Monday, 26 May 2008

Isaac, Jesus, and National Implications of the Aqedah in Early Judaism

今個星期五我就會上飛機, 返溫哥華幾日, 因為要去 CSBS, 做個 presentation. 個題目係阿伯拉罕獻以撒o既傳統. 其實今次都有少少擔心, 因為呢個研究係好多年之前做落o既, 但係當我早兩個月睇返呢份舊 paper, 覺得其實都唔係好滿意. 不過因為早在半年以前已經交o左份 abstract, 已經騎虎難下. 唉, 睇下點啦, 最大不了係俾人問到口啞啞, 唔使死o既. 下面就係我為呢次 presentation 寫o既 speech. 我係刻意用有少少唔正經o既英文o黎寫, 咁我到時照讀就唔會令人覺得我o係度讀稿o既感覺.

希望有人可以幫我睇下, 問下我問題, 對我準備會有幫助:


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I know it is not good timing to talk about stories of gory human sacrifice immediately after you had a good lunch. But anyway, in the following 20 to 25 minutes, I'd like to talk about the Aqedah as it is rewritten or alluded to in Jewish literature from around the second temple period.

Now, what do I mean by "the Aqedah"? It is important that we do not confuse the Aqedah with El-Qaeda; my wife did that, which is a dangerous thing to do. By "Aqedah", I am referring to the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, first found in Genesis 22, and reiterated numerous times in later writings. I believe we all are quite familiar with this story: Abraham was so ridiculously obedient to God that he agreed to kill his own son Isaac as an offering; but of course, right before Abraham actually killed the father of Israel, an angel stopped him, and then proclaimed a divine promise for Abraham as a reward for his attempted filicide. This intriguing story has captured the imagination of Jews, Christians, Muslims. Their interest in the story is reflected in a variety of media, in writings, paintings, sculptures, depictions on floors, on walls, on lamps. It is one of the best-known stories in the Hebrew bible.

What biblical scholars find especially interesting is the many parallels between Isaac in the Aqedah and Jesus in New Testament Christology. For example, both Isaac and Jesus are identified as the beloved son; their fathers allowed the sons to be sacrificed; their destination is on a mountain; they both carry their own woods up the mountain; they both play the role of a lamb in their sacrifice. I could say more but you get the point.

It is parallels like these that raised the question: Is there an intended Jesus-Isaac typology in the New Testament? And if so, why? Some scholars such as Israel Levi, Hans Schoeps, Nils Dahl, Robert Daly refuse to take the parallels as mere coincidence, no that'll be too boring, they see the Aqedah as an important antecedent to New Testament soteriology, because Rabbinic and christian writings sometimes describe the sacrifice of Isaac as an offering with atoning effect, which would then parallel quite nicely the redeeming power of Jesus' crucifixion. But a problem that these views encounter is that recent studies have shown that the understanding of the Aqedah as an atonement is not found in writings from before the time of Jesus and the early christian church, it only shows up in the later texts. So if we try to understand the idea of a Jesus-Isaac connection through the presupposition of an expiatory reading of the Aqedah, that would be an anachronistic exercise, I'm afraid.

This is my suggestion: instead of keep searching for earlier evidence for an expiatory reading of the Aqedah, why not also consider the possibility that the New Testament related Jesus to Isaac because they recognized national implications in both the ministry/death of Jesus and the near-sacrifice of Isaac? After all, many important studies in recent years suggest that the early church, and probably also Jesus himself, looked forward to a restoration, a brighter future of the nation of Israel. Of course there is not yet a nation of Israel in Genesis 22, because Abraham was not very productive in terms of having children; but after the angel stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, God made a promise to Abraham, which involves "possessing the gates of enemies." So there is a touch of national implication in Isaac's near-sacrifice already in Genesis 22. If I can show that this continued to be an important theme attached to the Aqedah in early Jewish literature, we might have a new direction in future research of the Jesus-Isaac connection in the New Testament. And that's what I'm trying to do today. I will now explore the significance or function of the Aqedah story in the books of Jubilees, Judith, 1 Maccabees, the Wisdom of ben Sira, Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities, and 4 Maccabees.


dates to the first half of the second century b.c.e. It retells the Aqedah in chapters 17 to 18. Jubilees' version of the Aqedah follows Genesis 22 quite closely, but there are a few notable differences that reflect a tendency to associate the Aqedah with the Exodus. For instance, according to the tedious and dry calculations of James VanderKam, Jubilees might have portrayed the sacrifice of Isaac occurred on the day of the Passover, because according to Jubilees the series of events of the Aqedah kicked off on the twelfth of the first month and Abraham arrived at the designated mountain on the third day, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, that means the sacrifice took place on the fourteenth of the first month, and that's the day of the Passover. Also, when Abraham returned after nearly killing his own son, he decided to have a big party, he celebrated a seven-day festival. Since the only festival in the first month that involves a seven-day celebration is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jubilees is presenting this anonymous festival as an archetype of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is closely related to Passover and the Exodus.

Also, at the scene of the sacrifice, a scary demon named Mastemah was present, whose full name "Prince Mastemah" appears only in the context of two stories in the entire book of Jubilees. The first time is here in the Aqedah, where he put Abraham's promised seed in danger; the second time is in the Exodus, where he is described provoking the Egyptians to pursue the Israelites. And Jubilees might have twice deliberately replaced the phrase "your only son" in Genesis 22 with "your firstborn son", and of course, "firstborn" is an important theme in the Exodus story.

OK, so there are parallels between the Aqedah and the Exodus in Jubilees, but what does that mean? How does that relate to my subject? Jon Levenson believes that by founding the story of Passover upon the Aqedah, Jubilees makes Abraham's willingness to give up his son a key ingredient of Israel's redemption from Egypt. Similarly in a recent study Huizenga suggests that Abraham's obedience at the Aqedah foreshadows the obedience of the Israelites at the Passover event, and in each instance obedience is what secures deliverance from earthly and heavenly threats. In other words, the story of the Aqedah is an archetype of the national deliverance of the Exodus story. This is the national implication that the Aqedah story carries in the book of Jubilees, I believe.

The Book of Judith

Is also from the second century b.c.e. It uses the Aqedah in the context of a story of national crisis to encourage its readers to face whatever national calamity was lying in front of them with courage and perseverance. It tells the story of a large-scale Assyrian invasion under the command of a nasty pervert named Holofernes. When the Assyrian army reached the land of the Israelites, the people were in distress, and they were ready to surrender had a miraculous deliverance of God not arrived within five days. But a pious widow named Judith objected to the idea of giving up so easily. She urged the people to give thanks even in such difficult circumstance and to recall how Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set a good example of remaining faithful even in times of great difficulty. This is what she has to say: "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who is putting us to the test, just as he did to our ancestors. Remember how he treated Abraham; how he tested Isaac; and what happened to Jacob in Syrian Mesopotamia."

Here speaking of Isaac, Judith mentioned that God "tested" him, which most probably involves the Aqedah, because the word "to test" peira&zein appears once, and only once, in the LXX Genesis, in chapter 22 verse 1, the first sentence of the Aqedah story. In short, here is an example of the Aqedah being used in the context of a national crisis; it is considered a fitting exemplar for those who need to stand up for the nation.

1 Maccabees

dates to the second century b.c.e. Kinda similar to what we've seen in Judith, here the Aqedah is mentioned in the context of a national crisis and serves as a role model for those who are under oppressive foreign powers, except that the bad guys here are the Seleucids, not the Assyrians.

In chapter 2, shortly before he died, Mattathias the leader of the Maccabees encouraged his sons to show zeal for the law and urged them to recall what their ancestors had done, including Abraham, Joseph, Phinehas, Joshua, David, and some others. One notable common factor among these heroes is that they are traditionally credited to have done something of lasting national significance. For example, Joseph saved the fathers of Israel from a nasty famine and kept them alive; Phinehas calmed the anger of God that could have wiped out Israel; Joshua led the people into the promise land; David protected the promise land from the Philistinian invasions. Here Abraham in the Aqedah is among these heroes, suggesting that Abraham's faith in the Aqedah was understood as one of the role models of showing zeal. This is what Mattathias has to say:

"Show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors. Remember the deeds of the ancestors, which they did in their generations; and you will receive great honor and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in a test, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?"

Now, is it an allusion to the Aqedah when Mattathias said "Abraham was found faithful in a test"? I think it is. The word "test" peirasmo&j never occurs in LXX Genesis, but its verb form "to test" peira&zein does appear once, in chapter 22 verse 1. Besides, since the word peirasmo&j is in the singular, I take it that it is referring to a single event in the life of Abraham. I mean, if there is any incident in Abraham's life to be highlighted as the most famous "test," then the Aqedah should be it. It is true that there are multiple trials in Abraham's life according to Jewish traditions, but the Aqedah is almost always considered THE trial. In Jubilees, for example, the Aqedah is presented as the seventh trial for Abraham, seven, the magic number; and in the Midrash, the Aqedah is the last and ultimate trial for Abraham.

As Mattathias said, the Aqedah is a role model of showing zeal for the law. Now, to show zeal for the law may sound like a personal qualification that only concerns an individual's integrity to the law in daily life, but this is not the picture we see in 1 Maccabees. For example, when Mattathias urged people "to show zeal" for the law earlier in the story, he was actually expecting his followers to fight as warriors, not just to live a pious life. As a result, while Mattathias told his successors to show zeal for the law, he was telling them to fight and risk their lives for the nation of Israel, since their ancestors had done the same. In a nutshell, Mattathias seems to regard the Aqedah a relevant role model in the context of a national turmoil, using the story to encourage his sons to show zeal for the law and to remain faithful in a tough circumstance.

The Wisdom of ben Sira

also dates to the second century b.c.e. It does not relocate the Aqedah into a context of a war like 1 Maccabees or Judith; rather it ranks Abraham in the Aqedah on the level of other important individuals in the history of Israel who made an everlasting contribution to the prospering of the nation.

Chapters 44–50 of ben Sira is a distinct section, it is a Hymn of Ancestors. It praises the merits of the ancestors of Israel, so their piety and righteous deeds will not go unmentioned. These people should not be forgotten because they left behind something important for the subsequent generations and effected the development of the nation of Israel. For example, according to ben Sira, Enoch set an example of repentance for all generations, Noah received an everlasting covenant that all flesh should never again be blotted out by a flood, Isaac and Jacob distributed their inheritance among the twelve tribes, Moses taught Israel the decrees of God. And so on.

Just like these hall-of-famers, Abraham also made a substantial contribution to the nation of his descendants. He received an oath from God that promises him the multiplying and prospering of his descendants, and land will be given to them as inheritance. So according to ben Sira, the success and the prospering of Israel and their possession of the land were possible because of what Abraham had accomplished.

So what exactly did Abraham do that he deserved such an oath from God? The answer is given in chapter 44 verse 20; Abraham received the oath because "in a test he was found faithful." This is not an explicit reference by any means, but Jon Levenson believes that the test in question is surely the Aqedah; and that is how I take it. If this were the case, then in ben Sira, the Aqedah would have national implications because it was one of the reasons why God swore an oath to Abraham promising prosperity and a land for the nation of Israel.

Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities

dates to the latter half of the first century c.e. It depicts the Aqedah as an event of national implications in God's response to Balaam in chapter 18 as well as in the hymn of Deborah in chapter 32. The context of chapter 18 is basically a retelling of Numbers 22–24, here Balak the Moabite king asked Balaam the prophet to curse Israel, so Balaam asked for God's opinion on this matter. This is pretty stupid because Israel is God's elected people; and that is what God says to Balaam, and uses the Aqedah as an example of why he elected Israel: "I demanded his son as a burnt offering and he brought him to be placed on the altar. But I gave him back to his father and, because he did not object, his offering was acceptable before me, and in return for his blood I chose him." In return for [Isaac's] blood God chose Israel, says ben Sira. In other words, the Aqedah is a foundational reason of Israel's election, and why God protected Israel from the harm of the likes of Balaam and Balak.

Similarly, chapter 32 puts the Aqedah story in the context of another story of national disaster. This time, it is a retelling of Judges 4–5, the story of how Deborah defeated the army of Jabin the king of Hazor and saved the day. In celebration of the miraculous triumph, Deborah sang praise for the divine salvation for Israel. According to this hymn, it is because of the merits of the Aqedah that God will always remember Israel and come to their rescue when they are in big trouble. In short, Deborah's hymn probably also portrays the Aqedah as an event of tremendous national implications that made lasting effects on the fate of Israel in subsequent generations.

4 Maccabees

dates to the first two centuries of the Common Era. This writing is basically a philosophical discourse that uses the stories of Jewish martyrs in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes as examples to prove that reasons should dominate over emotions.

The examples given here are the martyrdom of Eleazar, the martyrdom of the seven brothers, and the martyrdom of the mother. These martyrs refused to break the Jewish law and for that, they were executed. As it turns out, these martyrs are just like university professors who won't stop once they started lecturing, they all made long-winded speeches in the face of their executioners, and the Aqedah is mentioned in the speech of the brothers in chapter 13 and the speech of the mother in chapter 16.

As the brothers were being carried away, they recalled two famous stories to encourage each other. The first is the story of the three youths in Daniel 3, and the second is the Aqedah. One brother said to the others: "Remember from where you came and at the hand of what father Isaac gave himself to be sacrificed for piety's sake." Yes you heard it right, he said "Isaac gave himself to be sacrificed," so here the Aqedah is an act of martyrdom, a deed of self-awared sacrifice, so that it can be a fitting example for their own situation. In other words, the function of the Aqedah here is to be a paradigm for the courageous people who are willing to die for the sake of piety.

The Aqedah is used in a similar manner in the speech of the mother to encourage her sons. The mother pointed out three role models to be followed in such tough situation: the elderly Eleazar, who just died before their eyes; Abraham and Isaac in the Aqedah; and Daniel and his buddies. Here again Isaac appears as a martyr who faced his imminent death with courage:

"Our father Abraham ventured boldly to sacrifice his son Isaac, the father of our nation; and Isaac, seeing his father's hand, with knife in it, fall down against him, did not flinch."

Again, the Aqedah serves as a fitting paradigm for martyrs who will give up their lives for piety's sake.

I should clarify that showing "piety" is not just a personal quality. From the perspective of 4 Maccabees, a person's piety makes a direct influence on the nation. We can see this idea expressed most clearly in chapter 18, where it says: "Those men who surrendered their bodies to suffering for piety's sake… it was because of them that our nation enjoyed peace—they revived the observance of the law in their land and repulsed their enemies' siege." In a nutshell, in 4 Maccabees, the Aqedah is a fitting model for those who want to show their piety through martyrdom, and yes, from the perspective of 4 Maccabees, the demonstration of piety has national implications.


OK, we have considered the use of the Aqedah in a number of early Jewish texts. Genesis 22 says that the merits of Abraham in the Aqedah will lead to his descendants possessing their enemies' gates, but this idea is not a prominent one in the texts that we have seen. They do not say that the Aqedah helps the Jews to conquer the world; rather, the focus is more on the defensive; they're saying, the Aqedah is why God will protect the Jews from their enemies; and Abraham and Isaac in the Aqedah are role models for the faithful Jews who are living under the oppression of foreign rulers. So in this regard, the Aqedah in the later texts is slightly different from Genesis 22. But I think it is still fair to say that despite the subtle differences, the Aqedah continued to be used as a story of national implications, a powerful story that may alter the fate of the nation. If I am more or less correct, I think it is worthwhile to consider the possibility that the New Testament writers related Jesus to Isaac because they recognized national implications in both the ministry/death of Jesus and the near-sacrifice of Isaac.