Isaac, the First Lamb of God

A newly discovered fragment casts light on the Biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son

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Caravaggio's view of the Binding of Isaac (C.1601-2)

The sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most tragic episodes of the Hebrew Bible. After miraculously granting a son to a centenarian and to a hitherto sterile 90-year-old woman, the capricious Deity orders Abraham to kill his offspring. Abraham unhesitatingly obeys without revealing the divine command to his wife or his son. 

Having no idea where the event is to take place, except that it must be in the region of Mount Moriah, he embarks on a trek with Isaac. On the third day of the trek, he sees the mountain from afar. Father and son carry the wood, the fire and the knife for the sacrifice while Abraham reassures the curious boy that God will provide the sacrificial lamb. On the mountaintop, he makes ready for the deed, binding Isaac on the altar. But just as he is about to plunge the knife into Isaac, an angel suddenly intervenes and substitutes a ram for the child. 

What did ancient Jewish Bible interpretation deduce from this account? Two explanations have been preserved. One is contained in the Palestinian Targum (Aramaic translation of the Bible) and the other in the Talmud, a collection of legal rules mixed with Scripture interpretation, and Midrash consisting of scriptural exegesis with illustrative stories. 

The targumic account of the sacrifice or Binding (Aqedah) of Isaac comprises five significant peculiarities:

(1) Isaac learns from his father that he will be the victim. Instead of the biblical wording (Gen 22:8), the Targumist writes: “The Word of the Lord shall prepare a lamb for himself, but if not, my son, you will be the burnt offering.” 
(2) Isaac is no longer a child. 
(3) He willingly accepts his role and begs his father to bind him. “Bind my hands properly that I may not struggle in the time of my pain and disturb you and render your offering unfit.” 
(4) He is granted a heavenly vision. “Abraham’s eyes were fixed on the eyes of Isaac, but the eyes of Isaac turned to the angels of heaven. Isaac saw them but Abraham did not see them. In that hour the angels of heaven said to each other, ‘Let us go and see the only two just men in the world. The one slays and the other is being slain. The slayer does not hesitate and the one being slain stretches out his neck.'”
(5) After sacrificing the ram, Abraham prays that his obedience and his son’s self-sacrifice may benefit Isaac’s descendants. “I pray before you, O Lord God, that when the children of Isaac come to a time of distress, you may remember on their behalf the binding of Isaac, their father, and loose and forgive them their sins… so that the generations which follow may say: On the mountain of the Temple of the Lord Abraham offered Isaac his son, and on the mountain of the Temple the glory of the Presence of God was revealed to Isaac.”

The story handed down in the Palestinian Targum may be supplemented by details preserved elsewhere in the Jewish interpretative tradition. The targumic version merely implies that Isaac is an adult participant and not a boy as in Genesis 22:12. In midrashic sources, we are told that he is 37 years old. This figure is derived from a Jewish legend reporting the sudden death of the 127-year-old Sarah (Genesis 23:1) when she is mendaciously told by Satan that Abraham has killed their son. Sarah was 90 when she bore Isaac: hence the figure 37. Without explaining the difference, the first-century CE Jewish historian Flavius Josephus makes Isaac 25 years old. 

According to Pseudo-Jonathan, a shining cloud and a pillar of smoke lead Abraham to the chosen mountaintop. Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, a midrashic composition dating from the ninth century CE, also mentions a pillar of fire resembling the one that directed the Jews in the wilderness in the Book of Exodus. Similarly, the cloud appears in the representation of the Binding of Isaac in Jewish art, on a fresco in the third-century CE synagogue of Dura Europos in Syria, and on the mosaic floor of the fifth-century Galilean Bet Alpha synagogue. 

In another ancient Midrash, Rabbi Akiva (martyred by the Romans in 135 CE) appended to Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might” the words, “In the same way as Isaac who bound himself on the altar.” 

This type of Scripture exegesis did not originate with Akiva. First-century CE Jewish sources are already aware of it. Flavius Josephus (37 – c. 100 CE) in his Jewish Antiquities recounts that Isaac, informed by his father about God’s demand, joyfully runs to the altar. Another first-century CE writer, Pseudo-Philo, the author of the Book of Biblical Antiquities, emphasises that Isaac explicitly agrees to become a sacrificial victim and that God’s election of the Jewish people is the reward for the shedding of Isaac’s blood. There is no reference to the shedding of blood in the Bible. Finally, in the Fourth Book of the Maccabees (mid-first century CE), Isaac is the proto-martyr, who with fearless courage stares at the threatening knife. 

Since the main theme of the Fourth Book of the Maccabees is Jewish martyrdom under Antiochus Epiphanes in the early second century BCE, and the death of martyrs is viewed as expiation for all the sins of Israel, Isaac’s action is presented as atonement offered for the Jewish people and seen as a source of merit earning their future salvation.

Why did God subject Abraham to a trial in the first instance, wondered the Jewish Bible commentators. From the Book of Jubilees (second century BCE), through Pseudo-Philo and the rabbis, we are told that both Satan and the angels envied Abraham and Isaac. 

According to Jubilees, when Abraham’s love of God was praised in heaven, Satan sarcastically remarked that the patriarch’s infatuation with his son exceeded his love of the Almighty. In his foreknowledge that he would remain faithful, God accepted Satan’s challenge and subjected Abraham to the ordeal.

The rabbis sought further clarification regarding the nature of Isaac’s self-sacrifice and the effects of the atonement obtained through it. 

Was the binding of Isaac a real sacrifice? After all, according to the Talmudic principle, “Without blood there is no expiation”, a principle formulated already in the first century CE as shown in the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:22): “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The rabbis assumed therefore that Isaac had lost at least a few drops of blood, having accidentally been scratched by Abraham’s knife. In the early second century CE, Simeon ben-Yohai claimed that Isaac had shed a quarter of his blood. In the previous century, Pseudo-Philo ascribed the election of Israel to Isaac’s blood. 

The rabbis were also preoccupied by the impact of the Binding of Isaac on Temple worship. For them, the lamb sacrifice offered twice daily in the sanctuary until 70 CE, derived its efficacy from the belief that it reminded God of the Binding of Isaac. This is explained in the Palestinian Targums on Leviticus 22:27: “Our sacrifices atone for our sins. The lamb has been chosen to revive the memory of Abraham’s lamb who bound himself on the altar and stuck out his neck in order to honour your holy name.” 

In contemporary Jewish liturgy, the Binding of Isaac is commemorated at the New Year festival. The blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, on that day recalls the animal that was offered in Isaac’s stead. 

However, the Binding of Isaac is associated also with the feast of Passover. According a rabbinic interpretation of Exodus (Mekhilta of R. Ishmael), the survival of the firstborn sons of the Jews in Egypt was due to the merit of Isaac. “When Israel entered the sea, Mount Moriah was moved from its place, with the altar of Isaac built on it, the pile of wood placed on it, and Isaac as it were bound and put upon the altar, and Abraham as it were stretching out his hand and holding the knife to slay his son.”

According to the Book of Jubilees (second century BCE), keen on chronological details, the sacrifice of Isaac occurred on the 15th day of the first month (Nisan), the calendar day of the future Mosaic feast of Passover. 

The full meaning of the tradition is compressed in the Palestinian Targums commenting on the “night of vigil” on 15 Nisan (Exodus 12:42). 

We are told that four different nocturnal events happened or will occur on that date: the creation of the world, the birth and binding of Isaac, the escape from Egypt, and the coming of the Messiah.

“On the first night, the Word of the Lord was revealed upon the world and created it… 
On the second night, the Word of the Lord was revealed on Abraham…Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety years that the saying of Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Abraham aged one hundred can beget, and Sarah aged ninety can bear. Was not Isaac our father thirty-seven years old when he was offered on the altar? The heavens were let down and descended and Isaac saw their perfection… God called this the second night. 
On the third night, the Word of the Lord was revealed upon the Egyptians in the middle of the night. His left hand slew the firstborn of the Egyptians, but his right hand spared the firstborn of the Israelites, to fulfil the saying of Scripture, ‘Israel is my firstborn son’. He called this the third night.
On the fourth night, the world shall reach its end to be delivered.  The bonds of wickedness shall be destroyed and the iron yokes broken. Moses shall come out of the wilderness and the king Messiah out of Rome. The one shall be led upon a cloud and the other shall be led upon a cloud, and the Word of the Lord shall lead between them and they shall go forward together. This is the night of the Passover before the Lord, to be observed and celebrated by Israel in their generations.”

In my view, the oldest exegesis of the Aqedah makes Isaac the first redeemer of Israel and envisages the event as the prototype of messianic salvation. If true, this is a highly significant doctrine for both Jewish and Christian theology. 

To place this complex issue into perspective, let me introduce a personal ingredient into the story. I first advanced these ideas nearly half a century ago in Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Brill, Leiden, 1961). They met with general sympathy in scholarly circles but, unavoidably, along came also dissenting voices (see P.R. Davies and B.D. Chilton, Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 40, 1978, pp. 514-546). 

The critics objected to my dating of the basic exegetical tradition to the first century CE and even earlier. They came up with a different definition of the “Binding of Isaac”. Its essence is not a voluntary self-offering, but the shedding of the blood of Isaac, that is, the most advanced and latest of the rabbinic ideas. This would mean that the concept of the Aqedah did not arise before the fourth century CE. 

It cannot therefore be considered as the source of New Testament ideas, but is a rabbinic counterclaim against the Christian doctrine of redemption. Omitting to mention that Isaac’s carrying of the wood on his shoulder already appears in the Bible, Davies and Chilton imply that it is a feature that imitates the cross of Jesus.  

The active role of Isaac in the drama is dated by them after the destruction of Jerusalem. The ideas of Josephus, Pseudo-Philo and the Fourth Book of the Maccabees cannot be taken as representing the pre-70 CE period. All three wrote, according to Chilton and Davies, at the end of the first century or at the beginning of the second, whereas mainstream scholarly opinion holds that Josephus, whose work dates to the second half of the first century CE, used preexistent Jewish interpretative traditions and that the Book of Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo and 4 Maccabees were composed in the first half of the first century CE.

Then out of the blue, 24 years after the publication of Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, previously unknown Dead Sea Scroll fragments (4Q225-226) surfaced from Cave 4 (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, XIII, 1995), in which important details of the Aqedah story have survived. The work is definitely pre-Christian: the script belongs to the second half of the first century BCE, but the composition most likely comes from the mid-second century BCE. I give here my translation of the poorly preserved document. 

Some of the gaps are filled in with the help of the Bible or the Book of Jubilees. Essential comments are inserted between square brackets.

And a son was born af(ter)wards (to Abraha)m and he called his name Isaac. And the prince Ma(s)temah (=Satan) came (to G)od and accused Abraham on account of Isaac. 
[On hearing the heavenly praises of Abraham’s love of God, Satan suggests that Abraham should sacrifice his son.]
And (G)od said (to Abra)ham, ‘Take your son, Isaac, (your) only (son) (whom) you (love) and offer him to me as a burnt offering on one of the … mountains (which I will tell) you.’ And he ro(se and he we)n(t) from the Wells
[The author probably interprets the name of the town of Beer Sheba as “seven wells”.]

to Mo(unt Moriah)…. And Ab(raham]) lifted up his (ey)es (and behold there was) a fire. 
[The Palestinian Targums speak of a “cloud of glory” that identifies the mountain. The Midrash, Pirke d’Rabbi Eleazar reads: “He saw a pillar of fire (rising) from the earth to heaven.”] 
And he placed (the wood on Isaac, his son, and they went together). And Isaac said to Abraham, (his father, “Behold there is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb) for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said to (Isaac, his son, “God will provide a lamb) for himself. Isaac said to his father, ‘K(pwt)…” 
[There is no second address of Isaac to Abraham in the Bible. By contrast the targumic and midrashic traditions testify to such an additional speech by Isaac. Of Isaac’s opening word only the first letter, is legible, but there is space for 15 more letters. This opening letter is a K (kaph). 
In all the surviving Targums and in the Midrash on Genesis Isaac’s speech begins with the verb kpwt: “Tie”, namely, “Tie my hands properly.”]
... the holy angels standing (and) weeping over…
 [No mention of holy angels is found in Genesis 22, but it is standard in the Palestinian Targums: “The eyes of Isaac were looking on the angels on high.” Other texts allude to the tears of the ministering angels.]
…his sons from the earth.
And the angels of S(atan)…were rejoicing and saying, “Now he (Isaac) will be destroyed…
 [Satan’s associates are delighted by the prospect of Isaac’s death.]
whether he will be found weak and whether A(braham) will be found unfaithful (to God. And he called,) “Abraham, Abraham.” And he said, “Here am I.” And he said… he (Abraham) is not a lover (of God). 
[The missing words are probably those of God to Satan, e.g. “Now I know that you have lied that he is not a lover (of God).” The Midrash on Genesis positively formulates the statement: “I have made it known to all that you (Abraham) love me.”]
And the Lord God blessed Is(aac all the days of his life and he begot) Jacob, and Jacob begot Levi (in the (third) genera(tion. And all) the days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Lev(i were…years).
[In the Bible God blesses Abraham. The change of subject suits well the leading role granted to Isaac in the Targums.]

Fragmentary though it is, the Qumran manuscript comprises all the important elements of the targumic account of the Binding of Isaac. Mount Moriah is signalled by fire. Isaac twice addresses Abraham and almost certainly he asks his father to tie his hands. The presence of weeping angels is mentioned. Finally, God blesses not Abraham, but Isaac. 

We must conclude, therefore, that the targumic Aqedah tradition arose in the second half of the first century CE at the latest, but possibly in the middle of the second century BCE. Consequently, the hypothesis that the story of the Binding of Isaac was familiar among Jews during the period of the formation of the New Testament may now be taken for granted. 

The evangelists and St Paul seem to have made use of the “targumic” Aqedah tradition. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) the words of the heavenly voice heard at the moment of the baptism of Jesus appear to be influenced by Genesis 22. “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22; Mt 3:17) recalls God’s words concerning Isaac: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love” (Gen 22:2). Also the Fourth Gospel, “Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) is inspired by the story of Isaac, “the lamb of Abraham” sacrificing himself for the redemption of Israel. Finally, in the thought of Paul, the Binding of Isaac prefigures the redemption by Christ. “He who did not spare his own Son, but surrendered him for us all, will he not grant us every favour with him?” (Rom 8:3-32). 

In conclusion, let it be underscored that the contribution of a tiny Qumran fragment to the pre-Christian dating of the Binding of Isaac tradition cannot be overestimated. The theological significance of this tiny, badly preserved text incommensurably exceeds its size.