Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac
9 August 2008
- Abraham’s obedience
The text of the Book of Genesis which was written in Hebrew reads:
“After these events God tested Abraham, and said to him …’Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and … offer him … as a burnt offering”. (Gn 22.1-2)
Without hesitation Abraham takes Isaac to Mount Moriah, builds an altar, binds him and then seizes the knife to kill his son. It is the crucial test: does Abraham place his hope in God or in his son who is the fulfilment of the promise? Abraham shows absolute obedience to the divine command. He will be supremely blessed.
However, only the scholars of Jesus day could understand Hebrew. ‘Targums’, therefore, were written which were translations into Aramean, the language of the ordinary people. These translations, however, involved considerable additions and in some cases significant shifts in emphasis. This fact is of highest importance, for the targums were commonly read in the synagogues and actually represented for the people the true meaning of the sacred text.
This is the case in a targum called Neofiti on Genesis 22 where the focus shifts away from Abraham and is directed to Isaac who ceases to be the just passive and becomes the principal figure of the story.
The Gospel of John
Chapter 8 of the Gospel of John is in part a commentary on Genesis 22 and especially on a targum such as Neofiti. The Gospel passage is therefore a development of the Aramaic Neofiti which itself is a development of the Hebrew text. Indeed, if we are to understand the New Testament writings as a whole we must consider the targums as well as the Biblical texts.
- The two sons
The command given to Abraham contains the sentence:
Take your son, your only (yāhîd) son Isaac, whom you love
The word ‘only’ translates the Hebrew word yāhîd which is found three times (vv. 2, 12 and 16) and can mean ‘precious’ or ‘only’. In fact it cannot strictly mean ‘only’ since Abraham has two sons, both of whom he loves: Isaac, the son of Sarah, the legitimate wife, and Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the slave-woman. Ishmael, however, is expelled and driven out into the desert, whilst Isaac remains in his father’s house. Isaac is the heir to the promise and in this sense he is ‘precious’, ‘dear’, he is the only one that counts.
In the Genesis account, Ishmael is expelled because Sarah does not want him to share in Isaac’s inheritance. Neofiti, by contrast, interprets Ishmael as an idolater while Isaac is the true worshipper. In other words, according to Neofiti, Ishmael is expelled because of his worship of false gods.
Gospel of John
Chapter 8 includes a long discussion on true sonship. In short, the evangelist assimilates Isaac to Jesus who is the only Son, the true son, who teaches the truth. Ishmael represents those who have refused to accept Jesus and who are therefore sinners. Jesus is the true Isaac who remains forever in his father’s house and who alone can bring freedom from the slavery of sin.
Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Jesus is yāhîd the favourite son, the only son.
The word yāhîd is translated into Greek as monogenēs which means ‘of one (monos) kind (genos)’ ‘unique’ ‘only son’ and recurs frequently in the Gospel of John. It is translated into Latin as unigenitus (only-begotten) by St Jerome, who uses the term ‘only-begotten’ in order to oppose Arianism. He did not want the readers of the Latin Vulgate to think that Jesus was only a favourite son, just one son among many sons.
- The binding of Isaac
The Hebrew text of Genesis continues:
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Gn 22.9-10)
The simplicity of the text and its almost total lack of emotive words are deeply moving. Abraham is obeying the command without demure.
The targum called Neofiti was known in Palestine at the time of Christ. Just after the description of Abraham seizing the knife to kill his son, it makes an addition. Isaac is made to speak and says to his father:
“Father, tie me well lest I strike you with my feet and that the offering be rendered invalid …”
Neofiti make a further addition. After relating that a ram has been offered in place of Isaac, Abraham prays:
“And now, when the sons [of Isaac] are in distress, remember the binding (aqédah) of their father Isaac and hear the voice of their supplication, answer their prayer and deliver them from all tribulation.”
The term ‘binding’ is very significant. It means that Isaac willingly lets himself be bound on the altar of sacrifice. It is common Jewish teaching that death when it is accepted freely has a propitiatory value for others. Isaac ceases to be the passive figure of the Genesis account. His free choice of being sacrificed acquires universal value.
The significance of the binding of Isaac is emphasised by the fact that in later Judaism and before the rise of Christianity, Passover was as much a memorial of the sacrifice of Isaac as of the liberation from Egypt. Indeed, in the blood of the Passover lamb God saw the sacrifice of Isaac and it was Isaac who gave value to the Passover lamb. This was emphasised in the rabbinical commentaries of the day.
This same teaching is found in another targum on the worship of the golden calf. God spares the people in virtue of the sacrifice of Isaac:
“Then Moses went back and implored the mercy of the Lord, and God remembered in their favour the binding (aqédah) of Isaac whom his father had bound on Mount Moriah, on the altar (targum on The Canticle 1.13)
Even today this prayer is found in the liturgy of Rosh-ha-Shanah, at the beginning of the Jewish New Year which reads: “Remember today the binding (aqédah) of Isaac in favour of his posterity.”
Gospel of John
According to the Gospel of John Jesus is put to death at the very moment when the paschal lambs were sacrifice in the Temple. If the binding of Isaac gives value to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, the freely chosen death of Jesus gives value to all the sacrifices and in fact replaces them all.
“No one takes [my life] from me; I lay it down of my own free will. (Jn 10.18)
He is the true Passover. He is the true Lamb of God. (Jn 1.36)
- Seeing the glory of God
After the sacrifice of the ram in the place of Isaac, the Jerusalem Bible translation of Genesis 22.14 reads:
Abraham called this place ‘Yahweh provides’, and hence the saying today ‘On the mountain Yahweh provides’.
The footnote to the translation states that the translation is according to the Greek and is uncertain. The New Revised Standard Version allows the following translation:
So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will see’, as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord he shall be seen.
The difference between the two translations is very significant. The Hebrew version is reflected in Neofiti and in the Gospel of John.
This targum adds,
“All generations to come will say ‘on the mountain of the sanctuary of Yahweh where Abraham offered his son Isaac, on this mount the glory of the shekinah of Yahweh appeared to him.”
In late Judaism, the word shekinah refers to the presence of God manifested in certain places or to certain people, such as on Mt Sinai (Ex 24.14-15) or the in Tent of Meeting (Ex 40.34-35) or in the Temple in Jerusalem (I K 8.10-11, Ez 43-4-6). Although there is no episode in the Hebrew Bible which states that Abraham had seen the glory of God, pious Jews did not doubt such was the case. Indeed it was taught to them in their synagogues. But when did Abraham actually see the glory of God?
Gospel of John
Jesus tells the Jews:
“Your father Abraham … rejoiced to think that he would see my Day, he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8.56).
When did Abraham rejoice to see the Day? Was it when he laughed in incredulity at the thought of his wife bearing him a son? (Gn 17.17) Was it when the three angelic visitors promised him that his wife would bear his son within the year? (Gn 18.1-15) Was it when, according to later rabbinic traditions (Middrash Rabbah xliv 22 on Gn 16.18. IV Ezra), Abraham saw the whole history of his descendents? Was it when, according to other Jewish sources (Targum Onkelos on Gn 17.16-17, Gen.Rab.44.22, Apoc. Abr.31.1-3), Abraham saw the secrets of the messianic age?
A clue is found in Jn 12.41 where the evangelist explicitly refers to the episode where the prophet Isaiah sees the God in the Temple and hears the seraphim cry out “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Is 6.1-3). In other words, according to the evangelist when Isaiah saw the glory of God in the Temple he also saw Jesus.
Isaiah said this because he saw [Jesus’] glory and spoke about him. (Jn 12.41)
Stephen the first martyr also, in his vision of heaven, sees God and Jesus at his right hand (Acts 7.54-58). Thus the evangelist implies that when Abraham saw the glory of the shekinah on Mt Moriah he also saw Jesus.
The prologue of the Gospel of John reads:
“we have seen his glory, the glory that is his as the only son of the Father full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1.14)
The Gospel text uses the term Day, The word ‘Day’ and the word ‘glory’ have much the same meaning, for the ‘Day of Yahweh’ refers to the coming of the Yahweh in glory.
- I am
Gospel of John
Genesis and Neofiti have nothing further to say at this point. However, the Gospel (v.52-53) continues to develop the theme. Jesus’ opponents protest:
‘Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’
This text is ironic. The opponents are asking: Are you claiming to be greater than our father Abraham? The Christian reader knows the answer: Yes he is indeed greater than Abraham! Jesus does not back down at the objection but goes on to make one of the most powerful assertions in the Gospel (v.58).
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was (ginesthai), I AM (einai).’
The phrase ‘I am’ is a divine title. God uses it of himself in the passage about the burning bush (Ex 3.14) when he tells Moses:
‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”
Jesus who is sent by God has the qualities and substance of God. Just as God can say to Moses ‘I am’ so too Jesus can say ‘I am’ for the fullness of divinity dwells in him. It is the climax of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John.
Indeed, the point is not lost on Jesus’ opponents. They must kill him. The text goes on (v. 59).
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Neofiti builds on Genesis 22. The Gospel of John in turn builds on the Neofiti. We are studying cases of typology which is commonly found in the New Testament. Typology goes from the lesser to the greater, from the sign to the reality behind the sign. To summarize we can point to a series of typologies.
- Whereas the Abraham sacrifices his son Isaac because he is commanded to do so, God sacrifices his Son Jesus freely, out of love for the world. (Jn 3.3.16) God is the true Abraham.
- Jesus is the true Isaac, the son who is eternally in the Father’s house, and who alone can set slaves free.
- Isaac is the only son in a limited sense. Jesus is the only son par excellence.
- As Isaac is sacrificed by his father for the sake of his posterity, so Jesus is sacrificed by the one whom he most truly calls ‘Father’, so that the world might be saved
- Isaac allows himself to be bound, but Jesus chooses to be bound. Jesus is the only Son who freely lays down his life for the salvation of the world.
- Abraham had the joy of acquiring a son through Sarah, but he knows a greater joy in seeing the glory of the shekinah of Yahweh and in this shekinah he saw Jesus’ Day.
- Above all, Jesus who is sent by God has all the qualities and the very substance of God and therefore can use the divine title ‘I am’. He can thus reveal the heart of God most fully.
No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (Jn 1.18)
 Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, Garden City, New Yok : Doubleday and Co. Inc. 1966. p.13.
 See also Jn.1.18; 3.16, 18.
 Targum du Pentateuque. Traduction des deux recensions palestiniennes complètes avec introduction, paralleles, notes et index, par Roger Le Déaut avec la collaboration de Jacques Robert. Tome I Genèse. Paris: Les Editions Du Cerf, 1978.., p. 218f.
 Targum du Pentateuque. p. 220f.
 F.-M Braun, ‘Le sacrifice d’Isaac dans Ie quatrième évangile d’après Ie Targum’, Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 1979. p. 491.
 Frank J. Moloney The Gospel of John, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998. p. 284.
 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.