The Sacrifice Of Isaac In Qumran Literature (dr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.j., Catholic University Of America)

The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is well known because of the account of it in Genesis 22. Well known too is the way allusion is made to this story in some writings of the New Testament (e.g., Jas 2,21-23; Heb 6,13-14; 11,17-19; possibly Rom 8,32). Even more well known is the understanding of that account in the rabbinical tradition among the Jewish people, where it is known as the “Aqedat Yishaq, “Binding of Isaac”, or simply the Aqedah or Akedah. It is not surprising, then, that a Qumran text might be found that sheds some light on the understanding of that famous account in the Book of Genesis.

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The name Aqedah, however, is used with different connotations today, and so it is necessary to be clear from the outset about the sense in which it is being used. Sometimes it is used to denote only the vicarious expiation of the sacrifice of Isaac, i.e. the offering of Isaac on behalf of others (people of Israel); sometimes it means the story of the sacrifice of Isaac as it developed in the Jewish tradition in contrast to the bare account in Gen 22; and sometimes it connotes the totality of events depicted in art and literature that builds on Gen 22,1-19 1. The noun hdq( does not appear in the biblical account of Genesis or in the Qumran text to be discussed. It first appears in the rabbinic tradition of the third-fourth century of the Christian era. For this reason I shall not use it again until I come to discuss that tradition. I shall be speaking of the sacrifice of Isaac in a sense that mediates between the first and second senses just mentioned, because I am concerned to determine how much of the first meaning can really be found in the Jewish tradition that develops out of Gen 22,1-19 in the pre-Christian Palestinian Jewish tradition prior to the New Testament.

My further remarks will be made under four headings: (1) the Genesis account in its original Hebrew form and in the Old Greek version; (2) the understanding of the account in the Book of Jubilees; (3) the Qumran text that interprets it; and (4) later developments of the understanding of the sacrifice of Isaac.

I. The Genesis Account in Its Original Hebrew Form
and in the Old Greek Version

The Hebrew narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac is recounted in Gen 22,1-19, which can be summarized thus:

1After these events God put Abraham to the test… 2… “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall point out to you”. 3Abraham rose early the next morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He cut wood for the burnt offering and set out to go to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar… 6Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put in on his son Isaac’s shoulders; he himself carried the fire and the knife; and the two of them went on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” Abraham answered, “Yes, my son?” He continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son”. Then the two of them went on together. 9When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built there an altar and arranged the wood (upon it); then he bound (dq(yw) his son Isaac and placed him upon the altar on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slay his son. 11The angel of the Lord cried out to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” He answered him, “Yes?” 12 “Do not lay your hand on the boy; do not do anything to him, because I now know that you are a God-fearer, since you have not withheld from me your son, your only son”. 13As Abraham raised his eyes, he saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham went, took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14Abraham called that place “Yahweh-Yir”eh”. So it is called to this day: “On the mount of the Lord it will be provided”.

The striking details in the Genesis account are the age of Isaac, who is no longer a mere infant but a youth who understands what sacrifice is and can carry wood, and the place from which Abraham starts and to which he returns, viz. Beer-sheba. Only two noteworthy differences are found in the Septuagint version of this account. First, the way it translates Hebrew hyrmh as ei)j th_n gh=n th_n u(yhlh/n, “to the high land”, in v. 2; and second, how dyxiyF, “only”, the description of Abraham’s son, as a)gaphto/j, “beloved”, in vv. 2, 12, 16. Elsewhere in the Septuagint dyxiyF is sometimes rendered as monogenh/j (Judg 11,34 in MS B 2; also Ps 22,21). Although “Moriah” turns up again only in 2 Chr 3,1, as the place where Solomon built the Temple, the site in Genesis is usually regarded as otherwise unknown. Moreover, this narrative emphasizes that Isaac is Abraham’s “only” son (MT) or “beloved” son (LXX), because Abraham has already abandoned and sent off to the wilderness of Beer-sheba both Ishmael and his mother Hagar (Gen 21,8-21), so that Ishmael no longer counts as a son. In Genesis itself, one eventually learns that Abraham had six other children by Keturah (25,2), but they play no role in this narrative about Isaac, who is Abraham’s “only” son and heir 3. The test to which Abraham is subjected: the child born to him after a long delay, who is to be the link to the promised numerous progeny (Gen 15,4-6), is now to be given up at God’s request as a sacrifice.

II. The Understanding of the Account in the Book of Jubilees

The narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac was reproduced in the Book of Jubilees, and it reveals how the Genesis story was being understood in the second pre-Christian century in Palestinian Judaism. Although the details of the narrative remain basically the same, five important elements were introduced into it as it became part of Jub 17,15-18,164.

The first is the role of “prince Mastemah”. Whereas God’s command given to Abraham in Gen 22 to offer his son is simply stated without any reason for it other than that God would “test” Abraham, in Jubilees prince Mastemah is used to supply the motivation for it. He functions in the heavenly court as Satan does in Job 1–2, for he challenges God to put Abraham to the test:

The prince Mastemah came and said in God’s presence, “Look, Abraham loves his son Isaac and is more pleased with him than anything else; command him to offer him as a burnt offering on an altar and see whether he will carry out this order. Then you will know whether he is faithful in every test to which you subject him” (Jub 17,16).

Second, the account in Jubilees gives a list of tests to which Abraham was subjected by God prior to the great test of the sacrifice of Isaac. God’s answer to Mastemah’s challenge runs as follows:

The Lord knew that Abraham was faithful in all his afflictions, because he had tested him with a command to leave his country, and with famine; he tested him with the wealth of kings, and he tested him again with his wife, when she was taken away from him; and with circumcision; and he had tested him with Ishmael and Hagar, his slave-girl, when he sent them away. In every test to which the Lord subjected him, Abraham had been found faithful. His soul was not impatient, or slow to act. For he was faithful and loved the Lord (Jub 17,17-18).

In this passage we learn about six tests to which Abraham was subjected by God 5: (a) the command to leave his country (= Gen 12,1); (b) the famine in Canaan that makes him go down to Egypt to get grain (= Gen 12,10); (c) the wealth of booty retrieved from the defeat of the eastern kings that Abraham did not keep from the king of Sodom (= Gen 14,21-23); (d) the abduction of Sarah by Pharaoh (= Gen 12,14-15); (e) the command to circumcise himself and all his men as a sign of the covenant (= Gen 17,10-12); and (f) the sending away of Hagar and his son Ishmael (= Gen 21,9-14).

Third, after the six tests, Jubilees recounts the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the great test in Abraham’s life (18,1-16). The story repeats the details of the account in Gen 22 rather closely, but it again introduces the prince Mastemah at two points. (a) As Abraham is about to use the knife to slay Isaac, it records: “I was standing in the Lord’s presence, and the prince Mastemah was there too. And the Lord said, “Tell him not to lay his hand on the child…”” (Jub 18,9). (b) Later on it records, after God has found Abraham faithful: “The prince Mastemah was put to shame” (18,11). Thereupon Abraham spies the ram. In this way, what the “the angel of the Lord” does in the Genesis account becomes one of the tasks of Mastemah.

Fourth, Jubilees may connect the sacrifice of Isaac with Passover, but only indirectly. It dates the approach of Mastemah to God on the twelfth day of the first month (17,15), and the reader is left to add the three days that the text mentions, when it notes that Abraham and Isaac approach the mountain of their destination “on the third day” (18,3). That would have been the fifteenth day, when Passover was being celebrated6.

Finally, Jubilees identifies “the mount” called in Hebrew Yahweh-Yir”eh as Mount Zion (18,13), i.e. Jerusalem.

III. The Qumran Text That Interprets the Account

Among the many fragmentary texts retrieved from Qumran Cave 4, which rewrite the Hebrew Scriptures, one in particular is noteworthy, 4Q225 or 4QPseudo-Jubileesa7. It is noteworthy, because it reveals that the sacrifice of Isaac was not passed over in silence among the Essene Jews at Qumran, as has been thought at times8. The text is extant in only three fragments, and its account resembles that of Jubilees. Although its vocabulary and phraseology are similar to that of Jubilees, it differs clearly enough so that one cannot call it simply a copy of Jubilees; hence PseudoJubilees. This fragmentary text tells of an heir to be born of Abraham, the birth of Isaac, and God’s reward of Abraham for being willing to spare this only son.

Fragment 2, columns i and ii are important for this discussion, and the text of col. i runs as follows:

7 And [Abraham]
8 ·be[lieved] God, and righteousness was reckoned to him9. A son was born af[ter] this
9 ·[to Abraha]m, and he named him Isaac. But the prince Ma[s]temah came
10 [to G]od, and he lodged a complaint against Abraham about Isaac. [G]od said
11 [to Abra]ham, “Take your son Isaac, [your] only one, [whom]
12 [you lo]ve, and offer him to me as a burnt offering on one of the [hig]h mountains,
13 [which I shall point out] to you”. He aro[se and w]en[t] from the wells 10 up to Mo[unt Moriah].
14 [ ]And Ab[raham] raised

Column ii continues the text of col. i directly:

 1· [his ey]es, [and there was a] fire; and he pu[t the wood on his son Isaac, and they went together.]
2· Isaac said to Abraham, [his father, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb]
3· for the burnt offering?” Abraham said to [his son Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb”.]
4· Isaac said to his father, “B[ind me fast ]
5· Holy angels were standing, weeping over the [altar ]
6· his sons from the earth. The angels of Mas[temah ]
7· rejoicing and saying, “Now he will perish”. And [in all this the Prince Mastemah was testing whether]
8 ·he would be found feeble, or whether A[braham] would be found unfaithful [to God. He cried out,]
9 ·”Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Yes?” So He said, “N[ow I know that ]
10·he will not be loving”. The Lord God blessed Is[aac all the days of his life. He became the father of]
11·Jacob11, and Jacob became the father of Levi, [a third] gene[ration12. (vacat) All]
12·the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Lev[i were ]
13·The prince Mastemah bound on ac[count of them. Holy angels were
14·The prince Ma[s]temah, and Belial listened to [the prince Mastemah (?)13 ]

Unfortunately, the text is fragmentary just at the points where one finds the different distinctive elements, e.g. the reaction of the angels of heaven to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. In any case, six points may be singled out as significant:

(1) In 2 i 9-10, “The Prince Mastemah came to God and lodged a complaint against Abraham about Isaac”. Here we find an angelic figure living up to his name, since hm+#m is a feminine abstract noun meaning “opposition”. It is difficult to determine whether one should translate hm+#mh r# as “the Prince of the Mastemah”, as VanderKam and Milik take it in the editio princeps, or as a name, “Prince Mastemah”, as it often appears in Jubilees (e.g., 17,16; 18,9). The name denotes “opposition” of a legal or judicial nature, and the verb M+# is used in the juridical sense of lodging a complaint with a higher authority or in a court of law. Hence just as N+#&, ‘satan”, in Job 1,6 comes into God’s heavenly court and lives up to his name, “Adversary”, as he lodges a complaint against “blameless and righteous Job” (1,1), so too hm+#m, “(judicial) Opposition”, is depicted as Abraham’s court-room rival or prosecutor14. Whereas the only angelic figure that appears in Gen 22 is hwhy K)lm, “the angel of the Lord” (vv. 11, 15), who at times cannot be distinguished from God Himself, this Qumran rewriting of the biblical account has introduced a further heavenly figure, as did Jubilees.

(2) In 2 ii 1, Abraham “raised his eyes, and there was a fire”. This detail about the fire remains unexplained in the Qumran text, but it is probably meant to mark the high mountain to which Abraham was proceeding15.

(3) In 2 ii 4, in a saying that has no counterpart in either Gen 22 or Jub 18, Isaac surprisingly begs his father, “B[ind me fast]”. That might seem like a gratuitous reconstruction of the fragmentary text, but VanderKam and Milik note that the words that precede the initial kaph of the last extant word of the line match the developed paraphrase of Gen 22,10 in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which reads:

And Isaac said to his father, “Bind me well that I may not struggle in the agony of my soul and be pitched into the pit of destruction and a blemish be found in your offering”16.

Similarly Targum Neofiti I and the Fragmentary Targum17, and also Genesis Rabbah 56,8. This Qumran addition to the biblical account thus becomes important for the developing Jewish tradition, because it reveals an aspect of Isaac’s cooperation with his own sacrificial death that figures often in Jewish writings of a later date.

(4) In 2 ii 5, it is recorded that “holy angels were standing, weeping over the [altar] — or possibly “over [Isaac’s coming death]”. This Qumran addition thus introduces other heavenly figures beyond hm+#m r#. They are #dq yk)lm, “holy angels”, and being plural, they are not merely a substitute for “the angel of the Lord” of Genesis. Their standing and weeping are again unexplained because of the fragmentary state of the text18.

(5) In 2 ii 6, “the angels of Mastemah”, who are probably the attendants of hmx#m r#, are depicted “rejoicing and saying, “Now he will perish”, i.e. gloating over the coming death of Isaac. These angels thus stand in contrast to the “holy angels” of line 5. Their rejoicing becomes part of the testing of Abraham to see whether he would be found feeble or strong and faithful.

(6) Finally, in 2 ii 13 the prince Mastemah is said to be “bound on ac[count of them]”19. Because of the fragmentary state of the text, it is hard to explain the detail, but it could refer to the binding of Mastemah mentioned later in Jub 48,15.

These are the main differences brought to the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in this Qumran text, which reveals new ways in which the basic biblical account was already being developed within the Jewish tradition in pre-Christian Palestinian Judaism.

Before we pass on to other ancient forms of the account, we should take note of how this Qumran text has been interpreted in addition to the editio princeps. I have cited already another article of J.C. VanderKam, in which he discusses further aspects of the text, especially its relation to Passover20. Geza Vermes has also interpreted this Qumran text, and I have to comment on his treatment.

Before the Qumran text was published, Vermes had written earlier on the Aqedah, “Redemption and Genesis XXII: The Binding of Isaac and the Sacrifice of Jesus”21. There he analyzed the Jewish tradition that grew out of Gen 22 and found its simplest development in the oldest Palestinian targumic tradition (found in the Fragmentary Targum and Targum Neofiti I). The main features of that development he maintained to be the following:

1.·Abraham tells Isaac about his role as a sacrificial victim.
2.·Isaac gives his consent.
3.·Isaac asks to be bound so that his sacrifice may be perfect.
4.·Isaac is accorded a heavenly vision of angels.
5.·Abraham prays God to remember his own obedience and Isaac’s willingness on behalf of Isaac’s descendants.
6.·His prayer is answered 22.

Vermes also noted an expanded form of this tradition in what he called “Tannaitic and Amoraic sources”, which do not concern us now. More important, however, is the way in which Vermes interprets the fragmentary Qumran text, 4Q225, when he sees it as a refutation of the thesis of P.R. Davies and B. Chilton23. They restricted the term Aqedah to the first meaning mentioned at the beginning of my introductory remarks, viz. the sense of the vicarious expiation of the sacrifice of Isaac. They sought to ascribe the “invention” of the Aqedah in this sense to “the Rabbis” (mostly Amoraic), who “went so far as to appropriate details of the Passion [of Jesus from the New Testament] to heighten the drama of Isaac’s Offering and to deny thereby the uniqueness of Jesus” offering”24. Their understanding of the Aqedah in this sense was not new, for a form of it was proposed already in 1872 by A. Geiger25.

Exaggerations in the thesis of Davies and Chilton have been noted by others, which I shall not rehearse26. The real question now, however, is whether the Qumran fragment reveals “the pre-Christian skeleton of the Targumic-midrashic representation of the sacrifice of Isaac”, and whether it renders “the hypothesis of an Amoraic origin of the Aqedah at least highly improbable”27.

In his article, Vermes, after discussing certain aspects of the newly published Qumran text, concludes with a ‘synoptic Table”, which lines up twelve elements that he considers “the pre-Christian skeleton”. I reproduce the table here28:

B.C.E. 1st C.E. PT  Tan Amor/Later
1.  Isaac adult Jos PsJ/FT/N GenR
2. Fire/bright cloud 4Q225 PsJ GenR, PRE
3. Isaac informed Jos/LAB FT/N GenR
4. Isaac consents 4Q225? Jos/LAB/4Macc GenR
5. Asks to be bound 4Q225? PsJ/FT/N SifDt
6. Presence of angels 4Q225 FT/N GenR
7. Crying angels 4Q225 GenR
8. Merit of Isaac 4Q225? LAB Mekh GenR
9. Temple Mount 2Chr, Jub Jos FT/N GenR
10. Passover Jub FT/N Mekh GenR
11. Lamb sacrifice FT/N/PsJ


12. Isaac’s blood/ashes LAB Sifra GenR/y/bTaan

To be noted in this Table, first of all, is the question mark that Vermes adds to 4Q225 on three elements: 4, 5, 8. If one looks again at col. ii of the Qumran fragment, there is not the least trace of a word or phrase about Isaac’s consent (element 4), which Vermes separates from Isaac’s request to be bound. That is, there is nothing in the Qumran text similar to what one finds, for instance, in Josephus, Ant. 1.232: “Isaac… received these words [of his father] with joy, declaring that he was not worthy to be born at all if he were to reject the decision of God and of his father”; or even as implied in 4 Macc 16,20; 13,12; 7,14; or in Pseudo-Philo, LAB 32,2-429. That “consent” might be implied in Isaac’s asking to be bound (element 5), which is found in 4Q225 2 ii 4 (as correctly reconstructed by the editors); but then why make a distinct element of it in this Qumran text? Here Vermes is reading into the Qumran text a notion found in other texts coming from the first Christian century at the earliest, but how does he know that the “consent of Isaac” was already part of “the pre-Christian skeleton”?

Second, there is not a trace of the “merit of Isaac” in the Qumran fragment (element 8). Not even the words, “his sons from the earth” (line 6) can be said to refer to such an idea, because the fragmentary text does not tell us whose ‘sons” are meant. Being plural, the word most likely does refer to Isaac, since this embellishment of the Abraham story in Gen 22 knows nothing as yet of the children born to Abraham from Keturah (25,2). Yet even if they are Isaac’s sons, the phrase “from the earth” is quite different from any of the phraseology of the later tradition about Isaac’s merit. So that fragmentary line 6 can hardly refer to such a topic.

Third, why should elements 1 (Isaac’s adult age), 9 (relation to the Temple Mount), 11 (Lamb sacrifice), and 12 (Isaac’s blood/ashes) even be listed in the Table? They do not appear in 4Q225, and even if they are attested in first-century A.D. writings (such as Josephus or Pseudo-Philo, LAB), they are not part of the “pre-Christian skeleton”. They appear for the first time in the Christian era.

Fourth, even if 2 Chr 3,1 mentions Solomon’s building of the house of the Lord on “Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David”, there is not the slightest connection in that passage of that mount with the sacrifice of Isaac30. Why is it, then, given as evidence for the “pre-Christian skeleton”?

In Jub 18,13, “Mount Zion” is named by Abraham as the place where he sacrifices the ram. In Ant. 1.224, 226 Josephus records that Abraham went “with his son alone to that mount, on which king David [sic] afterwards built the temple”, which has already been identified as “the Morian Mount”31. In any case, the identification of Mt. Moriah with the Temple Mount is a minor detail and of little significance for the developing doctrine of the Aqedah. One wonders why Vermes has introduced it into the discussion of the Qumran text? The same has to be said about element 11 (relation of the sacrifice of Isaac to the lamb sacrificed in the Temple as Tamid), and element 12 (Isaac’s blood/ashes).

Fifth, the crucial element in the Table is the so-called merit of Isaac. Vermes claims that it is attested in Pseudo-Philo, LAB. In LAB 18,5, however, the sacrifice of Isaac is said to be “acceptable” to God, and for that reason God “has chosen” Israel to be His people (facta est oblatio eius in conspectu meo acceptabilis, et pro sanguine eius elegi istos)32. The divine decision about Israel as the Chosen People is quite different from the expiatory value of the sacrifice of Isaac. Why is this passage cited?

In LAB 32,3, Isaac does speak to his father Abraham, comparing his coming death to that of animals to be killed because of human iniquities:

…pro iniquitatibus hominum pecora constituta sunt in occisionem … et in me annunciabuntur generationes et per me intelligent populi quoniam dignificavit Dominus animam hominis in sacrificium,

…generations will be instructed by my case and peoples will understand because of me that the Lord has considered the life of a human being worthy [to be offered] in sacrifice.

Here Isaac concludes that his death would have a vicarious, expiatory effect. Similarly perhaps in LAB 40,2, the same might be implied (quis est qui tristetur moriens, videns populum liberatum, “and who would be sorry to die, seeing a people freed”), if that liberty means freedom from sins or iniquities.

This text, however, is usually dated between A.D. 70 and 100. Even if it does formulate the sense of Isaac’s meritorious death in at least one passage, on what grounds may one extrapolate that evidence and say that it builds up the “pre-Christian skeleton”.

Sixth, in the Mekhilta on Exod 12,13, the words, “When I see the blood” (12,13), are related to Gen 22,

I see the blood of the sacrifice of Isaac (qxcy l# wtdyq( Md). For it is said: “And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh” (The lord will see), etc. (Gen. 22.14)… . What did he behold? He beheld the blood of the sacrifice of Isaac, as it said: “God Himself will see the lamb”, etc. (Gen. 22.8).

Yet even the editor, J.Z. Lauterbach adds in a note that “actually no blood of Isaac was offered in sacrifice” and “according to Gen. Rab. on Gen. 22.12 Abraham was not allowed to shed even one drop of Isaac’s blood”33. Consequently, there is in this passage no question of the “merit” of Isaac. Similarly, later on in Mekhilta, the same midrash is repeated34, again without any reference to Isaac’s “merit”. Still later, the Mekhilta quotes R. Jose the Galilean as saying:

At the moment when the children of Israel went into the sea, mount Moriah began to move from its place with the altar for Isaac that had been built on it and the whole scene that had been arranged upon it — Isaac as if he were bound and placed upon the altar, Abraham as if he were stretching forth his hand and taking the knife to slay his son. God then said to Moses: Moses, My children are in distress, the sea forming a bar and the enemy pursuing, and you stand so long praying? Moses said before Him: What then should I be doing? Then He said to him: “Lift thou up thy rod”, etc. — you should be exalting, glorifying and praising… Him in whose hands are the fortunes of war”35.

This passage may indeed relate the sacrifice of Isaac to Mt. Moriah, meaning the Temple Mount, but it scarcely says anything about the meritorious or expiatory value of Isaac’s sacrifice. It is relating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to the crossing of the Red Sea, with scarcely a word about the iniquities of Israel or any expiation of its sins.

In the fifth-century A.D. Genesis Rabbah 56,7 God does ascribe merit to Abraham: “for indeed I ascribe merit to thee as though I had bidden thee sacrifice thyself and thou hadst not refused”36. Yet no indication is given of what that merit might be, and it says nothing of merit due to Isaac himself.

The upshot of this discussion is that Vermes has amassed dubious evidence for the interpretation of this Qumran text. It is clear that this pre-Christian Qumran fragment reveals important steps in the developing tradition about the sacrifice of Isaac, especially in (1) the testing of Abraham at the Prince Mastemah’s request; (2) the mention of “fire” that identifies the mountain to which Abraham was going; (3) Isaac’s request that Abraham “bind” him fast; (4) the mention of holy angels standing by, weeping over (the altar or Isaac’s death); (5) the mention of “angels of Mastemah” rejoicing and saying, “Now he will perish”; and (6) an unclear reference to the “binding” of Mastemah.

That, however, means that there is no mention in the Qumran text of six of the elements that Vermes has put in his ‘synoptic Table”: no mention of Isaac’s adult age, of Isaac being informed by Abraham about his status as a victim, of Isaac’s consent separate from his request to be bound, of the connection with the later Temple, or Passover, or the Tamid lamb sacrifice, or Isaac’s blood or ashes, and especially of the “merit of Isaac”. One wonders why the extra elements have been put into that Table, because they have nothing to do with the Qumran text and, apart from the least-relevant elements of the Temple Mount and Passover, which are mentioned in Jubilees, the others are not attested in any pre-Christian writing, or even in a writing of the first century A.D. The six extra elements, which may have some pertinence to the later tradition about the Aqedah, provide only a camouflage for the understanding of the Qumran text, in which we still have not even found the term Aqedah.

Although one must agree with the methodological principle with which Vermes interprets these texts, as he expressed it in his book, “to follow the development of exegetical traditions by means of historical criticism”37, one must also heed the criticism of Vermes” application of that methodology given by A.F. Segal:

We must take his arguments much more slowly, so as to see exactly what the tradition of the Akedah was just prior to the time of Jesus, to define what were the Christian additions to that text, and finally to define what may have been the Jewish reaction to the Christian interpretation38.

Or again,

Although he [Vermes] notes where important themes are missing in each document, in sum he operates as if the whole constellation is always present once the parts of the tradition are attested39.

That is why one must try to distinguish clearly just what elements of the Aqedah tradition are indeed pre-Christian and what may have been contemporary with the rise of Christianity and its New Testament writings40. To this purpose we must turn to the later development of the tradition.

IV. Later Developments of the Understanding
of the Sacrifice of Isaac

The question of the meritorious value of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, although it is not expressed in the pre-Christian Qumran text, is clearly mentioned in the Palestinian targums. I shall cite only the Fragmentary Targum P, which has preserved a few important verses of Gen 2241:

8 And Abraham said: “From the Lord a lamb will be prepared for a burnt offering, my son; and if not, then you are the lamb”; and the two of them walked together wholeheartedly, Abraham to slay, and Isaac to be slain.

10 Abraham extended his hand and took the knife to slay Isaac his son. Isaac spoke up, saying to Abraham his father: “Father, bind my hands well, that I may not struggle in the hour of my distress and confuse you, and your offering would be found blemished and we would be pitched into the pit of destruction in the world to come”. Abraham’s eyes were gazing at the eyes of Isaac, but the eyes of Isaac were gazing at the angels of the heights. Isaac saw them, but Abraham did not see them. At that moment a voice came forth from heaven and said, “Come, look at two unique righteous men who are in the world, one who is slaying and one who is being slain; he that slays has no compassion, and he that is being slain extends his neck”.

11 The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, saying, “Abraham, Abraham!” Abraham answered in the language of the Holy Temple, saying, “Here I am!” 14 Abraham worshiped and prayed there in the name of the word of the Lord, saying, “You are the Lord God, Who sees but is invisible; everything is manifest and known before You: that there was no division [i.e. hesitation] at the moment that You said: “Offer up your son Isaac in My presence”. Immediately I arose early in the morning and I did what You commanded and kept Your decree. Now, I beg mercy from You, Lord God, that when the children of Isaac my son enter an hour of oppression, that You will remember for their sake the binding of Isaac their father, and release and forgive their sins and save them from every distress. For future generations destined to arise will say: “On the Mount of the Holy Temple of the Lord, Abraham offered up his son Isaac; and on this mountain the glory of the Dwelling of the Lord was revealed”” 42.

Here one notes the explicit use of qxcyd hytdq(, “the binding of Isaac”, the Aramaic counterpart of the phrase used above in the Mekhilta. Other noteworthy features of this developed version of Gen 22 are the following:

1. Isaac is informed by Abraham of his role as the sacrificial victim (v. 8)43.
2. Isaac asks to be bound (v. 10)44.
3. Isaac is accorded a vision of angels (v. 10)45.
4. Both Abraham and Isaac are declared righteous by heaven(v. 10)46.
5. Abraham answers God in the “language of the Holy Temple”(v. 11).
6. Abraham’s prayer, recalling his obedience (v. 14)47.
7. Abraham begs God to remember “the binding of Isaac” when his descendants enter “an hour of oppression” and to “release and forgive their sins and save them from every distress” (v. 14)48.
8. The offering of Isaac is related to the Mount of the Holy Temple of the Lord (v. 14)49.
9. Only in Tg. Ps.-J. is Isaac’s age given (37 years).
10. Only in Tg. Ps.-J. Abraham builds the altar at the spot where Adam had built one and where Noah rebuilt it after the deluge.

In this targumic tradition one thus finds a clear statement of what Vermes calls the “merit of Isaac”, and it is what one would expect by the time this developed tradition emerges. None of it is earlier than the third century A.D., and some of these targums may come from a still later date, especially Tg. Ps.-J. and Tg. Neof.50. It shows, however, how the tradition reflected in the fragmentary text 4Q225 developed still further and gradually became the classic topic of “the Binding of Isaac”.

In conclusion, then, one realizes how important the Qumran text, fragmentary though it be, is not only for the background of New Testament references to the sacrifice of Isaac, but especially for the later targumic and rabbinic teaching about the Aqedah, as the Jewish expression of that sacrifice as an expiatory and redemptive act for all Israel.

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1 See J. SWETNAM, Jesus and Isaac. A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Aqedah (AnBib 94; Rome 1981) 75. Also R.J. DALY, “The Soteriological Significance of the Sacrifice of Isaac”, CBQ 39 (1977) 45-75; J. DANIЙLOU, “La typologie d”Isaac dans le christianisme primitif”, Bib 28 (1947) 363-393; L. GINZBERG, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia, PA 1909-1938) V, 218, n. 52; L. JACOBS, “Akedah”, Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem 1970-1971) II, 480-484; R. LE DЙAUT, “La prйsentation targumique du sacrifice d”Isaac et la sotйriologie paulinienne”, Studiorum Paulinorum congressus internationalis catholicus 1961 (AnBib 17-18; Rome 1963) II, 563-574; D. LERCH, Isaaks Opferung christlich gedeutet. Eine auslegungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (BHT 12; Tьbingen 1950) 40-42; I. LЙVI, “Le sacrifice d”Isaac et la mort de Jйsus”, REJ 64 (1912) 161-184; A. MЙDEBIELLE, L”Expiation dans l”Ancien et le Nouveau Testament (SPIB 42; Rome 1923) 264-265; R.A. ROSENBERG, “Jesus, Isaac and the ‘suffering Servant””, JBL 84 (1965) 381-388; H.-J. SCHOEPS, “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology”, JBL 65 (1946) 385-392; S. SPIEGEL, The Last Trial: on the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice. The Akedah. Translated from the Hebrew, with an introduction by Judah Goldin (New York 1967); J.E. WOOD, “Isaac Typology in the New Testament”, NTS 14 (1967-1968) 583-589.
2 In MS A one finds monogenh_j a)gaphto/j as the translation.
3 See further G. VON RAD, Genesis. A Commentary (London 1966) 232-240; ID., Das Opfer des Abraham (KT 6; Munich 1971); H. Graf VON REVENTLOW, Opfere deinen Sohn. Eine Auslegung von Genesis 22 (BSt 53; Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968); C.WESTERMANN, Genesis 12–36. A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN 1985) 351-365; G.W. COATS, “Abraham’s Sacrifice of Faith: A Form-Critical Study of Genesis 22”, Int 27 (1973) 389-400; L. KUNDERT, Die Opferung/Bindung Isaaks (WMANT 78; Neukirchen-Vluyn 1998) I, 95-107; G. STEINS, Die “Bindung Isaaks” im Kanon (Gen 22). Grundlagen und Programm einer kanonisch-intertextuellen Lektьre. Mit Spezialbibliographie zu Gen 22 (Herders biblische Studien 20; Freiburg im B. 1999); R. BRANDSCHEIDT, “Das Opfer des Abrahams (Genesis 22,1-19)”, TTZ 110 (2001) 1-19.
4 See J.C. VANDERKAM, The Book of Jubilees (Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; Sheffield 2001) 52-53.
5 The later rabbinic tradition numbered the tests as ten, but only six are mentioned in Jub 17,17. The ten tests are listed in Pirqe deRabbi Eli”ezer 26-31; see also Jub 19,8, and J. BOWKER, The Targums and Rabbinic Literature. An Introduction to Jewish Interpretations of Scripture (Cambridge 1969) 228-229.
6 See further J.C. VANDERKAM, “The Aqedah, Jubilees, and Pseudo-Jubilees”, The Quest for Context and Meaning. Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders (ed. C.A. EVANS – S. TALMON) (Biblical Interpretation Series 28; Leiden 1997) 241-261, esp. 245-248; also P.R. DAVIES, “Passover and the Dating of the Aqedah”, JJS 30 (1979) 59-67.
7 See J.C. VANDERKAM – J.T. MILIK, “225. 4QPseudo-Jubileesa“, Qumran Cave 4. VIII. Parabiblical Texts, Part 1 (ed. H. ATTRIDGE et al.) (DJD 13; Oxford 1994) 141-155.
8 See R. LE DЙAUT, La Nuit Pascale (AnBib 22; Rome 1963) 184, n. 134: “Il est trиs remarquable qu”йtant donnйe la popularitй du sacrifice d”Isaac dans le Judaпsme ancien, il soit passй sous silence dans ce que nous connaissons de la littйrature qumrвnienne.
9 For an interpretation of this part of the text, see J.A. FITZMYER, “The Interpretation of Genesis 15,6: Abraham’s Faith and Righteousness in a Qumran Text” (forthcoming).
10 In Gen 22,19 Beer-sheba ((b#$ r)b) is given as the dwelling-place of Abraham. The author of this text seems to have interpreted the name to mean ‘seven wells”, as it was understood sometimes later on (see T. NЦLDEKE, “Sieben Brunnen”, ARW 7 [1904] 340-344).
11 For the restoration of the end of line 10, see 4Q226 (4QPseudo-Jubileesb) 7,2-3, which overlaps with the end of line 10 and the beginning of line 11.
12 For the restoration here, see 4Q226 (4QPseudo-Jubileesb) 7,3-4, which overlaps with this line.
13 See 4Q226 (4QPseudo-Jubileesb) 7,7.
14 The verbal root M+#& is actually related to N+#& (the root of ‘satan”), since both of them mean “oppose”, “be adversary of”, and differ only in the final liquid consonant.
15 The paraphrase of Gen 22,4 in the later Targum Pseudo-Jonathan may explain it, which reads: )rww+ l( ry+q )rqy) Nn( )mxw, “and he saw the cloud of glory smoking on the mountain”, i.e. the mountain toward which he was going. Pirqe deRabbi Eli”ezer 105 is even more explicit in its version of the sacrifice: “He saw a pillar of fire (rising) from earth to heaven”.
16 VanderKam and Milik restore the line in the editio princeps thus: [hpy ytw) twp]k, but G. VERMES, “New Light on the Sacrifice of Isaac from 4Q225”, JJS 47 [1996] 140-146, esp. 142, n. 12, considers the restoration, ydy t) twpk, “bind my hands”, to be more likely, referring to the “Targums”. Whereas his restoration does agree with the Fragmentary Targum P of Gen 22,10, which reads tw)y y)dy twpk, “bind my hands well”, VanderKam and Milik’s restoration is found not only in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, but also in Targum Neofiti I. In either case, the restoration must be right, even if tpk is a rare Hebrew word, not appearing in Biblical Hebrew or otherwise, it seems, in Qumran Hebrew texts; it occurs often in later Talmudic texts and rabbinic writings.
17 See A. DНEZ MACHO, Neophyti 1. Targum palestinense Ms de la Biblioteca Vaticana. Tomo I: Gйnesis (Textos y estudios 7; Madrid 1968) 127. Also M.L. KLEIN, The Fragment-Targums of the Pentateuch According to Their Extant Sources (AnBib 76; Rome 1980) I, 54; II, 16.
18 Their presence at the event may be similar to that recorded in the later Tg. Ps.-J.: )mwrm yk)lml Nlktsm qxcyd yywnyy(w qxcyd yywnyy(b Nlktsm Mhrb)d yywnyy(,”the eyes of Abraham were gazing at the eyes of Isaac, but Isaac’s eyes were gazing at the angels of the Heights” (Tg. Ps.-J. Gen. 22,10). The weeping of the angels is not mentioned in the targum, but it at least records their presence. See further M.J. BERNSTEIN, “Angels at the Aqedah: A Study in the Development of a Midrashic Motif”, DSD 7 (2000) 263-291.
19 As VANDERKAM notes, rws) could be read as )a4su=r, the passive participle, “bound”, but also as )e’so=r, the imperative, “bind!”
20 See J.C. VANDERKAM, “The Aqedah” (in n. 6 above).
21 Chapter 8 in G. VERMES, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism. Haggadic studies (Studia Post-biblica 4; Leiden 1961; repr. 1973) 193-227.
22 See VERMES, Scripture and Tradition, 195-197. They are formulated a little differently in his article, ID., “New Light”, 143.
23 P.R. DAVIES – B. CHILTON, “The Aqedah: A Revised Tradition History”, CBQ 40 (1978) 514-546.
24 Ibid., 516-517.
25 See A. GEIGER, “Erbsьnde und Versцhnungstod: Deren Versuch in das Judenthums einzudringen”, Jьdische Zeitschrift fьr Wissenschaft und Leben 10 (1872) 166-171.
26 See R. HAYWARD, “The Present State of Research into the Targumic Account of the Sacrifice of Isaac”, JJS 32 (1981) 127-150.
27 VERMES, “New Light”, 145.
28 PT = Palestinian Targums; Tan = Tannaitic Writings; Amor/Later = Amoraic or Later Writings; Jos = Josephus; PsJ = Tg. Pseudo-Jonathan; FT = Fragmentary Targum; N = Tg. Neofiti I; LAB = Pseudo-Philo, Liber antiquitatum biblicarum; Jub = Jubilees; SifDt = Sifre Deuteronomium; Mekh = Mekhilta; GenR = Genesis Rabbah; PRE = Pirqe de Rabbi Eli”ezer; LevR = Leviticus Rabbah; y/bTaan = Jerusalem/BabylonianTalmudic tractate, Taanith.
29 Contrast the much later embellishment in GenR 56,4: “I accept my fate”. Note also the formal consent expressly deduced from the binding in 56,8.
30 A.F. SEGAL, “”He who did not spare his own son…”: Jesus, Paul, and the Akedah”, From Jesus to Paul. Studies in Honour of Francis Wright Beare (ed. P. RICHARDSON – J.C. HURD) (Waterloo, Ont. 1984) 169-184, esp. 173, seeking to establish the pre-Christian root of the Jewish teaching about Isaac, says, “The history of interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac begins right in the Bible. In 2 Chronicles Mt. Moriah, scene of the sacrifice, is identified with the Temple Mount (2 Chron. 3,1); so an explicit connection between the story of the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem is established”. There may be an explicit connection between Mount Moriah and the Jerusalem Temple, but the verse of Chronicles to which Segal refers does not say a word about sacrifice or about Isaac. Segal has extrapolated and anachronistically introduced a reference to the sacrifice of Isaac into a non-committal statement about Solomon’s building the Temple on Mt. Moriah. The mere fact that Mt. Moriah is mentioned in the Bible only in Gen 22 and 2 Chr 3 does not eo ipso mean that 2 Chronicles is alluding to the sacrifice of Isaac.
31 Thackeray notes that “the locality here intended is unknown; its identification by Josephus (§226) and by the Rabbinical tradition with the temple mount cannot be sustained”; see Josephus. With an English Translation by H.St.J. Thackeray. [Edition] in Eight Volumes. IV: Jewish Antiquities, Books I–IV (LCL; London – New York 1930) 111.
32 See D.J. HARRINGTON et al., Pseudo-Philon (SC 229-230; Paris 1976) I, 150. The editors of this text comment: “Dans LAB XVIII, 5, il n”est pas question du rachat des pйchйs opйrй par le sang d”Isaac — а la maniиre de Hebr. 9,22 (et T.b. Yoma 5a) sans effusion de sang il n”y a pas de rйmission. Ici, le sang d”Isaac, considйrй comme un vйritable sacrifice, scelle l”йlection et l”alliance de Dieu avec son peuple” (ibid., II, 126). See further B.N. FISK, “Offering Isaac Again and Again: Pseudo-Philo’s Use of the Aqedah as Intertext”, CBQ 62 (2000) 481-507.
33 See J.Z. LAUTERBACH, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Philadelphia, PA 1976) I, 57, n. 7.
34 Ibid., I, 88.
35 Ibid., I, 222-223.
36 See Midrash Rabbah. Translated into English with notes, glossary and indices under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon. With a foreword by Rabbi Dr I. Epstein. Vol I: Genesis I (London 1939) 497.
37 VERMES, Scripture and Tradition, 1.
38 SEGAL, “”He who did not…””, 171-172. — I cite here Segal’s criticism of Vermes, agreeing with it; but I find it difficult to agree with the thrust of Segal’s argument (ibid., 174), when he cites Philo the Elder (in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 9.20.1), Demetrius and Alexander Polyhistor (ibid. 9.19.4), Sir 44,19-21, and Jdt 8,25-27 as instances of “popular hermeneutical activity before Jesus”. When one scrutinizes the passages mentioned, they are at most allusions to the story in Gen 22 and hardly ever reveal a trace of embellishment or exegetical development of the text, not to mention what Segal calls a “martyrological analogy”. Similarly, when I read Philo of Alexandria, De Abrahamo 35.198-199, I find there no “concept of giving one’s life for others” benefit”, which he finds “clearly” expressed.
For Philo the Elder, see C.R. HOLLADAY, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors. Vol. II:Poets (SBLTT 30/12; Atlanta, GA 1989) 234-237. For Demetrius, see C.R. HOLLADAY, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors, Vol. I: Historians (SBLTT 20/10; Chico, CA 1983) 62-63.
39 SEGAL “”He who did not…””, 179. See also L. KUNDERT, Die Opferung/Bindung Isaaks, 96.
40 SEGAL, “”He who did not…””, 176, finds Isaac’s sacrifice as “the example par excellence of martyrdom” in “4 Maccabees, dated to the early 30s but devoid of Christian influence”, as the best evidence “that some kind of tradition formed the basis of [the] Christian view of Jesus as a type of Isaac”. Yet Segal has to admit that “even in the Greek paraenesis of 4 Maccabees, Isaac’s sacrifice itself is never directly linked with vicarious atonement” (ibid., 177).
41 The text of Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J. is fuller, but it contains only a few points that are pertinent to this discussion of the later developments; they will be mentioned below.
42 See M.L. KLEIN, The Fragment-Targums of the Pentateuch, I, 54. Fragmentary Targum P is MS Paris Bibliothиque Nationale Hйbr. 110. Very similar to it for Gen 22 is Fragmentary Targum V, which is MS Vatican Ebr. 440; its text can be found in KLEIN, I, 140-141.
43 Also in Tg. Neof., but not in Tg. Ps.-J.
44 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
45 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
46 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
47 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
48 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
49 Also in Tg. Neof.
50 This too is a problem with Vermes” treatment of the texts, which Segal has noted, following DAVIES – CHILTON, “The Aqedah”, 514-515. SEGAL, “”He who did not…””, 172-173 writes: “…it has so far been almost impossible to develop consistent criteria for isolating the first century traditions in the targumim. In such a case, though we can appreciate the creativity of the targum and must come to some understanding of its method, we must bracket the targumic evidence of Vermes to bring the historical problem to the fore again: just what can be established as the commonly understood text of Gen. 22 in the first century? Vermes” methodological question about the meaning of the biblical text comes back to haunt him when one takes away the targumic evidence on which he builds his own case”.
At issue here is the dating of the Palestinian targums. When DНEZ MACHO, Neophyti 1, 95*, published the text of Tg. Neof., he claimed that it “pertinece ya a la йpoca neotestamentaria”; “… the PT [= Palestinian Targum], even if it in its present recension, preserved in the Ms Neofiti 1, seems to belong to the first or second century A.D., is on the whole a prechristian version” (A. DНEZ MACHO, “The Recently Discovered Palestinian Targum: Its Antiquity and Relationship with the Other Targums”, Congress Volume, Oxford 1959 [VTS 7; Leiden 1960] 236). That claim, of course, is an exaggeration. Klein, in publishing the Fragmentary Targums, was more circumspect; see KLEIN, The Fragment-Targums, I, 23-25. See further A.D. YORK, “The Dating of Targumic Literature”, JSJ 5 (1974) 49-62; J. HEINEMANN, “Early Halakha in the Palestinian Targumim”, JJS 25 (1974) 114-122, esp. 122.

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  3. Lois Eaton

    i have a problem – being bound doesn’t prevent struggling – it just renders those struggles futile. Being bound would not necessarily change his heart feelings

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Yes. But what is the question?

      1. Lois Eaton

        And Isaac said to his father, “Bind me well that I may not struggle in the agony of my soul and be pitched into the pit of destruction and a blemish be found in your offering”
        I question the validity of this – it would make more sense to me if he had said “Bind me well so that I cannot run away”

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Thank you for your comment, Lois.

  4. Melani

    Extremely enlightening and thought-provoking. I never knew of these other accounts. Interesting to see how the whole theme of sacrificial offering for the expiation of the world’s sins has developed.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      The study of late second temple literature is extremely important to understanding of the NT context. That is the closest to NT times literature and there is a lot of it. Rabbinic literature is important too. But it is more problematic since its not clear when it was authored early or late or really late.