When Abraham Killed Isaac

When Abraham Killed Isaac April 4, 2011

Of course, we all know that Abraham didn’t kill Isaac in the end. Or do we? Richard Elliot Friedman has made a strong case that in the original version of the story, Abraham actually does kill Isaac as he had been commanded in the classic Who Wrote the Bible? and other texts he’s written. On what possible basis could he come to this conclusion? He offers seven reasons:

1. In the original sources that come to make up the Torah, Gen 22 is attributed to an author from the Northern Kingdom, nickednamed “E” because he refers to God as Elohim, in contrast to “J” who refers to God as Jehovah, or Yahweh in contemporary use. In Gen 22:1-10, God is called Elohim, but suddenly an “angel of Yahweh” appears to save Isaac.

2. Gen 22:11-15, when Isaac is rescued by the Angel of Yahweh, also discusses how Abraham names the site after Yahweh in his honor.

3. In 22:16, “he” (is this the angel or Elohim?) praises Abraham because “you did this thing and didn’t withhold your son.” What?!? This seems to describe a moment after which Isaac had been killed. It could refer, of course, to Abraham’s willingness, but it could also mean that he did it.

4. The story concludes with Abraham returning home, without any mention of Isaac.

5. In all of the other writings attributed to “E,” Isaac never again shows up. In fact, the traditions about Isaac even in the other texts are pretty meager compared to Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.

6. Exod 24, also from E, presents the story of a revelation at Mount Horeb which has multiple parallels with Gen 22, except that none are found in v. 11-15.

7. There are some midrashic stories that say that Isaac was sacrificed. I personally consider this to be pretty weak evidence since the editing of the Torah took place long before midrashim start showing up on this story, but it nevertheless represents the idea that at least for some, the idea of God actually asking that Abraham sacrifice Isaac is not out of the question.

Friedman argues that the editor, or “redactor” of J and E changes the story to reflect the later rejection of child sacrifice.

So, two questions arise for me. First, is the evidence that Friedman puts forth convincing? Second, what if God really did ask Isaac to be sacrificed? What does that say about God? What does that do for Christianity? This latter question is important because some of highlighted child sacrifice in ancient Israel as a precursor for Christianity. Does this version of the story make the case of Christianity better than the current one in the received text?

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