Light from the Sidra


Torah: Genesis 18:1-22:24.Haftarah: 2 Kings 4:1-37

It’s no sacrifice

Two contemporary Jewish singer songwriters have written songs about the sacrifice of Isaac, giving their own interpretations to one of the great events (or non-events, depending on your perspective) of Biblical history. Highway 61 Revisited was the first album of Bob Dylan’s first electric period and I remember being stunned by the eponymous first track in which Dylan tells the sacred story in a hip style:

God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’. God say, “No.”/Abe say, ‘What?’/God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin’ you better run.’/Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’/God says, ‘Out on Highway 61’.

Unlike Highway 61 Revisited Leonard Cohen’s The Story of Isaac, handles the story with deliberate gravity as an anti-war song:

The door it opened slowly,/my father he came in,/I was nine years old./And he stood so tall above me,/his blue eyes they were shining/and his voice was very cold./He said, ‘I’ve had a vision/and you know I’m strong and holy,/I must do what I’ve been told.’

It is not only Jews of recent times that have used the story for their own purposes; the rabbis of the Talmudic period have their own takes on the also appear to give their own spin to the story.

According to the Talmudic rabbis, the Akeda or Binding of Isaac took place after the weaning of Isaac, when he was about five years old. Whatever age Isaac was, he had to be old and strong enough to carry enough wood up a hill with which to consume a human sacrifice.

What is of greater importance to us is that some rabbis believed that Abraham actually sacrificed his son and that the death of Isaac served as an atonement for the sins of Israel.

‘The Midrash on the Song of Songs says: ‘MY BELOVED IS UNTO ME AS A CLUSTER OF HENNA. CLUSTER refers to Isaac, who was bound on the altar like A CLUSTER OF HENNA (KOFER): because he atones (mekapper) for the iniquities of Israel.’ (Soncino Midrash Rabbah vol. 9, second part, p. 81).

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 151 n. 5, says: ‘There was ... a remarkable tradition that insisted that Abraham completed the sacrifice and that afterward Isaac was miraculously revived ... According to this haggadah, Abraham slew his son, burnt his victim, and the ashes remain as a stored-up merit and atonement for Israel in all generations.’

The Midrash on Genesis has the remarkable comment: ‘“And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering, and put it on his son Isaac” (Gen. 22:6) – like one bearing his own cross.’ (Soncino Midrash Rabbah, vol. 9, second part, p. 81).

The text of Genesis is clear that Isaac did not die. He was replaced by a ram and but Abraham told Isaac that God would provide a lamb. Without wanting to be pedantic, God did not provide a lamb but a ram and that started a tradition that in the mount of the Lord it would be ‘provided’ or ‘seen’. What would be provided? The lamb. The lamb God said he would provide.

Two thousand years later, John the Baptist would announce that Jesus of Nazareth was that lamb, the Lamb of God, the lamb his people had been waiting for.

The offering of Isaac prefigured the sacrifice of Jesus. Abraham loved God so much that he gave him his only son. But Abraham’s son was spared the horror of being a sacrifice.

According to the Gospel of John 3:16, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son as a sacrifice of atonement. Jesus the Son of God carried the wood on which he would be sacrificed up one of the mountains of Moriah but he was not spared the pain and ignominy of the cross. What is more, God raised his Son from the dead as a testimony to the fact that he accepted his Son’s death as an atonement for sin.

Just in case any reader should imagine that the Christians borrowed the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death from the Midrash, the Midrash was written hundreds of years after the New Testament. So if any copying was going on, it’s not hard to see who borrowed from whom.

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