The Binding of Isaac

Parashat Vayyera

This week’s Torah portion is action packed and full of Messianic significance.

But this is also a very troubling parasha:

  • Story of Sodom and Gomorrah
  • Abraham pawning off Sarah as his sister – A SECOND TIME!
  • During Lot’s escape from the city, his wife is turned into a pillar of salt
  • Daughters of Lot get their father drunk, and then sleep with him
  • Hagar cast into the desert, and Ishmael almost dies of thirst

The central story, of course, is the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). There is more commentary written on this passage than on any other portion in the Torah. The rabbis struggled with this passage and its meanings. As we delve into the Akeidah, it is vitally important to keep in mind the words of German Bible scholar Gerhard Von Rad:

One should renounce any attempt to discover one basic idea as the meaning of the whole.  There are many levels of meaning.

This is especially true of the Akeidah. It has many lessons to be learned. Even the ‘WHY?’ is complicated. It is not just a test. It’s bigger than that!

Substitution

יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְי, מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי. 11 And the angel of HaShem called out to him from heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’
יב וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה:  כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי. 12 And he said: ‘Do not lay a hand upon the lad, neither shall you do anything unto him; for now I know that you fear HaShem, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.’
יג וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt-offering instead of his son.
יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, יי יִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם, בְּהַר יי יֵרָאֶה. 14 And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-yireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where HaShem is seen.’

The Torah states that G-d will provide Himself the lamb (vs. 8), an offering in place of Isaac. This is the reason we sound a shofar (a ram’s horn) on Rosh HaShanah and why this passage is read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah; to recall the substitution of the ram and to recall HaShem’s mercy. And the shofar itself contains a hint to Mashiach. According to the Talmud:

Rabbi Abahu asked, “Why do we sound the horn of a ram? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘Blow Me a ram’s horn that I may remember unto you the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and I shall account it unto you for a binding of yourselves before me (b.Rosh Hashana 16b).’”

Resurrection and Atonement

Although it may not be the majority position, there are a few commentaries that claim that Abraham really went through with it – that he really sacrificed Isaac. This idea is drawn from the text itself – they go up together, but Abraham returns alone:

יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.  19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheva; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheva.

Interestingly, immediately after this Sarah dies (see next week’s parasha). The rabbis speculate that it is due to hearing the news of Isaac and seeing Abraham return alone. One reason for this speculation is that very little is mentioned of Isaac after this, and there is a very clear change in the Hebrew (as if written by someone else – a later revision).

However, even more interesting, there is another remarkable tradition that Abraham completed the sacrifice and that afterward Isaac was miraculously revived …

Ibn Ezra (12th cent.) quotes an opinion that Abraham actually did kill Isaac … and that he was later resurrected from the dead.

Furthermore, Saadia Gaon (10th cent.) states, “there are ten reasons for blowing the shofar … the sixth one is to remind us of the binding of Isaac who offered himself to Heaven.  So ought we be ready at all times to offer our lives for the sanctification of His name.”

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, such views enjoyed a wide circulation in medieval writings. There are even a few references to Isaac’s sacrifice as an act of atonement:

-Philo (1st cent.) refers to Isaac as the son/servant of Isaiah 53, who provides atonement for both Jew and Gentile.

-Shir HaShirim Rabbah, quoting Song of Songs 1:14: “‘A bundle of myrrh (kofer) is my beloved.’  This refers to Isaac, who was tied up like a bundle upon the altar.  Kofer, because he atones for the sins of Israel (1, sec. 14).”

Within the Akeidah we see not only a message of faith, obedience and sacrifice, but also a message of resurrection and redemption. Within our Jewish tradition, the Akeidah carries a glimpse of an even greater hope, a greater redemption, and a greater Resurrection still to come.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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13 Responses to The Binding of Isaac

  1. Pingback: Yinon Blog: The Binding of Isaac |

  2. Yechiel Shlipshon says:

    Dear Sir;
    My understanding is that the three visitors were angels; Michael (messinger of G-d)
    Raphael (healer of G-d)
    Gabrael (Strenth of G-d)
    Abram had just circumcised himself, so he needed healing, a messiage was sent, so Michael, and the distructon of the two cities, so Gabrael. So when G-d talked to Abram, which was cut off after the Akeida, He spoke through his angels (Hebrew for Angel is translated as messenger). So I do not see where G-d changed, here. Can you?

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Yechiel,

      Your reference to the three visitors being the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael is from the Talmud (b. Bava Metzia 86b).

      This idea of all three figures being angels dates back even to the first century C.E. – where the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus simply describes them as angels. Furthermore, in recent centuries this has also become the most common way to understand this within most Jewish circles.

      However, this reading still poses a problem regarding Abraham’s addressing HaShem (YHVH) directly in this conversation (or of this whole thing sandwiched between 18:1 and 18:33). To overcome this, Rashi for example, states that it was G-d’s Shechina whom Abraham was addressing, which was there in the midst of the visitation with the three visitors.

      This reading too, however, is slightly problematic because it does not answer some of the difficulties with how to interpret this passage in light of the fact that HaShem is described in such an immanent way.

      So is this the best way to understand this passage … IMHO the answer is no.

      There is actually another way of looking at this passage (there are actually a few others), but one particular way I find convincing … and one that is much older than the reference from the Talmud. That reading is to understand one of the three visitors as HaShem Himself in a manifested form – what theologians call a Theophany … and that the other two are the angels described in 19:1 who then go off to Sodom.

      This idea is not so crazy or as foreign as you might think.

      The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, understands that this passage is meant to convey a difficult theological truth about the nature of G-d. He understands this to be, in his words, “a threefold image of one subject, one image of the living G-d, and the other two, as if they were shadows irradiated by it.”

      Commenting on this passage from Philo, Jewish scholar Samuel Sandmel explains:

      “In the unfolding chapter there are two interpretive difficulties. The three men are at times alluded to in the singular, but also in the plural; and in the very first verse, one wonders about the relationship of God and the three visitors, namely, are they one and the same, or are they different? In Philo’s allegory, there are two important lessons we have already seen, and here repeat. The three visitors are, respectively, Theos, the creative power; Kyrios, the ruling power; and the Logos … the triple vision is in reality a single vision, that of a unity which transcends every other form of unity (Judaism and Christian Beginnings, 292-293).”

      There are also a number of other early sources which support such a reading and other passages from the Tanakh which are also understood to be Theophanies (but for which I do not have time to elaborate on tonight).

      • Shmuel haLevi says:

        I agree with rabbi Joshua.
        An interesting book on the subject is written by the James L. Kugel (born 1945, chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel, a orthodox Jew):
        “the God of Old”. Kugel dares to go in to the subject of G-d showing Himself through in material ways in the old times.

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      This is a great book. I already have it on my bookshelves … but must confess I have not had time to read yet. But I surely intend to! Maybe it will even be the source and inspiration for an additional blog post(s).

  3. David Cook says:

    Moses wrote in Genesis 18 when Abraham was visited by three “men” who turned out to be heavenly visitors. Two were angels who later were sent to destroy Sodom and to rescue Lot and his family and destroy Sodom for its wickedness. But one of the “men” Abraham bows down to and called Him “Lord” (Adon). Moses calls this human Lord (Adon) Yhvh. Who is this human Lord who Moses said was Yhvh? Abraham serves Him a meal and then pleads with his Lord (Adon) to have mercy on the city of Sodom if there are ten righteous people living in the city. This human Lord (Adon) Yhvh is the per-incarnate Messiah Yeshua! This is the God of Abraham who I serve and true believers bow down to and worship like our father Abraham. Genesis 18:1-32

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Shalom David,

      This is where you and I would disagree on a particular detail. I don’t believe that this was, what theologians call a Christophany, meaning the pre-incarnate Messiah (although it helps set up and give context for it). But I do believe it was indeed a Theophany – an incarnation of HaShem (YHVH).

      I think it is important to read the Torah in context and not read into it. Furthermore, Yeshua himself is also a type of incarnation (one could even say a type of Theophany), albeit greater than any of the others.

    • Yechiel says:

      Dear David; Is there one word in genesis (I am not limiting this just to the visit) where yhou supposition of JC is supported?
      Most commentators I have read on the visit, including Christian, accept three angels, or a vision?!?
      I read it in Hebrew, and I can see where G-d could be incerted, but this goes against what He has said about Himself. As Abram had just been circumcised, healing was needed. As there was some need to let Abram know of Sodom and Gemorah, a messenger was needed. As there was going to be the distruction of the two cities, the stringth was needed. So we get from here the three names for the three angels.
      Where you have missed the boat is that “angel” is a spiritual form created by HaShem for His purpose. As immediate represetitives of G-d, Abram would see them as having His authority, thus the “my L-rd” out of respect. Remember, this is pre-Sinai, so I am sure there had to be some fine tuning, and addressing angels (Immediate Forms of G-d) would be acceptable. But to place a name on any of them, where there is no support, and with sacred scripture, does not hold water.
      But a good guess anyway. Anyway, even if you prove right about second coming of the Moshiac to do as He said (who said the first time, by the way) we all still wait for the results of the Moshiac. And remember, all the Prophets affirmed One indivisible Divinity, for our G-d. He has no father nor son (so He said) nor does He share His glory with another.
      Shalom;
      Yechiel

  4. The angel could also be the angel of G-d’s presence that had G-d’s name (presence) in it and that G-d speaks through directly to people (through it’s mouth) like a telephone, so it doesn’t have to say “Thus says the L-rd…” You can’t assume the messenger of G-d is G-d if it is possible that G-d could use it as a device to “appear” to people and speak to them without them actually literally seeing G-d.

    Kenneth Greifer
    http://www.messianicmistakes.com/

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Kenneth,

      Although it is probable that it is the “Malakh HaShem,” the Angel of the LORD, the problem is that the text itself does not indicate it is (unlike many other places where the Malakh HaShem is clearly identified). Rather, this being is referred to directly as “HaShem (i.e. YHVH).” Therefore it leaves open further speculation.

      • How does this fit the other quotes that say you can’t see G-d and live? Your argument is that it does not say it is the angel of G-d, so it could be G-d, but you don’t explain how that is possible. I have never heard anyone say that G-d can be seen. I have only heard people say that one “part” of G-d can be seen. Don’t get mad if I say that wrong. I don’t fully understand your beliefs about the trinity.

        • Rabbi Joshua says:

          Kenneth,

          Read my response to Yechiel in the comments here. Many ancient Jewish sources had no problem with one possible understanding I presented. As far as the verse you raise, it is does not conflict … as that refers to the unknowable aspect of G-d.

          Basically, for centuries theologians have struggled with how to understand both G-d’s transcendence and G-d’s immanence. How can the Creator of the Universe who is beyond anything we can grasp also reveal G-d’s self to humanity in a way that is knowable.

          According to the Jewish mystics, the immanent aspect of G-d which is unknowable and beyond our comprehension is described as Ein Sof. However, G-d pursues us and interacts with humanity through emanations – acts of limitation and revelation. But these are not the totality of who HaShem is, because we (as finite beings) could not comprehend or grasp this (i.e. or even “see G-d”). But we can grasp much of His emanations, even if not fully. Although no one can “see” G-d, the Torah also explains that Moses knew G-d “face to face” (Ex. 33:11), for example.”

          So there is a limited aspect of G-d which is knowable (in a relational way), but we cannot grasp the totality of G-d.

          Hope that helps.

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