Jewish tradition has much to say about dying so that another might have forgiveness. This page focuses on Jewish traditions about the Akedah.
The Hebrew word akedah” means “binding” and refers to the well-known story in Genesis 22, in which God commands Abraham to offer up his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham and Isaac thereafter make the journey to Mount Moriah. Having arrived there, Abraham binds his apparently uncomplaining son upon the wood and raises his knife in order to slay him. But at the last moment an angel cries out to Abraham and prevents the sacrifice from taking place. In place of Isaac, God provides a ram for the burnt offering and commends Abraham for his outstanding faith and obedience.
In Jewish tradition, this story has been elaborated numerous times. In some traditions, Isaac becomes a symbol of Jewish martyrs of all times and places. In others, the story is used to show that God does not require a “human sacrifice.” According to yet other traditions, the sacrifice of Isaac actually took place and in fact brought atonement to Israel.
Genesis explicitly tells us that Isaac did not die. Yet in spite of this, the idea of Isaac’s atoning death infused the popular imagination in pre- and early- medieval times. Some surmise that this concepth arose in reaction to Christian teaching. Others speculate that it 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 conversion and torture.
In the rabbinic literature, we find traditions about the Akedah that go beyond what the text of the Bible says and attribute atoning value to the incident. These traditions show that even within Judaism, there was a place for the idea that someone’s death could function as an atonement.
Song of Songs Rabbah 1:14:1
MY BELOVED IS UNTO ME AS A CLUSTER OF HENNA. CLUSTER refers to Isaac, who was bound on the altar like A CLUSTER OF HENNA (KOFER): because he atones (mekapper) for the iniquities of Israel.
–Soncino Midrash Rabbah (vol. 9, second part, p. 81).
Leviticus Rabbah 29:9
When the children of Isaac give way to transgressions and evil deeds, do Thou recollect for them the binding of their father Isaac and rise from the Throne of Judgment and betake Thee to the Throne of Mercy, and being filled with compassion for them have mercy upon them and change for them the Attribute of Justice into the Attribute of Mercy!
–Soncino Midrash Rabbah (vol. 4, p. 376).
Shibbole ha-Leket (13th c.)
When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast onto Mount Moriah…
The Jewish Encyclopedia
In the course of time ever greater importance was attributed to the ‘Akedah. The haggadistic literature is full of allusions to it; the claim to forgiveness on its account was inserted in the daily morning prayer…
…even in the Talmud voices are raised in condemnation of its conception as a claim to atonement…These protests were silenced by the persecutions in which Jewish fathers and mothers were so often driven to slaughter their own children in order to save them from baptism. This sacrifice is regarded as a parallel to that of Abraham….The influence of the Christian dogma of atonement by vicarious suffering and death, it has been suggested, induced the Jews to regard the willingness of Isaac also to be sacrificed in the light of a voluntary offering of his life for the atonement of his descendants.
–Rabbi Max Landsberg (1845-1928), “‘Akedah,” Jewish Encyclopedia.
Rabbi 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.
–The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 151 n. 5.
It appears that this notion was widespread in medieval times: 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.
–Louis Jacobs, “Akedah,” Encyclopedia Judaica 2:482.