Yoreh-did Isaac die at Abraham’s hand?

The story in Genesis 22 of the binding or near sacrifice of Isaac is shocking in that God asks Abraham to kill his son.

It would be even more shocking if Abraham actually did it. Tzemah Yoreh’s little book, Why Abraham Murdered Isaac claims that the “original Bible” was the Elohist source of the Pentateuch and that, in that source, Isaac did not survive.

Yoreh is trying to sell a book (I bought it) so he is entertainingly snarky, debunking what people learned in Sunday School or Hebrew School. Still, he is a scholar and interacts with other scholar’s work. He holds a supplementary theory of the composition of Genesis. He holds that the Elohist story was the oldest. The Yahwist later edited this to impose his own point of view.

You should note that his view is not widely held. Rolf Rendtorf, Konrad Schmid and David Carr have other versions of the supplementary theory. None of them would follow Yoreh in calling the Elohist “the original Bible”.

Still there is a possibility that in the Elohist (E) account Abraham carried out the blood sacrifice of Isaac.

The most radical form of this theory notes that the E tradition appears first in Genesis 20 with the story of Abraham passing off his wife as his sister to the king of Gerar.

So, the innuendo is that Isaac was the bastard son Abimelek, the king of Gerar. The story of the expulsion of Hagar and Abraham’s real son, Ishmael, perhaps shows how conflicted Abraham was about this. It eventuates in Abraham atoning for the whole situation by making a human sacrifice of Isaac.

Isaac does not seem to return from the mountain with Abraham (Genesis 22:19). Yoreh also claims that Isaac never again appears in the E account.

The J source is against human sacrifice and edited this story to show animal sacrifice as the alternative.

So it is possible that there was an account of the story where Isaac did not survive,

The fact that in J the stories about Isaac seem like retreads of stories about Abraham is one factor. The Covenant Code in Exodus 20;22-23:19, which may or may not have been connected to the Elohist, seems to be okay with human sacrifice (Exodus 22:29).

Yet I have my doubts that Abraham actually killed Isaac in the oldest story.

Source analysis does not lend itself to certitude. You can’t be sure what has been left out of old documents even though you can be pretty sure they existed. You only know what was preserved in a later document. This is true of the Q source behind the Gospels. And it is true of the E source behind the Torah.

Christians tend to see this story about the binding of Isaac in the background of John 3:16. God gave his “only Son”.

In Genesis 22:2 God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son (ignoring Ishmael) whom he loves, and sacrifice him. The intervention of the angel and the substitution of a ram seem like pointers to the atonement and the resurrection.

From the Jewish point of view, Jon D. Levinson in The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity makes some of these points.

So I could come to terms with an older source in which Isaac died. However, I wonder if that is what was really in E.

A couple of recurring themes that seem to identify the E source, are the use of angels to avoid showing God directly confronting human beings, and the endangering and saving of children.

In the E account of Ishmael’s near death from thirst in the wilderness, an angel intervenes at the last minute:

“But God heard the boy’s voice. The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and asked her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s voice right where he is crying. Get up! Help the boy up and hold him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God enabled Hagar to see a well of water. She went over and filled the skin with water, and then gave the boy a drink.” (Genesis 21:17-19 NET).

In the J account in Genesis 22 it is the “angel of YHWH” who intervenes. Isn’t it likely that J is just editing E’s “angel of God”? Maybe E contained paired stories of angels speaking out at the most suspenseful moment to save Abraham’s children.

And the assertion that Isaac never appears again in E is not certain. Genesis 25:11 says, ”After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac”. Notice that it says God, not YHWH. It might be that in E a particular blessing formula followed this along with some reference to Rebecca and the birth of Jacob and Esau.

In Judges 11 we have a story of an actual human sacrifice. Jephthah kills his daughter. She gets a reprieve of two months to spend in the highlands bewailing her virginity. Just note how strange this story is to us. It causes me to imagine out–of-the-ordinary reasons why Isaac might not have come down from the mountain with Abraham–such as that he might have spent some time ritually giving thanks for his survival.

It is harder to explain why some of J’s stories about Isaac seem to be retelling of stories about Abraham.

I am just saying we should be modest about the content of E, since we do not have a copy.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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