The Hebrew Akedah in Christian and Islamic Tradition
Christian Commentary on Genesis 22
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead — and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Remarks: Neither of these two New Testament “readings” of the Akedah would seem to give insight to our reading of Abraham as passing the test of learning to recognize the voice of Yahweh, the one true God, as the God who decidedly calls us away from human sacrifice. Hebrews recounts Abraham’s faith as one that even includes resurrection; and James is interested in using the Akedah as an argument for being “justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Note: as we shall below, Martin Luther liked Hebrews’ reading so much that he used it for his own, but he despised James’ reading.)
Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180), Book IV, Chapter 5, Paragraph 4
Righteously also the apostles, being of the race of Abraham, left the ship and their father, and followed the Word. Righteously also do we, possessing the same faith as Abraham, and taking up the cross as Isaac did the wood follow Him. For in Abraham man had learned beforehand, and had been accustomed to follow the Word of God. For Abraham, according to his faith, followed the command of the Word of God, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice to God, his only-begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption.
Remarks: This passage from the early Church Fathers exemplifies the Christian comparison between Abraham’s near sacrifice and God’s alleged actual sacrifice: “in order that God also might be pleased to offer up for all his seed His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption.”
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 4: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 21-25 (1)
I could not have been an onlooker, much less the performer and slayer. It is an astounding situation that the dearly beloved father moves his knife close to the throat of the dearly beloved son, and I surely admit that I cannot attain to these thoughts and sentiments either by means of words or by reflecting on them. No one else should have expounded this passage than St. Paul. We are not moved by those sentiments, because we do not desire to feel and experience them. The son is obedient, like a sheep for the slaughter, and he does not open his mouth. He thought: “Let the will of the Lord be done,” because he was brought up to conduct himself properly and to be obedient to his father. With the exception of Christ we have no similar example of obedience.
Remarks: Luther’s comments here are exemplary of the other comparison made in a Christian reading of Genesis 22: comparing Isaac’s obedience to that of Christ’s, in willingly going to the sacrifice of the cross.
I was not able (in a thorough searching of his 55 volume works on CD-ROM) to find in Luther the other more troublesome comparison between Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice a son and God’s willingness to do the same — and God’s carrying it through — on the cross.
In commenting on Genesis 22:3 (see the same 4th volume of Luther’s Works), however, Luther does take on the inadequacies of human reason in a similar manner as the passage I address in the page for Proper 8A. Within the context of commenting on 22:3, he resolves the apparent contradiction that human reason sees — i.e., the promise of Isaac and the command to kill that promise — as Abraham believing in the Resurrection (taking his cue from Hebrews 11:19 cited above). The promise wouldn’t die with Isaac since there is the promise of Resurrection. This is, perhaps, a clever way around the contradiction but, I believe, a more tortured route through the Resurrection than the one I take in responding to his attack on reason (again, see reflection #3 at Proper 8A) — namely, that the Resurrection creates faith in human reason beginning to recognize its former idolatry, such as the idolatry implied in the command of Genesis 22:3. In short, the contradiction is resolved by learning to recognize the voice in 22:1-3 as the voice of the old gods who demand the sacred violence of human sacrifice. Those who demand the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross are listening to the same idolatrous voices. The Father of Jesus Christ may be willing to give up his Son, who willingly gives himself up to our sacred violence; but the Father is emphatically not the one who requires the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the cross.
John Wesley’s Notes on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis
My son, God will provide himself a lamb — This was the language either, 1. Of his obedience; we must offer the lamb which God has appointed now to be offered; thus giving him this general rule of submission to the divine will to prepare him for the application of it to himself. Or, 2. Of his faith; whether he meant it so or no, this proved to be the meaning of it; a sacrifice was provided instead of Isaac.
Thus, 1. Christ the great sacrifice of atonement was of God’s providing: when none in heaven or earth could have found a lamb for that burnt-offering, God himself found the ransom. 2. All our sacrifices of acknowledgment are of God’s providing too; ’tis he that prepares the heart. The broken and contrite spirit is a sacrifice of God, of his providing….
Now this obedience of Abraham in offering up Isaac is a lively representation, 1. Of the love of God to us, in delivering up his only begotten Son to suffer and die for us, as a sacrifice. Abraham was obliged both in duty and gratitude to part with Isaac and parted with him to a friend, but God was under no obligations to us, for we were enemies….
Remarks: here we get the “representation” between Abraham and God combined with the popularized Anselmian atonement theory. Seeing Abraham’s sacrifice as a representation of God’s sacrifice of Christ on the cross supports the idea that God wrath would work violence on us save for Christ’s substitution for us on Calvary. Thus, I see exposing the violence of the popular Christian reading of Genesis 22 as integral to exposing the violence of the popularized view of atonement.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary
It was not God’s intention that Isaac should actually be sacrificed, yet nobler blood than that of animals, in due time, was to be shed for sin, even the blood of the only begotten Son of God. But in the meanwhile God would not in any case have human sacrifices used. Another sacrifice is provided. Reference must be had to the promised Messiah, the blessed Seed. Christ was sacrificed in our stead, as this ram instead of Isaac, and his death was our discharge. And observe, that the temple, the place of sacrifice, was afterwards built upon this same mount Moriah; and Calvary, where Christ was crucified, was near. A new name was given to that place, for the encouragement of all believers, to the end of the world, cheerfully to trust in God, and obey him. Jehovah-jireh, the Lord will provide; probably alluding to what Abraham had said, God will provide himself a lamb. The Lord will always have his eye upon his people, in their straits and distresses, that he may give them seasonable help.
Remarks: Henry is to be commended for getting it right that God means for human sacrifice to end with this animal sacrifice — and even correct, too, that Christ is like the ram, a substitution for Isaac to end all sacrifice. As I’ve tried to make more clear, however, one needs to also not leave the door open for the sacrificial reading applied to God. I’m not sure that Henry goes that extra mile. Henry does not clearly address who demands the sacrifice in the first place. But his insight into this passage by emphasizing God as the one who offers substitutes in the process of moving away from sacrifice altogether, is helpful. The other point of clarity is to make sure that one understands Jesus’ sacrifice as a self-sacrifice, i.e., that he offers himself at the cross in obedience to God’s will of exposing the violence and emptiness of the human-based practice of other-sacrifice.
Excerpts from The Koran (2)
Sura 2:122-131, “The Cow”
Children of Israel, remember that I have bestowed favors upon you and exalted you above the nations. Fear the day when every soul shall stand alone: when neither intercession nor ransom shall be accepted from it, nor any help be given it.
When his Lord put Abraham to the proof by enjoining on him certain commandments and Abraham fulfilled them, He said: ‘I have appointed you a leader of mankind.’
‘And what of my descendants?’ asked Abraham.
‘My covenant,’ said He, ‘does not apply to the evildoers.’
We made the House (3) a resort and a sanctuary for mankind, saying: ‘Make the place where Abraham stood a house of worship.’ We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael to cleanse Our House for those who walk round it, who meditate in it, and who kneel and prostrate themselves.
‘Lord,’ said Abraham, ‘make this a land of peace and bestow plenty upon its people, those of them that believe in Allah and the Last Day.’
‘As for those that do not,’ He answered, ‘I shall let them live awhile and then drag them to the scourge of Hell. Evil shall be their fate.’
Abraham and Ishmael built the House and dedicated it, saying: ‘Accept this from us, Lord. You hear all and You know all. Lord, make us submissive to You; make of our descendants a nation that will submit to You. Teach us our rites of worship and turn to us mercifully; You are forgiving and merciful. Lord, send forth to them an apostle of their own who shall declare to them Your revelations and instruct them in the Scriptures and in wisdom and purify them of sin. You are the Mighty, the Wise One.’
Who but a foolish man would renounce the faith of Abraham? We chose him in this world, and in the world to come he shall dwell among the righteous. When his Lord said to him: ‘Submit,’ he answered: ‘I have submitted to the Lord of the Creation.’
Sura 37:81-113, “The Ranks”
Abraham was of the self-same faith [as Noah] and came to his Lord with a pure heart. He said to his father and to his people: ‘What are these that you worship? Would you serve false gods instead of Allah? What do you think of the Lord of creation?’
He lifted up his eyes to the stars and said: ‘I am sick!’ And his people turned their backs and went off.
He stole away to their idols and said to them: ‘Will you not eat your offerings? Why do you not speak?’ With that he fell upon them, striking them down with his right hand.
The people came running to the scene. ‘Would you worship that which you have made with your own hands,’ he said, ‘when it was Allah who created you and all that you have made?’
They replied: ‘Build up a pyre and cast him into the blazing flames.’ Thus they schemed against him: but We balked their schemes.
He said: ‘I will take refuge with my Lord; He will guide me. Grant me a son, Lord, and let him be a righteous man.’
We gave him news of a gentle son. And when he reached the age when he could work with him his father said to him: ‘My son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Tell me what you think.’
He replied: ‘Father, do as you are bidden. Allah willing, you shall find me faithful.’
And when they had both surrendered themselves to Allah’s will, and Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon his face, We called out to him, saying: ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision.’ Thus did We reward the righteous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a noble sacrifice and bestowed on him the praise of later generations. ‘Peace be on Abraham!’
Thus are the righteous rewarded. He was one of Our believing servants.
We gave him Isaac, whom We made a saintly prophet, and blessed them both. Among their offspring were some who did good works and others who clearly sinned against their souls.
Remarks: It is not perfectly clear which son is nearly sacrificed in 37:100ff. My reading is that it is Ishmael, since Isaac is specifically named after the recounting of the near child sacrifice. I would also assume that this took place in Meccah, which is why Ishmael and Abraham built the Ka’ba there (2:125).
The context of this “bitter test” comes closer to the Girardian reading — namely, a testing having to do with remaining faithful in the face of idol worship. But there is still no hint of understanding that any demand for such a human sacrifice is itself from idol worship, not from the true God.
Having Allah say such things of unbelievers as, ‘I shall let them live awhile and then drag them to the scourge of Hell’ (an extremely common sort of saying in the Qur’an), would seem to accept the common view of God’s wrath, a backbone for religions of sacred violence (Christianity included).
There may be much else in Islamic traditional readings of this passage of which I am not aware.
1. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.), Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1999, c1964), concluding paragraph of comments on Gen. 22:10.
2. trans. by N. J. Dawood, New York: Penguin Books, 1956, pages 345, 171-172.