2008-05-20

The Offering of Isaac: its evolution into . . . Jesus event, 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Parts 1 and 2 have looked at the evolution of the aqedah through the Second Temple and early rabbinic period — from Levenson’s book. Its retelling moved away from the original Genesis 22 account and became identified with the Passover and all sacrificial lambs.

Parallel with this evolutionary branch was another one equally significant. Jewish interpreters were also transforming the story of Abraham offering his hapless son into a story of Isaac freely and with full awareness offering himself as a sacrifice for God.

Isaac freely giving himself as a sacrifice

In 4 Maccabees, likely composed between 18 and 55 c.e., we read a series of philosophical speeches from seven sons who are prepared to face torture and martyrdom at the hand of Antiochus Epiphanes (ca 167 b.c.e.). Being willing to die rather than be faithless to their religious laws they identified themselves with Isaac. For such an identification to work, of course, Isaac had to be reinterpreted as going knowingly and willingly to his death for God:

Let us not be cowardly in the demonstration of our piety.” While one said, “Courage, brother,” another said, “Bear up nobly,” and another reminded them, “Remember whence you came, and the father by whose hand Isaac would have submitted [gave himself – Anderson translation] to being slain for the sake of religion.” [4 Maccabees 13:10-12]

This is hardly a surprising identification and reinterpretation among a people facing persecution for their religious practices from the second century b.c.e.

We read it also in another first century c.e. text, Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities 40:2-3. Jephthah’s daughter (Seilah) in speaking of her own sacrifice reminds herself and her father of Isaac’s joyful willingness to offer himself as a sacrificial offering for God:

And Seila his daughter said unto him: And who is it that can be sorrowful in their death when they see the people delivered? Rememberest thou not that which was in the days of our fathers, when the father set his son for a burnt offering and he gainsaid him not, but consented unto him rejoicing? And he that was offered was ready, and he that offered was glad. Now therefore annul not anything of that thou has vowed, but grant unto me one prayer. I ask of thee before I die a small request: I beseech thee that before I give up my soul, I may go into the mountains and wander (or abide) among the hills and walk about among the rocks, I and the virgins that are my fellows, and pour out my tears there and tell the affliction of my youth; and the trees of the field shall bewail me and the beasts of the field shall lament for me; for I am not sorrowful for that I die, neither doth it grieve me that I give up my soul: but whereas my father was overtaken in his vow, [and] if I offer not myself willingly for a sacrifice, I fear lest my death be not acceptable, and that I shall lose my life to no purpose.

In Biblical Antiquities 32:2b-3 Isaac is described reasoning through his sacrifice, rationalizing that he would not be reduced to the level of a sheep, but actually enhance his dignity as a man:

And Abraham did not gainsay him and set forth immediately. And as he went forth he said to his son: Lo, now, my son, I offer thee for a burnt offering and deliver thee into his hands who gave thee unto me. And the son said to his father: Hear me, father. If a lamb of the flock is accepted for an offering to the Lord for an odour of sweetness, and if for the iniquities of men sheep are appointed to the slaughter, but man is set to inherit the world, how then sayest thou now unto me: Come and inherit a life secure, and a time that cannot be measured? What and if I had not been born in the world to be offered a sacrifice unto him that made me? And it shall be my blessedness beyond all men, for there shall be no other such thing; and in me shall the generations be instructed, and by me the peoples shall understand that the Lord hath accounted the soul of a man worthy to be a sacrifice unto him.

Josephus also embraced this interpretation of Isaac. He did not discuss the aqedah in the context of martyrdom, but he clearly expressed it as a sacrifice. His intent was to demonstrate to his Greek-speaking audience that Judaism was as good or better than any pagan philosophy, and this meant re-casting a story that would otherwise have been taken as approval of a barbaric child-sacrifice. Antiquities Book 1:

Now Abraham greatly loved Isaac, as being his only begotten [passionately loved] . . . . [God] commanded him to carry him to the mountain Moriah, and to build an altar, and offer him for a burnt-offering upon it for that this would best manifest his religious disposition towards him, if he preferred what was pleasing to God, before the preservation of his own son.

It was that mountain upon which king David afterwards built the temple. . . . . Now Isaac was twenty-five years old. . . . . [Abraham said:] Accordingly thou, my son, wilt now die, not in any common way of going out of the world, but sent to God, the Father of all men, beforehand, by thy own father, in the nature of a sacrifice. I suppose he thinks thee worthy to get clear of this world neither by disease, neither by war, nor by any other severe way, by which death usually comes upon men, but so that he will receive thy soul with prayers and holy offices of religion, and will place thee near to himself, and thou wilt there be to me a succorer and supporter in my old age; on which account I principally brought thee up, and thou wilt thereby procure me God for my Comforter instead of thyself.”

Now Isaac was of such a generous disposition as became the son of such a father, and was pleased with this discourse; and said, “That he was not worthy to be born at first, if he should reject the determination of God and of his father, and should not resign himself up readily to both their pleasures; since it would have been unjust if he had not obeyed, even if his father alone had so resolved.” So he went immediately to the altar to be sacrificed.

Early rabbis (as written of Rabbi Meir of the mid-second century c.e.) taught that Isaac “bound himself upon the altar” (Sifre Deuteronomy 32). And the third century Rabbi Abbahu taught that it was this self-sacrifice that God hears when he hears the sound of the trumpet at Rosh Hashanah (b. Rosh Hashanah 16a).

Exaltation

The above passage from Pseudo-Philo speaks of Isaac’s reward as being blessed above all others:

And it shall be my blessedness beyond all men, for there shall be no other such thing; and in me shall the generations be instructed, and by me the peoples shall understand that the Lord hath accounted the soul of a man worthy to be a sacrifice unto him.

4 Maccabees brings the blessing of the martyrs following Isaac to a near divine status:

The tyrant himself and all his council marveled at their endurance, because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live through blessed eternity. For Moses says, “All who are consecrated are under our hands.” . . . .

The martyrs died for their adherence to laws that were supposed to promise life and worldly success. Accordingly it was necessary for the definition of success to be changed if those facing martyrdom were to make sense of their world and identities. Rather than worldly rewards for adhering to the law, they came to see the rewards as heavenly. And to enhance the power of a post-mortem reward, it was exalted to that of being granted a near divine status — being able to stand before the very throne of God.

This exaltation is bound up through identification with Isaac as the prototype of the martyr . . . .

Redemption – Dying on behalf of all Israel

. . . . These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified — they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an expiation [propitiation], divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been afflicted. [4 Maccabees 17:17-22]

The deaths of the martyrs were recognized as being on behalf of the entire nation. It was not only the martyrs themselves who benefitted. God was moved by their sacrifice to pity and rescue the entire people.

The word for propitiation is the same used for the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:14). It is also the same used of Jesus’ blood (Romans 3:25). For Paul, only the death of Jesus had this power. For the author of 4 Maccabees, the power was in all those who died martyrs.

And the death was a joyful one. One’s life was freely and willingly — even joyfully — given, as the passage from Pseudo-Philo in relation to Jepththah’s daughter makes clear:

And Seila his daughter said unto him: And who is it that can be sorrowful in their death when they see the people delivered? Rememberest thou not that which was in the days of our fathers, when the father set his son for a burnt offering and he gainsaid him not, but consented unto him rejoicing? And he that was offered was ready, and he that offered was glad. Now therefore annul not anything of that thou has vowed, but grant unto me one prayer. I ask of thee before I die a small request: I beseech thee that before I give up my soul, I may go into the mountains and wander (or abide) among the hills and walk about among the rocks, I and the virgins that are my fellows, and pour out my tears there and tell the affliction of my youth; and the trees of the field shall bewail me and the beasts of the field shall lament for me; for I am not sorrowful for that I die, neither doth it grieve me that I give up my soul: but whereas my father was overtaken in his vow, [and] if I offer not myself willingly for a sacrifice, I fear lest my death be not acceptable, and that I shall lose my life to no purpose.

The martyrs identified with Isaac in their willingness to face death. He was their forbear. And just as Isaac’s “blood” was salvific, so the deaths of the martyrs saved Israel. (Levenson does not refer to it, but one also recalls the synoptic gospel saying that God will save his people for the sake of the elect who are said to be persecuted.)

The focus shifts from Abraham to Isaac; from child sacrifice to self sacrifice

Levenson notes the Hellenistic trend to place more interest and accountability on the individual, and that this no doubt played some part in the re-interpretation of the aqedah. Isaac ceased to be a valued appendage of Abraham, and became a willing participant with his father. The Book of Jubilees seems to indicate Isaac was 14 years old; Josephus thinks he was 25 years — either is old enough to be aware of one’s choices.

In the same Hellenistic world many Jews faced death unless they complied with efforts to stamp out their religious culture, and Isaac was seen as their model in martyrdom, going willingly, even joyfully, to death for the sake of obedience to God. And through these deaths their nation would be saved, and they themselves would inherit great glory as did Isaac.

Jews were taught to emulate not only Abraham but also Isaac.

This re-interpretation appears to have begun from the second century c.e. and was maturing though the first centuries b.c.e and c.e. and into the early rabbinic period, from 70 c.e. on.

To be continued etc . . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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