The Aqedah (“binding”) of Isaac was an important part of both early Jewish and early Christian understanding of God’s plan for mankind’s salvation. Although the biblical version of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is told in a way in which the similarities to Christ’s atoning sacrifice are only subtle, many ancient traditions, including Jewish ones, present the story in a way that many very clear parallels are easily noticed. The biblical narrative makes this a trial of Abraham’s faith (Gen. 22:1), whereas a number of other ancient traditions make it clear that this was also a trial of Isaac’s faithfulness, and that he went knowingly and willingly to the altar to be offered as a vicarious sacrifice.

In the minds of the Book of Mormon prophets, the story of the Aqedah was clearly related to the atoning sacrifice of the only-begotten Son of God. See Jacob 4:5 (place your mouse pointer over the scripture reference to see text). Where did these people, who left Jerusalem in 600 BC, get this idea that Isaac was supposed to represent the Son of God? There is no such idea expressed in the biblical text as we have it.  All we have is a God who, for some reason, thinks it appropriate to test Abraham by asking him to kill his only son, through whom God had promised Abraham innumerable descendants.  In the biblical story, there is no parallel to be drawn between God and Abraham, and certainly no comparison between Isaac and any “Son” of God.  Any comparison between Isaac and Jesus has traditionally been considered a creation of the post-New Testament Christian imagination.

Even for early Christian exegetes, however, the connection between Isaac and Jesus, if one is reading the Masoretic version of the story, is a bit strained.  First of all, according to our text, Isaac was not sacrificed, but only nearly so. This doesn’t pose much of a problem for us, in hind-site, because we recognize in this God’s compassion by not requiring Abraham to actually kill his son, while God, on the other hand, had to suffer through his Son’s actual death.  However, the absence of the son’s sacrifice and the fact that it was not presented as serving to vicariously atone for the sins of the people to avert destruction disconnects it from the theology of the Day of Atonement, the Suffering Servant, and the events of the death of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, there was an ancient Israelite/Jewish tradition that the sacrificial animal was to be a “willing” sacrifice — if the animal did not go willingly up to the altar to be bound, it was a negative sign. In the Genesis version of the story, Abraham doesn’t even inform Isaac that he is going to be the sacrifice. When Isaac asks about the apparently absent sacrificial animal, Abraham declares that “God will provide himself a lamb” (Gen. 22:8) but does not indicate that the lamb would be Isaac. While Isaac does go up to the altar (on Mt. Moriah) carrying the wood for the burnt offering (which is a parallel to Christ carrying his cross), there is no indication that Isaac knows that he will be the sacrifice, and thus the image of him being a “willing sacrifice” is lost. In the New Testament, there is an emphasis on the fact that Jesus willingly offered himself as a sacrifice (see, e.g., Heb. 7:27).

Despite the lack of parallels between the Masoretic biblical text concerning the Aqedah and the early beliefs about Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, there were many Jewish traditions around the time of Christ that did see Isaac as having been an atoning sacrifice — one that worked vicariously to cleanse the sins of Israel and redeem them from destruction. Elements of the story that provide comparability to Christ’s sacrifice were not simply a Christian invention. In 22:16 of Genesis in the LXX we read: οὐκ ἐφείσω τοῦ �...ἱοῦ σο�... τοῦ ἀγαπητοῦ — “you did not spare your beloved son.” “Beloved” was seen by the Jews who made that translation as the preferred understanding of “only son,” and carries stronger Davidic/Messianic force. We see that the NT writers were drawing on this meaning when God declares Jesus to be his “beloved Son.” According to M. Bredin:

The following distinctive elements [from Jewish tradition] are of particular importance for understanding Isaac as a faithful witness. (1) Isaac was informed of his role as a victim. (2) Isaac gave his consent and asked to be bound. (3) God would remember the binding of Isaac in favour of his descendants. (4) The Aqedah was associated with the site of the temple in Jewish tradition. (5) It was a source of inspiration and instruction. (6) It was associated with vicarious expiation. (7) Sacrifice was completed.1

Many Rabbinic sources describe the sacrifice of Isaac as having atoning power and as being a willing sacrifice. I quote the following from Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, which, although not a primary source, is a fine amalgamation of Rabbinic tradition of interpretation combined into a nice narrative. Based on these traditions, Ginzberg rewrites Gen. 22 in the following manner:

And while they were walking along, Isaac spake unto his father, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where then is the lamb for a burnt offering before the Lord?" And Abraham answered Isaac, saying, "The Lord hath chosen thee, my son, for a perfect burnt offering, instead of the lamb." And Isaac said unto his father, "I will do all that the Lord hath spoken to thee with joy and cheerfulness of heart." And Abraham again said unto Isaac his son, "Is there in thy heart any thought or counsel concerning this which is not proper? Tell me, my son, I pray thee! O my son, conceal it not from me." And Isaac answered, "As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is nothing in my heart to cause me to deviate either to the right or the left from the word that He hath spoken unto thee. Neither limb nor muscle hath moved or stirred on account of this, nor is there in my heart any thought or evil counsel concerning this. But I am joyful and cheerful of heart in this matter, and I say, Blessed is the Lord who has this day chosen me to be a burnt offering before Him."

Abraham greatly rejoiced at the words of Isaac, and they went on and came together to that place that the Lord had spoken of. And Abraham approached to build the altar in that place, and Abraham did build, while Isaac handed him stones and mortar, until they finished erecting the altar. And Abraham took the wood and arranged it upon the altar, and he bound Isaac, to place him upon the wood which was upon the altar, to slay him for a burnt offering before the Lord. Isaac spake hereupon: "Father, make haste, bare thine arm, and bind my hands and feet securely, for I am a young man, but thirty-seven years of age, and thou art an old man. When I behold the slaughtering knife in thy hand, I may perchance begin to tremble at the sight and push against thee, for the desire unto life is bold. Also I may do myself an injury and make myself unfit to be sacrificed. I adjure thee, therefore, my father, make haste, execute the will of thy Creator, delay not. Turn up thy garment, gird thy loins, and after that thou hast slaughtered me, burn me unto fine ashes. Then gather the ashes, and bring them to Sarah, my mother, and place them in a casket in her chamber. At all hours, whenever she enters her chamber, she will remember her son Isaac and weep for him."

And again Isaac spoke: "As soon as thou hast slaughtered me, and hast separated thyself from me, and returnest to Sarah my mother, and she asketh thee, Where is my son Isaac? what wilt thou answer her, and what will you two do in your old age?" Abraham answered, and said, "We know we can survive thee by a few days only. He who was our Comfort before thou wast born, will comfort us now and henceforth."

After he had laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac on the altar, upon the wood, Abraham braced his arms, rolled up his garments, and leaned his knees upon Isaac with all his strength. And God, sitting upon His throne, high and exalted, saw how the hearts of the two were the same, and tears were rolling down from the eyes of Abraham upon Isaac, and from Isaac down upon the wood, so that it was submerged in tears. When Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son, God spoke to the angels: "Do you see how Abraham my friend proclaims the unity of My Name in the world? Had I hearkened unto you at the time of the creation of the world, when ye spake, What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that Thou visitest him? who would there have been to make known the unity of My Name in this world?" The angels then broke into loud weeping, and they exclaimed: "The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth, he hath broken the covenant. Where is the reward of Abraham, he who took the wayfarers into his house, gave them food and drink, and went with them to bring them on the way? The covenant is broken, whereof Thou didst speak to him, saying, 'For in Isaac shall thy seed be called,' and saying, 'My covenant will I establish with Isaac,' for the slaughtering knife is set upon his throat."

The tears of the angels fell upon the knife, so that it could not cut Isaac's throat, but from terror his soul escaped from him. Then God spoke to the archangel Michael, and said: "Why standest thou here? Let him not be slaughtered." Without delay, Michael, anguish in his voice, cried out: "Abraham! Abraham! Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him!" Abraham made answer, and he said: "God did command me to slaughter Isaac, and thou dost command me not to slaughter him! The words of the Teacher and the words of the disciple--unto whose words doth one hearken?" Then Abraham heard it said: "By Myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed My voice."

At once Abraham left off from Isaac, who returned to life, revived by the heavenly voice admonishing Abraham not to slaughter his son. Abraham loosed his bonds, and Isaac stood upon his feet, and spoke the benediction, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who quickenest the dead."

Then spake Abraham to God, "Shall I go hence without having offered up a sacrifice?" Whereunto God replied, and said, "Lift up thine eyes, and behold the sacrifice behind thee." And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and, behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket, which God had created in the twilight of Sabbath eve in the week of creation, and prepared since then as a burnt offering instead of Isaac. And the ram had been running toward Abraham, when Satan caught hold of him and entangled his horns in the thicket, that he might not advance to Abraham. And Abraham, seeing this, fetched him from the thicket, and brought him upon the altar as an offering in the place of his son Isaac. And Abraham sprinkled the blood of the ram upon the altar, and he exclaimed, and said, "This is instead of my son, and may this be considered as the blood of my son before the Lord." And whatsoever Abraham did by the altar, he exclaimed, and said, "This is instead of my son, and may it be considered before the Lord in place of my son." And God accepted the sacrifice of the ram, and it was accounted as though it had been Isaac.

As the creation of this ram had been extraordinary, so also was the use to which all parts of his carcass were put. Not one thing went to waste. The ashes of the parts burnt upon the altar formed the foundation of the inner altar, whereon the expiatory sacrifice was brought once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the day on which the offering of Isaac took place. Of the sinews of the ram, David made ten strings for his harp upon which he played. The skin served Elijah for his girdle, and of his two horns, the one was blown at the end of the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the other will be used to proclaim the end of the Exile, when the "great horn shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and they that were outcasts in the land of Egypt, and they shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem."2

These traditions convey the idea that Abraham informed Isaac that he was to be the sacrifice and that Isaac accepted this willingly and was even joyful that he had been chosen to be the offering. He encourages his father to be quick to obey the Lord. The idea that Isaac actually died and was resurrected is also presented, although there is an attempt to reconcile this with the biblical story that an angel impeded Abraham from actually performing the sacrifice. The ram that is ultimately sacrificed is meant to represent Isaac — the Lord had prepared the ram from the foundation of the world to be offered as a substitute for Isaac, and the sacrifice of the ram was understood to be a vicarious sacrifice of Isaac. We see in this the idea that when a ram was sacrificed on the altar of the temple in Jewish tradition, it was meant to represent someone else — Isaac, the beloved son. We are informed that the sacrifice of Isaac took place on the Day of Atonement, and was celebrated every year thereafter on that day.

While it is hard to know whether these traditions influenced Christianity or vice versa,3 we do see in the pre-Christian Book of Jubilees the association of the sacrifice of Isaac not with the Day of Atonement (as would be expected), but to the Passover (which is when Jesus died).4 Although, as Barker notes, the Passover had ties to covenant, the relation to Isaac’s sacrifice is not clear (especially if the Day of Atonement sacrifice was done in his memorial). In the Palestinian Targums, however, there is a clear link between the Creation, the covenant with Abraham, the Aqedah, and the end of the world when King Messiah would come.5 Why was the coming of the Messiah linked to Passover? It was most likely connected to the coming of the Lord to smite the children of Egypt at midnight in the Exodus story (Exod. 12:29). Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Gen. 22:14 has Abraham asking God to redeem his descendants based on the merits of Isaac’s sacrifice — “I beseech … when the children of Isaac my son enter into a time of distress, remember them and answer them and redeem them.” Exod. 12:13 could be seen as an answer to this prayer, when God promises, after the Israelites had marked their houses with blood, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you.” A Jewish tradition states that the blood that the Lord saw reminded him of the “blood of the binding of Isaac.”6.

Furthermore, as suggested above, there was the tradition that Isaac had actually died and been resurrected. As Barker notes, “Genesis does not say that Isaac returned with his father, only that Abraham returned to his waiting servants (Gen. 22:19), and one of the Palestinian Targums at this point says the angels on high took Isaac for three years.” She sees evidence for this view in the paintings of the Jewish Synagogue at Dura Europos (c. 244 AD), that depict the Aqedah, with an angel extending his hand from the “temple curtain” of heaven — which she interprets as signifying Isaac’s acceptance into heaven.7 A number of early Christian texts seem to suggest, as well, the view that Isaac was resurrected (Heb. 11:17, 19; Jas. 2:21; Barn. 7; 1 Clem. 31).  While, as stated previously, it is difficult to distinguish who influenced whom, and the evidence is heavily disputed, there seems to be some evidence for the view that Isaac was seen in pre-Christian times as a vicarious atoning sacrifice that was meant to redeem Israel, that his death was associated with the Day of Atonement, but also with the Passover and the coming of the Messiah.

It is natural that this should have been the view of Isaac’s sacrifice, as it is a very ancient idea. We see this pattern repeated over and over.  As we see in ancient tradition and in the Book of Abraham, Abraham himself was once in the position of Isaac, ready to be sacrificed on an altar. I don’t have time to go into here, but the ancient Israelite temple sacrifices do follow this same pattern. The animal laid upon the altar was supposed to represent the high priest himself being slain. The high priest then carried, symbolically, his own blood into the temple and then emerged with new life for himself and for his people.  The animal was killed in place of the high priest, just as the ram was killed instead of Isaac — the substitution was acceptable to God, but the real theological principle was that the beloved son was supposed to die. For the temple sacrifices it was the same — the high priest (the original actor here may have been the king) was supposed to be the son of God who was slain for the sins of his people.  The high priest, however, was really playing the role of another — in later Jewish tradition the original character was remembered to be Isaac–but the name that the high priest wore on his forehead was that of Yahweh. The high priest represented Yahweh, who was believed to sacrifice himself to redeem his people and subsequently be resurrected, bringing new life to all the Creation.  And, naturally, Yahweh was not the Father, but was the beloved Son who offered himself willingly at his Father’s request.

  1. Bredin, M. (2003). Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation (84-89). Milton Keynes: Paternoster.
  2. Ginzberg, L., Szold, H., & Radin, P. (2003). Legends of the Jews (2nd ed.) (228-230). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
  3. See Margaret Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship, 27.
  4. Jub. 17:15-18:3
  5. See Barker, p. 26
  6. Mekhilta on Exod. 12:13. See Barker, 27
  7. Ibid., 27-28

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