Isaac Bound: template for Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew

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by Neil Godfrey

'Akedah: Abraham Offering Isaac'
Image by sarrazak6881 via Flickr

If one reads the Genesis 22 account of Abraham’s offering of Isaac there is very little reason to think that it has very much to do with the details of the Gospel narrative about Jesus. And that’s the problem — it is too easy to read Genesis 22 as if the canonical text so familiar to us was all there was to read and know among Jewish readers of the Second Temple pre-Christian era.

Some scholars neglect the potential significance of Isaac for the Gospel of Matthew due to an anachronistic and often reflexive focus on the canonical forms of Old Testament texts. (p. 64, The Matthean Jesus and the Isaac of the Early Jewish Encyclopedia, Leroy Andrew Huizenga, in Reading the Bible Intertextually)

Huizenga uses the analogy of the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia to explain. It has been customary to compare specific details of Gospel narratives with potentially corresponding texts in the Old Testament and decide on the basis of one to one correspondences of semantics whether there is a real relationship between the two. This is like consulting a dictionary to find a direct one-to-one theoretical explanation of a word. A better approach is to explore relationships through “an encyclopedia” that speaks of actual experiences in the way the words have been used and interpreted in cultural knowledge and traditions. In short, this means that

Scholars must ask how Old Testament texts were actually understood within Jewish culture when the New Testament documents were written and not assume that any “plain meaning” of our canonical Old Testament text was the common, obvious, undisputed first-century meaning. (p. 65)

So when one reads in Matthew what appears to be a verbal allusion to Genesis 22, it is valid to ask what that allusion meant to those whose understanding of Genesis was shrouded in other literary traditions and theological ideas of the time. It is not just about what we read in our canon. It is about what Jews of the day wrote and understood and acted upon in relation to their scriptures that is the key.

So what did the Jews make of the story of the binding of Isaac (the Akedah)?

The Akedah before the Christian Era

There are two pre-Christian Jewish texts that inform us about the way some Jews interpreted the binding and offering of Isaac story in Genesis 22. From these texts we learn that for some Jewish groups Isaac was believed to have been

  1. an active, willing sacrificial victim
  2. offered for sacrifice at Passover
  3. offered for sacrifice on the Temple Mount
  4. offered up by God
  5. of saving significance for the Jewish people

1. Qumran text 4Q225  (ca 150 bce – 20 ce)

Following is a reconstruction (only partially a translation) of the 4Q225 fragments of Qumran based on the scholarly texts of Vermes and of Wise, Abegg and Cook. Here, unlike what we read in Genesis 22, Isaac is also being tested and the major blessing is given to Isaac as a reward for his obedience. Isaac is clearly said to consent to be sacrificed. In later rabbinic writings we regularly find references to Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed, but this Qumran fragment shows that the idea well preceded rabbinic times.

God said to Abraham, ‘Look at the stars and see and count the sand that is on the sea shore and the dust of the earth as to whether they can be counted. And Abraham believed in God and this was reckoned to him as righteousness.

And a son was born afterwards to Abraham and he called his name Isaac. And the prince Mastema [Malevolence] came to God and accused Abraham on account of Isaac. And God said to Abraham, ‘Take your son, Isaac, your only son whom you love and offer him to me as a burnt offering on one of the high mountains which I will show you.’ And he rose and he went from the wells to Mount Moriah . . . And Abraham lifted up his eyes and behold there was a fire. And he set the wood on Isaac, his son, and they went together.

Then Isaac said to Abraham, his father, ‘Behold here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?’ And Abraham said to Isaac, his son, ‘God will provide a lamb for himself.’ Isaac said to his father, ‘Tie me well‘ . . . . Holy angels standing and weeping over the altar . . . his sons from the earth. And the angels of Mastema were rejoicing and saying, ‘Now he (Isaac) will be destroyed . . . we shall see whether he will be found weak and whether Abraham will be found unfaithful to God.’ And he (God) called, ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said. ‘Here am I.’ And he said, ‘Now I know that it was a lie that he (Abraham) will no longer be loving.’ And the Lord God blessed Isaac all the days of his life and he begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Levi . . . . And the prince Mastemah was bound and the holy angels . . .

Here is part of Huizenga’s comment:

Isaac is the fragment’s central figure. God tests Isaac . . . at the demonic Mastema’s instigation, who hopes that Isaac “would by found weak” or obey and “perish” and thus extinguish his own line. Moreover, unlike Genesis 22:17, 4Q255 emphasizes the blessing of Isaac: “God the Lord blessed Is[aac all the days of his life,] . . . ; Isaac’s genealogy follows. Finally, Passover associations exist; verbal parallels imply “it is dealing in a Jubilean way with several events that happened in the time of the Exodus from Egypt.” (p. 66)

2. Jubilees (160 – 150 ce)

Jubilees does not contain a willing Isaac but it does present the Akedah as an etiology (origin story) of the Passover festival. It also sets it at Mount Zion, and portrays it as a contest between God’s Angel of the Presence and the (devil-like) Mastema. Isaac’s sacrifice itself does not have saving power for others, but his act is narrated as an example for those who would remain true to their covenant with God.

The Passover associations are found in the command to sacrifice coming on the 12th day of the first month and the sacrifice being offered/bound three days later — coinciding with the Passover ritual. From this time a seven-day festival is observed, and Huizenga remarks that the only seven day festival in the Bible is that of Passover/Unleavened Bread. The festival is associated with “rejoicing and joy”, another verbal link with the Passover that is later in Jubilees described as the “beginning of the joy”. Like the later children of Israel in Egypt on the Passover when the firstborn of Egypt were slain, Isaac stands against Mastema and puts Mastema to shame.

From the R.H. Charles translation:

15. And it came to pass in the seventh week, in the first year thereof, in the first month in this jubilee, on the twelfth of this month, there were voices in heaven regarding Abraham, that he was faithful in all that He told him, and that he loved the Lord, and that in every affliction he was faithful.

16. And the prince Mastêmâ came and said before God, “Behold, Abraham loveth Isaac his son, and he delighteth in him above all things else; bid him offer him as a burnt-offering on the altar, and Thou wilt see if he will do this command, and Thou wilt know if he is faithful in everything wherein Thou dost try him.”

17. And the Lord knew that Abraham was faithful in all his afflictions; for He had tried him through his country and with famine, and had tried him with the wealth of kings, and had tried him again through his wife, when she was torn (from him), and with circumcision, and had tried him through Ishmael and Hagar, his maid-servant, when he sent them away.

18. And in everything wherein He had tried him, he was found faithful, and his soul was not impatient, and he was not slow to act; for he was faithful and a lover of the Lord.

XVIII. And God said to him, “Abraham, Abraham”; and he said, “Behold, (here) am I.”

2. And He said, “Take thy beloved son whom thou lovest, (even) Isaac, and go unto the high country, and offer him on one of the mountains which I will point out unto thee.”

3. And he rose early in the morning and saddled his ass, and took his two young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood of the burnt-offering, and he went to the place on the third day, and he saw the place afar off.

4. And he came to a well of water, and he said to his young men, “Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad shall go (yonder), and when we have worshipped we shall come again to you.”

5. And he took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife, and they went both of them together to that place.

6. And Isaac said to his father, “Father”; and he said, “Here am I, my son.” And he said unto him, “Behold the fire, and the knife, and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt-offering, father?”

7. And he said, “God will provide for himself a sheep for a burnt-offering, my son.” And he drew near to the place of the mount of God. 

8. And he built an altar, and he placed the wood on the altar, and bound Isaac his son, and placed him on the wood which was upon the altar, and stretched forth his hand to take the knife to slay Isaac his son.

9. And I stood before him, and before the prince of the Mastêmâ, and the Lord said, “Bid him not to lay his hand on the lad, nor to do anything to him, for I have shown that he feareth the Lord.”

10. And I called to him from heaven, and said unto him: “Abraham, Abraham”; and he was terrified and said: “Behold, (here) am I.”

11. And I said unto him: “Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything to him; for now I have shown that thou fearest the Lord, and hast not withheld thy son, thy first-born son, from me.”

12. And the prince of the Mastêmâ was put to shame; and Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, a single ram caught . . . by his horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered it for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.

13. And Abraham called that place “The Lord hath seen,” so that it is said “(in the mount) the Lord hath seen”: that is Mount Sion.

14. And the Lord called Abraham by his name a second time from heaven, as he caused us to appear to speak to him in the name of the Lord.

15. And He said: “By Myself have I sworn, saith the Lord,
Because thou hast done this thing,
And hast not withheld thy son, thy beloved son, from Me,
That in blessing I shall bless thee
And in multiplying I shall multiply thy seed
As the stars of heaven,
And as the sand which is on the seashore.
And thy seed will inherit the cities of its enemies,

16. And in thy seed will all nations of the earth be blessed;
Because thou hast obeyed My voice,
And I have shown to all that thou art faithful unto Me in all that I have said unto thee:
Go in peace.”

17. And Abraham went to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham dwelt by the Well of the Oath.

18. And he celebrated this festival every year, seven days with joy, and he called it the festival of the Lord according to the seven days during which he went and returned in peace.

19. And accordingly hath it been ordained and written on the heavenly tables regarding Israel and its seed that they should observe this festival seven days with the joy of festival.

So with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Jubilees we have evidence that before Christianity the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) was developed beyond what we read in Genesis 22. Before Christianity the offering of Isaac involved an Isaac

  1. Who willingly, knowingly, offered himself as a sacrifice
  2. At Passover
  3. On Mount Zion
  4. Who was offered up by God
  5. And was rewarded with many heirs who became the people of God

Future posts will look at further evidence for how the Jews understood the Akedah at the time of Christian origins, and at the evidence that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was consciously modeling his Jesus on this Isaac.

And thanks to Michael Nordbakke who alerted me to Huizenga’s thesis. His book is obscenely expensive but I have found the next best thing: a chapter in which he summarizes his thesis Reading the Bible Intertextually.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Isaac Bound: template for Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew”

  1. Matthew (if I may give him that name) assembled gospel stories that already existed into one, long, coherent narration about the life of Jesus Christ on Earth. His main purpose was that his work be as historically true as possible. He wanted his readers to agree that these events really had happened, that Jesus Christ had descended to Earth, had preached and acted, had been crucified, had died, was buried, had rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven.

    References to ancient Jewish concepts, such as the binding of Isaac, were already baked into the gospel stories that Matthew selected for his assembled work. Perhaps Matthew tended to believe the existing gospel stories that included such references — and on the contrary Matthew tended to disbelieve the existing gospel stories that were devoid of such references. Matthew had to apply some criteria to decide whether an existing gospel story was true or false, and perhaps one such criteria was the inclusion of such references.

    In other words, I do not suppose that Matthew decided to make up a long story about Jesus, and Matthew likewise made up and included such references in order to make his story more meaningful.

    The original gospel stories were written by other Christians long before Matthew assembled them. Those earlier writers lived in a period when Christianity was a mystical religion. Jesus Christ was a mystical being, the divine Son of God, who had descended from Heaven to the Firmament, where he acted out a mystical drama in which he went through a crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension.

    The meaning of that mystical drama is related to various ancient beliefs about purification and sacrifice. Human beings are purified by sacrifices, and the ultimate purification was caused by this ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God on the Firmament. Anyone who could be mystically present at this mystical sacrifice would be mystically purified.

    That is where the idea of the sacrifice of Isaac comes in. That was a premier example of sacrifice, and this example was an important part of the foundation of the entire structure of understandings about purification and sacrifice. This structure of understandings led to the development of the mystical experience of the Son of God being sacrificed on the Firmament. That mystical experience led to the idea that Jesus Christ might descend to Earth. That idea about Jesus Christ on Earth led to the first gospel stories. Some of those stories eventually were believed to be true, and those stories were assembled by Matthew into a single, long, coherent narrative.

    Thus, the concept of the sacrifice of Isaac was baked into whole structure and was baked into the original gospel stories, long before Matthew started assembling his work. The references to Isaac were not created by the mind of Matthew.

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