How Jews and Christians see differently
The Akedah (ah-kay-DAH), or binding of Isaac, is one of the most powerful narratives in the Hebrew Bible. For nearly 2,000 years, however, it has been read somewhat differently by Jews and Christians. It is even portrayed differently in the pictures they make. For most Christians, the Hebrew word akedah is unfamiliar; more often than not, they will refer to the episode as the sacrifice of Isaac rather than the binding of Isaac.
Yet, as we shall see, at various times Christians and Jews were aware of each other’s interpretation of the story.
According to the narrative in Genesis 22:2–18, God, without any warning, commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son as a burnt offering. Father and son travel three days to Moriah, the place of sacrifice, where they build an altar. Abraham binds Isaac, lays him on the firewood and raises his knife to slay him. At the last moment, however, an angel calls out to Abraham to do no harm to the lad, and a ram caught in a nearby thicket is substitute for Isaac.
In Judaism and Christianity (as well as Islam), Abraham is the paradigm of the man of faith, put to the ultimate test and found to be steadfast. Isaac, however is variously interpreted according to time and tradition. In Islam, the son is unidentified and could have been Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar and the ancestor of the Arabs) instead of Isaac, thus extending God’s covenant to the Arab peoples. In Jewish literature around the turn of the era, Isaac is portrayed as the prototype of the voluntary and joyful martyr, willing to go bravely to his death. The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus describes Isaac as a 25-year-old who rushes to the altar, knowing that he is to be the victim. According to this portrayal, in future times of distress, God will remember Isaac’s binding, the Akedah, and heed the prayers of the Jewish people for deliverance from enemies. As the text says, “Because you have done this…I will bestow my blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore” (Genesis 22:16–17). That is why the shofar the ram’s horn is blown at Rosh Hashanah to remind God of the Akedah and his promise; the shofar represents the horn of the ram that was substituted for Isaac.
The Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. may have stimulated a profound new understanding of the Akedah in Jewish tradition. Since sacrifices could no longer be offered at the Temple, Isaac became the archetypal sacrifice, a kind of substitute for the now-defunct sacrificial system of the Temple. In Jewish tradition, until the destruction of the Temple the episode was referred to as the “offering” of Isaac; after the destruction it was called the “binding” of Isaac, a reference to the tying of a lamb’s feet in the days when this sacrifice was carried out at the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Temple’s destruction, the word akedah was used to show that Isaac’s offering and/or death was a vicarious atonement that was perfected and complete in itself; the former Temple offering was only a memorial to this archetypal sacrifice.
In later rabbinic collections, Isaac is portrayed as an adult of 37 years, fully aware of what is going to happen to him. He not only accepts the role he is to play, but begs Abraham to bind him lest he struggle in fear, thus invalidating the sacrifice. The Jerusalem Talmud summarizes the tradition that Isaac’s release is the equivalent of all Israel’s release. Abraham received from God, as a reward for his obedience, God’s own future intercession for Isaac’s descendants when they should fall into sin. Remembering the Akedah, God will suppress his wrath and have mercy on his people.
According to the Genesis story, Isaac’s sacrifice was interrupted and the ram substituted. However, several ancient traditions refer to Isaac’s ashes or blood; some accounts even say that Isaac actually died and was revived. Does Genesis itself hint at this? After God tells Abraham that, because of what he has done, his descendants will be like the stars of the heaven and the sands of the sea, “Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba” (Genesis 22:19). Why no mention of Isaac? What happened to him? Was there another version of the story with a different ending? In any event, in all these traditions, Isaac’s ashes are the symbol of his merit, and the Akedah is the fulfilled expiatory sacrifice.
To resolve the seeming conflict between the tradition that he was sacrificed and the text that says a ram was substituted, later Jewish sages suggested that Isaac was laid upon the altar after the wood was kindled (in accordance with priestly law [Leviticus 1:7–8]); although the angel prevented Abraham from slaying his son, Isaac was burned to death and his ashes cast on Moriah. Moriah, in Jewish tradition, is the Temple Mount, where the Temple was later built and where sacrifices were offered in commemoration of the Akedah.
Christians, on the other hand, have from earliest times understood Isaac as a prefiguration of Christ, the beloved son offered as the expiatory sacrifice for the people’s sin. The textual parallels between Jesus and Isaac are striking. Isaac, like Jesus, was miraculously conceived. (Sarah, Isaac’s mother, was 90 years old when she bore Isaac and had been barren all her life; Abraham was a hundred [Genesis 17:17].) Isaac was his father’s beloved son. Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice (Genesis 22:6), just as Christ carried his own cross. The journey to Moriah took three days, parallel to the three days Jesus spent in the tomb before his resurrection. And of course Jesus did Isaac one better: Isaac was not sacrificed; Jesus was.
Although these parallels are not explicitly drawn in the New Testament, later Christian exegetes made them quite specifically. Paul may even have intended his audience to make the connection when he described God as “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32).
Very early in post-New Testament Christian literature the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac becomes the “old covenant” counterpart of and paradigm for God’s sacrifice of his own son on Calvary. The explicit connection occurs first in the Epistle of Barnabas, usually dated to the early second century. Some scholars have suggested that Barnabas, possibly a converted Jew who was familiar with early Akedah midrashim,1 preached an Easter sermon that directly compared the atonement in the Akedah to Christ’s atoning death, saying “not Isaac, but Jesus takes the place of the sacrifice.” This challenge was met with a direct response as the rabbis developed their own Passover atonement theology. The rabbis, aware of the Christian typological interpretation of Isaac’s sacrifice, developed the Akedah tradition in which the word akedah was interpreted to refer to the tying of the lamb’s feet in a tamid sacrifice, the twice-a-day burnt offering at the Temple when it still stood.
An early church father, Melito of Sardis, noted the parallels between Isaac and Christ but stressed that while Christ actually suffered and died, Isaac was released from his bonds.
Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen also cited the Isaac-Christ parallels. Tertullian saw the firewood Isaac carried as a figure of the cross and emphasized Christ’s self-sacrifice: “Isaac, being led by his father to be a victim, and carrying himself the firewood, at that moment was a figure of Christ’s death, submitting himself to his father as a victim and lugging the [fire]wood of his own passion.”
This interpretive motif continued through the fourth and fifth centuries with Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Theodoret and Augustine.
Perhaps the most significant use of the Isaac-Christ typology was in the liturgy of the church. The story of Isaac’s sacrifice was read during the Easter vigil service in Jerusalem, and perhaps also in Milan, no later than the last half of the fourth century.
As noted earlier, Jewish tradition identified Moriah, the site of the Akedah, as the Temple Mount, where the Temple of the Lord was later built. Christians, on the other hand, conflated Moriah with Calvary, the site of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. By the end of the sixth century the common identity had been accepted. In his famous travel account, the anonymous writer known only as the Piacenza Pilgrim gave the following description of Golgotha: “You can see the place where [Jesus] was crucified, and on the actual rock there is a bloodstain. Beside this is the altar of Abraham, which is where he intended to offer Isaac, and where Melchizedek offered sacrifice….” Eventually a chapel dedicated to Abraham was built there.
That the rabbis were aware of the use to which their Akedah story had been put by the Christians is clear. In refutation one of them wrote:
“How foolish is the heart of the deceivers who say the Holy One, Blessed Be He, has a son. If in the case of Abraham’s son, when He saw that he was ready to say him, He could not bear to look on as He was in anguish, but on the contrary commanded, ‘a formless void’ [tohu ve-vohu, the state of the universe before creation (quoting Genesis 1:2)]?”
A careful look at Jewish and Christian depictions of the story and their settings reveals how they reflect the different religious traditions they represent.
The “sacrifice of Isaac” was one of the most popular scenes in early Christian art. From the Constantinian era (beginning in 312 C.E.) until the end of the sixth century, there remain at least 22 catacomb frescoes, approximately 90 sarcophagus reliefs, several important mosaics and dozens of smaller objects including ivory pyxides, glasses, lamps and bowls depicting the sacrifice of Isaac. This places it up there with images of Jonah, Noah, Moses and Daniel in popularity, making the sacrifice of Isaac a central theme of early Byzantine art.
The two most significant Jewish depictions of the Akedah are in ancient synagogues, one in the third-century synagogue at Dura-Europos in modern Syria, where it is portrayed in a painting on dry plaster above the Torah niche, and the other in the sixth-century synagogue at Beth Alpha in Israel, where it is portrayed in a mosaic pavement.
Neither of these two Jewish examples comes from an urban center, and their style resembles folk art rather than high art. In the Beth Alpha mosaic, Abraham and Isaac are identified in Hebrew. The hand of God extends from heaven to prevent Abraham from proceeding. Below the hand are the Hebrew words, “Lay not [your hand].” Next to the ram are the words, “Behold a ram.”
In the Dura-Europos synagogue, the Akedah scene shares the special panel above the Torah niche with a depiction of the Temple, as well as specifically Jewish symbols, including a menorah and a palm branch (lulav) and citron (Etrog) (both used on the festival of Sukkot).
Christian depictions of the sacrifice of Isaac, in contrast to the surviving Jewish images of the scene, appear most frequently in the artistic programs of tombs and sarcophagi. In the Roman catacombs, the sacrifice of Isaac appears near the raising of Lazarus (John 11:43–44); the story of Jonah (who returned from the belly of the fish after three days [Jonah 1:17], just as Jesus emerged from the tomb after three days); the healing of the paralytic (John 5:8–9); and the three youths who emerged from the fiery furnace unsigned (Daniel 3:24–26). This juxtaposition sends a message of deliverance from illness and death, symbolized in part by Isaac, who was delivered by God. On two well-known sarcophagi—one from the Vatican Museum and the other the famous Junius Bassus sarcophagus in the Treasury of St. Peter’s (also a part of the Vatican Museum)—the sacrifice of Isaac is balanced by scenes from the arrest and trial of Jesus, as if to emphasize the sacrifice of Isaac as a metaphor for the vicarious and atoning sacrifice of Christ.
In the Priscilla catacomb fresco in Rome Isaac carries his own firewood. Is this because the artist has been influenced by Christian writers like Tertullian, who stressed the parallel between Isaac carrying the wood and Jesus carrying the cross? Or is it that the artist was simply faithfully portraying what he read in the biblical text?
In several Christian images, such as the mid-sixth-century mosaics in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, the sacrifice of Isaac is associated with the offerings of Abel (Genesis 4:4) and Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18–20). In San Vitale, a lunette in the sanctuary portrays a kind of Abraham cycle. To the left, Abraham and Sarah hear the announcement of Isaac’s promised birth. Abraham offers a small calf on a platter to his three angelic visitors, who sit at a table on which three loaves are spread out. To the right is the scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Here Isaac is placed on the altar. Abraham’s sword is aloft, but the hand of God has stayed it from striking. The ram substitute stands at Abraham’s feet. Directly across the sanctuary is a complementary lunette that depicts Abel and Melchizedek offering their sacrifices at an altar set with a chalice and two patens. Thus, the offering of Isaac is clearly identified with the sacrament of the eucharist, which, for Christians, is the representation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
In Hebrews 5, Jesus is given a priestly lineage after the order of Melchizedek (Just as in Luke 3:23–38 and Matthew 1 he is given a royal, i.e., Davidic, lineage). The portrayal of Melchizedek’s offering is symbolic on at least two levels. First, Melchizedek prefigures Christ, who, in the person of the priest, is actually the celebrant of the eucharist. Second, the offering foreshadows the sacrament and its elements.
The placement of the Akedah scene over the Torah niche in the Dura-Europos synagogue delivers a different message. Nearly two centuries after the destruction of the Temple, the Akedah scene may here be telling us that the Akedah, rather than the Temple sacrifice, is the ultimate vicarious sacrifice and that the synagogue is the new locus of the faith—prayer and Torah reading have taken the place of sacrifice and temple cult.
Sometimes Jewish and Christian depictions bear similarities, if only because they portray the same text. In almost all the Christian catacomb frescoes of the sacrifice of Isaac and in the Beth Alpha synagogue mosaic of the Akedah, fires burn on the altar. Is this a reference to the Levitical regulation about setting the fire on the altar first, or does it allude to the midrash that Isaac was not killed by the knife but by the fire?
In none of these instances is the image merely a biblical illustration. Each goes beyond the representation of the Genesis narrative and is meant to present a truth about the faith tradition itself. In a Christian context, whether in art or in literature, the sacrifice of Isaac directly refers to the salvation offered by the vicarious sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In a Jewish context, the image underscores the place of the Akedah as a meritorious act that can be shared with the people of Israel, reassuring the community that, although the Temple has been lost, Isaac’s descendants are safe.
“The Binding or Sacrifice of Isaac” by Robin M. Jensen originally appeared in Bible Review in October 1993 and on BHD.
Robin M. Jensen is the Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Worship and Art at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She is the author of Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity (Baker Academic, 2012) and Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism (Brill, 2011).
1. Midrash (plural midrashim) designates a genre of rabbinic literature that dates roughly from 400–1550 C.E. The term refers to a nonliteral elaboration of a biblical text, often for homiletic purposes.
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