Sunday 8 May 2022

381) Midrashic sources referring to the actual sacrifice of Isaac?


The reader is cautioned not to regard this article as historiography but rather as an analysis of various modern and ancient readings of the biblical story of the Akeidah, where Abraham was ‘tested’ to see if he was willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to G-d. We shall investigate two very different, if not antithetical systems of biblical study - one the modern Documentary Hypothesis also known as Biblical Criticism, and the other, certain older traditional Midrashic sources. Surprisingly we find some degree of synergy between these disparate systems when it comes to the question of what happened to Isaac after the Akeidah.

Documentary Hypothesis

It must be made clear at the outset that traditional Jews (and Christians too) do not view the Documentary Hypothesis as an authentic form of Biblical study as it is perceived to challenge the idea of a G-d-given Torah (in exactly the shape that we have to today) from Sinai. There are, however, a number of Orthodox rabbis who are beginning to engage in one form or another with this study and perhaps an extreme example is R. Chaim Hirschensohn (1856-1935), who in his Malki baKodesh (ii. 219) regards it as part of the mitvah of Talmud Torah! In more recent times Professors R. Marc Shapiro and R. Joshua Berman have also written on this matter.




Nevertheless, the fact is that the Documentary Hypothesis is not something that would be taught in a yeshiva. It maintains that the bible was never one complete document but, instead was textually woven together from distinct earlier biblical sources and only collated into the form we have it, at the time of Ezra in around 500 BCE. (Some limited precedent for this ‘final redaction’ even exits in Talmudic thought.) There are many different theories as to how these texts came together and one of them is that it is sometimes possible to distinguish the provenance of a text by the name used to describe G-d. So texts with a predominance of the name Elokim would be called a E text, and those which use the name Hashem (Y,H,V,H) would be called a J text (yud=J-hova). Those texts concerned with purity and ritual would be called P (Priestly=Cohanim) texts, and D designates Deuternomistic texts. The Documentary Hypothesis has undergone much revision and there has been little consensus as to the categorisation of the texts, and today it is popular to just refer to P and non-P (or L=Lay, as in non-priestly) texts. This approach within the Documentary Hypothesis is generally known as "historical-critcism". A more recent development, after Brevard Childs (1923-2007), is to simply study the ‘shape’ and ‘final form’ of the texts after their official and final canonisation, and this suits the more conservative scholars. This method is related to what is known as "form-criticism". (Although the term "criticism" has the unfortunate connotation of "criticising", it is technically used in the sense of "critical" analysis.)

Akeidah in E and J

Either way, as a theoretical exercise, without necessarily accepting or disputing the historical-critical approach, we shall now examine the text of the Akeidah, based on the system of E and J texts. Our focus is on Genesis 22:19, where we read that after the Akeidah:

וַיָּ֤שׇׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אַבְרָהָ֖ם בִּבְאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע׃
Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

The earlier verse 6 describes Abraham and Isaac setting off together as they walked to the place of the Akeidah:

וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו׃

   and the two walked together.

They started off together as Abraham and Isaac, but (based strictly on the biblical verses) only Abraham returned. What happened to Isaac?

This is where the concept of alleged different texts becomes relevant. The section dealing with the Akeidah in Genesis 22 appears to predominantly use the name Elokim, making this an E version of the text. This E text is, however, broken by some ‘insertions’ of a ‘secondary’ J text. These include the two angelic pronouncements. Essentially, it is the angel from the J text who calls off the actual sacrifice:

וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֜יו מַלְאַ֤ךְ ה מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

(v.11) Then a messenger of ה called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָה כִּ֣י ׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹקים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃

(v.12) “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God,[1] since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 

On this reading, the predominantly E text which appears to require the notion of an actual sacrifice, is broken and interspersed by the J text, which mitigates against carrying the sacrifice to its fateful conclusion. The implication is that according to the E text - if read without the J text - Abraham actually carried out the slaughter! And this accounts for the fact that it is only Abraham who returns, alone, after the Akeidah.

The theory goes that the E text might have been referring to an earlier time when child sacrifice was still practiced, but after it got abolished the story included the substitution of the ram in place of the son, and the final text still shows evidence of the woven tapestry including fragments of both earlier and later texts. 

On this view, even though we read of further biblical stories which describe later events in Isaac’s life implying that he was still alive - they do not contradict this theory because they are not from the same category of E texts which described his actual sacrifice.

The problem with this interpretation, as pointed out by Jon Levenson (2012:87) is that:

it depends on an argument from silence, for the key verse that reports that Abraham actually went through with the sacrifice is still missing…

[Note: The various designations of J,E,D and P are not an exact science because there is sometimes overlap, so they are used instead as general markers. Additionally, we have no extant evidence of earlier fragments of these alleged different texts. This is one of the criticisms of the Hypothesis. For these as well as other reasons, the Documentary Hypothesis in all its configurations need not be feared by religious people as they are so open to revision and change.]

There is the argument that Isaac must have somehow disappeared because there is no text to support the idea that Abraham ever spoke to Isaac again after the Akeidah. The counter argument runs that neither is there any record of them conversing prior to the Akeidah either.

[It may be overreach but one could be forgiven for wondering whether the E and J texts, in this case, may not be related to the concepts of Chessed (kindness) and Gevurah (severity) which Jewish tradition ascribes to the names Hashem and Elokim respectively. Chessed (J) wants the sacrifice aborted while Gevurah (E) wants it consummated?]

Be that as it may, however one wishes to view the Documentary Hypothesis, let us now turn to some of these same problems as dealt with in our classical rabbinical sources:

Akeidah in rabbinical sources

The rabbis were also concerned, in one way or another, with some of the issues we have just raised. They note that only Abraham returns from the Akeidah and are bothered by this blatant absence of Isaac.

Bereshit Rabbah

The Midrash in Bereishit Rabba (56:11) offers its explanation. It says that Abraham sent his son off to the yeshiva of Shem and Ever[2] for three years in order to study Torah. Abraham is said to have explained that:

[e]verything I have has come to me only because I have involved myself with the Torah and mitzvot, therefore I do not want it ever to depart from my descendants.

R. Yose bar Chanina

Also recorded in Bereishit Rabba[3] is the following:

“And Isaac, where is he?” R. Yose bar Chanina replied: When Isaac’s father perceived that a miracle had occurred, “he sent him home in the night, lest the Evil Eye affect him.

What was this "miracle"? It could only have been that Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac but that he was subsequently resurrected.

R. Eleazar ben Pedat

Here is another view suggested by R. Eleazar ben Pedat:

Although Isaac did not die, Scripture regards him as though he had died and his ashes laid piled, on the altar.

Rabbeinu Bachya (on Gen 22:5)

Rabbeinu Bachya records a tradition where Isaac remained on the mountain for another three years (until he reached the age of forty) before coming down. (Rabbinic tradition places Isaac at the age of thirty-seven at the time of the Akeidah.)

Abravanel (on Gen 22:19)

Abravanel suggests that Abraham sent him “home to Chevron by another route to bring the glad tidings to Sarah and relieve her of her sorrow.”

Hadar Zekeinim[4]

Another view maintains that Isaac was taken to heaven while still alive. Genesis 24:63 states that just before Isaac met Rebecca:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.

Where did he go out from? Hadar Zekeinim says “from heaven”. He came down from heaven to marry Rebecca.

Minchat Yehuda

Along similar lines, Minchat Yehuda records that Rebecca got such a fright that “she fell from the camel” (Gen. 24:64). This was because Isaac walked the “way of the dead with his head down and feet up.”

Paaneach Raza

Paneach Raza picks up this narrative and asks what Isaac was doing in heaven. He responds that he was healing from his wounds.

Yalkut Reuveni

Yalkut Reuveni is more specific, writing that:

The angels bore him to Paradise, where he tarried three years, to be healed from the wound inflicted upon him by Abraham on the occasion of the Akeidah.

There is clearly a visible progression, so far, of dramatic and unspoken ideas only alluded to in the explanation for Isaac’s disappearance. Instead of the common and clean story of a simple aborted sacrifice, suddenly there is a veiled reference to Isaac going to heaven, having wounds that require time to heal, walking the ‘way of the dead’, and his ashes piled upon the altar.

Avraham ibn Ezra

Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) was clearly aware of these Midrashim but he flatly denies that they are accurate:

He who asserts that Abraham slew Isaac and abandoned him, and afterwards Isaac came to life again, is speaking contrary to Writ.[5]

However, despite being “contrary to Writ”, these ideas would just not go away.

Yitzchak ben Asher haLevi

One of the early Tosafists, Yitzchak ben Asher haLevi, writes that he:

found a midrash in which is said that Isaac was secreted in Paradise for two years in order to be healed from the incision made in him by his father when he began to offer him up as a sacrifice.[6]

Shibbolei haLeket

Shalom Spiegel (1993:30-50) points out that these Midrashic accounts of some form of slaughter did not disappear, and the thirteenth century Shibbolei haLeket records:

When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him.[7]


This allusion to something other than an aborted sacrifice as part of a test also found its way into the Machzor (prayer book for high holy days):

Regard the ashes of our Father Isaac heaped up upon the altar, and deal with your children in accordance with the attribute of mercy.

Ancient provenance

Spiegel (1993:61) emphasises that this Midrashic idea was very well-rooted within early rabbinic literature:

The haggadah about the ashes of Isaac who was consumed by fire like an animal sacrifice, and of whose remains nothing was left except the sacrificial ash, is ancient indeed. And its traces are already visible in the first generation of the Amoraim…if not earlier.

Mechilta deRabbi Shimon ben Yochai

According to the Mechilta deRabbi Shimon ben Yochai:

R. Yehoshua says…Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moses, I can be trusted to reward Isaac son of Abraham, for he left one quarter of his blood on top of the altar.[8]

A quarter log of blood is the rabbinic standard that determines the transition from life to death.[9]

In view of Ibn Ezra’s statement that all these aggadot are “contrary to Writ”, Spiegel (66) emphasises:

[W]hat is surprising is that any trace at all of the haggadah contradicting the Torah survived at all…[perpetuating the notion][10] that Abraham did not recoil nor did he part from the lad until he drew from him a quarter of blood; but it was the Holy One, blessed be He, who had compassion and showed grace to Isaac, and brought about either his recovery from sickness, or his revival.

This ancient Aggadic source in the name of authoritative second-generation Tannaim (rabbis from the Mishnaic period 10-210CE) implies that Abraham did indeed consummate the act of sacrifice but for the grace of G-d who intervened and/or resurrected Isaac from actual death.

R. Ephraim of Bonn

During the twelfth century, R. Ephraim of Bonn, who was affected by the persecutions of the Crusades, wrote the following extreme account of the Akeidah in poetic form (Spiegel 1993:143). He describes how Abraham slaughtered Isaac, not once, but twice:

With steady hands he slaughtered him according to the rite,

Full right was the slaughter.

Down upon him fell the resurrecting dew, and he revived.

(The father) seized him (then) to slaughter him once more.

Scripture, bear witness! Well-grounded is the fact:

And the Lord called Abraham, even a second time from heaven.

The ministering angels cried out, terrified:

Even animal victims, were they ever slaughtered twice?


To be clear: These sources are extremely subversive if not provocative. Judaism undoubtedly is against human sacrifice. Yet, to be equally clear, these interpretations are still to be found within the sources.

Bear in mind again, that we are not looking at historicity, but rather at interpretative ideas and concepts as they manifested in the various literatures. Most interesting and surprising are these Midrashic sources which describe something very similar to that of the Documentary Hypothesis which we have noted earlier – in both these disparate genres of the modern Documentary Hypothesis and ancient Midrash, Abraham is said to have actually slaughtered Isaac!

Strikingly, since almost two thousand years ago, there were rabbis who - despite the clear wording in the Akeidah text which states “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him” - still maintained that Abraham slaughtered his son Isaac. 

Why? What traditions, if any, were these rabbis relying on?

[1] Although this is a reference to Elokim in the J text, the argument may be that the E text would have required the sacrifice that was mitigated by the J text (see later). The subject - the angel - is still Malach Hashem which implies a J text. As mentioned this is not an exact science as there is some overlap. The theory looks for trends rather than exact models.

[2] According to tradition, Noah's son Shem and Shem's grandson Ever had a yeshiva in Be'er Sheva.

[3] And Yalkut 102.

[4] Hadar Zekeinim, Ba’alei haTosafot al haTorah, (Leghorn 1840), 9b.

[5] Ibn Ezra on Gen. 22:19.

[6] Minchat Yehudah, Toledot, Gen 25:27.

[7] Shibbolei haLeket 9a-b.

[8] Mekita Simeon, ed D, Hoffman, p.4.

[9] b. Shabbat 31b.

[10] Parenthesis is mine.


Levenson, J.D., Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton University Press.

Speigel, S., 1993, The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice, Jewish Lights Classic Reprint.

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