Sunday, November 13, 2005

What happened to Isaac at the end of the Akeidah?

This coming week’s parsha – ‘Vayera’ – is one of the most interesting in the entire Chumash. It is also one of the longest - 147 verses. But of those 147, 19 stand out – the story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1 – 19). I have my own idea of what this is about, but yesterday I spoke at Seudah Shlishit (the ‘third meal’ of Shabbat, often a simple communal meal in synagogue) on the comment of Ibn Ezra to the last verse.
One of the mysteries of the Akeidah is at the end. Abraham and his two servants come down from the mountain. Is Isaac with them? Maybe he was (see, e.g. the Artscroll commentary); maybe he wasn’t (see, e.g. Hizkuni ad loc). Whether he was or he wasn’t, Isaac then disappears from view for quite a long time. Perhaps he was “studying in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever”; perhaps he was “recovering in the Garden of Eden” from his experience.
Ibn Ezra comments that “those who say that he was slaughtered, left on the mountain and then resurrected are contradicting the simple text of the bible’. Huh?? Well, in early Medieval times the Ashkenazi tradition held an astonishing interpretation of the Akedah – that Isaac had in fact been killed by Abraham (in one variation: had died not from A’s knife, but from the fire on the altar A had built), and had been resurrected by G-d.
Much of this material, based on an explanation of a piyyut by Ephraim of Bonn, may be read in one of my favourite little books, “The Last Trial” – a translation by Judah Goldin of a famous essay by Prof. Shalom Spiegel.
In brief:
  • there seems to be an early, Midrashic, pre-Christian tradition that Isaac died at the Akedah – perhaps linked to the text as a repudiation of human sacrifice traditions in other cultures. Traces of this (but no more) survive in classic Jewish texts. Isaac is also associated with the blessing of the daily prayer “Who revives the dead”.
  • Christianity then appropriated the akeidah as a key text which they claimed was a precursor of the Crucifixion (including in its details – the fact that Isaac carried the wood up the mountain, for example, was interpreted as a precedent for Jesus carrying the cross.) Although Jewish tradition is mainly that the Akedah occurred at Rosh Hashanah, one Jewish tradition is that it happened at Pesach, which generates another clear line of associations …
  • In an atmosphere of text-against-text disputations, Jews could present the idea of the ‘Resurrection of Isaac’ as a neutralizing interpretation which undermined (and preceded) the uniqueness of the Christian Resurrection.
  • At the time of the first Crusades (end of the C11), there was widespread (and well documented) Jewish martyrdom, including many, many cases of suicide and killing of Jews by Jews ‘al Kiddush Hashem’ in order to avoid torture and death at the hands of the Crusaders. In many of the piyyutim and Chronicles which survived, it is recorded that the martyrs appealed to Abraham and Isaac for sympathy, on the basis that they, too, had known what it was for parents to slaughter children…..

We do not adopt this interpretation nowadays, preferring the much more plausible general direct meaning of the text. But Ibn Ezra’s comment is one of those fascinating fragments which are in fact windows which we can open and through them enter into an entirely different world of Jewish history.

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