MIDRASH AND PIYYUT
Wout Jac. van Bekkum
The famous Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel once observed of the aqedah or the biblical story of Isaac bound by Abraham for sacrifice: [Terrifying in content, the aqedah has become a source of consolation to those who, in retelling it, make it part of their own experience. Here is a story that contains Jewish destiny in its totality, just as the flame is contained in the single spark by which it comes to life. Every major theme, every passion and obsession that make Judaism the adventure that it is, can be traced back to it.]1 I hope to show that Elie Wiesel's words invoke a long tradition of Jewish preoccupation with a story often considered to be the most magnificent and deepest in meaning of all Bible stories. The theme of this narrative emerged as central in Midrash and Piyyut, the traditions of biblical exegesis and liturgical poetry in Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. According to the original text in Genesis 22, God calls Abraham in order to test him, asking him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham proceeds to implement God's wish, and only through divine intervention is he prevented from carrying out the sacrificial act: a ram is provided as a substitute offering. God then promises Abraham that he and his offspring shall inherit the earth. Both the incident and the story are referred to in Jewish tradition as the aqedah, a noun meaning 'binding', and such a reference implies the existence of both an actor and a recipient of the act. The event, when seen as fundamentally involving Abraham, is referred to as the trial of Abraham; when viewed primarily as Isaac's ordeal, it is called either the binding or sacrifice of Isaac. The biblical narrative suggests the participation of five major characters. The divine realm is represented both by God and an angelic messenger. The two human characters are Abraham and Isaac; they are accompanied in their journey by two anonymous and silent servants (in some midrashim they bear the names Ishmael and Eliezer, both pictured as vying for
1.Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God, New York: Random House 1976.