Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-14) in the first 6 centuries CE

by Edward Kessler


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context of the source

This article will explore exegetical encounters between Christian and Jewish biblical commentators in late antiquity.  By the term ‘exegetical encounter’ I mean a case in which a Jewish interpretation either influenced, or was influenced by, a Christian interpretation and vice versa.  In other words, what role, if any, did ‘exegetical encounters’ play in Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation?  The term does not imply that Jewish and Christian exegetes met to discuss their interpretations, although this might not be ruled out; rather, an exegetical encounter indicates awareness by one exegete of the exegetical tradition of another, an awareness revealed in the interpretations.

A study of biblical interpretation can shed light on Jewish–Christian relations because both Jews and Christians lived in a biblically orientated culture.  This can be seen in the Christian desire to share the Hebrew Bible in a canonical form recognized by Jews.  According to William Horbury, the Christian canon is itself indicative of Jewish influence. It is worth remembering that one of the complaints of John Chrysostom’s in his Adversus Iudeos sermons concerns Christian reverence for the synagogue because it was the place in which the holy scriptures were held.

Thus, Jews and Christians shared a common Bible. This is expressed by the early Church in a number of ways, one of the most striking being Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.  After having quoted a number of biblical passages Justin states

For these words have neither been prepared by me, nor embellished by the art of man; but David sung them, Isaiah preached them, Zechariah proclaimed them, and Moses wrote them. Are you acquainted with them, Trypho? They are contained in your Scriptures (graphai), or rather not yours, but ours. For we believe them; but you, though you read them, do not catch the spirit that is in them.

Justin’s description of the transfer of the Scriptures from the Jews to the new Israel, the Church, is based on a ‘replacement theology’, the belief that Christianity had replaced Judaism, that the Church was the new, true Israel, replacing the Jews, operates most of all on the level of scriptural interpretation. Replacement theology is found throughout the writings of the Early Church.  For example, the Epistle of Barnabas states that just as the Scriptures belong to the Christians so does the covenant.  Barnabas admonishes his readers not to ‘heap up your sins and say that the covenant is both theirs and ours.  It is ours.’

Evidence of a dependence on the Bible in the encounter with Christianity can also be found in Jewish writings, particularly those originating from the Palestinian rabbinic tradition.  Palestinian rabbis employed biblical interpretation as a defence against what were probably Christian biblically based criticisms of Judaism and, as a result, we find evidence that Jews and Christians met around Scripture.

A dependence on the Bible in the Jewish-Christian encounter results in a number of similarities between Jewish and Christian approaches to Scripture.  These include an insistence on the harmony of scripture and an emphasis on the unity of the text. Consequently, many Jewish and Christian interpretations were understandable to adherents of both religions.  This situation provides the context for the decision of exegetes, such as Origen and Jerome, to turn to Jewish contemporaries for help in translating and understanding biblical texts.  Although it goes without saying that the rabbis and the church fathers developed their own distinctive literary methods, we can be confident that their approaches would not necessarily have prevented particular interpretations from being understood in both communities.

This conclusion is reinforced by Origen’s decision to produce the Hexapla, and to consult translations of the Bible other than LXX.  He desired to understand the lies of Jewish biblical exegesis in order to argue better with Jews who engaged him in disputations.

Criteria for Uncovering an Exegetical Encounter

While each criterion may be explained as coincidental, or as a result of exegetes separately arriving at the same conclusion, multiple attestation implies an exegetical encounter.

1) An Explicit Reference to a Source

The clearest indication of exegetical influence is an explicit reference to an opposing view, although the existence of the Adversus Iudaeos writings as a literary genre means that we need to consider each patristic reference on its own merit.  Even in cases where a church father explicitly refers to a Jewish source, it is possible that the reference is copied from earlier Christian texts. Nevertheless, patristic references to Jewish teachers and Jewish exegesis, or rabbinic references to the minim, should be taken seriously, particularly if they exist alongside other criteria. It should also not be assumed that an exegetical encounter took a single form.  We also find rabbinic interpretations, which represent an exegetical encounter to Christian teaching.

2) The same scriptural quotations

The second indicator of an exegetical encounter occurs when, in the course of their interpretations of the biblical text, Jewish and Christian exegetes offer the same scriptural quotation in support of their argument.  Although it is possible that the exegetes may have chosen the same quotation separately, the choice is unlikely to have been purely coincidental.

3) The same literary form

The third indicator of an exegetical encounter is the use of the same words, symbols, and images, especially if the interpretations share the same extra-biblical descriptions.  Clearly, however, the literary form can be chosen without recourse to another exegete’s interpretations, since the literary form includes telling stories, asking questions, offering instruction, and so on.

4) The same or opposite conclusions

The fourth indicator consists of Jewish and Christian exegetes reaching the same or opposite conclusions, when those conclusions are not dependent upon the literal meaning of the text. It can be argued, of course, that exegetes may reach the conclusion by separate means, but this criterion becomes particularly relevant when found alongside other criteria.

5)  Use of  a well-known controversial theme for Jews and Christians

The fifth indicator of exegetical influence, and probably the most important, consists of a reference to a well-known subject of controversy between Jews and Christians.  The appearance of such references in Jewish literature provides an argument against the supporters of the minimalist thesis; if the Adversus Iudaeos literature were directed either internally towards Christians, or externally towards pagans, one would expect little or no evidence of Jewish interest.  If, however, Jewish interpretations indicate an awareness of the Christian polemic one could conclude, first, that Jewish attention was being paid to Christian interpretation and, second, that Jews believed that a response was required.

2. Source

Genesis 22:6-8

6 וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה וַיָּשֶׂם עַל־יִצְחָק בְּנֹו וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדֹו אֶת־הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו׃ 7 וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה׃ 8 וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה־לֹּו הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו׃‎

English translation of Genesis 22: 6–8 ‘Abraham and Isaac’s Journey to Moriah’

v.6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  So they went both of them together.  v.7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’  And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’  He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’  v.8 Abraham said, ‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’  So they went both of them together.

3. Discussion of the source

Isaac is the key by which to unlock the following exegetical encounter. For the church fathers, he was young and had not yet reached full adulthood. Cyril of Alexandria describes him as ‘small and lying in the breast of his own father.’ Origen depicts him as ‘the child who might weigh in his father’s embrace for so many nights, who might cling to his breast, who might lie in his bosom ….’  For John Chrysostom, Isaac was slightly more mature, but still retained his youthfulness: ‘Isaac had come of age and was in fact in the very bloom of youth.’  The rabbinic position was quite different.  The rabbis (Genesis Rabbah) stated that, ‘Isaac was 37 years of age when he was offered upon the altar.’ None of the rabbinic interpretations, in direct contrast to those of the church fathers, hinted that Isaac might have still been a child. For the rabbis, Isaac was a fully developed and mature adult.

Not only was Isaac’s age of interest, but Jewish and Christian exegetes also offered interpretations about the significance of Isaac carrying the wood. Unsurprisingly, the church fathers viewed this action as a model of Jesus carrying the cross. This is illustrated by Melito, bishop of Sardis, who lived in one of the largest Jewish communities of Asia Minor. Melito points to a large number of parallels between Isaac and Jesus:

  • Isaac carrying the wood to the place of slaughter was understood as a reference to Christ carrying the cross.
  • Both remaining silent indicated their acceptance of the will of God.
  • Isaac ‘carried with fortitude the model of the Lord.’
  • Isaac, like Jesus, knew what was to befall him.
  • Both Isaac and Jesus were bound.
  • Both were led to the sacrifice by their father, an act which caused great astonishment.
  • Neither was sorrowful at their impending sacrifice.

For Melito, the Akedah foreshadows the sacrifice of Christ but is incomplete. Isaac represents Christ, and is a model of Christ, who was going to suffer. He looked forward to Christ. For the church fathers, the Akedah represented a sketch, which was required before the completion of the ‘final picture’. Origen commented ‘that Isaac who carries on himself the wood for the sacrifice is a figure, because Christ also himself carried his own cross.’  Isaac represented an outline, an immature image, of what lay ahead.  The child (Isaac) was to be fulfilled by the adult (Christ).

Like the church fathers, the rabbis also commented on Isaac carrying the wood, and the following interpretation in Genesis Rabbah is remarkably striking:

‘And Abraham placed the wood of the burnt-offering on Isaac his son.’  Like a man who carries his cross on his shoulder.

This interpretation, from one of the best-known and oldest midrashim, is an explicit reference to Christianity.

Both the rabbis and church fathers depict Isaac as willing to give up his life at God’s command.  Both portray Isaac as offering himself to his father. In Lamentations Rabbah, (Proem) the rabbis portray Isaac speaking to God, as follows:

Sovereign of the Universe, when my father said to me, ‘God will provide for Himself a lamb for the burnt offering’, I raised no objection to the carrying out of Your words and I willingly let myself be bound on top of the altar and stretched out my neck under the knife.

Isaac’s willingness to give up his life  appears to be a rabbinic response to the Christian teaching that Christ was willing to give up his life for Israel.  This is reinforced by the rabbis’ suggestion that he was informed in advance of the sacrifice and, nevertheless, continued the journey with Abraham.  ‘One to bind and the other to be bound, one to slaughter and one to be slaughtered.’  Unlike the church fathers, who laid stress on the fact that Abraham did not tell his son of the impending sacrifice, the rabbis argued that Isaac’s awareness of what was to happen served to emphasize his full participation in the Akedah.

Although the church fathers and the rabbis emphasized the voluntary self-offering, it is their interpretation of its significance  accounts for differences in their interpretations.  For the church fathers, the child Isaac was an outline of the adult Christ and, therefore, the self-offering of Isaac merely foreshadowed the saving action of Christ. For the rabbis, the self-offering of the adult Isaac was sufficient to provide benefit (zeḵut avot) to Isaac’s children, the Jewish People, for future generations.

In their view, so willing was Isaac to give up his life that they described the Akedah in terms such as ‘the blood of the binding of Isaac’ or ‘the ashes of Isaac’. This is startling because the biblical account explicitly states that the angel stopped Abraham from harming his son and commanded him not to do anything’ to Isaac. For example, the Meḵilta de Rabbi Ishmael:

‘And when I see the blood, I will pass over you’ (Exodus 13:12 and 25) – I see the blood of the Binding of Isaac.  For it is said, ‘And Abraham called the name of that place, the Lord will see’.  Likewise it says in another passage, ‘And as He was about to destroy the Lord beheld and repented Him’ (I Chronicles 21:15).  What did He behold?  He beheld the blood of the Binding of Isaac, as it is said, ‘God will for Himself see to the lamb.’

Does this mean that Isaac actually was sacrificed? The eighth-century CE Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer(chp 31) states that Isaac did die and, soon after, experienced resurrection:

When the sword touched his neck the soul of Isaac took flight and departed but when he heard the voice from between the two cherubim saying, … ‘do not lay a hand’ his soul returned to his body and [Abraham] set him free, and he stood on his feet.  And Isaac knew the resurrection of the dead as taught by the Torah, that all the dead in the future would be revived.  At that moment he opened [his mouth] and said, ‘Blessed are You, O Lord, who revives the dead.”

Like the rabbinic reference to carrying a cross, the interpretation of the death and resurrection of Isaac is clearly influenced by Christian interpretation.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. To what extent are Jews and Christians divided by a common Bible?
  2. Why does Isaac’s age matter?
  3. Is it helpful for Jews and Christians to talk about ‘shared scripture’?
  4. What’s the significance of the difference between ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ and ‘Binding of Isaac’ for Jewish-Christian Relations?
  5. Who is the main character in Genesis 22 – God, Abraham or Isaac?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Hirshman, Marc. (1996) A Rivalry of Genius. Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity. Albany, New York: SUNY.
  • Horbury, William. (2006) Jews and Christians in Contact and Controversy. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
  • Kalimi, Isaac. (2002)  Early Jewish Exegesis and Theological Controversy: Studies in Scriptures in the Shadow of Internal and External Controversies. Assen: Royal Van Gorcum.
  • Kessler, Edward. (2004) Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians and the Sacrifice of Isaac. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Levenson, Jon D. (1993) The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. New Haven, Yale University Press.
  • Spiegel, Shalom. (1967) The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: The Akedah. New York: Schocken.
  • Spurling, Helen and Emmanouela Grypeou. (eds.) (2008) The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, Jewish and Christian Perspectives 18. Leiden: Brill.

6. Further Reading

  • Barton, John. (1998) Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Baskin, Judith R. (1983) Pharaoh’s Counsellors: Job, Jethro, and Balaam in Rabbinic and Patristic Tradition, Brown, Judaic Studies No 47; Chico, CA.
  • Boadt, Lawrence et al. (1980) Biblical Studies: Meeting Ground of Jews and Christians.  NY: Paulist Press.
  • Brooks, Roger and John J Collins. (eds.) (1990) Hebrew Bible or Old Testament?: Studying the Bible in Judaism and Christianity. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press.
  • Kugel, James L. (1907) The Bible as It Was. Cambridge and London: Belknap, Harvard University Press.
  • Kuschel, Karl-Josef. (1995) Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. New York: Continuum.
  • Mulder, Jan M. (1998) Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
  • Saebo, Magne. (ed.) (2000) Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.
  • Swetnam, James. (1981) Jesus and Isaac: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Aqedah. Rome: Biblical Institute Press.
  • Vermes, Geza. (1961) Scripture and Tradition in Judaism: Haggadic Studies, Studia Post-Biblica 4. Leiden: Brill.
  • Vermes, Geza. (2000) The Changing Faces of Jesus. New York: Viking.

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