Written by Dr. Yeshaya Gruber (IBC faculty) and David Breen (IBC student)
The Akedah, the horrific-sounding story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22), is one of the best-known and least understood stories among Jews and Christians alike. The horror of a loving God demanding such a sacrifice is extremely disturbing and difficult to understand, to say the least. It runs counter to everything we are accustomed to believing about the divine character. So how can this story be understood properly in the context of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near Eastern setting? And could it have been a prophetic performance act?
Part I: What is the Missing Background to the Story?
Erich Auerbach famously observed that the biblical story of the Akedah is “fraught with background” that is left unstated in the text. The story is of unclear intent, and any interpreter must make certain judgments (Mimesis 1953: 12). In this series of articles, we will explore some of that implicit background and suggest an answer as to why YHWH, the God of Israel, sent Abraham on a three days’ journey from Beersheba (or, less likely, the Philistine areas) to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. We take into account such vital details as the topography of the area and the reported Canaanite practice of child sacrifice in the valley below.
We must always remember that the “books” of the Bible were originally individual scrolls. They were written in specific historical and cultural contexts, using literary forms familiar to their original audiences but not often readily understandable to modern readers. Many “gaps,” pregnant with meaning for the original listeners, need to be explained or “filled in” for the narratives to hold together and make good sense to readers today. (The same would be true of reading, say, Homer or the Upanishads.) Consider a modern example. In Ireland a speaker might simply mention “1916,” a brief reference nonetheless sufficient for every Irish person present to appreciate an entire universe of meaning and associations. Yet these crucial aspects of the message would be lost to an outsider unfamiliar with the nature and import of the Easter Rising of 1916, which set in motion the events that culminated in Ireland’s independence from British rule.
Similarly, biblical stories usually do not spell out the details of what was already familiar to their original audiences. Cultural norms are often taken as understood and needing no elaboration. As in the above example, an allusion would be sufficient for the readers and hearers to import a world of meaning implicit in the text. So, which “missing” elements of the background would have been important to early readers/hearers of Genesis? What would they have been thinking as Abraham bound his own son on an altar of sacrifice, with fire and wood at the ready, and lifted his hand as it clasped the knife?
Part II of this article will begin to address this question from the point of view of geography and ancient culture. This will get us closer to understanding the real meaning of the Biblical story. Stay tuned for deeper examination of the Akedah next week!