When Abraham Killed Isaac

Of course, we all know that Abraham didn’t kill Isaac in the end. Or do we? Richard Elliot Friedman has made a strong case that in the original version of the story, Abraham actually does kill Isaac as he had been commanded in the classic Who Wrote the Bible? and other texts he’s written. On what possible basis could he come to this conclusion? He offers seven reasons:

1. In the original sources that come to make up the Torah, Gen 22 is attributed to an author from the Northern Kingdom, nickednamed “E” because he refers to God as Elohim, in contrast to “J” who refers to God as Jehovah, or Yahweh in contemporary use. In Gen 22:1-10, God is called Elohim, but suddenly an “angel of Yahweh” appears to save Isaac.

2. Gen 22:11-15, when Isaac is rescued by the Angel of Yahweh, also discusses how Abraham names the site after Yahweh in his honor.

3. In 22:16, “he” (is this the angel or Elohim?) praises Abraham because “you did this thing and didn’t withhold your son.” What?!? This seems to describe a moment after which Isaac had been killed. It could refer, of course, to Abraham’s willingness, but it could also mean that he did it.

4. The story concludes with Abraham returning home, without any mention of Isaac.

5. In all of the other writings attributed to “E,” Isaac never again shows up. In fact, the traditions about Isaac even in the other texts are pretty meager compared to Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.

6. Exod 24, also from E, presents the story of a revelation at Mount Horeb which has multiple parallels with Gen 22, except that none are found in v. 11-15.

7. There are some midrashic stories that say that Isaac was sacrificed. I personally consider this to be pretty weak evidence since the editing of the Torah took place long before midrashim start showing up on this story, but it nevertheless represents the idea that at least for some, the idea of God actually asking that Abraham sacrifice Isaac is not out of the question.

Friedman argues that the editor, or “redactor” of J and E changes the story to reflect the later rejection of child sacrifice.

So, two questions arise for me. First, is the evidence that Friedman puts forth convincing? Second, what if God really did ask Isaac to be sacrificed? What does that say about God? What does that do for Christianity? This latter question is important because some of highlighted child sacrifice in ancient Israel as a precursor for Christianity. Does this version of the story make the case of Christianity better than the current one in the received text?

26 Replies to “When Abraham Killed Isaac”

  1. Even if there is a tradition in which this was taught why assume that’s problematic at all? Why not just assume that tradition was wrong and was corrected? Older doesn’t necessarily mean more accurate.

  2. Creepy! So, does E end at the sacrifice of Isaac? If not, from wench cometh the 12 tribes? From Ishmael, the blessed one in the Koran? Totally confused.

  3. Clark,
    I’m not sure that I see either as “more accurate” in the sense of historically true. Instead, I’m interested in the tradition stream itself as opening up different interpretive possibilities.

    this tradition isn’t totally preserved in E as we have it now. E resumes in 25:1-4 with a list of additional offspring of Abraham. Friedman sees 25:5ff as redactional additions to again assert that a) Isaac is alive and b) he has priority over the other offspring.

  4. That was really interesting, TT. I have no answers to your questions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if what Friedman lays out reflects the textual history. Quite fascinating.

  5. Did I really type “wench”?!? Some people should not be allowed to use computer keyboards. The “Kobol” remark was funny.

  6. Very fascinating! The evidence may not be strong, but it is a fascinating possibility. I have never considered these narratives to be absolute true history, rather ways in which these people created their identity and preserved the memory of who they are by manipulating how events are highlighted in a religious context and embellishing their stories to their convenience (not in ill will, but rather to create a strong sense of religiosity and nationalism). Therefore, I welcome all possibilities and alternative views of more obscure narratives that were not considered popular to benefit their memory and thus may have been shunned in hopes that they would never be told again.

  7. Very interesting post.
    If Isaac would die and then be raised from the dead, that would be way better symbol of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten than the version we have. But that Isaac just dies and that’s it, is really hard to understand. What does it indeed say about God?

  8. TT, I agree that this type of interpretive work is important. Kierkegaard does an excellent job of sensitising the reader of ‘Fear and Trembling’ to these different possibilities, though not to this extent. This narrative would certainly lend profound support for an extreme version of Divine-Command Theory.

  9. The evidence for this reading seems weak. The very late Midrashic stories have no bearing at all on the issue of the original text as far as I can see. Moreover, what possible reason could there be for including the story in the first place? The later tradition of Isaac’s descendents and progeny makes no sense in light of the supposed story because Isaac was supposedly a mere youth. Look, the entire story of Abraham is so old that it can’t be based on much more than oral “history” and myth, but the significance of the myth for Israel’s story as God’s (El’s or Yahweh’s) chosen people of covenant makes no sense if Isaac doesn’t survive. However, the older myth is almost certain;y E’s account.

    1. Mmm,
      I agree that the issue of midrash on its own is not particularly convincing, which I acknowledge in the OP. Instead, I think that the textual issues internal to the story provide the strongest evidence. That there is corroborating evidence in other things like the absence of Isaac in the E narrative strengthens the case that is made on the textual seams of Gen 22 alone.
      I am not sure we are going to get anywhere near a true history of this event, and I am not even sure that such a thing exists. Instead, I’m interested in these texts as repositories of traditional stories. That the story that we have now, including the idea that Isaac is the link in the chain to Jacob, is no more historical than any other claim, and for me at least doesn’t present a counterargument in and of itself. The story as it has arrived to us now clearly depends on this narrative element, but that has nothing to do with how the story may have originally appeared in E, or E’s source.

  10. There’s another, related, and extremely interesting question the story raises. Assuming you take the current version at face value—that God stops Abraham before he goes through with it—then it’s not a real, full test. Even if it’s just a test of Abraham’s faith, the only true measure of his willingness would be his actually going through with it, not just making all the necessary preparations or even getting right up to the critical moment. The fact that God stops him in that critical moment means that Abraham doesn’t actually prove his willingness to go through with it. God could have easily rewarded his true faithfulness by restoring Isaac’s life after the sacrifice was complete—especially if the whole thing is meant to somehow implicate or foreshadow Messiah—but instead he stops Abraham from going through with it. What should we make of that?

    The textual/historical questions you raise here about the possibility of Abraham’s actually having gone through with it (and not having his faith rewarded by having Isaac resurrected) only thickens the proverbial plot.

  11. Brad, I had a similar thought. My immediate response to TT’s suggestion was to (re)consider polygamy, qua England, as an Abrahamic test. If Abraham did kill Isaac then this metaphor can now carry the weight England places upon it; without Abraham actually killing Isaac, Mormons need another hermeneutic in order to think about polygamy from the ecclesiological viewpoint.

  12. Austin, in the text as we have it today, E doesn’t say anything on the matter. The only list of Abraham’s descendents that we get from E is 25:1-4. The story of Isaac’s life and descendants is only in J and a little in P.

  13. Great post, TT. Ginzberg, in his Legends of the Jews (not the best of sources, I know), drawing on Rabbinic tradition, tells the story of how Abraham did not kill Isaac, but Isaac, due to his own fear, gave up the ghost. When Michael, the angel sent to impede Abraham, spoke, the sound of his voice revived Isaac from death (see Ginzberg, 228-230).

    Some Jews apparently thought it important to consider the Aqedah an atoning sacrifice, which means that Isaac would have had to die (although the biblical story has the ram die as a substitute/vicarious sacrifice). However, some, perhaps to reconcile the idea of Isaac dying with the received text, determined that he must have resurrected.

    There is also a tradition that forever after, burnt offerings, representing Isaac (or reprsenting the ram that was a substitute for Isaac), were to be made on the same day (the Day of Atonement) and in the same place (altar of Jerusalem Temple) that the offering of Isaac took place.

  14. “The Last Trial” is a far better book when it comes to midrashic traditions on the sacrifice of Isaac. Spiegel does a good job of exploring the traditions, showing why it made sense to the sages.

  15. I know this isn’t the best source, but Wikipedia says that in E, “Prophetic leadership is emphasized by building the narrative on four key ancestors (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses)…” So does E talk about Jacob, but just not say what his genealogy is?

    On a mostly unrelated note, is there anywhere (whether in print or online) that publishes the different sources separately? Or is it just too murky to definitively differentiate between the sources except in certain clear cases?

  16. Austin,
    The most accessible version that separates out the different sources is Friedman’s _The Bible With Sources Revealed_ that uses color coding. It is definitely contested in lots of parts, but it is a very useful starting point.

    As for the question of Jacob, yes, E mentions him. I also noticed that in Exodus E talks about the God of Ab, Isaac, and Jacob. But ultimately, the text that we have now is one that has been edited, so we are not going to have access to the earlier version with any surety. There is a definite seam in vv.11-14, and one explanation is that it represents a change in the outcome of the story. But since the rest of the story as told now reflects that change in they way that the relationships between the patriarchs is imagined (I personally think that the whole combining of the ancestral heroes Ab, Isaac, and Jacob as kin is fictive), trying to figure out how those relations were done differently in pre-edited version of the story is probably just not possible.

  17. There were ancient Jewish traditions which held that Abraham actually killed Isaac on the mount and the Lord brought Isaac back to life. The reference in Hebrews 11: 17-19 seems to be based upon this earlier tradition; in contrast to the Genesis account (Gen. 22: 9-13.)

    If Abraham actually slew Isaac, and Isaac was raised from the dead, the trial of Abraham and the test of Isaac is more analogous to Christ’s sacrifice than we imagine.

    Hugh Nibley writes about these earlier traditions in Abraham in Egypt, pp. 329-344, 372-375.

  18. I have also heard of that particular tradition that Abraham did in fact carry out the deed, as he had been ordered. What I heard was that this particular tradition ‘gave way’ to a softer one as Genesis was finally edited, principally because by then child sacrifice was frowned upon and it would not have helped the new regulations if someone as authoritative as Abraham was depicted in a sacred text as having killed his son.
    The other relevant comment, I think, is this, and it is from (almost) our own time. The World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote a poem about the outrageous and massive slaughter of that conflict – he himself, a soldier, was to die shortly before the end of the war… If I remember part of the poem correctly, he wrote:
    And (he) stretched forth his hand to slay his son. But lo, an angel … called to him and said, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. Behold, a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. Offer the ram of pride instead of him. But the old would not so, and slew his son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one.
    (This poem was set by Benjamin Britten as part of his WAR REQUIEM, in the part that accompanies his setting of the liturgical words ‘Abraham et semini eius’, echoes in ‘half the seed of Europe’.

  19. I just went over this chapter in my Biblical Hebrew class in the last two months. My teacher mentioned this theory in our class yesterday, while emphasizing that he was not preaching doctrine, and the more I think about it the more I think it makes sense. Consider afterwards how Abraham leaves the mountain without Isaac, and how Abraham goes directly to Beersheba, not back to Horeb, where his wife is. In fact, his wife dies before he returns to Horeb. Why? In class we joked about how Sarah would kill Abraham if she learned that he had killed their precious son. Perhaps that isn’t completely off. Maybe Abraham didn’t return because he couldn’t bring himself to face her. Now, if Isaac was killed then he must have been raised from the dead, because we know his story later in the scriptures. I believe the strongest evidence that I know of for this is Hebrews 11:17 and 19. This story may be one of those plain and simple truths that was corrupted and lost to us. If this theory were true though, how do you think members of the Church – or anyone for that matter – would handle God commanding a father to sacrifice his son? If this theory is true, then I suggest that it requires a more spiritually mature perspective, of which many of us do not yet have. Our Heavenly Father feeds our spirits line upon line and precept upon precept, baby steps, so that we can fully digest truth and prepare ourselves for greater understanding. For this reason I believe that the full truth of this story is yet to be made known to us.

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