BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Patriarch Abraham and Family

Don’t miss the fascinating and sometimes controversial story of the patriarch Abraham in a BAS Library Special Collection

It’s one of the most powerful narratives in the Hebrew bible, but for nearly 2,000 years, Jews and Christians have read and portrayed the story differently.

According to the narrative in Genesis 22:2–18, God, without any warning, commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, 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 substituted for Isaac.

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The mosaic lunette in the sanctuary of the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, showing two scenes from the life of Abraham. Photo: Petar Milošević/CC BY-SA 4.0.

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 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.

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The sixth-century C.E. floor mosaic from the Beth Alpha synagogue, in Israel’s Jezreel Valley. The mosaic lay near the door, so that anyone who entered was confronted by the scene. Walking from here to the apse, visitors crossed a large mosaic zodiac and then a panel depicting a lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), menorahs, and the Ark of the Law-the same objects that accompanied the Akedah image at Dura-Europos 300 years earlier.

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.

Still other 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?


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Which is the real story of Isaac?

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
  • 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.

Neither of the two surviving Jewish examples comes from an urban center, and their style resembles folk art rather than high 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.

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The marble sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, a Roman prefect who died in 359 C.E., displays Christianity’s understanding of the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

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.

Follow along with Professor Robin M. Jensen as she explores the reasons behind the contradictions and similarities of one of the most foundational Biblical stories. Get a close look at the art and analyze the interpretations with Professor Jensen and Bible Review as your guide.

Discover why the story of Isaac is a cornerstone of some of the world’s major religious traditions.


Explore the world’s most intriguing Biblical scholarship

Dig into more than 7,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast archive with a Library Explorer pass.
library-explorer-pass-button


Uncover fascinating and marvelous debates about Biblical history

This contrast among views of Abraham’s trial with Isaac is just one of the intriguing articles in a very special collection from the BAS Library: The Patriarch Abraham and Family.

Abraham is an important figure across religious traditions. He and his family experienced turmoil and tragedy, deception and violence, passion and desire, love and reconciliation—and it’s all here in this special collection. Join some of the world’s foremost Biblical scholars as they provide different avenues to understanding the Genesis account of the patriarch Abraham.

It might surprise you to learn how much there is to know about Abraham and his family, yet this collection includes all of these revealing studies:

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