Table of contents for The binding of Isaac : a religious model of disobedience / Omri Boehm.

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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
"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
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.