Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

By Jon D. Levenson | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER THREE
The Test

His eyes shed tears that fell into Isaac’s eyes because of his fa-
therly compassion; nonetheless, his heart rejoiced to do the will
of his Creator.

—Midrash1

KNOWN IN THE Jewish tradition as the “Binding (or, Aqedah) of Isaac” and in Christianity as the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” the episode narrated in Genesis 22:1–19 has been of enormous significance in both traditions; it has indirectly generated an important parallel in Islam as well. In the case of Judaism, the Aqedah has played a central role in two of its most defining sacred occasions, Passover and Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s), and to this day it reverberates revealingly in the liturgy not only of the latter holiday but also of much other Jewish prayer. In the case of Christianity, the Sacrifice of Isaac served as a key resource by which the early church developed its understanding of the role of Jesus, and especially his death, in the history of salvation; it also led to a subtle but momentous redescription of the narrative compared to its shape in Genesis.

The parallels between the two traditions as they have interpreted this central text are so striking that to speak of the Aqedah in late Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism (that is, Judaism between about 200 B.C.E. and 500 C.E.) without reference to the parallel interpretations in early Christianity, or vice versa, is myopic and misleading. In late antiquity, the Aqedah served as the most powerful biblical revelation of the greatness of Abraham for both Jews and Christians. For them, as later for Muslims, the story showed him to be a paragon of obedience to God, faith in God, and love of God.

This understanding of the narrative continues today, alive and well among many Jews, Christians, and Muslims. But alongside it, and

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