Abraham is recognized as the forefather of both Judaism and Christianity but for different reasons. Within the Hebrew Bible, Abraham’s true progeny constitutes an indispensable feature of the covenant. As a result of Paul’s influence, both Abraham’s role and the significance of the covenant were redefined. Yet the story of Abraham’s willingness to offer his son in sacrifice became a meeting ground for both perspectives and justified suffering violence and inflicting violence. In various ways, the Abrahamic traditions have also attempted to mitigate violent readings.

Hebrew Bible.

Within the book of Genesis, Abram (as his name initially appears) hears God tell him to leave the land of Ur of the Chaldees and to inherit a land of promise with such blessing that he will become a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 11:27—12:8, v. 3). This combination of call and promise takes on the form of a covenant (15:18), a contract between God and Abram. The fulfillment of the covenant is for the benefit of Abram’s progeny or “seed” (15:3, 5, 13, 18; cf. 12:7). The solemnity of this covenant is marked by an elaborate sacrifice Abram makes at God’s command, in the midst of which God manifests himself as a smoking furnace and a flaming torch (15:9–17). The Lord covenants that all the lands between the Nile River and the Euphrates, individually named after their earlier inhabitants, will be the inheritance of Abraham’s seed.

In view of the extent of this covenanted inheritance, Abram (“father of many”) is renamed Abraham (“father of a great many”; Gen 17:1–9, v. 5), but this makes the definition of Abraham’s true progeny a particular concern of Genesis. Although Abraham is Ishmael’s father, the mother is Hagar, Sarah’s slave and an Egyptian (Gen 16). Promising an exceptional birth at Sarah’s advanced age (17:15–22; 18:1–15), God visits Abraham and Sarah to insist that only their son can fulfill the promise. Woven into the promise of this son, Abraham receives the covenant of circumcision on the eighth day of the child’s life, “the sign of the covenant” (Gen 17:10–14, v. 11). By both birth and covenantal obedience Isaac is the unique son of Abraham because while Abraham was 99 years old and Ishmael 13 years old when they were circumcised (17:24–25), Isaac was indeed eight days old (21:4). The theme of sacrifice therefore intervenes with violent force with Abraham’s near slaughter of Isaac in Genesis 22. His willingness to do that, although Isaac is the only means to fulfill the promise to Abraham’s seed, confirms the covenant (22:15–18).

The preference of Isaac over Ishmael is echoed in the antagonism of Isaac’s sons Jacob (named “Israel” in Gen 32:28) and Esau. By the time Jacob blesses his sons (Gen 49), the eponymous founders of the clans or “tribes” of Israel, it is plain that the covenantal promise to Abraham is in the process of fulfillment through the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The thematic importance of this motif through the Torah is shown by the repetition of the patriarchal triad and by the requirement to appear before the Lord in the Temple and acknowledge that “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5).

The theme echoes through the Hebrew Bible, where solidarity with Abraham is a matter of covenantal identity. In one hyperbolic passage, the book of Isaiah acknowledges God as father even if “Abraham does not know us” (Isa 63:16). The aim of that phrasing is not to deny that Israel is the progeny of Abraham but to insist that God’s power is the force behind the promise to Abraham and the ultimate means of its fulfillment.

New Testament.

Paul pressed the prophetic distinction between Abraham in himself and God’s promise to Abraham to a radical conclusion. He argued that, at the moment when Abraham “believed in God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6, following Paul’s quotation of the Septuagint) there was no Torah, which only came 430 years later (Gal 3:6–18). Indeed, Abraham at the moment he is declared righteous remained uncircumcised (Rom 4:1–12). He embodied the principle that faith alone makes a person just, apart from any requirement of keeping the Law.

Paul’s argument redefined both what it means to see Abraham as a patriarch and how God’s covenant with him is to be fulfilled. Now “those who are from faith, these are Abraham’s sons” (Gal 3:7; cf. Rom 4:11–12) rather than the progeny of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those who believe, circumcised and not, are now “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16; cf. Rom 11:25–32). The covenant itself, meanwhile, does not follow the aggregative definition of the Pentateuch but focuses on the prophecy that all the nations (or Gentiles) will be blessed. If they are to be blessed, they cannot at the same time be cursed, which is what the Law promises those who do not obey the Mosaic covenant (Gal 3:10–14).

In contrast, the Letter of James insists that Jesus’s preaching amounts to the confirmation of the “royal Law” (2:8–12) and offers a different moment of emphasis in the evaluation of Abraham. It was not his faith alone—which apart from works is dead in any case (2:17, 20)—that made him the forefather of salvation but his willingness to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice (2:21–24).

Matthew’s Gospel represents an uneasy combination of both views, claiming, in the name of John the Baptist, that God can raise up children of Abraham from stones (Matt 3:9; cf. Luke 3:8) and yet that Jesus came to fulfill, not abolish, the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17). The Epistle to the Hebrews shows greater finesse, by portraying Abraham among the heroes of faith in his initial call (11:8–10) and in his offering of his son (11:17–19), who himself prefigures resurrection.

Rabbinic and Patristic Interpretations.

By the time of two roughly contemporaneous sources, Genesis Rabbah and Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on Genesis, the heroism of Abraham and Isaac had become determinative of the forefathers’ significance. Genesis Rabbah (chs. 55–56) in its present form took several centuries to evolve, and it interweaves many different traditions. No longer, for example, did God simply test Abraham, as in the Hebrew text, nor did Mastema (the name used for “devil”) push God to act in the way he does in the book of Jubilees out of jealousy of Abraham (Jub. 17:16). Instead, Isaac and Ishmael have a dispute (Gen. Rab. 55.4), in which Ishmael brags that, since he was circumcised at the age of 13, his devotion was greater than Isaac’s, who—circumcised as an eight-day-old infant—had neither choice nor consciousness in the matter. Isaac replied that, were God to ask all his members in sacrifice, he would not deny them.

The pure, mature intention of the 37-year-old Isaac has him rewarded with a vision of heaven at the precise moment when Abraham lifted the knife to slaughter him, seeing the angels that his father could only perceive by their reflection in his son’s eyes. During the time he was dead, having died at his father’s hand, it is said that Isaac studied in a heavenly academy, run by a supernatural figure named Shem, who is identified with Melchizedek, the mysterious figure who once gave Abraham a priestly blessing (Gen 14:18–20). Isaac then returned to normal life when God raised him from the dead. Now the point of his age comes into clear focus because he is of sufficient maturity to teach the wisdom that he learned in the heavenly academy.

Just by looking at two key elements in Genesis Rabbah—the dispute between Ishmael and Isaac and Isaac’s return to life from the academy of Shem—the allusive quality of the interpretations is obvious, and all the more so when read in the context of the many other interpretations also presented in Genesis Rabbah. Are we to believe that the brothers really fought prior to the Aqedah and that Isaac came back from the dead when so many other readings are possible? It seems wise not to insist on a categorical reading when Genesis Rabbah so carefully constructs a series of possibilities for virtually every turning point in the story.

Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth century signals a determinative shift in the understanding of Christ’s death, which came to light fully during the Middle Ages and continues to shape how, in the modern period, readers often see God himself as the hidden hand behind the stories of both Abraham and Isaac and Jesus’s crucifixion. In making the crucifixion God’s active desire, Cyril posed a stark contrast between the sacrifice that God wants and the Old Testament scene. When Isaac, “having been placed on the wood, is stolen away from death and suffering,” Isaac and his Jewish progeny (Pascal Homilies 5, cf. Glaphyrorum in Genesim) cheated God of what he most desired. On this reading, the Old Testament “type” was so faulty that it effectively inverted the reality that Christ accomplished. Despite the popular teaching, defended on Origen’s authority, that the devil accepted Jesus’s death as a ransom, the view steadily gained ground that violence for the sake of God, including the death of his own Son, fulfilled the Father’s pleasure.

Cyril’s God wanted human sacrifice—in Isaac’s time, in Christ’s, and beyond. When it concerns a Christological reading of Genesis 22, Cyril concludes that “the child being led to the sacrifice by his father indicates through symbol and outline that neither human strength nor the greed of the conspirator led our Lord Jesus Christ to the cross, but the desire of the Father.”

Revising Abrahamic Heroism.

In a midrash contained in Leviticus Rabbah, Isaac returns home after the events of Genesis 22 and tells his mother what happened on Moriah. Despairing and bewildered, she asks, “Had it not been for the angel you would have been slain?” When Isaac confirms that, the scene becomes searing: “Then she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts of the shofar. It is said, She had barely finished speaking when she died.” Absent from Mount Moriah, Sarah is the only parent emotionally present to her son, and the ram’s horn that is blown every new year conveys her grief.

Not content with this overt preference of Sarah to Abraham in terms of moral integrity and basic humanity, this midrash goes on to caricature Abraham as a compulsive sacrificer. Posing the question of where Abraham had been prior to the burial of Sarah, Leviticus Rabbah says he remained on Mount Moriah: “Abraham harbored doubts in his heart and thought, Perhaps some disqualifying blemish was found in him and his offering was not accepted.” While his wife has just died of grief at the realization of his heartlessness, Abraham is still caught up with the impulse to kill Isaac. The insight that the impulse to sacrifice his son came from the patriarch himself, rather than from God, links the interpreter who composed this midrash in Leviticus Rabbah with the Qurʾan (Al Saffat 37:84–111), where the impetus for the sacrifice came from Ibraham’s vision, rather than directly from Allah’s will.

In Gethsemane (Mark 14:32–42, the earliest version of the story), Jesus brings his anguish to his Abba three times. Peter’s source spoke of Jesus’s prayer in order to model for believers how they themselves should pray when in distress, not merely to give information about Jesus. It counteracts any sense of unreflective confidence in seeking martyrdom.

That is the reason for which liturgical rhythms and antiphonal dialogue ripple through the story of Gethsemane. It is designed as part of Peter’s passion narrative, the story of Jesus’s suffering up to and including the moment of his death. In Peter’s narrative, the human failing to be avoided prior to this decisive moment was not an agonized plea for one’s life, like Jesus’s, but the languor that came to disciples during their vigils (Mark 14:37–38). By contrast, Peter’s story commends and endorses Jesus’s open expression of fear and doubt. This is prayer as it should be—directed to God as one’s Abba, which in Aramaic means both “father” and “source,” and completely open in its acknowledgment of human weakness.

The complexity of Abraham’s valence within the Bible as a whole and the traditions known as Abrahamic have promoted attempts to achieve coherence. The effort has evidently not reached its goal.

[See also GENESIS; JUDAISM; PAUL; and SACRIFICE AND OFFERINGS.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Chilton, Bruce. Abraham’s Curse: Child Sacrifice in the Legacies of the West. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
  • Firestone, Reuven. Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham–Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • Greiner, Bernhard, Bernd Janowski, and Hermann Lichtenberger, eds. Opfere deinen Sohn! Das “Isaak-Opfer” in Judentum, Christentum und Islam. Tübingen, Germany: Francke, 2007.
  • Kessler, Edward. Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians and the Sacrifice of Isaac. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Kundert, Lukas. Die Opferung/Bindung Isaaks. Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 78, 79. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1998.
  • Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Spiegel, Shalom. The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice. The Akedah. Translated by Judah Goldin. New York: Random House, 1967.

Bruce Chilton