The story of Abraham’s willingness to offer up his beloved son in obedience to God’s command, is of course, one of the most powerful biblical motifs to inspire the prayers of Rosh Hashanah. The holiday’s central ritual, the sounding of the ram’s horn, evokes the image of the ram that was offered instead of Isaac. We repeatedly implore the Almighty to recall the merit that accrued to our ancestors for their selfless devotion, hoping that he will bestow some of that merit upon their less deserving descendents. The narrative of this event, known to Jewish tradition as the “binding of Isaac”—“‘Aḳedat Yiṣḥaḳ” or “the ‘Aḳedah”—is the designated Torah reading for the second day of the festival.
In the book of Genesis, the divine command to Abraham seems to come with a jarring suddenness, without any explicit reason or provocation. The story begins with a vague formula for a segué: “and it came to pass after these things, that God did test Abraham.” This invites some puzzling questions. For one thing, what are “these things” that preceded the ‘Aḳeda, and are we to assume that there is a meaningful connection between them and God’s sudden command to the patriarch? The verses immediately preceding the command do not provide clear answers to these questions; they tell of the dismissal of Ishmael and Hagar, and of Abraham’s treaty with Abimelech king of Gerar. True, the Hebrew word for “things”—devarim— can also signify “words,” possibly alluding to a statement or to some verbal exchange; but there is no evident link between the command to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain in the land of Moriah and any preceding conversation.
A second difficulty in the ‘Aḳedah story is implicit in the the very idea of “testing” Abraham. Really, now! Does the omniscient deity who is capable of seeing into the hearts and minds of all his creatures have to subject them to tests in order to ascertain the sincerity or intensity of their devotion?
The earliest record we have of a Jewish author who confronted these questions is the “Book of Jubilees,” an extraordinary document dating from the second century B.C.E. Jubilees consists of an elaborate retelling of the Torah’s stories about the Hebrew patriarchs, presented from its own distinctive sectarian perspective. According to Jubilees, the initiative to command Isaac’s sacrifice did not issue from God, but rather was instigated by the evil supernatural being Mastema [“Loathing”], prince of the demons.
The figure of Mastema was well known to early post-biblical Jewish literature and makes occasional appearances in the Dead Sea scrolls. As related by the Book of Jubilees, it was he who first approached the Almighty with the insinuation that Abraham’s faith might not prove so steadfast if it were put to a severe test; it was in this context that the patriarch was ordered to offer up his beloved son on the sacrificial altar on Mount Moriah. Like the later rabbinic traditions, Jubilees presents this episode as the culmination of a series of tests or trials to which Abraham was subjected. Whereas the standard midrashic versions usually enumerated ten such trials, Jubilees furnished a list of six, with the Aḳedah as the seventh and greatest of them; and unlike the rabbis, it has the story taking place not on Rosh Hashanah, but on Passover.
By introducing a demonic being as the instigator of the command to sacrifice Isaac, the author of Jubilees was likely trying to exonerate God from full responsibility for that problematic directive. The narrative motif of a celestial debate about Abraham’s righteousness was undoubtedly inspired by the opening chapter of the book of Job in which Satan persuaded God to subject that unfortunate hero to dreadful suffering in order to ascertain whether or not his righteousness would withstand the ordeal. Mastema in Jubilees appears to be a nastier character than the Satan of Job or of rabbinic tradition; unlike them, he is not just an angel who functions as a divine prosecuting attorney charged with entrapping mortals to sin—but rather a malicious and destructive figure with a track record of willfully inflicting harm on the human race.
Analogous episodes in the Talmud and Midrash assign similar troublemaking roles either to Satan, to the ministering angels (who have an ongoing rivalry with humanity that can be traced back to the beginning of creation), or to God’s personified “attribute of justice” which is constantly arguing against the “attribute of mercy” to impose harsh punishments on Israel. An ancient work known as the “Book of Biblical Antiquities,” which was probably composed in Hebrew but survived in a Latin translation mistakenly attributed to Philo of Alexandria, has a similar description of the ministering angels. According to that version, the angels were so envious and resentful of Abraham that they provoked God to issue a command to do away with his beloved Isaac by offering him up as a sacrifice.
Some rabbinic texts identified the reference to “after these things” with the birth of Isaac, which the supernatural antagonist twisted into an insinuation that Abraham had not expressed his gratitude for that gift in an appropriate manner. One midrashic variant on this theme has Abraham himself suggest to the Almighty that the proper way to express gratitude would be by offering up a sacrifice.
Another rabbinic interpretation imagined an argument between Isaac and his older half-brother Ishmael over which of them was the most dedicated to God. After Ishmael boasted of his proven readiness to endure circumcision at at the age of thirteen without protest, as compared to the infant Isaac’s merely passive role in the rite, Isaac declared that he would be perfectly willing to give up all the limbs of his body should God require it—and this was what precipitated the command to make that fateful journey.
The assertion that Isaac took an active and conscious role in the ‘Aḳedah is hardly obvious from the unembellished text of Genesis which seems to suggest that he was a young child who did not grasp the purpose of his trek to Moriah. Rabbi Yosé ben Zimra understood that the story occurred shortly after Isaac’s weaning. What later became the familiar Jewish version of the story turned Isaac into an adult of thirty-seven years (by linking Sarah’s death to her shock at hearing about what had almost befallen her beloved son). Josephus Flavius gave Isaac’s age as twenty-five.
In a fragment of a Dead Sea scroll from Qumran that bears a strong resemblance to the Jubilees account, a damaged line of the text has been tentatively reconstructed as having Isaac entreat his father “Bind me fast!” This might be the earliest attestation of the motif that Isaac was voluntarily submitting himself in obedience to his Creator, though he feared that he would not have the resolve to go through with the sacrifice. This theme shows up in later Jewish Aramaic Targums in which Isaac pleads, “Bind me well so that I will not struggle in the agony of my soul and be hurled into the pit of destruction and cause your sacrifice to become blemished.” These heartrending words would have provided inspiration to generations of persecuted Jews who were called upon by the assorted Mastemas of history to submit to martyrdom for the sanctification of God’s name.
From this modest sampling of exegetical confrontations with the biblical text, we can begin to appreciate how, from the very earliest recorded days of scriptural study, Jews found it crucial to understand the circumstances that led up to the perplexing tale of the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah, as well as to find in it a source of guidance and inspiration for their own lives.
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