Which Came First? Thoughts about Jesus and the Binding of Isaac

Which Came First? Thoughts about Jesus and the Binding of Isaac September 13, 2014

I’ve been reading a wonderful book about the Isaac story, James Goodman’s But Where Is the Lamb?: Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac. It is a history of interpretation, but written in an unconventional manner – as though the author of the Akedah story were surveying what future readers would say and do in response to the story, sometimes appreciative, sometimes disappointed. The author wrestles with his own product as well as their interpretation. This makes the book engaging and accessible to an extent that many surveys of the history of interpretation of texts are not.

The story of the binding of Isaac is echoed in the New Testament, when authors say that “God did not spare his only Son.” But it is interesting to note that quite a number of ancient interpreters of the story were of the view that Abraham actually did kill Isaac, but God raised him from the dead. Others merely said that Abraham believed that God could do that.

And so I’ve found myself wondering what led Christians to apply the imagery of the Akedah to Jesus, and in what order they did so. Did they start by having dreams and other experiences that they interpreted as seeing him alive, and then extrapolate from that to a sacrificial significance of his death, on analogy with Isaac? Or did they start by making sense of Jesus’ death in light of the binding of Isaac, and extrapolate from that to the belief that he must have been spared from death through resurrection?

I’ve been reading Goodman’s book, and thinking more about these stories, in preparation for leading a seminar session with local artists. And so I’ve also been looking for art that brings the Isaac and Jesus stories into proximity with one another. This is the only one I’ve found so far, from Jean Miélot’s French translation of Speculum humanæ salvationis:

La miroir de la salvation humaine ft7v19p1w6_00028

If you know of others, please share them with me.

In discussing this topic with my co-presenter, I also learned about the existence of a Binding of Isaac video game.

Finally, let me share this clip in which president Barack Obama mentions the Isaac story, for those who may not have seen it:

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  • ncovington89

    “But it is interesting to note that quite a number of ancient
    interpreters of the story were of the view that Abraham actually did
    kill Isaac, but God raised him from the dead. Others merely said that
    Abraham believed that God could do that.”

    That’s interesting. Do those interpreters pre-date or post-date Christianity?

    • The Letter to the Hebrews is probably the earliest, if I recall correctly, but other subsequent Jewish interpretations along the same lines are mentioned in the book.

  • James Goodman

    Dear Professor McGrath, I can’t thank you enough for this very generous and very perceptive reading of my book. It is not been easy to get people to pick up this book, in part because I am an amateur in every sense of the word, in part because it is such a difficult subject. But even among the people who have picked it up, and written about it appreciatively, very have grasped what I set out to do, in form and content, as clearly as you have. A writer can’t ask for more, and I am truly grateful. All my best wishes, Jim Goodman P.S. I had not seen EITHER the wonderful image you included above or the president’s wise words on the story. Thanks so much.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Jon Levenson’s Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son should be required reading on this topic.

    • James Goodman

      I agree with Anthony Le Donne. I pay homage to Professor Levenson in numerous ways in the book, most notably in several pages toward the end where I write all about his understanding of the history and the story, and gently dissent from one small bit of it.

  • In addition to Leveson’s Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son as Anthony here recommends Leroy Huizenga also has an interesting take of the Gospel of Matthew being modelled after the akedah story. The books are essential but for those without access I have posted extensive notes on both: for Huizenga – 4 posts and for Levenson 10 posts.

    As for how the akedah topos was introduced into Christianity Levenson shows that the evidence points to Paul being the one to build on the construct.

    Of special significance is the understanding (not just related to the akedah) that the blood of saints had an atoning power for the sins of Israel.

  • Ian

    My first thought seeing this title in my Facebook feed was the game. It is very interesting from a theology meets popular culture perspective. Not just from its main storyline (of the protagonist trying to escape from his zealous mother who believes she has been told to sacrifice him), but also in the presence of numerous other references (deadly sins, relics, faith, deals with the devil, etc). But it is a game that is very much aimed at hardcore gamers with a broad vocabulary of game tropes and game allusions, so probably isn’t easy to dip in and see the context. I do think it is one of the best games of all time, however, for both its gameplay sophistication and the way it uses its theme.

    On another tack, your description of the book immediately made me think of “Fear and Trembling”, perhaps Kierkegaard at his finest. Which is also an unconventional repeated walkthrough of the Binding of Isaac, where he tries to tell the story in a reasonable way, each time going astray from the biblical narrative. He is finally forced to face the immorality of the story, and adopt his famous ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. Something about the story invites wrestling, I guess.