The Sacrifice of Isaac
The Sacrifice of Isaac
Types and Shadows
While it is the unique and different that most engages the modern fancy, the
Egyptian, as we have seen, was intrigued by the repeated and characteristic
events of life. The most important of these events were ritualized, just as
we ritualize the inauguration of a president or the Rose Bowl game, repeating
the same plot year after year with different actors. Hence, if Abraham and
Sarah went through the same routine with King Abimelech as with Pharaoh, it
is not because either or both stories are fabrications, as scholars have so
readily assumed, but because both kings were observing an accepted pattern
of behavior in dealing with eminent strangers. Likewise, if Abraham was put
on an altar bed like dozens of others, it was because such treatment of important
guests had become standard procedure for combating the drought prevailing
in the world at that time.
Repeating patterns of history suggest ritual as a means of dramatizing and
controlling events, but they exist in their own right—they are not invented
by men. In the exodus of the Saints from Nauvoo, thousands of people suddenly
found themselves moving west in the dead of winter amid scenes of some confusion.
But within three days the entire host was organized into twelve main groups—one
under each of the apostles—and companies of fifty and one hundred. Instantly
and quite unintentionally the order of Israel in the wilderness and the Sons
of Light in the Judean desert was faithfully duplicated. A student of history
3,000 years from now might well reject the whole account as mythical, since
it so obviously reduplicated an established pattern.
To one who is aware of the interplay of pattern and accident in history, the
stories of the sacrifice of Isaac and of Sarah are perfect companion pieces
to the drama of Abraham on the altar (fig. 44). Take first the case of Isaac,
who is just another Abraham: a well-known tradition has it that he was in
the exact image of his father,1 so exact, in fact, that
until Abraham’s hair turned white, there was absolutely no way of distinguishing
between the two men in spite of their age difference.2 “Abraham and Isaac are bound to
each other with extraordinary intimacy,” writes a recent commentator;
“the traditions regarding the one are not to be distinguished from those
concerning the other,” e.g., both men leave home to wander, both go to
Egypt, both are promised endless posterity and certain lands as an inheritance.3
What has been overlooked is the truly remarkable resemblance between Isaac
on the altar and Abraham on the altar.
First, in both stories there is much made of the preparatory gathering of
wood for a “holocaust” that never takes place. Abraham is commanded,
“Take now thy son . . . and offer him . . . for a
burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2, emphasis added). “Behold,
I offer thee now as a holocaust,” he cries in the Pseudo-Philo.4 Accordingly,
he “bound Isaac his son, and laid him upon the altar on the wood,”5 sometimes described as a veritable
tower, just like the structure that “Nimrod” had built for Abraham.6
And while the Midrash has Isaac carrying the wood of the sacrifice “as
one carries a cross on his shoulder,”7
so Abraham before him “took the wood for the burnt offering and carried
it, just as a man carries his cross on his shoulder.”8 According to one tradition, the sacrifice was actually completed
and Isaac turned to ashes.9 On the other hand, when
the princes announced their intention of putting Abraham in a fiery furnace,
he is said to have submitted willingly: “If there is any sin of mine
so that I be burned, the will of God be done.”10 Indeed, the Hasidic version has it
that “Abraham our father offered up his life for the sanctification of
the Name of God and threw himself into the fiery furnace.”11 The famous play on
the words “Ur of the Chaldees” and “Fire [ʾūr] of the Chaldees” was probably suggested by these traditions—not
the other way around—since Isaac escapes from the flames in the same
way that Abraham does; i.e., the original motif requires a fire, not a city
For all the emphasis on sacrificial fire, it is the knife that is the instrument
of execution in the attempted offerings of Abraham and Isaac: “And Abraham
stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son” (Genesis
22:10). It was always the custom to slaughter (zābaḥ) the victim
and then burn the remains to ashes; the blood must be shed and the offering
never struggles in the flames. Many stories tell how the knife was miraculously
turned aside as it touched the neck of the victim, whether Abraham or Isaac:
suddenly the throat is protected by a collar of copper, as it turns to marble,
or the knife becomes soft lead.12 But in the usual account it is dashed from the hand of the officiant
by an angel who is visible to the victim on the altar but not to the priest.13 If the wood under Abraham and Isaac
was never ignited, neither did the knife ever cut.
Being bound on the altar, Abraham, as the Book of Abraham and the legends
report, prayed fervently for deliverance. Exactly such a prayer was offered
as Isaac lay on the altar, but though in this case it was Isaac who was in
mortal peril, it was again Abraham who uttered the prayer for deliverance:
“May He who answered Abraham
on Mt. Moriah, answer you, and may He listen to the voice of your cry this
day!”14 And just as the angels appealed to
God when they saw Abraham on the altar, so later when they saw Isaac in the
same situation they cried out in alarm: “What will happen to the covenant
with Abraham—’My covenant will I establish . . . with Isaac’—for
the slaughtering knife is set upon his throat. The tears of the angels fell
upon the knife, so that it could not cut Isaac’s throat.”15 It
is still Abraham for whom
the angels are concerned, even though it is the life of Isaac that is in intimate
danger. Everything seems to hark back to the original sacrifice—that
of Abraham. Thus, at the moment that Isaac was freed from the altar, God renewed
his promises to Abraham,16 the
very promises that had been given at the moment of Abraham’s own deliverance
(Abraham 1:16, 19); while he in turn prayed to God that “when the children
of Isaac commit trespasses and because of them fall upon evil times, be mindful
of the offering of their father Isaac, and forgive their sins, and deliver
them from their suffering.”17 Thus Abraham’s prayer for deliverance
is handed down to all his progeny.
In both sacrifice stories an angel comes to the rescue in immediate response
to the prayer, while at the same time the voice of God is heard from heaven.
This goes back to Genesis 22:11—12, 15—18, where “the angel
of the Lord” conveys to Abraham the words of God speaking in the first
person: “And the angel of the Lord . . . said, By myself have
I sworn, saith the Lord.” As the rabbis explained it, “God makes
a sign to the Metatron, who in turn calls out to Abraham” or “the
Almighty hastened to send his voice from above, saying: Do not slay thy son.”18 That this complication is ancient
and not invented by the doctors, whom it puzzled, is indicated in the lion-couch
situation in which, as we have seen, the appearance of the heavenly messenger
is accompanied by the voice of the Lord of all, which is heard descending
from above. It is Abraham who establishes the standard situation: how many
times in his career did he find himself in mortal danger only to pray and
be delivered by an angel? An angel came to rescue the infant in the cave when
his mother had given him up for dead; the same angel came to rescue the child
Abraham from the soldiers, saying, “Do not fear, for the Mighty One will
deliver thee from the hand of thine enemies!”19 The
same angel delivered him first from starvation in prison and then from death
in the flames. So it is not surprising that the angel who comes to rescue
Isaac puts a stop to the proceedings by calling out “Abraham, Abraham”
(Genesis 22:11—12), while Isaac remains passive throughout.20
One of the strangest turns of the Abraham story was surely Abraham’s refusal
to be helped by the angel, with its striking Egyptian parallel.21 Surprisingly enough, the same motif
occurs in the sacrifice of Isaac. For according to the Midrash, God ordered
Michael, “Delay not, hasten to Abraham and tell him not to do the deed!”
And Michael obeyed: “Abraham! Abraham! What art thou doing?” To
this the patriarch replied, “Who tells me to stop?” “A messenger
sent from the Lord!” says Michael. But Abraham answers, “The Almighty
Himself commanded me to offer my son to Him—only He can countermand
the order: I will not hearken to any messenger!” So God must personally
intervene to save Isaac.22 Such a very peculiar
twist to the story—the refusal of angelic assistance in the moment of
supreme danger—is introduced by way of explaining that it is God and
not the angel who delivers; so in the Book of Abraham: “and the angel
of his presence stood by me, and immediately unloosed my bands; And his voice
was unto me: Abraham, Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah, and I have heard
thee, and have come down to deliver thee” (Abraham 1:15—16). Everything
indicates that this is the old authentic version.
In both sacrifices the role of Satan is the same, as he does his best at every
step to frustrate the whole business. As the man in black silk pleaded with
Abraham on the altar to be sensible, yield to the king, and so save his own
life, even so he addresses him at the second sacrifice: “Are you crazy—killing
your own son!” To which Abraham replied, “For that purpose he was
born.” Satan then addressed Isaac: “Are you going to allow this?”
And the young man answered, “I know what is going on, and I submit to
Satan had done everything in his power to block their progress on the road
to the mountain,24 and
then as a venerable and kindly old man he had walked along with them, piously
and reasonably pointing out that a just God would not demand the sacrifice of a son.25 It was even Satan, according to some,
who dashed the knife from Abraham’s hand in the last moment.26 In
both stories it is Satan who suggests the sacrifice in the first place,27 and then does everything in his power
to keep it from being carried out. Why is that? The explanation is given both
times: Mastema suggests the supreme sacrifice in order to discredit Abraham
with the angels, for he is sure that the prophet will back out in the end.
As soon as it becomes perfectly clear, therefore, that Abraham is not
backing out, Satan becomes alarmed, and to keep from losing his bet he wants
to call the whole thing off.
In an important study, Roy Rosenberg has pointed out that the sacrifice of
Isaac has its background in the Canaanitish rite of the substitute king, which
rite was “celebrated in both Persia and Babylonia in connection with
the acronical rising of Sirius . . . [as] Saturn, the god who demanded
human sacrifices.”28 We
have already noted that the worship of Sirius played a conspicuous part, according
to the Book of Abraham 1:9, in the rites involving the sacrifice of Abraham.
In connection with the offering of Isaac, Rosenberg lays great emphasis on
a passage from the book of
Enoch: “the Righteous
One shall arise from sleep and walk in the paths of righteousness,” the
figure on the altar being the Righteous One.29 At once we think of the weary one or the sleeping one who arises
from the lion couch. What confirms the association is the report that as Isaac
was about to be sacrificed, the Arelim
began to roar in heaven. For the Arelim are the divine lions, whose role in
Egyptian sacrificial rites we have already explained. Thus, even the lion
motif is not missing from our two sacrifice stories.
The close resemblance between the sacrifices of Abraham and Isaac, far from
impugning the authenticity of either story, may well be viewed as a confirmation
of both. Joshua Finkel points out that there are many close parallels to the
story of the sacrifice of Isaac in ancient literature and that “their
atmosphere is ritualistic,”30 that
is, they belong to a category of events that follow a set pattern and yet
really do happen. “In
the mountain of the Temple of the Lord, Abraham offered Isaac his son,”
according to a Targum, “and in this mountain—of the Temple—the
glory of the Shekhinah of the Lord was revealed to him.”31 What happened there was the type and shadow of the temple ordinances
to come, which were in turn the type and shadow of a greater sacrifice. The
one sacrifice prefigures the other, being, in the words of St. Ambrose, “less
perfect, but still of the same order.”32 Isaac
is a type: “Any man,” says the Midrash, “who acknowledges that
there exist two worlds . . . is like Isaac,” and further explains, “Not
Isaac but In Isaac—that
is, a portion, of the seed of Isaac, not all of it.”33 In exactly the same sense Abraham too is a type: “and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed . . . shall all the families
of the earth be blessed” (Abraham 2:11). Far from being disturbed by
resemblances, we should find them most reassuring. Is it surprising that the
sacrifice of Isaac looked both forward and back, as “Isaac thought of
himself as the type of offerings to come, while Abraham thought of himself
as atoning for the guilt of Adam,” or that “as Isaac was being bound
on the altar, the spirit of Adam, the first man, was being bound with him”?34 It was natural for Christians to view
the sacrifice of Isaac as a type of the crucifixion, yet it is the Jewish
sources that comment most impressively on the sacrifice of the Son. When at
the creation of the world angels asked, “What is man that You should
remember him?” God replied: “You shall see a father slay his son,
and the son consenting to be slain, to sanctify My Name.”35
But if Isaac is a type of the Messiah as “the Suffering Servant,”
Abraham is no less so. Even while he labors to minimize any spiritual resemblance
between Christ and Abraham, J. Alberto Soggin reluctantly confesses that
the historical and literary parallels between the two are most conspicuous.36 An important point of resemblance
between the two sacrifices is the complete freedom of will with which the
victim submits. “I know what is going on,” says Isaac on the altar,
“and I submit to it!” In time the main significance of the Akedah,
the binding, was on the free-will offering of the victim for the atonement
of Israel; we are even told that Isaac at the age of thirty-seven actually
“asked to be bound on the Day of Atonement and Abraham functioned as
the High Priest at the altar.”37 In the same way, a great deal is made
of Abraham’s willingness: “I was with thee,” says God in the Midrash,
“when thou didst willingly offer for My name’s sake to enter the fiery
furnace.”38 When Abraham refused to escape, though,
Prince Joktan opened the way for him; the prince told him, “Your blood
will be upon your own head,” to which the hero cheerfully agreed.39 The
Hasidic teaching was that “Abraham our father offered up his life . . .
and threw himself into the fiery furnace.”40 There need be no sense of competition
between the merits of father and son here—others too have made the supreme
sacrifice—but the significance of Abraham’s test on the altar, as Raphael
Loewe points out, is that Abraham in Nimrod’s furnace is the first of those who willingly gave “up his life for
the sake of the sanctification of the divine Name.”41 This assigns a very important place
in the history of the atonement to the drama depicted in the Book of Abraham
and strongly attests its authenticity.
The Resurrection Motif
In the Egyptian versions of the lion-couch drama, the resurrection motif was
paramount. The sacrifices of Isaac and Abraham, apart from typifying the atonement,
were also foreshadowings of the resurrection. There are persistent traditions
in each case that the victim actually was put to death, only to be resurrected
on the spot. We have seen in the Abraham stories how, when no knife could
cut his throat, he was catapulted into the fire, which thereupon was instantly
transformed into a blooming bower of delicious flowers and fruits amid which
Abraham sat enjoying himself in angelic company.42 This at once calls to mind the image
found in numerous (and very early) Oriental seals and murals of the revived
or resurrected king sitting beneath an arbor amid the delights of the feast
at the New Year (fig. 45).43 St. Jerome cites a Jewish belief that
Abraham’s rescue from the altar was the equivalent of a rebirth or resurrection.44 It is Abraham who leads out in the resurrection: “After these
things,” says the Testament of Judah, “shall Abraham and Isaac and Jacob arise unto life, and I (Judah)
and my brethren shall be chiefs of the tribes of Israel.”45
The stories of the resurrection of Isaac are quite explicit. As Rabbi Eliezer
puts it, “When the blade touched his neck the soul of Isaac fled and
departed, but when he heard his voice saying ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
. . .’ his soul returned to his body, 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.”46 Another
tradition is that “the tears of the angels fell upon the knife, so that
it could not cut Isaac’s throat, but from terror his soul escaped from him”—he
died on the altar.47 Another has it that as the knife touched his throat “his
life’s spirit departed—his body became like ashes,” i.e., he actually
became a burnt offering;48 or, as Geza Vermes
puts it, “though he did not die, scripture credits Isaac with having
died and his ashes having lain upon the altar.”49 But he only dies in order to prefigure
the resurrection, for immediately God sent the dew of life “and Isaac
received his spirit again, while the angels joined in a chorus of praise:
Praised be the Eternal, thou who hast given life to the dead!”50 In
another account God orders Michael to rush to the rescue: “‘Why standest
thou here? Let him not be slaughtered!’ Without delay, Michael, anguish in
his voice, cried out: ‘Abraham! Abraham! Lay not thine hand upon the lad. . . .’
At once Abraham left off from Isaac, who returned to life, revived by the
heavenly voice.”51 Isaac is a symbol of revival and renewal—”is any thing
too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). At his birth, we are told, both
Abraham and Sarah retained their youth.52 And
“just as God gave a child to Abraham and Sarah when they had lost all
hope, so he can restore Jerusalem.”53 When Robert Graves surmises that “Abraham according to the
custom would renew his youth by the sacrifice of his first-born son,”
he is referring to a custom which Abraham fervidly denounced, but which was
nonetheless observed in his own family, according to the Book of Abraham,
which reports that his own father “had determined against me, to take
away my life” (Abraham 1:30). The famous Strasbourg Bestiary includes
a vivid scene of the sacrifice of Isaac preceded by the drama of the sacrificial
death and resurrection of the fabulous Phoenix bird, the Egyptian and early
Christian symbol of the resurrection (fig. 46).
Why the insistence on the death and resurrection of Israel? Because a perfect
sacrifice must be a complete
sacrifice, and the rabbinical tradition, especially when it was directed against
the claims of the Christians, insisted that the sacrifice of Isaac was the
perfect sacrifice, thus obviating the need for the atoning death of Christ.
“Though the idea of the death and resurrection of Isaac was generally
rejected by rabbinic Judaism,” writes Rosenberg, still the proposition
was accepted “that Isaac was ‘the perfect sacrifice,’ the atonement offering
that brings forgiveness of sins through the ages.”54 Accordingly, the blood of the Paschal
lamb is considered to be the blood of Isaac,55 and
according to some Jewish sectaries the real purpose of the Passover is to
celebrate the offering of Isaac rather than the deliverance from Egypt.56 It wasn’t only the sectaries, however:
“Rabbinic writings show clearly that sacrifices, and perhaps the offering
of all sacrifice, were intended as a memorial of Isaac’s self-oblation.”57
The Uncompleted Sacrifice
But the stories of Isaac’s “resurrection” are scattered, conflicting,
and poorly attested, however persistent, and this leads to serious difficulty:
“The main problem was, of course,” writes Vermes, “the obvious
fact that Isaac did not actually die on the altar.”58 The whole biblical account, in fact,
focuses on the dramatic arrest of the action at its climax—”Lay not thine hand upon the lad” (Genesis 22:12, emphasis
added). It has been claimed, in fact, that the story of Isaac’s sacrifice
really records the abolition of human sacrifice, when Abraham decides it will
not be necessary.59 But
the validity of the sacrifice, according to the rabbis, lay in Isaac’s complete
willingness to be offered.
Abraham may have known that Isaac was in no real danger when he said, with
perfect confidence, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt
offering” (Genesis 22:8), and when, without equivocation, he told the
two young men who escorted them to the mountain: “I and the lad will
go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (Genesis 22:5); Isaac did
not know it—it was he who was being tested. But Abraham had already
been tested in the same way; if “Isaac . . . offered himself
at the Binding,” so before his day the youthful “Abraham . . .
threw himself into the fiery furnace. . . . If we follow in
their footsteps, . . . they will stand and intercede for us on the holy and
awesome day.”60 Isaac was being tested
even as other saints are tested, since the testing of the righteous here below
is essential to the plan of the universe. The Midrash, in fact, strongly
emphasized the parallelism between the sacrifice of Isaac and the willing
martyrdom of other heroes
and heroines, including many who suffered terribly painful deaths.61 Isaac, in short, belongs to the honorable
category of those who were willing to be “Partakers of Christ’s sufferings,”
as all the saints and martyrs have been (for example, 1 Peter 4:13).
The second problem raised by the claim that Isaac’s sacrifice was the ultimate
atonement is that the shedding of blood did not cease with it: “If Isaac’s self-offering on
Mount Moriah atoned for the sins of Israel,” asks Vermes, “why should
animal victims be offered daily for the same purpose in the sanctuary on Mount
Zion?”62 Circumcision no less
than the Akedah “remains a never-ceasing atonement for Israel,”
being performed by Abraham himself and on “the Date of Atonement, and
upon the spot on which the altar was later to be erected in the Temple,”63 but for all that, no
one claims that all the law is fulfilled in it. “Students of Christian
origins have come increasingly to realize,” writes Rosenberg, a Jew,
“that the sacrifice of Isaac was to be reenacted by the ‘new Isaac,’
who, like the old, was a ‘son of God.'”64 The early Christian teaching was that, as he was about to sacrifice
his son on the mountain, Abraham “saw Christ’s day and yearned for it.
There he saw the Redemption of Adam and rejoiced, and it was revealed to him,
that the Messiah would suffer in the place of Adam.”65 But the old Isaac, called in the Targum “the Lamb of Abraham,”66 neither suffered sacrificial death
nor put an end to the shedding of blood. His act was an earnest of things
to come, and that puts it on the same level as the sacrifice of Abraham.
This explains, we believe, the absence of the story of Abraham on the altar
from the pages of the Old Testament. Vermes points out that whereas in the
biblical version of the sacrifice of Abraham “the principal actors .
. . are Abraham and God,” other versions, even in very early times, “somewhat
surprisingly shift the emphasis and focus their interest on the person of
Isaac.”67 Whatever the reason
for this shift, it was a very emphatic one: “the Binding of Isaac was
thought to have played a unique role in the whole economy of the salvation
of Israel, and to have a permanent redemptive effect on behalf of its people.”68 It completely supplanted
the earlier episode of the sacrifice of Abraham on the ancient principle that
the later repetition of an event causes the earlier occurrence to be forgotten.69 The
principle is nowhere better illustrated than in the story of Abraham himself:
the names Abram and Sarai are unknown to most Christians, because of the explicit
command, “Do not call
Sarah Sarai” anymore; “do not call Abraham Abram”—those were once their
names but no more!70 When
Israel finally returns to God and goes to Abraham for instruction, we are
told that instead of teaching them himself, he will refer them to Isaac, who
will in turn pass them on to Jacob and so on down to Moses—it is from
the latest prophet of the
latest dispensation that the people receive instruction.71 On this principle the only words of the Father in the New Testament
are those which introduce his Son and turn all the offices of the dispensation
over to him (Matthew 3:17; 17:5).
It was necessary to overshadow and even supplant the story of Abraham’s sacrifice
by that of Isaac if Isaac were to have any stature at all with posterity.
Scholars long declared both Isaac and Jacob, imitating Abraham in everything,
to be mere shadow figures, mythical creatures without any real personalities
of their own. Jacob, to be sure, has some interesting if not altogether creditable
experiences, but what is left for Isaac? The three stand before us as a trio:
“Abraham instituted the morning prayer, . . . Isaac instituted the noon
prayer, . . . [and] Jacob . . . the evening prayer,” i.e., they all share
in establishing a single body of rites and ordinances.72 One does not steal the glory of the
other. Great emphasis is laid by the rabbis on the necessary equality of merit
and glory between Abraham and Isaac, while each emphasizes some special aspect
of the divine economy. Abraham was the Great One, Jacob the Little One, and
Isaac who came in between was “the servant of the Lord who was delivered
from bonds by his Master.”73 The special emphasis on Isaac is as
the sacrificial victim. If his sacrifice was “an imperfect type,”
it was still more perfect than the earlier sacrifice of Abraham on a pagan
altar, and in every way it qualified to supersede it. Though it was an equal
test for both men, “purged and idealized by the trial
motivation,”74 the second sacrifice
was the true type of the atonement. In the long and detailed history of Abraham
the story of the sacrifice in Canaan could safely be omitted in deference
to the nobler repetition, which, while it added no less to the glory of Abraham,
preserves a sense of proportion among the patriarchs.
Abraham gets as much credit out of the sacrifice of Isaac as he does from
his own adventure on the altar—he had already risked his own life countless
times; how much dearer to him in his old age was the life of his only son
and heir! And since the two sacrifices typify the same thing, nothing is lost
to Abraham and much is gained for Isaac by omitting the earlier episode from
the Bible. But that episode left an indelible mark in the record. The learned
Egyptologist who in 1912 charged Joseph Smith with reading the sacrifice of
Isaac into Facsimile 1 and the story of Abraham was apparently quite unaware
that ancient Jewish writers of whom Joseph Smith knew nothing told the same
story that he did about Abraham on the altar. The important thing for the
student of the Book of Abraham is that the sacrifice of Abraham was remembered—and
vividly recalled in nonbiblical sources—as a historical event. This
makes it almost certain that it was a real event, for nothing to the supreme glory of
Abraham would do definite damage to Isaac’s one claim to fame. If the binding
on the altar—the Akedah—was to be the “unique glory of Isaac,”
it was entirely in order to quietly drop the earlier episode of Abraham that
anticipates and overshadows it, just as it is right and proper to forget that
the hero was once called Abram.
Back to the Lion Couch
Studies of the sacrifice of Isaac emphasize as its most important aspect the
principle of substitution, which is also basic in the sacrifice of Abraham.
As Finkel expressed it, “evidently the primary aim of the story (of Isaac)
was to give divine sanction to the law of substitution.”75 Isaac was not only saved by a substitute,
but he himself was substituting for another. A ram by the name of Isaac went
at the head of Abraham’s herd. Gabriel took him and brought him to Abraham,
and he sacrificed him instead of his son. As he did so, Abraham said, “Since
I brought my son to you as a sacrificial animal be in thine eye as if it were
my son lying on the altar.” Accordingly, “whatsoever Abraham did
by the altar, he exclaimed, and said, ‘This is instead of my son, and may
it be considered before the Lord in place of my son.’ And God accepted the
sacrifice of the ram, and it was accounted as though it had been Isaac.”76 Himself
noble, Isaac was saved by the substitution of a “noble victim.”77
But more important, Isaac himself was a substitute. “In Jewish tradition,”
writes Rosenberg, “Isaac is the prototype of the ‘Suffering Servant,’
bound upon the altar as a sacrifice.”78 Rosenberg has shown that the title
of Suffering Servant was used in the ancient East to designate “the substitute
king“—the noble victim. Accordingly, the “new
Isaac” mentioned in Maccabees must be “a ‘substitute king’ who dies that
the people might live.”79 The
starting point in Rosenberg’s investigation is Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, which
“seems to constitute a portion of a ritual drama centering about a similar
humiliation, culminating in death, of a ‘substitute’ for the figure of the
king of the Jews.” If we examine these passages, we find that they fit
the story of Abraham’s sacrifice even better than that of Isaac.
Thus, beginning with Isaiah 52:13, we see the Suffering Servant raised up
on high, reminding us of the scene from the Midrash: they “felled cedars,
erected a large dais for him, and set him on top, while uttering praises before
him [in mockery], saying: ‘Hear us, my Lord!’ [and the like]. They said to
him, ‘Thou art king over us; thou art a god to us!’ But he replied, ‘The world
does not lack its king, and the world does not lack its God!'”80 Here Abraham both rejects the office
and denounces the rites. The Midrash also indicates that the rites of Isaac
were matched by heathen practices, his Akedah resembling the binding of the
princes of the heathen, since every nation possesses at its own level “a
‘prince’ [as its] guardian angel and patron.”81
In the next verse (Isaiah 52:14), the picture of the Suffering Servant with
“visage . . . marred” recalls Abraham led out to sacrifice
after his long suffering in prison while the princes and the wise men mock.
Verse 15, telling of the kings who shut their mouths in amazement, recalls
the 365 kings who were astounded to behold Abraham’s delivery from the altar.
In Isaiah 53:1 the arm of the Lord is revealed, as it is unbeknownst to the
others in the delivery of Abraham (cf. Abraham 1:17). Isaiah 53:2 emphasizes
the drought motif, which, as we have seen, is never missing from the rites
of the substitute king. In verses 3 to 7 the Suffering Servant is beaten that
we may be healed—a substitute for all of us.
In verse 8 he is “taken from prison and from judgment” to be “cut
off out of the land of the living,” exactly as Abraham was according
to the traditions. Verse 9 reminds us of Abraham in wicked Canaan, and verse
10—”it pleased the Lord to bruise him . . .”—recalls
the description of Abraham as a son being mercilessly beaten by a loving father
but never complaining. Finally the reward: Because his soul was placed as
an offering, he shall see his progeny, his days shall be lengthened, and he
shall prosper greatly (see verses 10—12)—all “because he
hath poured out his soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:12). Such was the reward
of Abraham, with the assurance also that by the knowledge gained he would
be able to sanctify others (see verse 11). In the end the Suffering Servant
becomes the great intercessor: “he bare the sin of many, and made intercession
for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12), just as Abraham does, as the great
advocate for sinners living and dead. Thus Isaiah 52:13—53:12, while
vividly recalling the suffering of Isaac, is an even better description of
Abraham on the altar.
The sacrifice of the substitute king is found all over the ancient world.
According to Rosenberg, the rite was “celebrated in both Persia and Babylonia
in connection with the acronical rising of Sirius,” sometimes identified
in this connection with Saturn, “the god who demanded human sacrifice.”82 The Book of Abraham has already apprised
us of the importance of Sirius (Shagreel) in the sacrificial rites of the
Plain of Olishem, and it even labors the point that human sacrifice was the
normal order of things in Canaan in Abraham’s day. We have taken the position
from the first that Abraham was put on the altar as a substitute for the king,
an idea first suggested by the intense rivalry between the two, as indicated
both in the legends and in the Book of Abraham. Since the series in the Improvement
Era began, Rosenberg’s study of the sacrifice of Isaac
has appeared, with the final conclusion that in the earliest accounts of that
event “both the Jewish and Christian traditions stem ultimately from
the ancient Canaanite cult of Jerusalem, in which periodically the king, or
a substitute for the king, had to be offered as a sacrifice.”83 It was to just such a cult—in
Canaan—that we traced the sacrifice of Abraham, and that is why we have
been at such pains to point out the close and thorough-going resemblances
between the two: they are essentially the same rite and have the same background.
If the one reflects “the ancient Canaanite cult” in which a substitute
for the king had to be offered, so does the other. Rosenberg says the sacrifice
of Isaac most certainly goes back to that cult, and the Book of Abraham tells
us flatly that the sacrifice of Abraham does. Certainly the Abraham story
in its pagan setting is much nearer to the original substitute-king rite in
all its details than is the Isaac story, which is a sizable step removed from
it. The substitute sacrifice is a red thread that runs through the early career
of the prophet: The life of the infant Abraham was saved when his brother
Haran substituted a slave child to be killed in his place;84 then
Haran himself dies for Abraham in the flames;85 and then Abraham was saved from the
lion couch when the priest was smitten in his stead (Abraham 1:17, 29); finally
his life was saved by his wife Sarah, who was willing to face death to rescue
him again from the lion couch. This last much-misunderstood episode deserves
Bernhard Beer, Leben Abraham’s nach Auffassung
der jüdischen Sage (Leipzig:
Leiner, 1859), 47; Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
1909—38), 1:262; for Rashi’s explanation, see Gerald Abrahams, The
Jewish Mind (London: Constable,
1961), 51 n. 1.
Micha J. bin Gorion, Die Sagen der Juden, 5 vols. (Frankfurt: Rütten & Loening, 1913—27),
Horst Seebass, Der Erzvater Israel und die Einführung
der Jahweverehrung in Kanaan (Berlin: Töpelmann, 1966), 105.
Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 199—200, for
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 66, 182 n. 717.
Israël Levi, “Le sacrifice d’Isaac et la mort
de Jésus,” REJ 64 (1912):
Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:300.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 67.
Pseudo-Philo 6:11; cf. Isaac’s speeches in Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 65.
Nahum N. Glatzer, Faith and Knowledge: The Jew
in the Medieval World (Boston:
Beacon, 1963), 178.
Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:303.
Cf. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 67—sometimes Abraham lets the knife fall,
and sometimes it is not the angel but Satan who dashes it from his hand; cf.
bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 195 (emphasis added).
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:281.
Pseudo-Philo 32:2—4; complete Latin text in Vermes, Scripture and Tradition
in Judaism, 199—200 (emphasis
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:284.
Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Adolph Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 6 vols. (1853—77; reprint, Jerusalem: Wahrmann,
Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:287.
Discussed in Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at
the Pearl of Great Price,” IE
72 (August 1969): 76. In all the apocryphal accounts of Abraham on the altar
he refuses the assistance proffered by the angel, saying that God alone will
deliver him. Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 1:34, and Midrash de Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 5:41; Kaʿb al-Ahbar, text in Bernard Chapira, “Légendes
bibliques attribuées à Kaʿb el Ahbar,” REJ 70 (1920): 37.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 68.
Levi, “Le sacrifice d’Isaac et la mort de Jésus,”
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:276—77.
Sefer ha-Yashar 23:25—28.
Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:287.
Levi, “Le sacrifice d’Isaac et la mort de Jésus,”
Roy A. Rosenberg, “Jesus, Isaac, and the ‘Suffering
Servant,'” Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 382.
Ibid. 385, quoting the book of Enoch 92:3, which Rosenberg calls “the most important
text yet discovered of the Jewish apocalyptic literature.”
Joshua Finkel, “Old Israelitish Traditions in
the Koran,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research (1931): 15.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 195.
Jean Daniélou, “La typologie d’Isaac dans le
christianisme primitive,” Biblica 28 (1947): 392.
Midrash on Psalms 105:1, in William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms,
2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 2:180.
Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:307—8.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 201; cf. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 68.
J. Alberto Soggin, “Geschichte, Historie und
Heilsgeschichte im Alten Testament,” Theologische Literaturzeitung 89 (1964): 732—33.
Gerald Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer (New York: Hermon, 1965), 227.
Genesis Rabbah 39:8, in Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, trans. Harry Freedman, 10 vols. (London: Soncino
1939), 1:316; Midrash on Psalms
119:3, in Braude, Midrash on Psalms,
Pseudo-Philo 6:11; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:81.
Glatzer, Faith and Knowledge, 178.
Raphael Loewe, “Apologetic Motifs in the Targum
to the Song of Songs,” in Biblical Motifs, ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1966), 166, with Tanḥuma text supplied in his note 35.
So in the Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 1:34. According to the Sefer ha-Yashar 8, “Abram walked in the midst of the fire for
three days and three nights,” cited in Vermes, Scripture and Tradition
in Judaism, 73. Kaʿb
al-Ahbar, Qiṣṣat Ibrahim Abinu, text in Chapira, “Légendes
bibliques attribuées à Kaʿb el Ahbar,” 42; cf. Midrash de Abraham Abinu,
in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch,
5:40—41. According to Thaʿlabī, Kitāb Qiṣaṣ
Muṣ afā al-Bābi al-Ã®alibī wa-Awlāduhu,
1340 a.h.), 55, it was the “Angel of the
Shadow” who sat with Abraham in the fire, i.e., he was sacrificed.
Anton Moortgat, Tammuz (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1949), 63, 114, 139—42.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 113 n. 136.
Testament of Judah 25:1.
Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer, 228.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:281.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 67.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 205.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 69.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:281—82.
Ibid., 1:206, 287.
Sofia Cavalletti, “Abrahamo come messia e ‘ricapitolatore’
del suo popolo,” Studie Materiali 35 (1964): 263.
Rosenberg, “Jesus, Isaac, and the ‘Suffering
Ibid., 386, citing Jubilees 18:18.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 209.
So Zacharie Mayani, Les Hyksos et le monde de
la Bible (Paris: Payot, 1956),
Glatzer, Faith and Knowledge, 178.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 202—3.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:240.
Rosenberg, “Jesus, Isaac, and the ‘Suffering
Nibley’s translation of Cave of Treasures 29:13—14, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge (London:
Religious Tract Society, 1927), 149—50 (Fol. 25b col. a).
Rosenberg, “Jesus, Isaac, and the ‘Suffering
Servant,'” 388, citing the fragmentary Targum to Leviticus 22:27.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 193.
Oscar Holtzmann, Der Tosephtatraktat Berakhot, supplement to Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche
Wissenschaft 23 (Töpelmann:
Gieṣen, 1912): 12—13.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 206 n. 974.
Midrash on Psalms 55:2, in Braude, Midrash on Psalms, 1:493.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 203, citing Targum of Job 3:18.
Finkel, “Old Israelitish Traditions in the Koran,”
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Finkel, “Old Israelitish Traditions in the Koran,” 12.
Rosenberg, “Jesus, Isaac, and the ‘Suffering
Ibid., 383, 385.
Genesis Rabbah 42:5, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah:
Genesis Rabbah 56:5, in ibid., 1:495 n. 1.
Rosenberg, “Jesus, Isaac, and the ‘Suffering
84. Beer, Leben Abraham’s,
15. That Haran died as a substitute for Abraham is clearly indicated in Midrash
de Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 5:40; Vermes, Scripture
and Tradition in Judaism, 73; Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:216;
bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:96—97; Beer, Leben Abraham’s,
15—17; Genesis Rabbah 38:13, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah, 1:310—11.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 16—17.