously revived…. According to this haggadah, Abraham slew his son, burnt his victim, and the ashes remain as a stored-up merit and atonement for Israel in all generations.2
At one time, this notion was widespread:
Ibn Ezra (commentary on Gen. 22:19) also quotes an opinion that Abraham actually did kill Isaac … and he was later resurrected from the dead. Ibn Ezra rejects this as completely contrary to the biblical text. Shalom Spiegel has demonstrated, however, that such views enjoyed a wide circulation and occasionally found expression in medieval writings.3
The idea of Isaac’s dying as an atonement is found a variety of Jewish writings:
“A bundle of myrrh (kofer) is my well-beloved” (Cant. I, 14). This refers to Isaac, who was tied up like a bundle upon the altar. Kofer, because he atones for the sins of Israel.4
If then Isaac’s descendants fall into sin and evil deeds, do thou make mention of the binding of Isaac, and get up from the throne of judgment, and sit down upon the throne of compassion, and be filled with pity, and turn the attribute of judgement into the attribute of mercy.5
Rabbi Jehudah said: “When the blade touched his neck, the soul of Isaac fled and departed, (but) when he heard His voice from between the two Cherubim, saying (to Abraham), ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad’ (Gen. 22:12), his soul returned to his body, and (Abraham) set him free, and Isaac stood upon his feet. And Isaac knew that in this manner the dead in the future will be quickened. He opened (his mouth), and said: ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord, who quickeneth the dead.’”6
When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast onto Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him … the ministering angels began to recite, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who gives life to the dead.”7
How did this get started, especially considering that in the Genesis account, we are specifically told that Isaac did not die? Some surmise that it arose in reaction to Christian teaching, to show that the sacrifice of Isaac was not less effective than that of Jesus; the parallel between these stories and the death and resurrection of Jesus is obvious. Others speculate that the story is a reflection of medieval Jewish life, when Isaac served as a model for those who would kill their children and themselves rather than submit to forced conversions and torture.
In the midst of all these interpretations that swirl around the Akedah, perhaps one more can be added to the list.
The famous twentieth-century Russian-French Jewish artist Marc Chagall painted many biblical scenes, among other themes. In some of his most well-known paintings, he portrays Jesus on the cross as a symbol for Jewish suffering and martyrdom. Jesus appears also in Chagall’s painting The Sacrifice of Isaac.
In The Sacrifice of Isaac, we see Isaac in yellow, bound on the altar. There stands Abraham, in red, the knife raised to perform the sacrifice of his son. In blue, the angel of the Lord is stopping him, while on the left, we see the ram caught in the bushes and, though she is not mentioned in Genesis 22, Abraham’s wife Sarah looking on. And finally, at the top right is a scene of Jesus carrying his cross, the color red dripping down onto Abraham, suggestive of blood.
Like Genesis 22 itself, Chagall’s painting seems to encourage discussion and maybe even multiple interpretations. For Chagall did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah; but he was fascinated with him as a symbol for the suffering of the Jewish people.
So let’s offer one interpretation. We cannot know what was in Chagall’s mind as he painted this scene. But in his own way, he connected Jesus to the story we read each Rosh Hashanah. Was he aware that there is correspondence between Genesis and, of all things, John’s Gospel in the New Testament? For in Genesis 22:2, God told Abraham:
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.”
While in John 3:16, possibly the most famous verse in the New Testament, we read:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
The connection is clear. Surely John was thinking that just as Abraham loved God enough that he was willing to offer up his only son, so God loves us enough to do the same. And Isaac, is it because he too loved God and his father that he did not complain but willingly went to the altar? So, Jesus willingly offered his life too: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17–18).
Here is yet one more interpretation of the Akedah to consider: As Abraham offered his son Isaac, so God offered his son Jesus. As Isaac went to the altar willingly, so did Jesus. And there is contrast, too: while God provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac, Jesus actually consummated his atoning, sacrificial death. But that brings us back to the similarities: Abraham called the place “The Lord will provide” (Genesis 22:14) since God provided the ram. Jesus, in his death and resurrection, becomes God’s ultimate provision for us.
1. This is also his response to Isaac in 22:7. It indicates a readiness to respond to Isaac—but God’s requests are more weighty.
2. W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (UAHC, 1981), 151:5.
3. Encyclopedia Judaica, 2:482, s.v. “Akedah.”
4. C. G. Montefiore and H. M. J. Loewe, eds., “Canticles [Song of Songs] Rabbah,” I, § 14, I, on 1, 14; f. 12b, in A Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 220.
5. Montefiore and Loewe, “Leviticus Rabbah,” Emor, 29:9, 228.
7. “Shibbolei ha-Leket,” in A Vocabulary of Desire: The Song of Songs in the Early Synagogue (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 313:5.