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Contents Introduction Preliminary Methodological Remarks: On Textual Interpretation It is the aim of this book to propose an alternative interpretation for the text and meaning of Genesis 22. Such an attempt presents a case where a clear methodological stand must be adopted. It poses such questions as: can a text be given a 'correct' interpretation? Can there be an 'objective' study of the text of the Bible? What are the methodological assumptions of such a study? The interpretation I intend to offer is of a rather radical nature, breaking away from the traditional views; I shall therefore first explain the criteria according to which I find this interpretation to be the most responsible one, in particular Ockham's razor and the Charity principle. 1. Abraham: a model of obedience? It is generally thought that the religious significance of the Binding of Isaac, the Akedah, lies in Abraham's readiness to obey: he is commanded to make the most horrifying sacrifice that can be conceived and, by successfully complying, he presents an unprecedented model of faith and devotion. As has been noted by scholars, however, this view is untenable. There is nothing particularly unusual about Abraham's obedience in the Near Eastern context, where stories of child sacrifice are frequently encountered. In these stories, fathers are not only willing to sacrifice their sons but - unlike Abraham - also actually do so. Therefore, if this story is to have any religious significance, it must be explained by something other than an extraordinary obedience. Scholars have sometimes attempted to account for the religious significance of the Akedah by other alternatives, mainly by presenting it as a polemic against child sacrifice (cf. Spiegel). This view too, however, has been refuted in more recent studies (cf. Levenson; Sarna). The question naturally arises - does the story of the Binding justify the role it has been granted in the history of religious thought? 2. The original version story: Abraham disobeys. Genesis 22 is often considered a later version of an original story: Genesis 22: 1-13, 19 would be the `original'; the second angelic address to Abraham (verses 14- 19), uttering blessings on his complete obedience, is usually (on stylistic, structural and literal grounds), taken to be a later interpolation. In this chapter I argue that the first angelic address to Abraham, apparently checking his hand at the last moment (v. 12), is also a later interpolation. This is suggested by its usage of YHWH for the deity (in contrast to God [Elohim]) as well as other stylistic components. If this is so, in the original story Abraham actually disobeyed the divine command to slay his son by sacrificing the ram "instead of his son" (v. 13) on his own responsibility. Here, I argue, lies the answer to the problem raised in the previous chapter: the unique significance of Abraham's religious conduct was, originally, his disobedience. 3. The trial of Sodom in the background: Abraham's ethical protest "Far be it from thee to do such a thing. Shall not the judge of all earth do what is right? Far be it from thee." This is Abraham's reaction to God's unethical intention to destroy the city of Sodom. Can the same Abraham silently bind his son on the altar? Various interpretations have been suggested in the literature in order to reconcile the inconsistency involved in Abraham's character (cf. Levenson, Sarna). According to the thesis of this book, however, the story of the Akedah accords with that of Sodom. Originally, there was not such inconsistency. 4. Abraham's journey to the land of Moriah: obedience, internal struggle or prediction of disobedience? There is a general agreement that the background of Abraham's journey to the land of Moriah is "fraught with background". The journey takes longer than expected; Abraham's actions are described in an illogical order, and so forth. This awkward context has been interpreted by scholars as Abraham's "internal struggle" on the journey (cf. Wenham, Sarna). Here I argue that it actually foretells Abraham's disobedience. 5. The religious significance of the Akedah: ethical responsibility, child sacrifice and the existence of the people of Israel. Scholars often compare the story of the Binding to a "Near Eastern myth of child sacrifice" (cf. Levenson, Spiegel). In this chapter I show that, in light of Abraham's disobedience, the nature of the relation between the biblical story and the Near Eastern myth can be more precisely described. The idea underlying the myth of child sacrifice is that a leader of a nation, acting to save it, sacrifices his "only son". That is, because the child is sacrificed, the nation is saved. I suggest that the Akedah is a "reflection story" of this myth, its motives being the "same and opposite." Since the existence of the Israelite people depends on Isaac's life, their existence is saved in this story, not because the father is willing to sacrifice his son, but because he refuses to do so. 6. "The Prevention of the Sacrifice": Ibn Caspi's interpretation Ibn Caspi (13-14th century) explicitly distinguishes between two `levels' of the story, one addressed to the "common readers", the other to "knowledgeable" ones - who are able to understand the "secrets of the Torah". The key to the Akedah, he argues, is the angelic usage of YHWH in contrast to the use of God (Elohim). Abraham's great achievement in this story is accordingly not obedience but the opposite: the "prevention of the sacrifice" (¿d¿¿ú ¿¿¿¿¿¿) by sacrificing the ram "instead of his son". An interesting thing about Ibn Caspi's interpretation is his insistence that he is actually doing no more than explicitly expounding Maimonides' esoteric view of the story. 7. "The True Nature of Prophecy": on Maimonides esoteric interpretation of the narrative Maimonides concludes his account of Gen. 22 by remarking that "in truth", Abraham established in this narrative "the fundamental principle affirming the truth of prophecy." This remark makes it clear that Maimonides' interpretation must be understood in light of his theory of prophecy. When this is done, it turns out that his interpretation is esoteric, dividing Gen. 22 into two levels of meaning, according to two levels of prophecy: one of seeing God [Elohim], the other of seeing the YHWH angel. The second is according to Maimonides the more profound, and is the one where Abraham establishes the "fundamental principle affirming the truth of prophecy". 8. "He destroys Both the Blameless with the Wicked": Between Job and Abraham There is a close relation between Job and Abraham. Both are the only personages in the Bible subjected to a divine "trial" (that is, a divine "test"), and both were thus intended to present a model of religious faith. The strong intertextual echoes between the stories (frequently noticed in the literature) indicate that the text itself invites a comparison: the two models of faith have to be evaluated in each other's light. In this chapter, I argue that this relation can be best accounted for in view of the contention of this book: the model of faith Abraham and Job present is one of insistence on justice, not one of absolute surrender. 9. On Fearing God Without Being Afraid of Him: From Kierkegaard to Kant Kant and Kierkegaard make use of the story of the Binding in their writings. Kierkegaard used it to illustrate his ideas about the "knight of faith", the "absurd" and the "teleological suspension of the ethical". Kant - who condemned Abraham for obeying - used it to exemplify his contention that faith must be grounded on morality, not morality on faith. How does the reinterpretation suggested here affect these discussions? I argue that in order to understand Abraham's disobedience, the relation between faith and rationality, divine commands and ethics, may have to be revisited. Neither Kant nor Kierkegaard considered the possibility of Abraham violating a direct divine command. 10. A Religious Model of Disobedience "And God tested Abraham." Traditional Jewish exegetes often explain the term "tested" (nisa, dñ¿ in Hebrew), by a different possible meaning of the Hebrew word. Rather than "God tested" they read "God presented". In this view, God did not "test" Abraham in order to know if he would obey, but `presented' him as a model - so that his actions would become an ideal of religious faith. This traditional view, held by Maimonides, Ibn Caspi, Abrabanel and many others, has been treated in modern literature as mere apologetics, since it contradicts the words of the angel in verse 12: "for now I know that you fear God." I argue that it is not by accident that traditional exegetes composed interpretations inconsistent with the angel's words (Maimonides, for instance, explicitly addresses that inconsistency; he says that the angel's words implying that Abraham was being tested belong only with the "external", untrue meaning of the story). In light of the interpretation suggested in this book - that the angelic figure was interpolated to the story to conceal Abraham's disobedience - this view can be reconsidered. God imposed a trial on Abraham not in order to test him, but in order that he should become a model of religious faith: a religious model of disobedience.
Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication:
Isaac (Biblical patriarch) -- Sacrifice.
Abraham (Biblical patriarch).
Obedience -- Biblical teaching.