The sacrifice of Isaac in Qumran literature
Joseph A. Fitzmyer
The story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac is
well known because of the account of it in Genesis 22. Well known too is the way
allusion is made to this story in some writings of the New Testament (e.g., Jas
2,21-23; Heb 6,13-14; 11,17-19; possibly Rom 8,32). Even more well known is the
understanding of that account in the rabbinical tradition among the Jewish
people, where it is known as the "Aqe4dat
Yis9h9aq, "Binding of Isaac", or
simply the Aqedah or Akedah. It is not surprising, then, that a
Qumran text might be found that sheds some light on the understanding of that
famous account in the Book of Genesis.
The name Aqedah, however, is used with different
connotations today, and so it is necessary to be clear from the outset about the
sense in which it is being used. Sometimes it is used to denote only the
vicarious expiation of the sacrifice of Isaac, i.e. the offering of Isaac on
behalf of others (people of Israel); sometimes it means the story of the
sacrifice of Isaac as it developed in the Jewish tradition in contrast to the
bare account in Gen 22; and sometimes it connotes the totality of events
depicted in art and literature that builds on Gen 22,1-19 1.
The noun hdq( does not appear in the biblical account of Genesis or in the Qumran text to be
discussed. It first appears in the rabbinic tradition of the third-fourth
century of the Christian era. For this reason I shall not use it again until I
come to discuss that tradition. I shall be speaking of the sacrifice of Isaac in
a sense that mediates between the first and second senses just mentioned,
because I am concerned to determine how much of the first meaning can really be
found in the Jewish tradition that develops out of Gen 22,1-19 in the
pre-Christian Palestinian Jewish tradition prior to the New Testament.
My further remarks will be made under four headings: (1) the
Genesis account in its original Hebrew form and in the Old Greek version; (2)
the understanding of the account in the Book of Jubilees; (3) the Qumran text
that interprets it; and (4) later developments of the understanding of the
sacrifice of Isaac.
I. The Genesis Account in Its Original Hebrew Form
and in the Old Greek Version
The Hebrew narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac is recounted
in Gen 22,1-19, which can be summarized thus:
1After these events God put Abraham to the test... 2...
"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of
Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that
I shall point out to you". 3Abraham rose early the next
morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his servants and his
son Isaac. He cut wood for the burnt offering and set out to go to the place
of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham raised his
eyes and saw the place from afar... 6Abraham took the wood for
the burnt offering and put in on his son Isaac's shoulders; he himself
carried the fire and the knife; and the two of them went on together. 7Isaac
said to his father Abraham, "Father!" Abraham answered, "Yes, my son?"
He continued, "Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for
the burnt offering?" 8Abraham answered, "God himself will
provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son". Then the two of them
went on together. 9When they came to the place of which God had
told him, Abraham built there an altar and arranged the wood (upon it); then
he bound (dq(yw) his son Isaac and placed him
upon the altar on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out and
took the knife to slay his son. 11The angel of the Lord cried out
to him from heaven, "Abraham, Abraham!" He answered him, "Yes?" 12
"Do not lay your hand on the boy; do not do anything to him, because I now
know that you are a God-fearer, since you have not withheld from me your
son, your only son". 13As Abraham raised his eyes, he saw a ram
caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham went, took the ram, and offered
it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14Abraham called
that place "Yahweh-Yir"eh". So it is called to this day: "On the
mount of the Lord it will be provided".
The striking details in the Genesis account are the age of
Isaac, who is no longer a mere infant but a youth who understands what sacrifice
is and can carry wood, and the place from which Abraham starts and to which he
returns, viz. Beer-sheba. Only two noteworthy differences are found in the
Septuagint version of this account. First, the way it translates Hebrew hyrmh
as ei)j th_n gh=n th_n u(yhlh/n, "to the high land",
in v. 2; and second, how dyxiyF, "only", the
description of Abraham's son, as a)gaphto/j, "beloved",
in vv. 2, 12, 16. Elsewhere in the Septuagint dyxiyF
is sometimes rendered as monogenh/j (Judg 11,34 in
MS B 2; also Ps 22,21). Although "Moriah" turns up again only in 2 Chr 3,1,
as the place where Solomon built the Temple, the site in Genesis is usually
regarded as otherwise unknown. Moreover, this narrative emphasizes that Isaac is
Abraham's "only" son (MT) or "beloved" son (LXX), because Abraham has
already abandoned and sent off to the wilderness of Beer-sheba both Ishmael and
his mother Hagar (Gen 21,8-21), so that Ishmael no longer counts as a son. In
Genesis itself, one eventually learns that Abraham had six other children by
Keturah (25,2), but they play no role in this narrative about Isaac, who is
Abraham's "only" son and heir 3. The test to which Abraham is subjected:
the child born to him after a long delay, who is to be the link to the promised
numerous progeny (Gen 15,4-6), is now to be given up at God's request as a
II. The Understanding of the Account in the Book of Jubilees
The narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac was reproduced in the
Book of Jubilees, and it reveals how the Genesis story was being understood in
the second pre-Christian century in Palestinian Judaism. Although the details of
the narrative remain basically the same, five important elements were introduced
into it as it became part of Jub 17,15-18,164.
The first is the role of "prince Mastemah". Whereas God's
command given to Abraham in Gen 22 to offer his son is simply stated without any
reason for it other than that God would "test" Abraham, in Jubilees prince
Mastemah is used to supply the motivation for it. He functions in the heavenly
court as Satan does in Job 1–2, for he challenges God to put Abraham to the
The prince Mastemah came and said in God's presence,
"Look, Abraham loves his son Isaac and is more pleased with him than
anything else; command him to offer him as a burnt offering on an altar and
see whether he will carry out this order. Then you will know whether he is
faithful in every test to which you subject him" (Jub 17,16).
Second, the account in Jubilees gives a list of tests to
which Abraham was subjected by God prior to the great test of the sacrifice of
Isaac. God's answer to Mastemah's challenge runs as follows:
The Lord knew that Abraham was faithful in all his
afflictions, because he had tested him with a command to leave his country,
and with famine; he tested him with the wealth of kings, and he tested him
again with his wife, when she was taken away from him; and with
circumcision; and he had tested him with Ishmael and Hagar, his slave-girl,
when he sent them away. In every test to which the Lord subjected him,
Abraham had been found faithful. His soul was not impatient, or slow to act.
For he was faithful and loved the Lord (Jub 17,17-18).
In this passage we learn about six tests to which Abraham was
subjected by God 5: (a) the command to leave his country (= Gen 12,1); (b) the
famine in Canaan that makes him go down to Egypt to get grain (= Gen 12,10); (c)
the wealth of booty retrieved from the defeat of the eastern kings that Abraham
did not keep from the king of Sodom (= Gen 14,21-23); (d) the abduction of Sarah
by Pharaoh (= Gen 12,14-15); (e) the command to circumcise himself and all his
men as a sign of the covenant (= Gen 17,10-12); and (f) the sending away of
Hagar and his son Ishmael (= Gen 21,9-14).
Third, after the six tests, Jubilees recounts the story of
the sacrifice of Isaac, the great test in Abraham's life (18,1-16). The story
repeats the details of the account in Gen 22 rather closely, but it again
introduces the prince Mastemah at two points. (a) As Abraham is about to use the
knife to slay Isaac, it records: "I was standing in the Lord's presence, and
the prince Mastemah was there too. And the Lord said, "Tell him not to lay
his hand on the child..."" (Jub 18,9). (b) Later on it records, after God
has found Abraham faithful: "The prince Mastemah was put to shame" (18,11).
Thereupon Abraham spies the ram. In this way, what the "the angel of the Lord"
does in the Genesis account becomes one of the tasks of Mastemah.
Fourth, Jubilees may connect the sacrifice of Isaac with
Passover, but only indirectly. It dates the approach of Mastemah to God on the
twelfth day of the first month (17,15), and the reader is left to add the three
days that the text mentions, when it notes that Abraham and Isaac approach the
mountain of their destination "on the third day" (18,3). That would have
been the fifteenth day, when Passover was being celebrated6.
Finally, Jubilees identifies "the mount" called in Hebrew
Yahweh-Yir"eh as Mount Zion (18,13), i.e. Jerusalem.
III. The Qumran Text That Interprets the Account
Among the many fragmentary texts retrieved from Qumran Cave
4, which rewrite the Hebrew Scriptures, one in particular is noteworthy, 4Q225
or 4QPseudo-Jubileesa7. It is noteworthy, because it reveals that
the sacrifice of Isaac was not passed over in silence among the Essene Jews at
Qumran, as has been thought at times8. The text is extant in only three
fragments, and its account resembles that of Jubilees. Although its vocabulary
and phraseology are similar to that of Jubilees, it differs clearly enough so
that one cannot call it simply a copy of Jubilees; hence Pseudo-Jubilees.
This fragmentary text tells of an heir to be born of Abraham, the birth of
Isaac, and God's reward of Abraham for being willing to spare this only son.
Fragment 2, columns i and ii are important for this
discussion, and the text of col. i runs as follows:
Nk[ yr]x) Nb dlwyw hqdc wl b#xtw M[yh]wl)[b Mhrb)]
hm+[#]mh r# )wbyw qxsy wm# t) )rqyw M[hrb)l]
Myhwl[)] rm)yw qx#yb Mhrb) t) My+#yw Myhw[l) l)]
[r#) hk]dyxy t) qx#y t) hknb t) xq Mh[rb) l)]
My[hwbgh ]Myrhh dx) l( hlw(l yl whl(hw ht[bh) ht)]
[hyrwm r]h l( twr)bh Nm
[K]l[yw Mw]qyw hkl
[rmw) r#)] 13
t) [Mhr]b) )#yw[
]l[ ] 14
7 And [Abraham]
8 ·be[lieved] God, and righteousness was reckoned to
him9. A son was born af[ter] this
9 ·[to Abraha]m, and he named him Isaac. But the prince
10 [to G]od, and he lodged a complaint against Abraham
about Isaac. [G]od said
11 [to Abra]ham, "Take your son Isaac, [your] only one,
12 [you lo]ve, and offer him to me as a burnt offering on
one of the [hig]h mountains,
13 [which I shall point out] to you". He aro[se and
w]en[t] from the wells 10 up to Mo[unt Moriah].
14 [ ]And Ab[raham] raised
Column ii continues the text of col. i directly:
[wdxy wklyw wnb qx#y l( Myc(h t)]
Nt[y]w #) hnhw w]yn[y(]
[h#h hy)w Myc(hw #)h hnh wyb)]
Mhrb) l) qx#y rm)yw 2
[h#h t) h)ry Myhwl) wnb qx#y
]l) Mhrb) rm)yw hl(l 3
[ hpy ytw) twp]k wyb) l) qx#y rm) wl
[ xbzmh ]l( Mykwb Mydmw( #dwq yk)lm
[ hmx#]mh yk)lmw Cr)h Nm wynb t)
[M) hmx#mh r# hsny hz lwkb]w db)y w#k( Myrmw)w Myxm#
[)rqyw Myhwl)l Mhrb]) Nm)n )cmy )l M)w #xk )cmy
[ yk yt(dy ht]( rm)yw ynnh rm)yw Mhrb) Mhrb)
[t) dylwyw wyx ymy lk qx]#y t) hwhy l) Krbyw bh) hyhy )l
[lwk wyhyw (vacat) y#yl# r]wd ywl t) dylwh bwq(yw bwq(y
[ y]wlw bwq(yw qx#yw Mhrb) ymy
[ #dqh yk)lm Mhyl]( rws) hm+#m r#w
[ hm+#mh r#] l) l(ylb (m#yw hm+[#]mh r#
1· [his ey]es, [and there was a] fire; and he pu[t the
wood on his son Isaac, and they went together.]
2· Isaac said to Abraham, [his father, "Here are the
fire and the wood, but where is the lamb]
3· for the burnt offering?" Abraham said to [his son
Isaac, "God himself will provide the lamb".]
4· Isaac said to his father, "B[ind me fast ]
5· Holy angels were standing, weeping over the [altar ]
6· his sons from the earth. The angels of Mas[temah ]
7· rejoicing and saying, "Now he will perish". And
[in all this the Prince Mastemah was testing whether]
8 ·he would be found feeble, or whether A[braham] would
be found unfaithful [to God. He cried out,]
9 ·"Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Yes?" So He
said, "N[ow I know that ]
10·he will not be loving". The Lord God blessed Is[aac
all the days of his life. He became the father of]
11·Jacob11, and Jacob became the father of Levi, [a
third] gene[ration12. (vacat) All]
12·the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Lev[i were ]
13·The prince Mastemah bound on ac[count of them. Holy
14·The prince Ma[s]temah, and Belial listened to [the
prince Mastemah (?)13 ]
Unfortunately, the text is fragmentary just at the points
where one finds the different distinctive elements, e.g. the reaction of the
angels of heaven to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. In any case, six
points may be singled out as significant:
(1) In 2 i 9-10, "The Prince Mastemah came to God and
lodged a complaint against Abraham about Isaac". Here we find an angelic
figure living up to his name, since hm+#m is a
feminine abstract noun meaning "opposition". It is difficult to determine
whether one should translate hm+#mh r# as
"the Prince of the Mastemah", as VanderKam and Milik take it in the editio
princeps, or as a name, "Prince Mastemah", as it often appears in
Jubilees (e.g., 17,16; 18,9). The name denotes "opposition" of a legal or
judicial nature, and the verb M+# is used in the
juridical sense of lodging a complaint with a higher authority or in a court of
law. Hence just as N+#&, 'satan", in Job
1,6 comes into God's heavenly court and lives up to his name, "Adversary",
as he lodges a complaint against "blameless and righteous Job" (1,1), so too
hm+#m, "(judicial) Opposition", is depicted
as Abraham's court-room rival or prosecutor14. Whereas the only angelic figure
that appears in Gen 22 is hwhy K)lm, "the
angel of the Lord" (vv. 11, 15), who at times cannot be distinguished from God
Himself, this Qumran rewriting of the biblical account has introduced a further
heavenly figure, as did Jubilees.
(2) In 2 ii 1, Abraham "raised his eyes, and there was a
fire". This detail about the fire remains unexplained in the Qumran text, but
it is probably meant to mark the high mountain to which Abraham was
(3) In 2 ii 4, in a saying that has no counterpart in either
Gen 22 or Jub 18, Isaac surprisingly begs his father, "B[ind me fast]". That
might seem like a gratuitous reconstruction of the fragmentary text, but
VanderKam and Milik note that the words that precede the initial kaph of
the last extant word of the line match the developed paraphrase of Gen 22,10 in Targum
Pseudo-Jonathan, which reads:
ywb)l qxcy rm)w
Knbrqb )lwsp xkt#yw )lbxd )bwgl yxdnw y#pnd )r(c Nm skrpn )ld tw)y yty tpk
And Isaac said to his father, "Bind me well that I may
not struggle in the agony of my soul and be pitched into the pit of
destruction and a blemish be found in your offering"16.
Similarly Targum Neofiti I and the Fragmentary
Targum17, and also Genesis Rabbah 56,8. This Qumran addition to the biblical
account thus becomes important for the developing Jewish tradition, because it
reveals an aspect of Isaac's cooperation with his own sacrificial death that
figures often in Jewish writings of a later date.
(4) In 2 ii 5, it is recorded that "holy angels were
standing, weeping over the [altar] — or possibly "over [Isaac's coming
death]". This Qumran addition thus introduces other heavenly figures beyond hm+#m r#.
They are #dq yk)lm, "holy angels", and
being plural, they are not merely a substitute for "the angel of the Lord"
of Genesis. Their standing and weeping are again unexplained because of the
fragmentary state of the text18.
(5) In 2 ii 6, "the angels of Mastemah", who are probably
the attendants of hmx#m r#, are depicted "rejoicing
and saying, "Now he will perish", i.e. gloating over the coming death of
Isaac. These angels thus stand in contrast to the "holy angels" of line 5.
Their rejoicing becomes part of the testing of Abraham to see whether he would
be found feeble or strong and faithful.
(6) Finally, in 2 ii 13 the prince Mastemah is said to be "bound
on ac[count of them]"19. Because of the fragmentary state of the text, it is
hard to explain the detail, but it could refer to the binding of Mastemah
mentioned later in Jub 48,15.
These are the main differences brought to the account of the
sacrifice of Isaac in this Qumran text, which reveals new ways in which the
basic biblical account was already being developed within the Jewish tradition
in pre-Christian Palestinian Judaism.
Before we pass on to other ancient forms of the account, we
should take note of how this Qumran text has been interpreted in addition to the
editio princeps. I have cited already another article of J.C. VanderKam,
in which he discusses further aspects of the text, especially its relation to
Passover20. Geza Vermes has also interpreted this Qumran text, and I have to
comment on his treatment.
Before the Qumran text was published, Vermes had written
earlier on the Aqedah, "Redemption and Genesis XXII: The Binding of Isaac
and the Sacrifice of Jesus"21. There he analyzed the Jewish tradition that
grew out of Gen 22 and found its simplest development in the oldest Palestinian
targumic tradition (found in the Fragmentary Targum and Targum Neofiti
I). The main features of that development he maintained to be the following:
1.·Abraham tells Isaac about his role as a sacrificial
2.·Isaac gives his consent.
3.·Isaac asks to be bound so that his sacrifice may be
4.·Isaac is accorded a heavenly vision of angels.
5.·Abraham prays God to remember his own obedience and
Isaac's willingness on behalf of Isaac's descendants.
6.·His prayer is answered 22.
Vermes also noted an expanded form of this tradition in what
he called "Tannaitic and Amoraic sources", which do not concern us now. More
important, however, is the way in which Vermes interprets the fragmentary Qumran
text, 4Q225, when he sees it as a refutation of the thesis of P.R. Davies and B.
Chilton23. They restricted the term Aqedah to the first meaning mentioned
at the beginning of my introductory remarks, viz. the sense of the vicarious
expiation of the sacrifice of Isaac. They sought to ascribe the "invention"
of the Aqedah in this sense to "the Rabbis" (mostly Amoraic), who "went so
far as to appropriate details of the Passion [of Jesus from the New Testament]
to heighten the drama of Isaac's Offering and to deny thereby the uniqueness
of Jesus" offering"24. Their understanding of the Aqedah in this
sense was not new, for a form of it was proposed already in 1872 by A. Geiger25.
Exaggerations in the thesis of Davies and Chilton have been
noted by others, which I shall not rehearse26. The real question now, however,
is whether the Qumran fragment reveals "the pre-Christian skeleton of the
Targumic-midrashic representation of the sacrifice of Isaac", and whether it
renders "the hypothesis of an Amoraic origin of the Aqedah at least highly
In his article, Vermes, after discussing certain aspects of
the newly published Qumran text, concludes with a 'synoptic Table", which
lines up twelve elements that he considers "the pre-Christian skeleton". I
reproduce the table here28:
To be noted in this Table, first of all, is the question mark
that Vermes adds to 4Q225 on three elements: 4, 5, 8. If one looks again at col.
ii of the Qumran fragment, there is not the least trace of a word or phrase
about Isaac's consent (element 4), which Vermes separates from Isaac's
request to be bound. That is, there is nothing in the Qumran text similar to
what one finds, for instance, in Josephus, Ant. 1.232: "Isaac...
received these words [of his father] with joy, declaring that he was not worthy
to be born at all if he were to reject the decision of God and of his father";
or even as implied in 4 Macc 16,20; 13,12; 7,14; or in Pseudo-Philo, LAB
32,2-429. That "consent" might be implied in Isaac's asking to be bound
(element 5), which is found in 4Q225 2 ii 4 (as correctly reconstructed by the
editors); but then why make a distinct element of it in this Qumran text? Here
Vermes is reading into the Qumran text a notion found in other texts coming from
the first Christian century at the earliest, but how does he know that the "consent
of Isaac" was already part of "the pre-Christian skeleton"?
Second, there is not a trace of the "merit of Isaac" in
the Qumran fragment (element 8). Not even the words, "his sons from the earth"
(line 6) can be said to refer to such an idea, because the fragmentary text does
not tell us whose 'sons" are meant. Being plural, the word most likely does
refer to Isaac, since this embellishment of the Abraham story in Gen 22 knows
nothing as yet of the children born to Abraham from Keturah (25,2). Yet even if
they are Isaac's sons, the phrase "from the earth" is quite different from
any of the phraseology of the later tradition about Isaac's merit. So that
fragmentary line 6 can hardly refer to such a topic.
Third, why should elements 1 (Isaac's adult age), 9
(relation to the Temple Mount), 11 (Lamb sacrifice), and 12 (Isaac's
blood/ashes) even be listed in the Table? They do not appear in 4Q225, and even
if they are attested in first-century A.D. writings (such as Josephus or
Pseudo-Philo, LAB), they are not part of the "pre-Christian skeleton".
They appear for the first time in the Christian era.
Fourth, even if 2 Chr 3,1 mentions Solomon's building of
the house of the Lord on "Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his
father David", there is not the slightest connection in that passage of that
mount with the sacrifice of Isaac30. Why is it, then, given as evidence for the
In Jub 18,13, "Mount Zion" is named by Abraham as the
place where he sacrifices the ram. In Ant. 1.224, 226 Josephus records
that Abraham went "with his son alone to that mount, on which king David [sic]
afterwards built the temple", which has already been identified as "the
Morian Mount"31. In any case, the identification of Mt. Moriah with the Temple
Mount is a minor detail and of little significance for the developing doctrine
of the Aqedah. One wonders why Vermes has introduced it into the
discussion of the Qumran text? The same has to be said about element 11
(relation of the sacrifice of Isaac to the lamb sacrificed in the Temple as Tamid),
and element 12 (Isaac's blood/ashes).
Fifth, the crucial element in the Table is the so-called
merit of Isaac. Vermes claims that it is attested in Pseudo-Philo, LAB.
In LAB 18,5, however, the sacrifice of Isaac is said to be "acceptable"
to God, and for that reason God "has chosen" Israel to be His people (facta
est oblatio eius in conspectu meo acceptabilis, et pro sanguine eius elegi istos)32.
The divine decision about Israel as the Chosen People is quite different from
the expiatory value of the sacrifice of Isaac. Why is this passage cited?
In LAB 32,3, Isaac does speak to his father Abraham,
comparing his coming death to that of animals to be killed because of human
...pro iniquitatibus hominum pecora constituta sunt in
occisionem ... et in me annunciabuntur generationes et per me intelligent
populi quoniam dignificavit Dominus animam hominis in sacrificium,
...generations will be instructed by my case and peoples
will understand because of me that the Lord has considered the life of a
human being worthy [to be offered] in sacrifice.
Here Isaac concludes that his death would have a vicarious,
expiatory effect. Similarly perhaps in LAB 40,2, the same might be
implied (quis est qui tristetur moriens, videns populum liberatum, "and
who would be sorry to die, seeing a people freed"), if that liberty means
freedom from sins or iniquities.
This text, however, is usually dated between A.D. 70 and 100.
Even if it does formulate the sense of Isaac's meritorious death in at least
one passage, on what grounds may one extrapolate that evidence and say that it
builds up the "pre-Christian skeleton".
Sixth, in the Mekhilta on Exod 12,13, the words, "When I
see the blood" (12,13), are related to Gen 22,
I see the blood of the sacrifice of Isaac (qxcy l# wtdyq( Md).
For it is said: "And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh"
(The lord will see), etc. (Gen. 22.14)... . What did he behold? He beheld
the blood of the sacrifice of Isaac, as it said: "God Himself will see the
lamb", etc. (Gen. 22.8).
Yet even the editor, J.Z. Lauterbach adds in a note that "actually
no blood of Isaac was offered in sacrifice" and "according to Gen. Rab. on
Gen. 22.12 Abraham was not allowed to shed even one drop of Isaac's blood"33.
Consequently, there is in this passage no question of the "merit" of Isaac.
Similarly, later on in Mekhilta, the same midrash is repeated34, again without
any reference to Isaac's "merit". Still later, the Mekhilta quotes R. Jose
the Galilean as saying:
At the moment when the children of Israel went into the
sea, mount Moriah began to move from its place with the altar for Isaac that
had been built on it and the whole scene that had been arranged upon it —
Isaac as if he were bound and placed upon the altar, Abraham as if he were
stretching forth his hand and taking the knife to slay his son. God then
said to Moses: Moses, My children are in distress, the sea forming a bar and
the enemy pursuing, and you stand so long praying? Moses said before Him:
What then should I be doing? Then He said to him: "Lift thou up thy rod",
etc. — you should be exalting, glorifying and praising... Him in whose
hands are the fortunes of war"35.
This passage may indeed relate the sacrifice of Isaac to Mt.
Moriah, meaning the Temple Mount, but it scarcely says anything about the
meritorious or expiatory value of Isaac's sacrifice. It is relating Abraham's
willingness to sacrifice Isaac to the crossing of the Red Sea, with scarcely a
word about the iniquities of Israel or any expiation of its sins.
In the fifth-century A.D. Genesis Rabbah 56,7 God does
ascribe merit to Abraham: "for indeed I ascribe merit to thee as though I had
bidden thee sacrifice thyself and thou hadst not refused"36. Yet no indication
is given of what that merit might be, and it says nothing of merit due to Isaac
The upshot of this discussion is that Vermes has amassed
dubious evidence for the interpretation of this Qumran text. It is clear that
this pre-Christian Qumran fragment reveals important steps in the developing
tradition about the sacrifice of Isaac, especially in (1) the testing of Abraham
at the Prince Mastemah's request; (2) the mention of "fire" that
identifies the mountain to which Abraham was going; (3) Isaac's request that
Abraham "bind" him fast; (4) the mention of holy angels standing by, weeping
over (the altar or Isaac's death); (5) the mention of "angels of Mastemah"
rejoicing and saying, "Now he will perish"; and (6) an unclear reference to
the "binding" of Mastemah.
That, however, means that there is no mention in the Qumran
text of six of the elements that Vermes has put in his 'synoptic Table": no
mention of Isaac's adult age, of Isaac being informed by Abraham about his
status as a victim, of Isaac's consent separate from his request to be bound,
of the connection with the later Temple, or Passover, or the Tamid lamb
sacrifice, or Isaac's blood or ashes, and especially of the "merit of Isaac".
One wonders why the extra elements have been put into that Table, because they
have nothing to do with the Qumran text and, apart from the least-relevant
elements of the Temple Mount and Passover, which are mentioned in Jubilees, the
others are not attested in any pre-Christian writing, or even in a writing of
the first century A.D. The six extra elements, which may have some pertinence to
the later tradition about the Aqedah, provide only a camouflage for the
understanding of the Qumran text, in which we still have not even found the term
Although one must agree with the methodological principle
with which Vermes interprets these texts, as he expressed it in his book, "to
follow the development of exegetical traditions by means of historical criticism"37,
one must also heed the criticism of Vermes" application of that methodology
given by A.F. Segal:
We must take his arguments much more slowly, so as to see
exactly what the tradition of the Akedah was just prior to the time of
Jesus, to define what were the Christian additions to that text, and finally
to define what may have been the Jewish reaction to the Christian
Although he [Vermes] notes where important themes are
missing in each document, in sum he operates as if the whole constellation
is always present once the parts of the tradition are attested39.
That is why one must try to distinguish clearly just what
elements of the Aqedah tradition are indeed pre-Christian and what may
have been contemporary with the rise of Christianity and its New Testament writings40. To this purpose we must turn to the later development of the
IV. Later Developments of the Understanding
of the Sacrifice of Isaac
The question of the meritorious value of Abraham's
willingness to sacrifice Isaac, although it is not expressed in the
pre-Christian Qumran text, is clearly mentioned in the Palestinian targums. I
shall cite only the Fragmentary Targum P, which has preserved a few
important verses of Gen 2241:
8 And Abraham said: "From the Lord a lamb will be
prepared for a burnt offering, my son; and if not, then you are the lamb";
and the two of them walked together wholeheartedly, Abraham to slay, and
Isaac to be slain.
10 Abraham extended his hand and took the knife to
slay Isaac his son. Isaac spoke up, saying to Abraham his father: "Father,
bind my hands well, that I may not struggle in the hour of my distress and
confuse you, and your offering would be found blemished and we would be
pitched into the pit of destruction in the world to come". Abraham's
eyes were gazing at the eyes of Isaac, but the eyes of Isaac were gazing at
the angels of the heights. Isaac saw them, but Abraham did not see them. At
that moment a voice came forth from heaven and said, "Come, look at two
unique righteous men who are in the world, one who is slaying and one who is
being slain; he that slays has no compassion, and he that is being slain
extends his neck".
11 The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven,
saying, "Abraham, Abraham!" Abraham answered in the language of the Holy
Temple, saying, "Here I am!" 14 Abraham worshiped and prayed
there in the name of the word of the Lord, saying, "You are the Lord God,
Who sees but is invisible; everything is manifest and known before You: that
there was no division [i.e. hesitation] at the moment that You said: "Offer
up your son Isaac in My presence". Immediately I arose early in the
morning and I did what You commanded and kept Your decree. Now, I beg mercy
from You, Lord God, that when the children of Isaac my son enter an hour of
oppression, that You will remember for their sake the binding of Isaac their
father, and release and forgive their sins and save them from every
distress. For future generations destined to arise will say: "On the Mount
of the Holy Temple of the Lord, Abraham offered up his son Isaac; and on
this mountain the glory of the Dwelling of the Lord was revealed"" 42.
Here one notes the explicit use of qxcyd hytdq(,
"the binding of Isaac", the Aramaic counterpart of the phrase used above in
the Mekhilta. Other noteworthy features of this developed version of Gen 22 are
1. Isaac is informed by Abraham of his role as the
sacrificial victim (v. 8)43.
2. Isaac asks to be bound (v. 10)44.
3. Isaac is accorded a vision of angels (v. 10)45.
4. Both Abraham and Isaac are declared righteous by
5. Abraham answers God in the "language of the Holy
6. Abraham's prayer, recalling his obedience (v. 14)47.
7. Abraham begs God to remember "the binding of Isaac"
when his descendants enter "an hour of oppression" and to "release and
forgive their sins and save them from every distress" (v. 14)48.
8. The offering of Isaac is related to the Mount of the
Holy Temple of the Lord (v. 14)49.
9. Only in Tg. Ps.-J. is Isaac's age given (37
10. Only in Tg. Ps.-J. Abraham builds the altar at
the spot where Adam had built one and where Noah rebuilt it after the
In this targumic tradition one thus finds a clear statement
of what Vermes calls the "merit of Isaac", and it is what one would expect
by the time this developed tradition emerges. None of it is earlier than the
third century A.D., and some of these targums may come from a still later date,
especially Tg. Ps.-J. and Tg. Neof.50. It shows, however, how the
tradition reflected in the fragmentary text 4Q225 developed still further and
gradually became the classic topic of "the Binding of Isaac".
In conclusion, then, one realizes how important the Qumran
text, fragmentary though it be, is not only for the background of New Testament
references to the sacrifice of Isaac, but especially for the later targumic and
rabbinic teaching about the Aqedah, as the Jewish expression of that
sacrifice as an expiatory and redemptive act for all Israel.
1 See J. SWETNAM, Jesus and Isaac. A Study of the
Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Aqedah (AnBib 94; Rome 1981) 75. Also
R.J. DALY, "The Soteriological Significance of the Sacrifice of
Isaac", CBQ 39 (1977) 45-75; J. DANIÉLOU, "La typologie d"Isaac
dans le christianisme primitif", Bib 28 (1947) 363-393; L. GINZBERG,
The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia, PA 1909-1938) V, 218, n. 52; L.
JACOBS, "Akedah", Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem 1970-1971)
II, 480-484; R. LE DÉAUT, "La présentation targumique du sacrifice d"Isaac
et la sotériologie paulinienne", Studiorum Paulinorum congressus
internationalis catholicus 1961 (AnBib 17-18; Rome 1963) II, 563-574; D.
LERCH, Isaaks Opferung christlich gedeutet. Eine auslegungsgeschichtliche
Untersuchung (BHT 12; Tübingen 1950) 40-42; I. LÉVI, "Le sacrifice d"Isaac
et la mort de Jésus", REJ 64 (1912) 161-184; A. MÉDEBIELLE, L"Expiation
dans l"Ancien et le Nouveau Testament (SPIB 42; Rome 1923) 264-265; R.A.
ROSENBERG, "Jesus, Isaac and the 'suffering Servant"", JBL
84 (1965) 381-388; H.-J. SCHOEPS, "The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul's
Theology", JBL 65 (1946) 385-392; S. SPIEGEL, The Last Trial: on
the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice.
The Akedah. Translated from the Hebrew, with an introduction by Judah Goldin
(New York 1967); J.E. WOOD, "Isaac Typology in the New Testament", NTS
14 (1967-1968) 583-589.
2 In MS A one finds monogenh_j
a)gaphto/j as the translation.
3 See further G. VON RAD, Genesis. A Commentary
(London 1966) 232-240; ID., Das Opfer des Abraham (KT 6; Munich 1971); H.
Graf VON REVENTLOW, Opfere deinen Sohn. Eine Auslegung von Genesis 22
(BSt 53; Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968); C.WESTERMANN, Genesis 12–36. A
Commentary (Minneapolis, MN 1985) 351-365; G.W. COATS, "Abraham's
Sacrifice of Faith: A Form-Critical Study of Genesis 22", Int 27
(1973) 389-400; L. KUNDERT, Die Opferung/Bindung Isaaks (WMANT 78;
Neukirchen-Vluyn 1998) I, 95-107; G. STEINS, Die "Bindung Isaaks"
im Kanon (Gen 22). Grundlagen und Programm einer kanonisch-intertextuellen
Lektüre. Mit Spezialbibliographie zu Gen 22 (Herders biblische Studien 20;
Freiburg im B. 1999); R. BRANDSCHEIDT, "Das Opfer des Abrahams (Genesis
22,1-19)", TTZ 110 (2001) 1-19.
4 See J.C. VANDERKAM, The Book of Jubilees (Guides to
Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; Sheffield 2001) 52-53.
5 The later rabbinic tradition numbered the tests as ten,
but only six are mentioned in Jub 17,17. The ten tests are listed in Pirqe
deRabbi Eli"ezer 26-31; see also Jub 19,8, and J. BOWKER, The Targums and
Rabbinic Literature. An Introduction to Jewish Interpretations of Scripture
(Cambridge 1969) 228-229.
6 See further J.C. VANDERKAM, "The Aqedah, Jubilees,
and Pseudo-Jubilees", The Quest for Context and Meaning. Studies in
Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders (ed. C.A. EVANS – S.
TALMON) (Biblical Interpretation Series 28; Leiden 1997) 241-261, esp. 245-248;
also P.R. DAVIES, "Passover and the Dating of the Aqedah", JJS
30 (1979) 59-67.
7 See J.C. VANDERKAM – J.T. MILIK, "225.
4QPseudo-Jubileesa", Qumran Cave 4. VIII. Parabiblical
Texts, Part 1 (ed. H. ATTRIDGE et al.) (DJD 13; Oxford 1994) 141-155.
8 See R. LE DÉAUT, La Nuit Pascale (AnBib 22; Rome
1963) 184, n. 134: "Il est très remarquable qu"étant donnée la
popularité du sacrifice d"Isaac dans le Judaïsme ancien, il soit passé sous
silence dans ce que nous connaissons de la littérature qumrânienne".
9 For an interpretation of this part of the text, see J.A.
FITZMYER, "The Interpretation of Genesis 15,6: Abraham's Faith and
Righteousness in a Qumran Text" (forthcoming).
10 In Gen 22,19 Beer-sheba ((b#$ r)b)
is given as the dwelling-place of Abraham. The author of this text seems to have
interpreted the name to mean 'seven wells", as it was understood sometimes
later on (see T. NÖLDEKE, "Sieben Brunnen", ARW 7 
11 For the restoration of the end of line 10, see 4Q226
(4QPseudo-Jubileesb) 7,2-3, which overlaps with the end of line 10
and the beginning of line 11.
12 For the restoration here, see 4Q226 (4QPseudo-Jubileesb)
7,3-4, which overlaps with this line.
13 See 4Q226 (4QPseudo-Jubileesb) 7,7.
14 The verbal root M+#& is
actually related to N+#& (the root of 'satan"),
since both of them mean "oppose", "be adversary of", and differ only in
the final liquid consonant.
15 The paraphrase of Gen 22,4 in the later Targum
Pseudo-Jonathan may explain it, which reads: )rww+ l( ry+q )rqy) Nn(
)mxw, "and he saw the cloud of glory smoking on
the mountain", i.e. the mountain toward which he was going. Pirqe deRabbi Eli"ezer
105 is even more explicit in its version of the sacrifice: "He saw a pillar of
fire (rising) from earth to heaven".
16 VanderKam and Milik restore the line in the editio
princeps thus: [hpy ytw) twp]k,
but G. VERMES, "New Light on the Sacrifice of Isaac from 4Q225", JJS
47  140-146, esp. 142, n. 12, considers the restoration, ydy t) twpk,
"bind my hands", to be more likely, referring to the "Targums". Whereas
his restoration does agree with the Fragmentary Targum P of Gen 22,10,
which reads tw)y y)dy twpk, "bind my
hands well", VanderKam and Milik's restoration is found not only in Targum
Pseudo-Jonathan, but also in Targum Neofiti I. In either case, the
restoration must be right, even if tpk is a rare
Hebrew word, not appearing in Biblical Hebrew or otherwise, it seems, in Qumran
Hebrew texts; it occurs often in later Talmudic texts and rabbinic writings.
17 See A. DÍEZ MACHO, Neophyti 1. Targum palestinense
Ms de la Biblioteca Vaticana. Tomo I: Génesis (Textos y estudios 7; Madrid
1968) 127. Also M.L. KLEIN, The Fragment-Targums of the Pentateuch According
to Their Extant Sources (AnBib 76; Rome 1980) I, 54; II, 16.
18 Their presence at the event may be similar to that
recorded in the later Tg. Ps.-J.: )mwrm yk)lml Nlktsm qxcyd yywnyy(w qxcyd yywnyy(b Nlktsm Mhrb)d yywnyy(,"the
eyes of Abraham were gazing at the eyes of Isaac, but Isaac's eyes were gazing
at the angels of the Heights" (Tg. Ps.-J. Gen. 22,10). The weeping of
the angels is not mentioned in the targum, but it at least records their
presence. See further M.J. BERNSTEIN, "Angels at the Aqedah: A Study in the
Development of a Midrashic Motif", DSD 7 (2000) 263-291.
19 As VANDERKAM notes, rws)
could be read as )a4su=r, the passive
participle, "bound", but also as )e'so=r,
the imperative, "bind!"
20 See J.C. VANDERKAM, "The Aqedah" (in n. 6
21 Chapter 8 in G. VERMES, Scripture and Tradition in
Judaism. Haggadic studies (Studia Post-biblica 4; Leiden 1961; repr. 1973)
22 See VERMES, Scripture and Tradition, 195-197. They
are formulated a little differently in his article, ID., "New Light",
23 P.R. DAVIES – B. CHILTON, "The Aqedah: A Revised
Tradition History", CBQ 40 (1978) 514-546.
24 Ibid., 516-517.
25 See A. GEIGER, "Erbsünde und Versöhnungstod: Deren
Versuch in das Judenthums einzudringen", Jüdische Zeitschrift für
Wissenschaft und Leben 10 (1872) 166-171.
26 See R. HAYWARD, "The Present State of Research into
the Targumic Account of the Sacrifice of Isaac", JJS 32 (1981)
27 VERMES, "New Light", 145.
28 PT = Palestinian Targums; Tan = Tannaitic Writings;
Amor/Later = Amoraic or Later Writings; Jos = Josephus; PsJ = Tg.
Pseudo-Jonathan; FT = Fragmentary Targum; N = Tg. Neofiti I;
LAB = Pseudo-Philo, Liber antiquitatum biblicarum; Jub = Jubilees; SifDt
= Sifre Deuteronomium; Mekh = Mekhilta; GenR = Genesis Rabbah; PRE = Pirqe de
Rabbi Eli"ezer; LevR = Leviticus Rabbah; y/bTaan = Jerusalem/Babylonian Talmudic
29 Contrast the much later embellishment in GenR 56,4: "I
accept my fate". Note also the formal consent expressly deduced from the
binding in 56,8.
30 A.F. SEGAL, ""He who did not spare his own son...":
Jesus, Paul, and the Akedah", From Jesus to Paul. Studies in Honour
of Francis Wright Beare (ed. P. RICHARDSON – J.C. HURD) (Waterloo, Ont. 1984)
169-184, esp. 173, seeking to establish the pre-Christian root of the Jewish
teaching about Isaac, says, "The history of interpretation of the sacrifice of
Isaac begins right in the Bible. In 2 Chronicles Mt. Moriah, scene of the
sacrifice, is identified with the Temple Mount (2 Chron. 3,1); so an explicit
connection between the story of the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrificial cult
in Jerusalem is established". There may be an explicit connection between
Mount Moriah and the Jerusalem Temple, but the verse of Chronicles to which
Segal refers does not say a word about sacrifice or about Isaac. Segal has
extrapolated and anachronistically introduced a reference to the sacrifice of
Isaac into a non-committal statement about Solomon's building the Temple on
Mt. Moriah. The mere fact that Mt. Moriah is mentioned in the Bible only in Gen
22 and 2 Chr 3 does not eo ipso mean that 2 Chronicles is alluding to the
sacrifice of Isaac.
31 Thackeray notes that "the locality here intended is
unknown; its identification by Josephus (§226) and by the Rabbinical tradition
with the temple mount cannot be sustained"; see Josephus. With an
English Translation by H.St.J. Thackeray. [Edition] in Eight Volumes. IV: Jewish
Antiquities, Books I–IV (LCL; London – New York 1930) 111.
32 See D.J. HARRINGTON et al., Pseudo-Philon (SC
229-230; Paris 1976) I, 150. The editors of this text comment: "Dans LAB
XVIII, 5, il n"est pas question du rachat des péchés opéré par le sang d"Isaac
— à la manière de Hebr. 9,22 (et T.b. Yoma 5a) sans
effusion de sang il n"y a pas de rémission. Ici, le sang d"Isaac,
considéré comme un véritable sacrifice, scelle l"élection et l"alliance
de Dieu avec son peuple" (ibid., II, 126). See further B.N. FISK,
"Offering Isaac Again and Again: Pseudo-Philo's Use of the Aqedah as
Intertext", CBQ 62 (2000) 481-507.
33 See J.Z. LAUTERBACH, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael
(Philadelphia, PA 1976) I, 57, n. 7.
34 Ibid., I, 88.
35 Ibid., I, 222-223.
36 See Midrash Rabbah. Translated into English with
notes, glossary and indices under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman and
Maurice Simon. With a foreword by Rabbi Dr I. Epstein. Vol I: Genesis I
(London 1939) 497.
37 VERMES, Scripture and Tradition, 1.
38 SEGAL, ""He who did not..."", 171-172. — I
cite here Segal's criticism of Vermes, agreeing with it; but I find it
difficult to agree with the thrust of Segal's argument (ibid., 174), when he
cites Philo the Elder (in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 9.20.1),
Demetrius and Alexander Polyhistor (ibid. 9.19.4), Sir 44,19-21, and Jdt 8,25-27
as instances of "popular hermeneutical activity before Jesus". When one
scrutinizes the passages mentioned, they are at most allusions to the story in
Gen 22 and hardly ever reveal a trace of embellishment or exegetical development
of the text, not to mention what Segal calls a "martyrological analogy".
Similarly, when I read Philo of Alexandria, De Abrahamo 35.198-199, I
find there no "concept of giving one's life for others" benefit", which
he finds "clearly" expressed.
For Philo the Elder, see C.R. HOLLADAY, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish
Authors. Vol. II: Poets (SBLTT 30/12; Atlanta, GA 1989) 234-237. For
Demetrius, see C.R. HOLLADAY, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors, Vol.
I: Historians (SBLTT 20/10; Chico, CA 1983) 62-63.
39 SEGAL ""He who did not..."", 179. See also
L. KUNDERT, Die Opferung/Bindung Isaaks, 96.
40 SEGAL, ""He who did not..."", 176, finds
Isaac's sacrifice as "the example par excellence of martyrdom" in
"4 Maccabees, dated to the early 30s but devoid of Christian influence", as
the best evidence "that some kind of tradition formed the basis of [the]
Christian view of Jesus as a type of Isaac". Yet Segal has to admit that "even
in the Greek paraenesis of 4 Maccabees, Isaac's sacrifice itself is never
directly linked with vicarious atonement" (ibid., 177).
41 The text of Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J. is
fuller, but it contains only a few points that are pertinent to this discussion
of the later developments; they will be mentioned below.
42 See M.L. KLEIN, The Fragment-Targums of the Pentateuch,
I, 54. Fragmentary Targum P is MS Paris Bibliothèque Nationale Hébr.
110. Very similar to it for Gen 22 is Fragmentary Targum V, which is MS
Vatican Ebr. 440; its text can be found in KLEIN, I, 140-141.
43 Also in Tg. Neof., but not in Tg. Ps.-J.
44 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
45 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
46 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
47 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
48 Also in Tg. Neof. and Tg. Ps.-J.
49 Also in Tg. Neof.
50 This too is a problem with Vermes" treatment of the
texts, which Segal has noted, following DAVIES – CHILTON, "The
Aqedah", 514-515. SEGAL, ""He who did not..."", 172-173
writes: "...it has so far been almost impossible to develop consistent
criteria for isolating the first century traditions in the targumim. In such a
case, though we can appreciate the creativity of the targum and must come to
some understanding of its method, we must bracket the targumic evidence of
Vermes to bring the historical problem to the fore again: just what can be
established as the commonly understood text of Gen. 22 in the first century?
Vermes" methodological question about the meaning of the biblical text comes
back to haunt him when one takes away the targumic evidence on which he builds
his own case".
At issue here is the dating of the Palestinian targums. When DÍEZ MACHO, Neophyti
1, 95*, published the text of Tg. Neof., he claimed that it "pertinece
ya a la época neotestamentaria"; "... the PT [= Palestinian Targum], even
if it in its present recension, preserved in the Ms Neofiti 1, seems to belong
to the first or second century A.D., is on the whole a prechristian version"
(A. DÍEZ MACHO, "The Recently Discovered Palestinian Targum: Its Antiquity
and Relationship with the Other Targums", Congress Volume, Oxford 1959
[VTS 7; Leiden 1960] 236). That claim, of course, is an exaggeration. Klein, in
publishing the Fragmentary Targums, was more circumspect; see KLEIN, The
Fragment-Targums, I, 23-25. See further A.D. YORK, "The Dating of
Targumic Literature", JSJ 5 (1974) 49-62; J. HEINEMANN, "Early
Halakha in the Palestinian Targumim", JJS 25 (1974) 114-122, esp.