Third Sunday after Pentecost (29 June 2014)



  • Genesis 22:1-14 and Psalm 13 [or Jeremiah 28:5-9 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18]
  • Romans 6:12-23
  • Matthew 10:40-42

Abraham offers his son as a human sacrifice

In Jewish tradition, the story of Abraham’s willingness to offer his son as a human sacrifice as (apparently) demanded by God, even though the fulfillment of the divine promises seemed to rest of the child’s survival, is known as the Akedah (or Binding) of Isaac.

This story has fascinated and horrified readers for the best part of 3,000 years. It emerges from a culture where human sacrifice was a part of life, and where even a society such as ancient Israel (which had rejected the practice) still felt the power unleashed by such sacred violence. Not only do the prophets condemn such sacrifices in honor of Molech, but the Hebrew Bible even notes the power of such sacrifices when deployed against Israel in battle:

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not.Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. [2Kings 3:26-27]

This story—horrific as it is—must also be read alongside the even worse story in Judges 11 where Jephthah offers his daughter as a human sacrifice in fulfillment of a vow.

As we shall see, the story of Abraham (almost) offering his son, Isaac, was to be celebrated as a great triumph of faith on both their parts, but the story of Jephthah and his daughter is relegated to a footnote in the biblical religions. In her classic study of this terrible text, Phyllis Trible (“The Daughter of Jephthah: An Inhuman Sacrifice,” Texts of Terror 1984:93-116) writes as follows:

She is “the one and only child;” by herself she greets her father with music and dances; and she requests that he let her alone for two months. But then she adds, “I (‘anoki) and my female friends.” At the time of deepest sorrow, the last days of her life, the girl reaches out to other women. She chooses them to go with her to wander upon the hills and lament her virginity. In communion with her own kind, she transcends the distance between daughter and father. After this reference to female friends, she speaks no more. Within the limits of the inevitable she has shaped meaning for herself.
Simply and succinctly the father grants the request. “Go,” he says — his last word in the story (11:38a). From here on, only the narrator speaks. Adopting the daughter’s speech pattern, the storyteller reports the fulfillment of her plan: “So he sent her away for two months. She went, she and her female friends, and she lamented her virginity upon the hills.” (11:38) In the company of other women who acknowledged her tragedy, she is neither alone nor isolated. She spends the last days of her life as she has requested.
At the end of two months, the appointed time, the daughter returns to the father (11:39). Quickly, without passing judgment, the narrator tells the deed: “He did to her his vow which he had vowed” (11:39b). How different is this story from Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, where detail heaped upon detail slows down the narrative to build suspense for the climactic moment:

When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order,
and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.
Then Abraham put forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. (Gen. 22:9-10)

That suspense is bearable because Isaac is to be spared. … But in the story of the daughter of Jephthah, no angel intervenes to save the child. The father carries out the vow precisely as he spoke it; neither God nor man nor woman negates it. (p. 104f)

The story of the Akedah

The original story is to be found in Genesis 22:

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” 2And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” 3So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. 5Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.”
6Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. 7Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “ Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” 8And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together. 9They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “ Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the LORD there is vision.”
15The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16and said, “By Myself I swear, the LORD declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, 17I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. 18All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” 19Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba. [JPS translation]

The Akedah in Jewish tradition

Nahum M. Sarna, in the JPS commentary on Genesis, provides a good statement of the traditional Jewish interpretation of this story:

The Akedah, as the story is popularly called—because of the Hebrew stem ‘-I’d, “ to bind,” in verse 9—is organically connected with the preceding chapter. Abraham has lost one son and now seems about to lose the other. In both narratives, the child is saved by divine intervention at the critical moment, the only two biblical instances of an angel calling from heaven to human beings. In both cases there is a fortuitous discovery: a well of water in the earlier story, a ram in the thicket here.
Beyond its connection with the foregoing chapter, the Akedah brings to a close Abraham’s spiritual odyssey that began with God’s call at Haran. The curtain rises and falls on the patriarch as he receives a divine word that demands agonizing decisions. The first time God bids him to take leave of his father and to cut himself off from his past; now, in this last theophany that he is to receive, God asks that he sacrifice his beloved, longed-for son and thereby abandon all hope of posterity. On both occasions Abraham responds with unquestioning obedience and steadfast loyalty.

As there are no other biblical references to this critical incident in the life of Abraham, we may conclude that the story did not have the same significance for Jewish people until Hellenistic times when they came to have a new appreciation for faithful in testing circumstances, and especially the value of martyrdom.


4 Maccabees

4 Maccabees is the first Jewish text to make considerable use of the Akedah tradition:

[13] Most amazing, indeed, though (Eleazar) was an old man, his body no longer tense and firm, his muscles flabby, his sinews feeble, he came young again [14] in spirit through reason; and by reason like that of Isaac he rendered the many-headed rack ineffective. (4Macc 7:13-14)

[12] and another reminded them, “Remember whence you came, and the father by whose hand Isaac would have submitted to being slain for the sake of religion.” [13] Each of them and all of them together looking at one another, cheerful and undaunted, said, “Let us with all our hearts consecrate ourselves to God who gave us our lives, … [16] Therefore let us put on the full armour of self-control, which is divine reason. [17] For if we so die, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us.” … But sympathy for her children did not sway the mother of the young men; she was of the same mind as Abraham. (4Macc 13:12-17, 20)

[18] Remember that it is through God that you have a share in the world and have enjoyed life, [19] and therefore you ought to endure any suffering for the sake of God. [20] For his sake also our father Abraham was zealous to sacrifice his son Isaac, the ancestor of our nation; and when Isaac saw his father’s hand wielding a knife and descending upon him, he did not cower. (4Macc 16:18-20)

[10] While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. [11] He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4Macc 18:10-11)



In the Book of Jubilees, we find the story developed as something of a parallel to the story of Job, complete with a Satan figure (Prince Mastemah) who is the ultimate cause for this most cruel test of Abraham. In this version of the tradition, the theological embarassment of God seeking Isaac as a human sacrifice, is being managed by the introduction of Mastemah. God has full confidence that Abraham will prove faithful and thus there is no real threat to Isaac, although Abraham is unaware of the divine drama unfolding out of his comprehension.

[15] And it came to pass in the seventh week, in its first year, in the first month, in that jubilee, on the twelfth of that month, that words came in heaven concerning Abraham that he was faithful in everything which was told him and he loved the LORD and was faithful in all affliction. [16] And Prince Mastema came and he said before God, “Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son. And he is more pleased with him than everything. Tell him to offer him (as) a burnt offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. And you will know whether he is faithful in everything in which you test him.”
[17] And the LORD was aware that Abraham was faithful in all of his afflictions because he tested him with his land, and with famine. And he tested him with the wealth of kings. And he tested him again with his wife, when she was taken (from him), and with circumcision. And he tested him with Ishmael and with Hagar, his maidservant, when he sent them away. [18] And in everything in which he tested him, he was found faithful. And his soul was not impatient. And he was not slow to act because he was faithful and a lover of the LORD.
18 [1] And the LORD said to him, “Abraham, Abraham.” And he said, “Here I am.” [2] And he said, “Take your beloved son, whom you love, Isaac, and go unto the high land and offer him up on one of the mountains that I will make known to you.
[3] And he arose while it was still dark at daybreak and he loaded his ass and took two of his young men servants with him and Isaac, his son. And he split the wood of the sacrifice and he went to the place on the third day. And he saw the place from afar. [4] And he arrived at a well of water and he said to the young men, “Stay here with the ass and I and the child shall go. And when we have worshipped we shall return to you.”
[5] And he took the wood of the sacrifice and put it on the shoulder of Isaac, his son, and he took the fire and the knife in his hand. And the two of them went together to that place. [6] And Isaac said to his father, “Father.” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said to him, “Behold, the fire and the knife and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering, father?” [7] And he said, “The LORD will see about the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And they drew near to the (holy) place of the mountain of the LORD. [8] And he built an altar and he placed the wood on the altar. And he bound Isaac, his son, and he placed him on the wood which was on top of the altar, and he stretched forth his hand, and took the knife in order to slay Isaac, his son.
[9] And I stood before him and before Prince Mastema. And the LORD said, “Speak to him. Do not let his hand descend upon the child. And do not let him do anything to him because I know that he is one who fears the LORD.” [10] And I called out to him from heaven and I said to him, “Abraham, Abraham.” And he was terrified and said, “Here I am.” [11] And I said to him, “Do not put forth your hand against the child and do not do anything to him because now I know that you are one that fears the LORD and you did not deny your firstborn son to me.”
[12] And Prince Mastema was shamed. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw a ram was caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. [13] And Abraham called that place, “The LORD has seen,” so it is said “in the mountain the LORD has seen.” It is Mount Zion.
[14] And the LORD called Abraham by his name again from heaven just as he caused us to appear so that we might speak to him in the name of the LORD. [15] And he said, “I swear by myself, says the LORD, because you have done this thing and you have not denied your firstborn son, whom you love, to me that I shall surely bless you and I shall surely multiply your seed like the stars of heaven and like the sand of the seashore and your seed shall inherit the cities of their enemies. [16] And all of the nations of the earth will bless themselves by your seed because you obeyed my word. And I have made known to all that you are faithful to me in everything which I say to you. Go in peace.”
[17] And Abraham went to his young men and they got up and went (to) Beer-sheba together. And Abraham dwelt by the Well of the Oath. [18] And he observed this festival every year (for) seven days with rejoicing. And he named it “the feast of the LORD” according to the seven days during which he went and returned in peace. [19] And thus it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets concerning Israel and his seed to observe this festival seven days with festal joy.[Jubilees 17.15-18.19 (extant in full only in Ethiopic) OTP 2,90f]


Philo of Alexandria

Philo, a contemporary of both Jesus and Paul, demonstrates that this interest in Isaac as a model for the faithful Jew was familiar to literate circles of Jewish society. In his treatise, On Abraham, Philo devotes chapters 32-36 to this episode and extols the great virtue of Abraham and begins to develop an interpretation of Isaac as also a model of faith. Here is his defence of Abraham against critics who observed that a great many other parents have also lost their children in such rites:

33. [177] So Isaac was saved, since God returned the gift of him and used the offering which piety rendered to Him to repay the offerer, while for Abraham the action, though not followed by the intended ending, was complete and perfect, for the record of it stands graven not only in the sacred books but in the minds of the readers.
[178] But quarrelsome critics who misconstrue everything and have a way of valuing censure above praise do not think Abraham’s action great or wonderful, as we suppose it to be.
[179] They say that many other persons, full of love for their kinsfolk and offspring, have given their children, some to be sacrificed for their country to serve as a price to redeem it from wars or drought or excessive rainfall or pestilence, others for the sake of what was held to be piety though it is not really so.
[180] Indeed they say that among the Greeks men of the highest reputation, not only private individuals but kings, have with little thought of their offspring put them to death, and thereby saved armed forces of great strength and magnitude when enlisted as their allies, and destroyed them without striking a blow when arrayed as enemies.
[181] Barbarian nations, they add, have for long admitted child sacrifice as a holy deed acceptable to God, and this practice of theirs is mentioned by Moses as an abomination, for, charging them with this pollution, he says that “they burn their sons and daughters to their gods.”
[182] Again they point out that in India the gymnosophists even now when the long incurable disease of old age begins to take hold of them, even before they are completely in its clutches, make up a funeral pile and burn themselves on it, though they might possibly last out many years more. And the womenfolk when their husbands die before them have been known to hasten rejoicing to share their pyre, and allow themselves to be burned alive with the corpses of the men.
[183] These women might reasonably, no doubt, be praised for their courage, so great and more than great is their contempt for death, and the breathless eagerness with which they rush to it as though it were immortality. 34. Why, then, they ask, should we praise Abraham, as though the deed which he undertook was unprecedented, when private individuals and kings and whole nations do it when occasion calls?
[184] To their malignity and bitterness I reply as follows. Some of those who sacrifice their children follow customs in doing do, as was the case according to the critics with some of the barbarians. Others have important and painful reasons for their action because their cities and countries cannot but fail otherwise. These give their children partly under compulsion and the pressure of higher powers, partly through desire for glory and honour, to win fame at the time and a good name in the future.
[185] Now those who are led by custom to make the sacrifice would not seem to be doing anything great, for long-standing custom often becomes equal to nature, so that in matters where patience and resolution are difficult to attain it gives ease and relief by reducing their terrors to moderate dimensions. [186] Where the gift is made through fear no praise is due, for praise is recorded for voluntary good deeds, while for those which are involuntary other things are responsible, favourable occasions, chances or force brought to bear by men.
[187] And if anyone throws away a son or a daughter through desire for glory he will be justly blamed rather than praised, for with the life of his dearest he is purchasing an honour which he ought to cast aside, if he possessed it, to ensure the safety of his children.
[188] We must therefore examine whether Abraham, when he intended to sacrifice his son, was mastered by any of these motives, custom or love of honour or fear. Now in Babylonia and Mesopotamia and with the nation of the Chaldeans with whom he was brought up and lived the greater part of his life the custom of child slaughter does not obtain, so as to suggest that his realization of its horrors was rendered less powerful by the regularity of such a practice.
[189] Surely, too, he had nothing to fear from man, since no one knew of the oracular message which he alone had received; nor was he under the pressure of any public misfortune which could be remedied only by the immolation of a child of special worth.
[190] Or was the quest of praise from the multitude the motive which urged him to the deed? What praise could there be in a solitude where no one was present to report his fame afterwards, but even the two servants had been purposely left afar off lest he should appear to be making a boastful parade by bringing witnesses to his pious conduct?
35. [191] Let them, therefore, set bolt and bar to their unbridled evil-speaking mouths, control, their envy and hatred of excellence and not mar the virtues of men who have lived a good life, virtues which they should rather help,to glorify by their good report. That the deed really deserves our praise and love can easily be seen in many ways.
[192] First, then, he made a special practice of obedience to God, a duty which every right-minded person holds to be worthy of all respect and effort. Hitherto he had not neglected any of God’s commands, nor ever met them with repining or discontent, however charged with toils and pains they might be, and therefore he bore the sentence pronounced on his son with all nobleness and firmness.
[193] Secondly, since human sacrifice was not in that country, as it was perhaps in some, sanctioned by custom which is so apt through constant repetition to weaken the realization of the terrible, he would have been the first himself to initiate a totally new and extraordinary procedure, and this, to my mind, is a thing which no one could have brought himself to do even if his soul had been made of iron or adamant, for, as it has been said, it is hard work to fight against nature.
[194] And, as he had begotten no son in the truest sense but Isaac, his feeling of affection for him was necessarily on the same high level of truth, higher even than the chaste forms of love and also the much talked-of ties of friendship.
[195] Furthermore, he had a most potent incentive to love in that he had begotten the boy in his old age and not in his years of vigour. For parents somehow dote on their late-born children, either because they have longed for their birth for so many years or because they do not hope to have any more, since nature comes to a halt at this point as its final and furthermost boundary.
[196] For a father to surrender one of a numerous family as a tithe to God is nothing extraordinary, since each of the survivors continues to give him pleasure, and this is no small solace and mitigation of his grief for the one who has been sacrificed. But one who gives his only darling son performs an action for which no language is adequate, since he concedes nothing to the tie of relationship, but his whole weight is thrown into the scale on the side of acceptability with God.
[197] The following point is exceptional, and his conduct in it practically unique. Other fathers, even if they give their children to be sacrificed for the safety of their country or their armies, either stay at home or stand far away from the altars, or, if they are present, turn away their eyes, since they cannot bear the sight, and leave others to kill the victim.
[198] But here we have the most affectionate of fathers himself beginning the sacrificial rite as priest with the very best of sons for victim. Perhaps too, following the law of burnt offering, he would have dismembered his son and offered him limb by limb. Thus we see that he did not incline partly to the boy and partly to piety, but devoted his whole soul through and through to holiness and disregarded the claims of their common blood.
[199] Which of all the points mentioned is shared by others? Which does not stand by itself and defy description? Thus everyone who is not malignant or a lover of evil must be overwhelmed with admiration for his extraordinary piety; and he need not take into consideration at once all the points which I have mentioned, for any single one of them would be enough. For to picture in the mind one of these, however small the form which the picture takes, though no action of the Sage is small, is enough to show the greatness and loftiness of his soul. [Loeb Classical Library]

Flavius Josephus

Somewhat later in the first century Josephus would recount the story with the following elaboration as he explored the meaning of the episode:

3. [228] As soon as the altar was prepared, and Abraham had laid on the wood, and all things were entirely ready, he said to his son, “O son! I poured out a vast number of prayers that I might have thee for my son; when thou wast come into the world, there was nothing that could contribute to thy support for which I was not greatly solicitous, nor anything wherein I thought myself happier than to see thee grown up to man’s estate, and that I might leave thee at my death the successor to my dominion;
[229] but since it was by God’s will that I became thy father, and it is now his will that I relinquish thee, bear this consecration to God with a generous mind; for I resign thee up to God, who has thought fit now to require this testimony of honor to himself, on account of the favors he hath conferred on me, in being to me a supporter and defender.
[230] Accordingly thou, my son, wilt now die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by thy own father, in the nature of a sacrifice. I suppose he thinks thee worthy to get clear of this world neither by disease, neither by war, nor by any other severe way, by which death usually comes upon men,
[231] but so that he will receive thy soul with prayers and holy offices of religion, and will place thee near to himself, and thou wilt be there to me a succorer and supporter in my old age; on which account I principally brought thee up, and thou wilt thereby procure me God for my Comforter instead of thyself.
4. [232] Now Isaac was of such a generous disposition as became the son of such a father, and was pleased with this discourse; and said, “That he was not worthy to be born at first, if he should reject the determination of God and of his father, and should not resign himself up readily to both their pleasures; since it would have been unjust if he had not obeyed, even if his father alone had so resolved.” So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed. [Antiquities I.13.3-4]

Early Christian use of the Akedah tradition

It seems likely that many of the earliest Christian authors were also familiar with these traditions and the Akedah may well have influenced how some Christians interpreted the death of Jesus.

However, the evidence within the NT itself is slight, with only two explicit references and a couple of possible allusions:


He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8:32)

Gospel of John

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16) So they took Jesus; [17] and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. (John 19:16b-17)


[17] By faith Abraham, when he was put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, [18] of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants will be named for you.” [19] He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead — and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb 11:17-19)


[21] Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. [23] Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. (James 2:21-23)

Patristic period

While the evidence for developments in the first century is slight, we know that there was a flurry of theological speculation by Christians and Jews in the second and third centuries as Christians developed the prophetic significance of the Akedah (seeing Isaac as a type of Jesus) and Jews developed a theology around the salvation of the Jewish people on the basis of the virtue created by Isaac’s active willingness to be offered. This latter development seems to have been a response the Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice, and it is not clear whether pre-Christian Jewish traditions already had this element or whether it emerged from the interaction of these two faiths.

The following examples will suffice to demonstrate patristic use of the Akedah in Christian theology and in polemic with the Jews:

For as a ram was He bound
(he says he concerning our Lord Jesus Christ),
and as a lamb he was shorn,
and as a sheep he was led to slaughter,
and as a lamb he was crucified;
and he carried the wood on his shoulders
as he was led up to be slain like Isaac by his Father.
But Christ suffered, whereas Isaac did not suffer;
for he was a model of the Christ who was going to suffer.
But by merely being the model of Christ
he caused astonishment and fear among men.
For it was a strange mystery to behold,
a son led by his father to a mountain for slaughter,
whose feet he bound and whom he put on the wood of the offering,
preparing with zeal the things for his slaughter.
But Isaac was silent, bound like a ram,
not opening his mouth, nor uttering a sound.
For not frightened by the sword
nor alarmed at the fire,
nor sorrowful at the suffering,
he carried with fortitude the model of the Lord.
Thus Isaac was offered in the midst foot-bound like a ram,
and Abraham stood by and held the sword unsheathed,
not ashamed to put to death his son. (Melitto of Sardis, Fragment 9) [HALL, 75]


And, of course, it had been meet that the mystery of the passion itself should be figuratively set forth in predictions; and the more incredible (that mystery), the more likely to be “a stumbling stone,” if it had been nakedly predicted; and the more magnificent, the more to be adumbrated, that the difficulty of its intelligence might seek (help from) the grace of God. Accordingly, to begin with, Isaac, when led by his father as a victim, and himself bearing his own “wood,” was even at that early period pointing to Christ’s death; conceded, as He was, as a victim of the Father; carrying, as He did, the “wood” of His own passion. (Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 10) [ANF 4,165]

The Akedah in later Jewish tradition

Sarna (JPS commentary on Genesis) describes the significance of the Akedah in the post-biblical Jewish tradition as follows:

The story of Isaac’s near sacrifice on the altar, although not mentioned again in biblical literature, captured the popular imagination and deeply penetrated the religious consciousness of the Jewish people. As the occasion prompted, one or another aspect of the episode acquired special relevance. Thus, from early times the liturgy of fast days, called because of impending disaster, included the following prayer: “ May He who answered Abraham on Mount Moriah answer you and hearken this day to the sound of your cry” (Mish. Ta‘an. 2:4). Here, it is God’s last-minute intervention that seemed to be singularly appropriate to the day. On Rosh Hashanah, when the fate of Israel hangs precariously in the balance because of its sins, the following passage is included in the Musaf, or additional, service: “Be Mindful of Abraham’s binding of Isaac his son on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Your will wholeheartedly. In the same way, may Your compassion overcome Your anger toward us. . . . In behalf of his posterity may You this day recall with compassion the binding of Isaac.”
So powerful and enduring is the impact of the Akedah that God is asked, as it were, to emulate Abraham’s superhuman behavior in controlling His emotions. This daring notion has its source in a midrash (Gen. R. 56:15), according to which Abraham is said finally to pour out his soul, reminding God of his uncomplaining, unquestioning obedience despite the obvious contradiction between the Akedah and the previous promises. The old man pleads with God that just as he had suppressed his compassion to perform the divine request, so should God be mindful of the Akedah and be filled with compassion for Israel when it finds itself in adversity or mired in sin.
The reinterpretation of the Akedah in terms of expiation of sin contributed toward its selection as the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Meg. 31a). The increasing emphasis on this motif, especially in the liturgy, was in all probability the rabbinic response to the teachings of the mystery cults. In opposition to the pagan idea that atonement for the sins of the faithful may be effected through the sacrifice of the god or of his son, the sages stressed the doctrine of patriarchal merit. The willingness of the founding father to sacrifice his son as a proof of his devotion to God created an inexhaustible store of spiritual credit upon which future generations may draw.
More than anything else, however, it was the recurring experience of persecution— from the Hellenistic age down through the Roman oppression, the Christian massacres on an unprecedented scale, and Muslim fanaticism—that secured the prominence of the Akedah as a theme in the Jewish liturgy. Abraham and Isaac became the supreme exemplars of wholehearted loyalty to God and to His Torah, even to the extent of self-sacrifice. Jewish martyrdom derived unfailing inspiration from the Akedah narrative, and medieval poets produced a whole genre of penitential poetry in which the central theme was the Akedah as a metaphor of martyrdom ‘al kiddush ha-shem, “in sanctification of the Name of God.” The blowing of the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah (Lev. 23:24) was interpreted in terms of the Akedah. Said R. Abbahu, “Why does one blow a shofar taken from a ram? The Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He said: Blow a ram’s horn before Me so that I remember in your behalf the binding of Isaac son of Abraham and count it to you as though you had bound yourselves (as a sacrifice) before Me” (RH 16a).

The Akedah in Muslim tradition

According to Muslim tradition it was Ishmael (Ismail) that Abraham was commanded to offer, rather than Isaac.The relevant portion of the Qur’an reads as follows:

[37:83] Among his followers was Abraham.
[37:84] He came to his Lord wholeheartedly.
[37:85] He said to his father and his people, “What are you worshipping?
[37:86] “Is it these fabricated gods, instead of GOD, that you want?
[37:87] “What do you think of the Lord of the universe?”
[37:88] He looked carefully at the stars.
[37:89] Then he gave up and said, “I am tired of this!”
[37:90] They turned away from him.
[37:91] He then turned on their idols, saying, “Would you like to eat?
[37:92] “Why do you not speak?”
[37:93] He then destroyed them.
[37:94] They went to him in a great rage.
[37:95] He said, “How can you worship what you carve?
[37:96] “When GOD has created you, and everything you make!”
[37:97] They said, “Let us build a great fire, and throw him into it.”
[37:98] They schemed against him, but we made them the losers.
[37:99] He said, “I am going to my Lord; He will guide me.”
[37:100] “My Lord, grant me righteous children.”
[37:101] We gave him good news of a good child.
[37:102] When he grew enough to work with him, he said,
” My son, I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you. What do you think?”
He said, “O my father, do what you are commanded to do. You will find me, GOD willing, patient.”
[37:103] They both submitted, and he put his forehead down (to sacrifice him).
[37:104] We called him: “O Abraham.
[37:105] “You have believed the dream.” We thus reward the righteous.
[37:106] That was an exacting test indeed.
[37:107] We ransomed (Ismail) by substituting an animal sacrifice.
[37:108] And we preserved his history for subsequent generations.
[37:109] Peace be upon Abraham.
[37:110] We thus reward the righteous.
[37:111] He is one of our believing servants.
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Sacred violence

All three Abrahamic religions have taken up this ancient and grisly story. It has spoken words of courage and hope to people of faith in different generations and in very different circumstances, but it must be a problematic text for contemporary Christians.

Despite all the pious explanations wrapped around this tale, and all the comfort derived from it, this is a story of divine violence inflicted upon an innocent child. There can be no accommodation with such texts of terror, and churches who struggle with our own shameful history of abuse against children and women cannot be so glib as to claim this as a “Good News” story.

Just as we each have a shadow side to our own selves, perhaps there comes a point when we need to recognise and name the dark side of religion?

Jesus Database

  • 044 Carrying Ones Cross: (1) GThom. 55:2b; (2) 1Q: Luke 14:27 = Matt 10:38; (3) Mark 8:34 = Matt 16:24 = Luke 9:23
  • 063 Saving One’s Life: (1) 1Q: Luke 17:33 = Matt 10:39; (2) Mark 8:35 = Matt 16:25 = Luke 9:24; (3) John 12:25-26:
  • 010 Receiving the Sender: 1) 1Q: Luke 10:16 = Matt 10:40; (2) Mark 9:36-37 = Matt 18: 2,5 = Luke 9:47-48a; (3) Did. 11:4-5; (4a) John 5:23b; (4b) John 12:44-50; (4c) John 13:20; (5) Ign. Eph. 6:1

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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