Two Harvard theologians—one Christian and one Jewish—examined the significance of the biblical account of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac, to their respective religions, at the 16th annual Nostra Aetate lecture on Oct. 29.
Jon D. Levenson, Ph.D., said that Abraham’s binding of Isaac for sacrifice to God, one of the most familiar scriptural stories, is as central a text to the deliverance of Jews as that of the exodus, in which God leads the Israelites to the promised land and redeems all first-born sons. In the story of Abraham, God redeems Isaac just before Abraham sacrifices him, and Abraham slaughters a ram for God in his son’s place.
“If you know how Jewish tradition works in antiquity you can see it was inevitable that the binding of Isaac would come to be associated with the exodus, and the exodus and Passover would come to be associated with the binding of Isaac,” said Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. “[The story] is a continuing salvific event working for the redemption and deliverance of the Jews over the centuries.”
However, today most Jews associate the story of Abraham with Rosh Hashanah, a more solemn holiday, said Levenson, one that is considered a day of judgment by God “of who shall live and who shall die.”
According to Kevin J. Madigan, Ph.D., early second century theologian Melito of Sardis saw Isaac as a type of precursor to Christ, and Abraham was associated with the virtue of obedience. Both Abraham and Isaac, said Madigan, were “ready to do God’s will.”
The fourth century Christian scholar Origen, who wrote 16 homilies on Genesis, believed that God would immediately resurrect Isaac once Abraham had obeyed his command. Madigan said Origen believed God was testing Isaac, attempting to “shatter his faith” by making his journey up Mount Moriah for the sacrifice long and arduous.
“Origen argues that this is done knowingly and intentionally, so that Abraham’s heart may consider the son during the entire lengthy journey, and so that anxiety might multiply in his heart,” said Madigan, professor of the history of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.
Origen’s ideas on the binding may have been influenced by his own ideas on martyrdom, Madigan said.
“It is clear Origen wanted to be a martyr,” Madigan said. “And he explicitly compared martyrs to Abraham . . . who put love of God before affection of the flesh.”
The binding also influenced fourth century monastics, said Madigan, as they “imagined their own lives in slow-motion martyrdom.” Since martyrs had to undergo their own tests of faith, he said, Isaac’s binding became an appropriate trope “to the test of obedience, and the inevitability of gracious reward for passing such a test.”
Modern interpretations of Isaac’s binding, said Levenson, have become problematic for both Jews and Christians because Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is often looked upon as “mindless violence.” Although sacrifice is important to the cult of both religions, Levenson said, it does not have to mean loss of life.
“Giving of something precious,” Levenson said. “That’s what sacrifice means.”
The event was sponsored by the Archbishop Hughes Institute on Religion and Culture at Fordham.