Today I’m going to take off on a little adventure with one of the more famous stories in the Hebrew Bible. You know it, you love it, you’ve heard it many times before, but in the back of your skull you’re liable to say WTF was that all about? When you think about the story it is really, really, really strange. So what’s the story? Well, let me start out by asking this question. If God told you to take your first-born son and kill him as an offering to himself, what should you do? What should I, as a member of society, think of you and your deity if you follow through with such an act? But, but, but times wuz diff’rent back then. Yes they were, and that IS the point. The story is often called the Binding of Isaac.
Try this on for size: Is it remotely possible that the story is actually two versions of a story, an older original and then a later update, so to speak. Perhaps Isaac was actually sacrificed in the original story when cultures revered human sacrifice, but the story was updated when the culture no longer accepted these practices. Now where would I get such a crazy idea? Right from the text of Genesis 22, where the story can be found. The original story is considered to be E-source material.
Since this is my place, I’ll feel free to slice and dice the passages as I see fit, in an attempt to explain this line of thought. It’s all right there in your mom’s Red Letter Edition, Illustrated Family Bible, with concordance, waiting for anyone who would like to read the story for themselves. I’m going to be quoting from the internet resource, NetBible as an easy reference for all. So here’s how the story goes:
In Genesis 21, old-man Abraham and old-woman Sarah give birth to their son Isaac; this is their only child together. The last reference to Isaac is when Abe had a big keg-party on the day that Isaac was weaned. (21:8)
Genesis 22 begins with our story. God decided to give Abraham a little test. Great tests always precede great acts, so it seems. “God tested Abraham”. (v.1) The word translated as “God” is “Elohim”. This same word will be used over and over, up to a very specific point in this story, to be discussed later. Here is the test. Please note two things; first the name-usage of the deity, and second, that the deity gives this command to Abraham directly. (no messenger, no vision)
“God (Elohim) said, “Take your son – your only son, whom you love, Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah! Offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will indicate to you.”” (v. 1-2)
One of the things that Abraham is best remembered for was his negotiating skill; in chapter 13 with Lot, in chapter 14 with his allies, in chapter 20 with royalty, oh, and I almost forgot, in chapter 18 with YHWH himself (name-usage). But for some strange reason, in this particular case, Abraham is curiously silent, never once questioning this demand. Instead his response is described with action words, with verbs.
Early in the morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants with him, along with his son Isaac. When he had cut the wood for the burnt offering, he started out for the place God (Elohim) had spoken to him about. (v. 3)
So far so good. Abraham is obedient, even when asked by El or Elohim to take his son and kill him. So they traveled for three days until Abraham saw “the place”. He told his servants to wait and he loaded up Isaac with wood, took a knife and a torch and “the two of them walked on together.” (v. 6) This is starting to sound like an episode of CSI-Jerusalem.
Naturally, Isaac begins to wonder exactly what it was that they were going to offer as a sacrifice, so that’s what he asked his dad. “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Need a moment? Grab a Twix. ““God (Elohim) will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham replied. The two of them continued on together.” (v. 7) Little did Isaac know that he was to be the lamb.
“When they came to the place God (Elohim) had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand, took the knife, and prepared to slaughter his son.” (vv. 9-10)
The picture being painted is the image of the glistening blade in Abraham’s raised hand, about to strike a bloody death-blow against his own son.
It is at this very emotional and pivotal point in the story where we get a glitch in the Matrix, and you know what that means, huh?
Knock knock, Neo. The first thing to notice is the change in name-usage of the deity and the second is that it is not actually the deity who shows up this time, but a messenger of the deity. “the Lord” is supposedly a “translation” from YHWH.
“But the Lord’s (YHWH’s) angel called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am!” he answered. “Do not harm the boy!” the angel said. “Do not do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God (Elohim) because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.”” (v. 11-12)
Whew, that was close. Why did the angel say that Abe didn’t withhold his son from the angel “me” when it was Elohim who had made the initial command?
“Abraham looked up and saw behind him a ram caught in the bushes by its horns. So he went over and got the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son And Abraham called the name of that place “The Lord (YHWH) provides.” It is said to this day, “In the mountain of the Lord (YHWH) provision will be made.”
The Lord’s (YHWH’s) angel called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “‘I solemnly swear by my own name,’ decrees the Lord (YHWH), ‘that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the strongholds of their enemies. Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants.’” (vv. 13-18)
Abraham passed the test ! But take a look at the ending to this lovely little story and see if anything stands out as odd to you.
“Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set out together for Beer Sheba where Abraham stayed.” (v. 19)
At the beginning of the story, “the two of them walked on together” (v. 6) and “continued on together” (v. 7), but on the way back “Abraham returned to his servants” So, where is Isaac? Interestingly enough, Isaac is never again mentioned in the E-source material. Elohim also never again speaks directly to Abraham.
Different interpretations of the Binding of Isaac:
Jewish Virtual Library – Akedah
The Velveteen Rabbi: Rosh Hashanah Sermon
The Akedah/The Binding of Isaac, Lisa D. Brush, Sociologist