Research Essay

 

 
The Binding of Isaac: Jewish and Christian Interpretations
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The Binding of Isaac: Jewish and Christian Interpretations
The Binding of Isaac refers to a narrative found in the Old Testament section of the Bible whereby God instructed Abraham to offer Isaac, Abraham’s son, as a burnt sacrifice. Being a firm believer in God, Abraham complied and prepared Isaac for the proposed sacrificial death. Just before Abraham slaughtered Isaac, the angel of God intervened and asked Abraham not to kill Isaac, thereby preventing Isaac’s death. Abraham then saw a ram that was entangled in some nearby bushes. Releasing Isaac, Abraham took this ram and offered it as a burnt sacrifice in the place of Isaac. This narrative is found in Genesis chapter 22. Even though it happened more than 2 millennia ago, The Binding of Isaac has a continuing significance today. This is because it speaks to important spiritual matters in both the Christian and Jewish faiths. For instance, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that believers need to engage in certain actions to show their faithfulness toward God. This aspect is represented by Abraham’s willingness to slaughter Isaac in response to God’s request. Moreover, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that believers have to perform uncomfortable actions so as to meet God’s requirements at certain times. This idea is represented by Abraham’s readiness to kill and burn Isaac’s body in order to satisfy God’s request. In doing so, Abraham would cause suffering to not only himself, but also to Isaac. Abraham would inevitably suffer emotional anguish for having to bring about the death of his only child with Sarah. Similarly, Isaac would experience emotional torment based on the idea that he would suffer a brutal death in the hands of his father. Further, Abraham’s killing of Isaac would hurt Sarah. Owing to its weighty thematic significance, The Binding of Isaac has been interpreted by a range of Jewish and Christian scholars. This essay compares and contrasts Jewish and Christian interpretations of The Binding of Isaac and analyses the significance of these interpretations in today’s world.
Adopting a Jewish standpoint, Ladin observes that The Binding of Isaac is a brutal and horror story. The narrative is brutal because God asked Abraham, His first faithful follower, to kill the son, Isaac. This story is similarly farcical in that God caused Abraham and Isaac, father and son respectively, to go through remarkable simulation. In this charade, God watched in complimentary silence as Abraham prepared Isaac for the proposed sacrificial death. Subsequently, God provided Isaac with a reprieve at the last minute and proclaimed that, owing to Abraham’s willingness to commit filicide, He would give Abraham innumerable descendants who would serve as a blessing to the whole of humankind. Ladin avers that this divine proclamation was bitter because Abraham and Isaac had to go through trauma to cause God to make this pronouncement. Such horror demonstrates that, when He is present, God is either an observer of, or the cause of immense cruelty and anguish. Consequently, God held that there was some advantage to the suffering depicted in The Binding of Isaac. If they do not encounter such horror, Jews cannot draw closer to God. The horrifying experiences of Jews arouse God’s forgiveness. In such moments of suffering, Jews and God confront each other symbolically in an unequal playing field. With no guiding laws, no orienting relationships, and no reassuring covenants, Jews cannot differentiate love from hatred, a curse from a blessing, or life from death at such times. The ensuing uncertainty allows God to serve as a genesis of blessing, causing Jews to stop agonizing.
Similarly taking on a Jewish standpoint, Kalimi explains that, within The Binding of Isaac, God did not intend for Isaac to serve as a burnt offering. In this respect, the Bible passage of Jeremiah 7:31, where God denies contemplating or ordering a child sacrifice, relates to The Binding of Isaac. To buttress this argument, Jews contend that God simply instructed Abraham to take Isaac up mount Moriah. This means that God did not explicitly instruct Abraham to slaughter Isaac. In this argument, Jews cite Genesis Rabbah 56:8. According to this view, Abraham misconstrued God’s instructions. This concept obtains support from the rabbinic belief that the ram that substituted Abraham in the burned offering scenario was created at the conclusion of God’s creative work. Consequently, God prepared this ram during the first Sabbath eve of creation. Henceforth, this ram was on standby to substitute Isaac. According to this theory, God was always aware that Isaac would not suffer a sacrificial death. For this reason, Jews hold that The Binding of Isaac represents the most climactic among God’s tests of Abraham. Here, God allowed Abraham to exercise freedom of choice. Meanwhile, God requested Abraham to make the fitting choice so that all humanity may acknowledge Abraham’s unconditional faith and righteousness. While accepting that The Binding of Isaac is an illustration of Abraham’s faith, Jews hold that this test is extremely cruel. Seeking to rationalize this cruelty, Jews examine the opening phrase of The Binding of Isaac account that generally denotes ‘sometime afterward’. Early Jewish exegesis hold that this phrase defines a sequential succession of this account and is tied to the story narrated previously. Consequently, Jews maintain that the opening phase of this story reads ‘After these words’ (Genesis 22:1). The ‘words’ in question here are those uttered by Satan concerning Abraham. Referring to the celebratory feast that Abraham held concerning Isaac (according to Genesis 21:8), Satan observed that Abraham did not show any special thanks to God. Satan alleged that Abraham was not thankful toward God who had enabled Abraham to sire Isaac at an old age. In response, God stated that, were He to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham would comply without hesitation. In line with this assertion, God requested Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The Jews thus argue that The Binding of Isaac does not illustrate God’s cruelty toward either Abraham or Isaac. Rather, God sought to justify Himself while at the same time blaming both Satan and Abraham.
Reiterating that The Binding of Isaac has positive ramifications, Huizenga embraces a Jewish view and contends that The Binding of Isaac is remarkable because Isaac consented to participate in his own sacrificial death. To illustrate his cooperation, Isaac told Abraham to tie him (Isaac) properly so that Isaac would not present challenges during the impending slaughter. Still on this line of thought, Huizenga explains that within The Binding of Isaac, Satan sought to assess Isaac’s spiritual courage. In other words, Satan wanted to determine whether Isaac would demonstrate weakness and thus hesitate to die or if Isaac would agree to the upcoming sacrifice, thereby annihilating Isaac’s descendants from the world. Consequently, agreeing that Abraham loved Isaac very much, Satan dared God to instruct Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Jubilees 17:16). The Binding of Isaac also contains certain parallels that imply it is connected to a number of occurrences that took place during the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. This argument is especially informed by specific events found in the ancient Jewish religious book of Jubilees. Satan was contending with the angel of God in this instance. Considering that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the twelve day of the first month and that Abraham travelled for three days prior to binding Isaac, the forestalled sacrifice event happened during the Passover ceremony (Jubilees 18: 3, 13). After reaching Beersheba, Abraham observed a joyous seven-day feast (Jubilees 18:18-19). In both the Binding of Isaac and the Passover accounts, Isaac and the Israelites respectively demonstrated obedience to God. Isaac and the Israelites were thus delivered from problems, thus shaming Satan who doubted the faithfulness of these individuals toward God.
Conversely, Boehm assumes a Christian viewpoint and argues that verses 1-10, 13, and 19 constitute the original account of Genesis 22 or The Binding of Isaac narrative. Nevertheless, verses 11-12 and 15-18 constitute the work of some later redactor who sought to conceal the fact that Abraham disobeyed God’s instructions regarding sacrificing Isaac. According to this theory, Abraham travelled to Moriah in the company of Isaac following God’s command. Abraham prepared an altar, bound Isaac, and took out his knife to slay Isaac. At this moment, Abraham saw a ram that was entangled in nearby bushes. Abandoning the process of slaying Isaac, Abraham took this ram and sacrificed it instead of Isaac. Of importance here is the idea that no angel advised Abraham to spare Isaac and to instead offer the ram as a burnt offering. In view of this argument, The Binding of Isaac provides a profound biblical lesson regarding the matter of disobeying a patently unlawful order. This is because, according to the advocated original text, Abraham chose to disregard God’s command upon seeing the ram, unilaterally. In this scenario, Abraham opted to stick to existing moral and divine laws rather than obey God’s command that infringed these laws. In other words, Abraham decided not to betray the trust that Isaac had in him owing to this duo’s father-son relationship. Moreover, Abraham opted to obey God’s commandment against committing murder (Exodus 20:13). Conversely, Abraham violated these moral and divine laws in the modified version of The Binding of Isaac proposed by Boehm. To camouflage such disobedience, a later editor of this text introduces the two speeches of God’s angel. In the first speech, God’s angel cautioned Abraham from slaying Isaac at the last moment. Thanks to the angel’s intervention, Abraham had the opportunity to see a nearby ram that he sacrificed instead of Isaac (Genesis 22: 11-12). Within the second angelic speech, God’s angel promised heavenly blessings to both Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 22: 15-18).
Hayward also adopts a Christian view and explains that The Binding of Isaac is related to the Christian Passion Narratives in the eyes of the Jews. This is because both Jesus and Isaac carried the tools that would be used to execute their persecution. Whereas Isaac carried the wood that would burn him, Jesus carried the cross on which he would be nailed. Moreover, both Christian and Jewish texts hold that Isaac died and resurrected. Further, both Christians and Jews consider Abraham to be a priest. Nevertheless, it is argued that, by borrowing material from the Christian Passion Narratives to elaborate the Binding of Isaac, Jews permit Christian theology to define Jewish theological standards. To counter this claim, Jews have sought to challenge the Christian concept of Christ’s atoning blood, a central Christian principle, by making it appear that Isaac’s blood also had atoning powers. Jews have thus introduced the phrase ‘the blood of Isaac’ into their theological repertoire. This is in response to the idea that, at the Binding of Isaac event, Abraham gave a new name to the location where this event occurred. Abraham pronounced that this place would henceforth be named ‘The Lord will see’. Jews believe that this phrase means that ‘The Lord will see the blood of Isaac’. In other words, God will pardon the Jews on account of the blood of Isaac. This belief counters the Christian belief that only the blood of the Christ has atoning powers. Jews have come up with various anecdotes to illustrate the atoning power of the blood of Isaac. For example, back in Egypt, Jews believe that God spared the Israelites from death upon seeing Isaac’s blood that was smeared on door posts (Exodus 12: 23). Similarly, thanks to Isaac’s blood, God declined to destroy Israel using a plague at the threshing grounds of Ornan the Jebusite (2 Chronicles 3:1).
Jacobs likewise assumes a Christian viewpoint and explains that The Binding of Isaac highlighted Abraham’s doubts about the entire process. After receiving God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham woke up early, saddled his donkey, and took two of his servants, together with Isaac (Genesis 22:13). This verse suggests that Abraham experienced inner misgivings and doubts about God’s command. Owing to these doubts, Abraham saddled his donkey then took his servants. He then took Isaac, almost like an afterthought. Curiously, Abraham did not take Isaac before his servants or the donkey. Abraham took this course of action because he was expecting a second divine command that would cancel the first one. Importantly, after Abraham gathered the courage to take Isaac, he bid time once again by engaging in the activity of chopping wood that would be used in the upcoming sacrifice. It is crucial to note that Abraham could have prepared this wood before mobilizing his servants and Isaac. Moreover, tree branches and twigs could have served the role of this wood. Given this analysis, it is clear that Abraham’s action of chopping wood was largely a ploy to buy time. Similarly, the decision to take the donkey and the two servants illustrated Abraham’s desire to delay the sacrifice process. This is because a large delegation would not only cause the preparation to take much time; it would also cause the team to progress at a slow pace along the way. The events of verses 4 and 5 also underline Abraham’s strategy to delay the proposed sacrifice. This is because, after gaining sight of the intended sacrificial grounds, Abraham stopped the donkey and instructed his servants to remain behind as he accompanied Isaac to the sacrifice event. Verses 7 and 8 also highlight Abraham’s misgivings. In this dialogue, Abraham and Isaac have a dialogue concerning the impending sacrifice. In the first part of this dialogue, the narrator does not mention the speakers by name; it is assumed that the reader will decipher who is speaking based on what is spoken. Strikingly, the narrator mentions Abraham by name at the spot when Abraham explains that God will provide a sheep to be used in the upcoming burnt offering event. This change in the dialogue structure illustrates that Abraham is struggling with an inner conflict ; while seeking to remain faithful to his God, Abraham is pained at the thought of harming his son, Isaac. This internal conflict causes Abraham to hesitate momentarily before stating that God will provide a sacrifice sheep.
To sum up, Jewish and Christian interpretations of The Binding of Isaac feature important similarities and differences. According to Ladin’s Jewish interpretation, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that God considers the suffering of believers to be useful and that God gives His blessings through such suffering. Kalimi’s Jewish interpretation similarly holds that God intended to defend himself and to put Satan to shame in The Binding of Isaac. God also wanted to test Abraham’s faith. Likewise, Huizenga’s Jewish view explains that The Binding of Isaac underlines Isaac’s willingness to die and the ensuing Godly blessings for Isaac. Boehm’s Christian viewpoint nevertheless asserts that, within The Binding of Isaac, Abraham failed to abide by God’s order regarding the killing of Isaac because this order was clearly illegal. Hayward’s similarly Christian interpretation argues that The Binding of Isaac represents Jewish rejection of the Christian concept of the atoning blood of Jesus. Jacobs’ Christian view contends that The Binding of Isaac highlights Abraham’s doubts about the sacrifice process. The examined Jewish interpretations have a continuing significance in the lives of Jews because they seek to encourage believers to show faith in God. Boehm, Hayward, and Jacobs’ Christian interpretations nevertheless take an academic outlook and may not be currently significant in the lives of modern-day Christians. This is because these interpretations are not likely to encourage strong faith in Christians.

Bibliography
BOEHM, OMRI, ‘The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic on The Question of “Disobeying” A Manifestly Illegal Order,’ Vetus Testamentum, 52/1 (2002), 1-12.
HAYWARD, C.T.R, ‘The sacrifice of Isaac and Jewish polemic against Christianity’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 52/2 (1990), 292.
HUIZENGA, LEROY ANDREW, ‘Obedience unto Death: The Matthean Gethsemane and Arrest Sequence and the Aqedah’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71 (2009), 507-26.
JACOBS, Jonathan. ‘Willing Obedience with Doubts: Abraham at the Binding of Isaac’, Vetus Testamentum, 60/4 (2010), 546-59.
KALIMI, ISAAC, ‘“Go, I Beg You, Take Your Beloved Son and Slay Him!” The Binding of Isaac in Rabbinic Literature and Thought,’ The Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 13/1 (2010), 1-29.
LADIN, JAY, ‘Akedah 5760’, Cross Currents, 50/1/2 (2000), 131.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Binding of Isaac: Jewish and Christian Interpretations

Name

Course

Tutor

Date

Institution

 

The Binding of Isaac: Jewish and Christian Interpretations

The Binding of Isaac refers to a narrative found in the Old Testament section of the Bible whereby God instructed Abraham to offer Isaac, Abraham’s son, as a burnt sacrifice. Being a firm believer in God, Abraham complied and prepared Isaac for the proposed sacrificial death. Just before Abraham slaughtered Isaac, the angel of God intervened and asked Abraham not to kill Isaac, thereby preventing Isaac’s death. Abraham then saw a ram that was entangled in some nearby bushes. Releasing Isaac, Abraham took this ram and offered it as a burnt sacrifice in the place of Isaac. This narrative is found in Genesis chapter 22. Even though it happened more than 2 millennia ago, The Binding of Isaac has a continuing significance today. This is because it speaks to important spiritual matters in both the Christian and Jewish faiths. For instance, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that believers need to engage in certain actions to show their faithfulness toward God. This aspect is represented by Abraham’s willingness to slaughter Isaac in response to God’s request. Moreover, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that believers have to perform uncomfortable actions so as to meet God’s requirements at certain times. This idea is represented by Abraham’s readiness to kill and burn Isaac’s body in order to satisfy God’s request. In doing so, Abraham would cause suffering to not only himself, but also to Isaac. Abraham would inevitably suffer emotional anguish for having to bring about the death of his only child with Sarah. Similarly, Isaac would experience emotional torment based on the idea that he would suffer a brutal death in the hands of his father. Further, Abraham’s killing of Isaac would hurt Sarah. Owing to its weighty thematic significance, The Binding of Isaac has been interpreted by a range of Jewish and Christian scholars. This essay compares and contrasts Jewish and Christian interpretations of The Binding of Isaac and analyses the significance of these interpretations in today’s world.

Adopting a Jewish standpoint, Ladin observes that The Binding of Isaac is a brutal and horror story. The narrative is brutal because God asked Abraham, His first faithful follower, to kill the son, Isaac. This story is similarly farcical in that God caused Abraham and Isaac, father and son respectively, to go through remarkable simulation. In this charade, God watched in complimentary silence as Abraham prepared Isaac for the proposed sacrificial death. Subsequently, God provided Isaac with a reprieve at the last minute and proclaimed that, owing to Abraham’s willingness to commit filicide, He would give Abraham innumerable descendants who would serve as a blessing to the whole of humankind. Ladin avers that this divine proclamation was bitter because Abraham and Isaac had to go through trauma to cause God to make this pronouncement. Such horror demonstrates that, when He is present, God is either an observer of, or the cause of immense cruelty and anguish. Consequently, God held that there was some advantage to the suffering depicted in The Binding of Isaac. If they do not encounter such horror, Jews cannot draw closer to God. The horrifying experiences of Jews arouse God’s forgiveness. In such moments of suffering, Jews and God confront each other symbolically in an unequal playing field. With no guiding laws, no orienting relationships, and no reassuring covenants, Jews cannot differentiate love from hatred, a curse from a blessing, or life from death at such times. The ensuing uncertainty allows God to serve as a genesis of blessing, causing Jews to stop agonizing.[1]

Similarly taking on a Jewish standpoint, Kalimi explains that, within The Binding of Isaac, God did not intend for Isaac to serve as a burnt offering. In this respect, the Bible passage of Jeremiah 7:31, where God denies contemplating or ordering a child sacrifice, relates to The Binding of Isaac. To buttress this argument, Jews contend that God simply instructed Abraham to take Isaac up mount Moriah. This means that God did not explicitly instruct Abraham to slaughter Isaac. In this argument, Jews cite Genesis Rabbah 56:8. According to this view, Abraham misconstrued God’s instructions. This concept obtains support from the rabbinic belief that the ram that substituted Abraham in the burned offering scenario was created at the conclusion of God’s creative work. Consequently, God prepared this ram during the first Sabbath eve of creation. Henceforth, this ram was on standby to substitute Isaac. According to this theory, God was always aware that Isaac would not suffer a sacrificial death. For this reason, Jews hold that The Binding of Isaac represents the most climactic among God’s tests of Abraham.[2] Here, God allowed Abraham to exercise freedom of choice. Meanwhile, God requested Abraham to make the fitting choice so that all humanity may acknowledge Abraham’s unconditional faith and righteousness. While accepting that The Binding of Isaac is an illustration of Abraham’s faith, Jews hold that this test is extremely cruel. Seeking to rationalize this cruelty, Jews examine the opening phrase of The Binding of Isaac account that generally denotes ‘sometime afterward’. Early Jewish exegesis hold that this phrase defines a sequential succession of this account and is tied to the story narrated previously.[3] Consequently, Jews maintain that the opening phase of this story reads ‘After these words’ (Genesis 22:1). The ‘words’ in question here are those uttered by Satan concerning Abraham. Referring to the celebratory feast that Abraham held concerning Isaac (according to Genesis 21:8), Satan observed that Abraham did not show any special thanks to God. Satan alleged that Abraham was not thankful toward God who had enabled Abraham to sire Isaac at an old age. In response, God stated that, were He to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham would comply without hesitation. In line with this assertion, God requested Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The Jews thus argue that The Binding of Isaac does not illustrate God’s cruelty toward either Abraham or Isaac. Rather, God sought to justify Himself while at the same time blaming both Satan and Abraham.[4]

Reiterating that The Binding of Isaac has positive ramifications, Huizenga embraces a Jewish view and contends that The Binding of Isaac is remarkable because Isaac consented to participate in his own sacrificial death. To illustrate his cooperation, Isaac told Abraham to tie him (Isaac) properly so that Isaac would not present challenges during the impending slaughter.[5] Still on this line of thought, Huizenga explains that within The Binding of Isaac, Satan sought to assess Isaac’s spiritual courage. In other words, Satan wanted to determine whether Isaac would demonstrate weakness and thus hesitate to die or if Isaac would agree to the upcoming sacrifice, thereby annihilating Isaac’s descendants from the world. Consequently, agreeing that Abraham loved Isaac very much, Satan dared God to instruct Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Jubilees 17:16). The Binding of Isaac also contains certain parallels that imply it is connected to a number of occurrences that took place during the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. This argument is especially informed by specific events found in the ancient Jewish religious book of Jubilees. Satan was contending with the angel of God in this instance. Considering that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the twelve day of the first month and that Abraham travelled for three days prior to binding Isaac, the forestalled sacrifice event happened during the Passover ceremony (Jubilees 18: 3, 13). After reaching Beersheba, Abraham observed a joyous seven-day feast (Jubilees 18:18-19).[6]In both the Binding of Isaac and the Passover accounts, Isaac and the Israelites respectively demonstrated obedience to God. Isaac and the Israelites were thus delivered from problems, thus shaming Satan who doubted the faithfulness of these individuals toward God.[7]

Conversely, Boehm assumes a Christian viewpoint and argues that verses 1-10, 13, and 19 constitute the original account of Genesis 22 or The Binding of Isaac narrative. Nevertheless, verses 11-12 and 15-18 constitute the work of some later redactor who sought to conceal the fact that Abraham disobeyed God’s instructions regarding sacrificing Isaac. According to this theory, Abraham travelled to Moriah in the company of Isaac following God’s command. Abraham prepared an altar, bound Isaac, and took out his knife to slay Isaac. At this moment, Abraham saw a ram that was entangled in nearby bushes. Abandoning the process of slaying Isaac, Abraham took this ram and sacrificed it instead of Isaac. Of importance here is the idea that no angel advised Abraham to spare Isaac and to instead offer the ram as a burnt offering. In view of this argument, The Binding of Isaac provides a profound biblical lesson regarding the matter of disobeying a patently unlawful order.[8] This is because, according to the advocated original text, Abraham chose to disregard God’s command upon seeing the ram, unilaterally. In this scenario, Abraham opted to stick to existing moral and divine laws rather than obey God’s command that infringed these laws. In other words, Abraham decided not to betray the trust that Isaac had in him owing to this duo’s father-son relationship. Moreover, Abraham opted to obey God’s commandment against committing murder (Exodus 20:13). Conversely, Abraham violated these moral and divine laws in the modified version of The Binding of Isaac proposed by Boehm. To camouflage such disobedience, a later editor of this text introduces the two speeches of God’s angel. In the first speech, God’s angel cautioned Abraham from slaying Isaac at the last moment. Thanks to the angel’s intervention, Abraham had the opportunity to see a nearby ram that he sacrificed instead of Isaac (Genesis 22: 11-12). Within the second angelic speech, God’s angel promised heavenly blessings to both Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 22: 15-18).

Hayward also adopts a Christian view and explains that The Binding of Isaac is related to the Christian Passion Narratives in the eyes of the Jews. This is because both Jesus and Isaac carried the tools that would be used to execute their persecution. Whereas Isaac carried the wood that would burn him, Jesus carried the cross on which he would be nailed. Moreover, both Christian and Jewish texts hold that Isaac died and resurrected. Further, both Christians and Jews consider Abraham to be a priest. Nevertheless, it is argued that, by borrowing material from the Christian Passion Narratives to elaborate the Binding of Isaac, Jews permit Christian theology to define Jewish theological standards. To counter this claim, Jews have sought to challenge the Christian concept of Christ’s atoning blood, a central Christian principle, by making it appear that Isaac’s blood also had atoning powers. Jews have thus introduced the phrase ‘the blood of Isaac’ into their theological repertoire. This is in response to the idea that, at the Binding of Isaac event, Abraham gave a new name to the location where this event occurred. Abraham pronounced that this place would henceforth be named ‘The Lord will see’. Jews believe that this phrase means that ‘The Lord will see the blood of Isaac’. In other words, God will pardon the Jews on account of the blood of Isaac. This belief counters the Christian belief that only the blood of the Christ has atoning powers. Jews have come up with various anecdotes to illustrate the atoning power of the blood of Isaac. For example, back in Egypt, Jews believe that God spared the Israelites from death upon seeing Isaac’s blood that was smeared on door posts (Exodus 12: 23). Similarly, thanks to Isaac’s blood, God declined to destroy Israel using a plague at the threshing grounds of Ornan the Jebusite (2 Chronicles 3:1).[9]

Jacobs likewise assumes a Christian viewpoint and explains that The Binding of Isaac highlighted Abraham’s doubts about the entire process. After receiving God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham woke up early, saddled his donkey, and took two of his servants, together with Isaac (Genesis 22:13). This verse suggests that Abraham experienced inner misgivings and doubts about God’s command. Owing to these doubts, Abraham saddled his donkey then took his servants. He then took Isaac, almost like an afterthought. Curiously, Abraham did not take Isaac before his servants or the donkey. Abraham took this course of action because he was expecting a second divine command that would cancel the first one.[10] Importantly, after Abraham gathered the courage to take Isaac, he bid time once again by engaging in the activity of chopping wood that would be used in the upcoming sacrifice. It is crucial to note that Abraham could have prepared this wood before mobilizing his servants and Isaac. Moreover, tree branches and twigs could have served the role of this wood. Given this analysis, it is clear that Abraham’s action of chopping wood was largely a ploy to buy time. Similarly, the decision to take the donkey and the two servants illustrated Abraham’s desire to delay the sacrifice process. This is because a large delegation would not only cause the preparation to take much time; it would also cause the team to progress at a slow pace along the way. The events of verses 4 and 5 also underline Abraham’s strategy to delay the proposed sacrifice.[11] This is because, after gaining sight of the intended sacrificial grounds, Abraham stopped the donkey and instructed his servants to remain behind as he accompanied Isaac to the sacrifice event. Verses 7 and 8 also highlight Abraham’s misgivings. In this dialogue, Abraham and Isaac have a dialogue concerning the impending sacrifice. In the first part of this dialogue, the narrator does not mention the speakers by name; it is assumed that the reader will decipher who is speaking based on what is spoken. Strikingly, the narrator mentions Abraham by name at the spot when Abraham explains that God will provide a sheep to be used in the upcoming burnt offering event. This change in the dialogue structure illustrates that Abraham is struggling with an inner conflict[12]; while seeking to remain faithful to his God, Abraham is pained at the thought of harming his son, Isaac. This internal conflict causes Abraham to hesitate momentarily before stating that God will provide a sacrifice sheep.[13]

To sum up, Jewish and Christian interpretations of The Binding of Isaac feature important similarities and differences. According to Ladin’s Jewish interpretation, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that God considers the suffering of believers to be useful and that God gives His blessings through such suffering. Kalimi’s Jewish interpretation similarly holds that God intended to defend himself and to put Satan to shame in The Binding of Isaac. God also wanted to test Abraham’s faith. Likewise, Huizenga’s Jewish view explains that The Binding of Isaac underlines Isaac’s willingness to die and the ensuing Godly blessings for Isaac. Boehm’s Christian viewpoint nevertheless asserts that, within The Binding of Isaac, Abraham failed to abide by God’s order regarding the killing of Isaac because this order was clearly illegal. Hayward’s similarly Christian interpretation argues that The Binding of Isaac represents Jewish rejection of the Christian concept of the atoning blood of Jesus. Jacobs’ Christian view contends that The Binding of Isaac highlights Abraham’s doubts about the sacrifice process. The examined Jewish interpretations have a continuing significance in the lives of Jews because they seek to encourage believers to show faith in God.  Boehm, Hayward, and Jacobs’ Christian interpretations nevertheless take an academic outlook and may not be currently significant in the lives of modern-day Christians. This is because these interpretations are not likely to encourage strong faith in Christians.

 

Bibliography

BOEHM, OMRI, ‘The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic on The Question of “Disobeying” A Manifestly Illegal Order,’ Vetus Testamentum, 52/1 (2002), 1-12.

HAYWARD, C.T.R, ‘The sacrifice of Isaac and Jewish polemic against Christianity’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 52/2 (1990), 292.

HUIZENGA, LEROY ANDREW, ‘Obedience unto Death: The Matthean Gethsemane and Arrest Sequence and the Aqedah’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71 (2009), 507-26.

JACOBS, Jonathan. ‘Willing Obedience with Doubts: Abraham at the Binding of Isaac’, Vetus Testamentum, 60/4 (2010), 546-59.

KALIMI, ISAAC, ‘“Go, I Beg You, Take Your Beloved Son and Slay Him!” The Binding of Isaac in Rabbinic Literature and Thought,’ The Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 13/1 (2010), 1-29.

LADIN, JAY, ‘Akedah 5760’, Cross Currents, 50/1/2 (2000), 131.

[1]Jay Ladin, ‘Akedah 5760’, Cross Currents, 50/1/2 (2000), 131.

[2] Isaac Kalimi,‘“Go, I Beg You, Take Your Beloved Son And Slay Him!” The Binding of Isaac in Rabbinic Literature and Thought,’ The Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 13/1 (2010), 5.

[3]Ibid., 6.

[4]Ibid, 7.

[5]Leroy Andrew Huizenga, ‘Obedience unto Death: The Matthean Gethsemane and Arrest Sequence and the Aqedah’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71 (2009), 509.

[6]Leroy, 510.

[7]Ibid., 511.

[8]Omri, Boehm, ‘The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic on The Question of “Disobeying” A Manifestly Illegal Order,’ Vetus Testamentum, 52/1 (2002), 3.

 

[9]C.T.R Hayward,  ‘The sacrifice of Isaac and Jewish polemic against Christianity’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 52/2 (1990), 292.

[10]Ibid., 553.

[11]Jonathan Jacobs, ‘Willing Obedience with Doubts: Abraham at the Binding of Isaac’, Vetus Testamentum, 60/4 (2010), 554.

[12]Ibid., 555.

[13]Ibid., 556.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Binding of Isaac: Jewish and Christian Interpretations

Name

Course

Tutor

Date

Institution

 

The Binding of Isaac: Jewish and Christian Interpretations

The Binding of Isaac refers to a narrative found in the Old Testament section of the Bible whereby God instructed Abraham to offer Isaac, Abraham’s son, as a burnt sacrifice. Being a firm believer in God, Abraham complied and prepared Isaac for the proposed sacrificial death. Just before Abraham slaughtered Isaac, the angel of God intervened and asked Abraham not to kill Isaac, thereby preventing Isaac’s death. Abraham then saw a ram that was entangled in some nearby bushes. Releasing Isaac, Abraham took this ram and offered it as a burnt sacrifice in the place of Isaac. This narrative is found in Genesis chapter 22. Even though it happened more than 2 millennia ago, The Binding of Isaac has a continuing significance today. This is because it speaks to important spiritual matters in both the Christian and Jewish faiths. For instance, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that believers need to engage in certain actions to show their faithfulness toward God. This aspect is represented by Abraham’s willingness to slaughter Isaac in response to God’s request. Moreover, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that believers have to perform uncomfortable actions so as to meet God’s requirements at certain times. This idea is represented by Abraham’s readiness to kill and burn Isaac’s body in order to satisfy God’s request. In doing so, Abraham would cause suffering to not only himself, but also to Isaac. Abraham would inevitably suffer emotional anguish for having to bring about the death of his only child with Sarah. Similarly, Isaac would experience emotional torment based on the idea that he would suffer a brutal death in the hands of his father. Further, Abraham’s killing of Isaac would hurt Sarah. Owing to its weighty thematic significance, The Binding of Isaac has been interpreted by a range of Jewish and Christian scholars. This essay compares and contrasts Jewish and Christian interpretations of The Binding of Isaac and analyses the significance of these interpretations in today’s world.

Adopting a Jewish standpoint, Ladin observes that The Binding of Isaac is a brutal and horror story. The narrative is brutal because God asked Abraham, His first faithful follower, to kill the son, Isaac. This story is similarly farcical in that God caused Abraham and Isaac, father and son respectively, to go through remarkable simulation. In this charade, God watched in complimentary silence as Abraham prepared Isaac for the proposed sacrificial death. Subsequently, God provided Isaac with a reprieve at the last minute and proclaimed that, owing to Abraham’s willingness to commit filicide, He would give Abraham innumerable descendants who would serve as a blessing to the whole of humankind. Ladin avers that this divine proclamation was bitter because Abraham and Isaac had to go through trauma to cause God to make this pronouncement. Such horror demonstrates that, when He is present, God is either an observer of, or the cause of immense cruelty and anguish. Consequently, God held that there was some advantage to the suffering depicted in The Binding of Isaac. If they do not encounter such horror, Jews cannot draw closer to God. The horrifying experiences of Jews arouse God’s forgiveness. In such moments of suffering, Jews and God confront each other symbolically in an unequal playing field. With no guiding laws, no orienting relationships, and no reassuring covenants, Jews cannot differentiate love from hatred, a curse from a blessing, or life from death at such times. The ensuing uncertainty allows God to serve as a genesis of blessing, causing Jews to stop agonizing.[1]

Similarly taking on a Jewish standpoint, Kalimi explains that, within The Binding of Isaac, God did not intend for Isaac to serve as a burnt offering. In this respect, the Bible passage of Jeremiah 7:31, where God denies contemplating or ordering a child sacrifice, relates to The Binding of Isaac. To buttress this argument, Jews contend that God simply instructed Abraham to take Isaac up mount Moriah. This means that God did not explicitly instruct Abraham to slaughter Isaac. In this argument, Jews cite Genesis Rabbah 56:8. According to this view, Abraham misconstrued God’s instructions. This concept obtains support from the rabbinic belief that the ram that substituted Abraham in the burned offering scenario was created at the conclusion of God’s creative work. Consequently, God prepared this ram during the first Sabbath eve of creation. Henceforth, this ram was on standby to substitute Isaac. According to this theory, God was always aware that Isaac would not suffer a sacrificial death. For this reason, Jews hold that The Binding of Isaac represents the most climactic among God’s tests of Abraham.[2] Here, God allowed Abraham to exercise freedom of choice. Meanwhile, God requested Abraham to make the fitting choice so that all humanity may acknowledge Abraham’s unconditional faith and righteousness. While accepting that The Binding of Isaac is an illustration of Abraham’s faith, Jews hold that this test is extremely cruel. Seeking to rationalize this cruelty, Jews examine the opening phrase of The Binding of Isaac account that generally denotes ‘sometime afterward’. Early Jewish exegesis hold that this phrase defines a sequential succession of this account and is tied to the story narrated previously.[3] Consequently, Jews maintain that the opening phase of this story reads ‘After these words’ (Genesis 22:1). The ‘words’ in question here are those uttered by Satan concerning Abraham. Referring to the celebratory feast that Abraham held concerning Isaac (according to Genesis 21:8), Satan observed that Abraham did not show any special thanks to God. Satan alleged that Abraham was not thankful toward God who had enabled Abraham to sire Isaac at an old age. In response, God stated that, were He to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham would comply without hesitation. In line with this assertion, God requested Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The Jews thus argue that The Binding of Isaac does not illustrate God’s cruelty toward either Abraham or Isaac. Rather, God sought to justify Himself while at the same time blaming both Satan and Abraham.[4]

Reiterating that The Binding of Isaac has positive ramifications, Huizenga embraces a Jewish view and contends that The Binding of Isaac is remarkable because Isaac consented to participate in his own sacrificial death. To illustrate his cooperation, Isaac told Abraham to tie him (Isaac) properly so that Isaac would not present challenges during the impending slaughter.[5] Still on this line of thought, Huizenga explains that within The Binding of Isaac, Satan sought to assess Isaac’s spiritual courage. In other words, Satan wanted to determine whether Isaac would demonstrate weakness and thus hesitate to die or if Isaac would agree to the upcoming sacrifice, thereby annihilating Isaac’s descendants from the world. Consequently, agreeing that Abraham loved Isaac very much, Satan dared God to instruct Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Jubilees 17:16). The Binding of Isaac also contains certain parallels that imply it is connected to a number of occurrences that took place during the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. This argument is especially informed by specific events found in the ancient Jewish religious book of Jubilees. Satan was contending with the angel of God in this instance. Considering that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the twelve day of the first month and that Abraham travelled for three days prior to binding Isaac, the forestalled sacrifice event happened during the Passover ceremony (Jubilees 18: 3, 13). After reaching Beersheba, Abraham observed a joyous seven-day feast (Jubilees 18:18-19).[6]In both the Binding of Isaac and the Passover accounts, Isaac and the Israelites respectively demonstrated obedience to God. Isaac and the Israelites were thus delivered from problems, thus shaming Satan who doubted the faithfulness of these individuals toward God.[7]

Conversely, Boehm assumes a Christian viewpoint and argues that verses 1-10, 13, and 19 constitute the original account of Genesis 22 or The Binding of Isaac narrative. Nevertheless, verses 11-12 and 15-18 constitute the work of some later redactor who sought to conceal the fact that Abraham disobeyed God’s instructions regarding sacrificing Isaac. According to this theory, Abraham travelled to Moriah in the company of Isaac following God’s command. Abraham prepared an altar, bound Isaac, and took out his knife to slay Isaac. At this moment, Abraham saw a ram that was entangled in nearby bushes. Abandoning the process of slaying Isaac, Abraham took this ram and sacrificed it instead of Isaac. Of importance here is the idea that no angel advised Abraham to spare Isaac and to instead offer the ram as a burnt offering. In view of this argument, The Binding of Isaac provides a profound biblical lesson regarding the matter of disobeying a patently unlawful order.[8] This is because, according to the advocated original text, Abraham chose to disregard God’s command upon seeing the ram, unilaterally. In this scenario, Abraham opted to stick to existing moral and divine laws rather than obey God’s command that infringed these laws. In other words, Abraham decided not to betray the trust that Isaac had in him owing to this duo’s father-son relationship. Moreover, Abraham opted to obey God’s commandment against committing murder (Exodus 20:13). Conversely, Abraham violated these moral and divine laws in the modified version of The Binding of Isaac proposed by Boehm. To camouflage such disobedience, a later editor of this text introduces the two speeches of God’s angel. In the first speech, God’s angel cautioned Abraham from slaying Isaac at the last moment. Thanks to the angel’s intervention, Abraham had the opportunity to see a nearby ram that he sacrificed instead of Isaac (Genesis 22: 11-12). Within the second angelic speech, God’s angel promised heavenly blessings to both Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 22: 15-18).

Hayward also adopts a Christian view and explains that The Binding of Isaac is related to the Christian Passion Narratives in the eyes of the Jews. This is because both Jesus and Isaac carried the tools that would be used to execute their persecution. Whereas Isaac carried the wood that would burn him, Jesus carried the cross on which he would be nailed. Moreover, both Christian and Jewish texts hold that Isaac died and resurrected. Further, both Christians and Jews consider Abraham to be a priest. Nevertheless, it is argued that, by borrowing material from the Christian Passion Narratives to elaborate the Binding of Isaac, Jews permit Christian theology to define Jewish theological standards. To counter this claim, Jews have sought to challenge the Christian concept of Christ’s atoning blood, a central Christian principle, by making it appear that Isaac’s blood also had atoning powers. Jews have thus introduced the phrase ‘the blood of Isaac’ into their theological repertoire. This is in response to the idea that, at the Binding of Isaac event, Abraham gave a new name to the location where this event occurred. Abraham pronounced that this place would henceforth be named ‘The Lord will see’. Jews believe that this phrase means that ‘The Lord will see the blood of Isaac’. In other words, God will pardon the Jews on account of the blood of Isaac. This belief counters the Christian belief that only the blood of the Christ has atoning powers. Jews have come up with various anecdotes to illustrate the atoning power of the blood of Isaac. For example, back in Egypt, Jews believe that God spared the Israelites from death upon seeing Isaac’s blood that was smeared on door posts (Exodus 12: 23). Similarly, thanks to Isaac’s blood, God declined to destroy Israel using a plague at the threshing grounds of Ornan the Jebusite (2 Chronicles 3:1).[9]

Jacobs likewise assumes a Christian viewpoint and explains that The Binding of Isaac highlighted Abraham’s doubts about the entire process. After receiving God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham woke up early, saddled his donkey, and took two of his servants, together with Isaac (Genesis 22:13). This verse suggests that Abraham experienced inner misgivings and doubts about God’s command. Owing to these doubts, Abraham saddled his donkey then took his servants. He then took Isaac, almost like an afterthought. Curiously, Abraham did not take Isaac before his servants or the donkey. Abraham took this course of action because he was expecting a second divine command that would cancel the first one.[10] Importantly, after Abraham gathered the courage to take Isaac, he bid time once again by engaging in the activity of chopping wood that would be used in the upcoming sacrifice. It is crucial to note that Abraham could have prepared this wood before mobilizing his servants and Isaac. Moreover, tree branches and twigs could have served the role of this wood. Given this analysis, it is clear that Abraham’s action of chopping wood was largely a ploy to buy time. Similarly, the decision to take the donkey and the two servants illustrated Abraham’s desire to delay the sacrifice process. This is because a large delegation would not only cause the preparation to take much time; it would also cause the team to progress at a slow pace along the way. The events of verses 4 and 5 also underline Abraham’s strategy to delay the proposed sacrifice.[11] This is because, after gaining sight of the intended sacrificial grounds, Abraham stopped the donkey and instructed his servants to remain behind as he accompanied Isaac to the sacrifice event. Verses 7 and 8 also highlight Abraham’s misgivings. In this dialogue, Abraham and Isaac have a dialogue concerning the impending sacrifice. In the first part of this dialogue, the narrator does not mention the speakers by name; it is assumed that the reader will decipher who is speaking based on what is spoken. Strikingly, the narrator mentions Abraham by name at the spot when Abraham explains that God will provide a sheep to be used in the upcoming burnt offering event. This change in the dialogue structure illustrates that Abraham is struggling with an inner conflict[12]; while seeking to remain faithful to his God, Abraham is pained at the thought of harming his son, Isaac. This internal conflict causes Abraham to hesitate momentarily before stating that God will provide a sacrifice sheep.[13]

To sum up, Jewish and Christian interpretations of The Binding of Isaac feature important similarities and differences. According to Ladin’s Jewish interpretation, The Binding of Isaac illustrates that God considers the suffering of believers to be useful and that God gives His blessings through such suffering. Kalimi’s Jewish interpretation similarly holds that God intended to defend himself and to put Satan to shame in The Binding of Isaac. God also wanted to test Abraham’s faith. Likewise, Huizenga’s Jewish view explains that The Binding of Isaac underlines Isaac’s willingness to die and the ensuing Godly blessings for Isaac. Boehm’s Christian viewpoint nevertheless asserts that, within The Binding of Isaac, Abraham failed to abide by God’s order regarding the killing of Isaac because this order was clearly illegal. Hayward’s similarly Christian interpretation argues that The Binding of Isaac represents Jewish rejection of the Christian concept of the atoning blood of Jesus. Jacobs’ Christian view contends that The Binding of Isaac highlights Abraham’s doubts about the sacrifice process. The examined Jewish interpretations have a continuing significance in the lives of Jews because they seek to encourage believers to show faith in God.  Boehm, Hayward, and Jacobs’ Christian interpretations nevertheless take an academic outlook and may not be currently significant in the lives of modern-day Christians. This is because these interpretations are not likely to encourage strong faith in Christians.

 

Bibliography

BOEHM, OMRI, ‘The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic on The Question of “Disobeying” A Manifestly Illegal Order,’ Vetus Testamentum, 52/1 (2002), 1-12.

HAYWARD, C.T.R, ‘The sacrifice of Isaac and Jewish polemic against Christianity’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 52/2 (1990), 292.

HUIZENGA, LEROY ANDREW, ‘Obedience unto Death: The Matthean Gethsemane and Arrest Sequence and the Aqedah’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71 (2009), 507-26.

JACOBS, Jonathan. ‘Willing Obedience with Doubts: Abraham at the Binding of Isaac’, Vetus Testamentum, 60/4 (2010), 546-59.

KALIMI, ISAAC, ‘“Go, I Beg You, Take Your Beloved Son and Slay Him!” The Binding of Isaac in Rabbinic Literature and Thought,’ The Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 13/1 (2010), 1-29.

LADIN, JAY, ‘Akedah 5760’, Cross Currents, 50/1/2 (2000), 131.

[1]Jay Ladin, ‘Akedah 5760’, Cross Currents, 50/1/2 (2000), 131.

[2] Isaac Kalimi,‘“Go, I Beg You, Take Your Beloved Son And Slay Him!” The Binding of Isaac in Rabbinic Literature and Thought,’ The Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 13/1 (2010), 5.

[3]Ibid., 6.

[4]Ibid, 7.

[5]Leroy Andrew Huizenga, ‘Obedience unto Death: The Matthean Gethsemane and Arrest Sequence and the Aqedah’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71 (2009), 509.

[6]Leroy, 510.

[7]Ibid., 511.

[8]Omri, Boehm, ‘The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic on The Question of “Disobeying” A Manifestly Illegal Order,’ Vetus Testamentum, 52/1 (2002), 3.

 

[9]C.T.R Hayward,  ‘The sacrifice of Isaac and Jewish polemic against Christianity’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 52/2 (1990), 292.

[10]Ibid., 553.

[11]Jonathan Jacobs, ‘Willing Obedience with Doubts: Abraham at the Binding of Isaac’, Vetus Testamentum, 60/4 (2010), 554.

[12]Ibid., 555.

[13]Ibid., 556.

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