JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 22.

Introduction

The Aqeda or Isaac’s almost-sacrifice that is evidenced in Genesis 22 has been a source of broad commentary and analysis as well as controversies throughout the centuries[1]. Jewish and non-Jewish scholars have invested their efforts to this text in an attempt to interpret the scripture. Isaac’s almost-sacrifice in Genesis 22 follows the narrative of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. According to the bible, God’s command was “…your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”[2] To offer the sacrifice, Abraham took his only son Isaac and he took two servants with him to Mount Moriah. Abraham and his son Isaac go up the mountain while Isaac carried the wood that would be used to burn sacrifice. When Isaac questioned where the lamb to be offered as burnt offering his father Abraham indicated to him that God would provide it. When they got to the top, Abraham prepared an altar where he could offer the offering and bound Isaac to it. He prepared to sacrifice the son and as he raised the knife, the Lord’s angel called him with instructions not to proceed with the human sacrifice but rather sacrifice the provided ram caught in a thicket near them[3]. Abraham obeys the instructions and after the ram sacrifice descends the mountain with his son to get back to his servants.

This narrative has been a subject of debate from various theological scholars. Hence, it generates interest with the need to comprehend the different perspectives. According to the Jewish interpretation, Genesis 22 reflects God’s relationship with Abraham while Christian interpreters believe that the narrative was foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Jesus and his saving from the dead as a symbol of atonement. Therefore, it is important to delve deep into these interpretations to get a more clear understanding of Jewish and Christian perspective of the Akedah.

Jewish Interpretation of Genesis 22

The story about god’s instructions to Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac is referred to as the Akedah in Jewish tradition. The Akedah is featured significantly in Jewish liturgy. For example, it’s read as the Pentateuchal in synagogues and is recited every single day by pietists[4]. Consequently, this narrative turned into the archetype for Jewish martyrdom thus exercising a strong fascination over the thinking of Jewish schools generally over time. Some of the questions that have risen from this text from a Jewish perspective is how and why would the Lord order Abraham to kill his son? This question is intensified especially by the fact that other passages in the Torah condemn child sacrifice as an abomination before the Lord[5].

No other reference has been made to Abraham’s scenario in other areas in the Bible. Additionally, the literature never featured significantly in post-biblical Jewish literal works until in the 3rd century CE. Biblical scholars both Jewish and Non-Jewish read the passage with a protesting attitude towards the human moral ethics regarding human sacrifice[6]. The highpoint used to emphasize these protests is that the angel came to rescue of Isaac thus preventing murder, which is perceived as an obscene action hated by God and which He could really have never deliberated. In the traditional Jewish interpretation, the binding of Isaac or Akedah is interpreted to be a model for Jewish martyrdom. Jews at all time are ready to give up their lives with the aim of the sanctification of Kiddush Ha-Shem or the divine name[7].

The second interpretation of the Akedah is that it is a chief evidence text for mercy.  According to Genesis 22, on the day of judgment of Rosh Hashanah, which occurs at the commencement of the New Year, the Lord promises to show mercy to the people of Israel if Abraham’s is willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Consequently, the Jews offer a prayer of mercy to the Lord with reference to Isaac’s binding referring to Mount Moriah and the altar where Isaac was to be sacrificed. “Remember unto us… and the oath which Thou swore unto Abraham…and consider the binding with which Abraham bound his son Isaac…[8] The city mentioned in this prayer refers to ancient tradition where Mount Moriah as the site of the binding the temple in Jerusalem became built. The “happy ending” of the narrative is thus perceived as a “test.” This argument regarding the test is evident in Taanit 4a which is a talmudic passage stating that God’s intentions were never for Abraham to sacrifice his son just like He loathed the Baal worshippers who conducted human sacrifices. For example, in response to Jeremiah’s aggressive castigation of the Baal people for offering their children as burnt sacrifice to their gods, God indicates that “I commanded not…it neither came into My Mind[9] (Jeremiah 19:5). God’s reference to “I commanded not” indicates the human sacrifice of Mesha’s son in 2 Kings 3;27 and the “it neither came into My Mind” is a reference to Isaac’s almost-offering at Mount Moriah.

After Abraham was told to spare Isaac’s life by the angel, he appears to be puzzled by the conflicting events because previously, God had promised him that through Isaac, a whole nation would be born and then he was told to offer the son as a sacrifice, which then is stopped midway by the angel. In Psalms 79:35, God indicates that He would never profane His covenant nor would he change that which He has said[10]. In response to Abraham’s question of why he did not have to sacrifice his son as he had been instructed previously, God indicates that He would not profane His covenant to Abraham about Isaac being the bearer of Abraham’s descendants. He indicates that when He told Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah, God was not altering what He had previously promised Abraham. He also indicates that He did not tell Abraham to slay his Isaac but just to take him up Mount Moriah and prepare him for a sacrifice. From this view, it is thus evident that the Jewish people interpret the Akedah as a test of Abraham’s faith in God[11].

Therefore, despite the “happy ending’ of the narrative of Isaac’s almost-sacrifice as interpreted by the Jewish people, its conventional interpretation is evidenced to have a close relationship with the theory of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard interprets the Akedah to be an illustration of the extent to which the “knight of faith” can go as indicated in his teleological deferment of the moral. God’s test of Abraham can be said to be a knight of faith.

Christian Interpretation

According to Walsh (2012), the Christian interpretation of the binding of Isaac is perceived to have a connection with the crucifixion of Jesus. The Christian interpretation focused more on the sacrifice as opposed to the Jewish focus on Man’s relationship with God[12]. Therefore, the Christian’s interpretation of Genesis 22 is primarily more of the spiritual meaning of the narrative and the divine command to offer a human sacrifice. In comparing both the God of Christ and Abraham, Christian interpreters indicate that they are both willing sacrifice their sons where Abraham’s mortal son is offered but not put to death and God’s immortal son is offered and put to death[13]. From a Christian perspective, Abraham and God’s act of offering their sons is perceived as magnificent generosity.

In Abraham’s story or near sacrifice of Isaac, Christians acknowledge of the horrors that almost occurred. However, in the story of Christ in New Testament, the horrors that occur from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are then remodeled to reflect the present of grace in atonement[14]. Therefore, while there is reprieve in the story of Isaac, there is none in the story of Jesus sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus is seen to effect eternal forgiveness for human kind and thus the horror of the sacrifice is perceived to have been worth the soteriological benefit it brought. The live son is saved from death through the use of a Ram as a substitute while the other dies and is saved as well as saving using substitutionary atonement[15].

To help understand the spiritual connection between the story of Isaac and that of Jesus, Christian interpreters focused on the Old Testament thus shifting from the Torah. They focused on the last area of the Old Testament just before the New with the aim of linking Isaac’s story to that of Christ[16]. Thus, the Christian interpretation of the binding of Isaac is that it is a positive as well as illuminating connection to the story of Christ and God’s mission. As a result, Christians perceive Abraham as a model of Faith. Therefore, to understand the meaning of Isaac’s almost sacrifice, Christian interpreters focus on drawing links between different texts within the Bible. In the New Testament, there are two interpretations regarding the story of Abraham. The interpretations are evident in Hebrews 11:17-19. In Hebrews, Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice is recalled of his firm demonstration of faith in the Lord. Thus, the author of Hebrews indicates, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen[17] (Hebrews 11:1) and in the willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham is seen to testify this kind of faith.

The conflicting idea of the promise of many descendants and the command to sacrifice Isaac is perceived as an illusion by the author of Hebrews. Consequently, Abraham’s capacity to listen to an unseen and unknown voices acts as the unseen evidence of the resurrection[18]. Thus, according to Christian interpretation of the story, Abraham must have been theologically ahead of his time where his faith is revealed through Christ’s resurrection. As a result, Abraham’s faith in the resurrection allows him to succeed in the test. However, after the scenario at Mount Moriah, things do not go back to normality for Abraham and Isaac. Christian interpreters indicate that the father and son are brand new. Isaac’s death threat is not ignored or suppressed in Hebrews 11[19]. Instead, it is surpassed with the truth of resurrection and Isaac bears the “symbol that death is not the end.” Due to Abraham’s obedience, both the father and the son come to the realization that death is just a sport for God and thus, they descend the mountain existentially freer[20]. Additionally, another Christian interpretation of Genesis 22 is that Isaac’s saving foreshadows the resurrection of Christ.

Similarities between the Interpretations

Jewish and Christian interpretations of Genesis 22 have had exegetical encounters over the years and hence some similarities[21]. One of the similarity is that both Jewish and Christian interpretations use same quotations from the scripture to interpret the narrative. This is characterized by the use of a common literary form such as the use of same words, images, and symbols particularly where the interpretations have a common extra-biblical account. Moreover, both Christian and Jewish conclusions regarding the narrative share a common conclusion regarding Abraham’s encounter[22]. The common conclusion is that the whole narrative was God’s test of faith to Abraham. The other similarity is the use of extremely familiar yet controversial theme for both Christians and Jews. This is the offering of human sacrifice as a divine command from God. Lastly, both Jewish and Christian interpretations of the narrative utilize the same source which is Genesis 22:6-8 to justify Isaac’s binding or Akedah.

Differences between the Interpretations

Despite the similarities identified above in Jewish and Christian interpretation of Genesis 22, they also have their differences. One of the difference is that the Jewish interpretation of the story focus mainly on the association between God and Abraham while Christian interpretation focuses on the relationship between Isaac’s almost sacrifice and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ[23]. The second difference is that while Jewish interpretations have put a lot of emphasis on the narrative’s elements such as the conversation between Abraham and Isaac, the knowingness of the son, and the location where the sacrifice was to be conducted, Christian interpretations pay scant attention to these elements. Lastly, the other difference is that Christian interpretations are derived from their focus on New Testament while those of Jewish interpretations are derived from the Old Testament mostly the Torah[24].

Personal Reflections and Conclusions

From the above analysis, some questions emerge for the three main characters involved. The first question is to God, “Why would God subject Abraham to such a horrific joke?” The second question is directed to Abraham, “Did Abraham lack the internal ethics guiding human kind that he would be so willing to consent to a command as horrific as that of killing his son as a sacrifice?” The third question is directed to Isaac, “What did he take of his Father’s obedience to offer him as sacrifice to unseen and unknown voice in the name of saving the seed? Was he willing or just a victim of circumstances?”

From the above analysis of both Jewish and Christian interpretations of Genesis 22, it can be concluded that both schools of thought believe that to some extent, the narrative was God’s test to Abraham and his faith. Thus, it can be argued that the divine command by God was a reflection of God’s relationship with man. Moreover, the interpretation can also be said to be a foreshadow of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament and the realization that death does not serve as the end. Therefore, although there are differences in the way Christians and Jews interpret the narrative, both interpretations make sense from a theological perspective. However, more questions arise regarding God and human’s moral compass and the horrific act of human sacrifice.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Fischer, Zoltan. “Sacrificing Isaac: A New Interpretation.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2007): 173.

Kessler, Edwards. “Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-14) in the First 6 Centuries CE.” Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. Accessed February 6, 2017. https://jnjr.div.ed.ac.uk/primary-sources/biblical/jewish-and-christian-interpretations-of-the-akedah-genesis-221-14-in-the-first-6-centuries-ce/.

Kuruvilla, Abraham. “The AQEDAH (Genesis 22): What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55 (2012): 489–508.

Louis, Jacobs. “The Binding of Isaac.” My Jewish Learning, 2011. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-binding-of-isaac/#.

Luther, Martin. Sermons on Gospel Texts for the 1st to the 12th Sundays afterTrinity. Vol. 4. arlottesville, VA: ChInteLex Corporation, 1995. http://pastmasters2000.- nlx.com.ezp1.villanova.edu/xtf/view?dcId=luther/luther.00.xml;chunk.i d=div.luther.pmpreface.1;toc.depth=1;toc.id=div.luther.pmpreface.1;b rand=default&fragment_id=.

New International Version. The Holy Bible, n.d.

Walsh, C. E. “Christian Theological Interpretations of God’s Grace in the Binding of Isaac.” Perichoresis 10, no. 1 (2012): 41–66.

 

 

 

 

[1] Fischer, “Sacrificing Isaac: A New Interpretation.” (Jewish Bible Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2007): 173.)

[2] New International Version, The Holy Bible. (New International Version, Genesis 22:2).

[3] Ibid. Genesis 22

[4] Kuruvilla, “The AQEDAH (Genesis 22): What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55 (2012): 489–508.)

 

[5] Fischer, “Sacrificing Isaac: A New Interpretation.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2007): 173.

 

[6] Ibid. 173

[7] Louis, “The Binding of Isaac.” (My Jewish Learning, 2011. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-binding-of-isaac/#.)

 

[8] Ibid. n.p

[9] New International Version, The Holy Bible. (Jeremiah 19:5)

[10] Kuruvilla, “The AQEDAH (Genesis 22): What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55 (2012): 489–508.)

 

[11] Ibid. 489

[12] Walsh, “Christian Theological Interpretations of God’s Grace in the Binding of Isaac.” (Perichoresis 10, no. 1 (2012): 41–66.)

[13] Ibid. 42

[14] Kuruvilla, “The AQEDAH (Genesis 22): What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?”( Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55 (2012): 489–508.)

[15] Ibid. 492

[16] Walsh, “Christian Theological Interpretations of God’s Grace in the Binding of Isaac.” (Perichoresis 10, no. 1 (2012): 41–66)

[17] New International Version, The Holy Bible. (Hebrews 11:10)

[18] Walsh, “Christian Theological Interpretations of God’s Grace in the Binding of Isaac.” (Perichoresis 10, no. 1 (2012): 41–66)

[19] Ibid. 45

[20] Luther, Sermons on Gospel Texts for the 1st to the 12th Sundays afterTrinity. (Charlottesville, VA: ChInteLex Corporation, 1995)

[21] Kessler, “Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-14) in the First 6 Centuries CE.”

[22] Ibid. N.p

[23] Walsh, “Christian Theological Interpretations of God’s Grace in the Binding of Isaac.”

[24] Ibid.42

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