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Genesis 22:9 reads:

“When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” (Genesis 22:9, ESV, emphasis mine).

Why did Abraham bind his son Isaac? Was this a standard way to prepare a sacrifice?

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Was this a standard way to prepare a sacrifice?

No. The verb used to describe the binding of Isaac is ʿqd, a term used only here in the Hebrew Bible. There are other terms that could be used to describe a similar action, but none of them is used to describe the preparation of the burnt offering, related most elaborately in Leviticus 1.1 There the basic procedure is:

  • slaughter (šḥṭ) the animal,
  • drain the blood,
  • throw the blood against the sides of the altar,
  • flay and cut the animal into pieces,
  • arrange (ʿrk) the wood on the fire,
  • arrange (ʿrk) the pieces on the wood, and
  • burn all of it.

The sequence is similar in Leviticus 8-9. The account of Genesis 22 is quite different. The slaughter (šḥṭ) is represented by the same term (which is specific to slitting the throat, see Milgrom), but it is shifted to the end of a modified sequence. We are told that Abraham

  • built the altar,
  • arranged (ʿrk) the wood,
  • bound (ʿqd) Isaac,
  • lay Isaac on the altar,
  • reached out his hand, and
  • took the knife
  • (in order to) slaughter (šḥṭ) his son.

From a narrative point of view, the act of šḥṭ is delayed to build suspense, pulling the reader forward in slow motion through the horror of the Abrahams's ordeal.2 In the words of Von Rad:

[O]ne can only answer all plaintive scruples about this narrative by saying that it concerns something more frightful than child sacrifice. It has to do with a road out into Godforsakenness, a road on which Abraham does not know that God is only testing him.

So,

Why did Abraham bind his son Isaac?

  1. On a banal level: because Isaac was applied to the altar alive and needed to be tied down for slaughter.
  2. On a narrative level: in order to delay the decisive moment of death and escalate the suspense of the relentless march into "Godforsakenness".
  3. On a thematic level, the basic point of the aqedah is Abraham's unqualified obedience to God, although the reader is not privy to the details of his instructions. The particular act of ʿqd is no different: Abraham bound Isaac because God told him to.4

Notes

1. Another answer rightly pointed out that Psalm 118:27 may provide evidence that sacrifices were bound. This passage uses a different term for "bind", but it means something similar. The difficulty is that the apparent object -- ḥag -- doesn't normally mean "burnt-offering" (rather "festival" or "feast"). That the Hebrew is obscure is witnessed by the fact that good, modern translations differ.3 (Contrast ESV with NRSV and NIV.) Also, if this were a standard way of going about it, one would like to see some mention in the instructions of Leviticus or at least in the reports of sacrifices that occur throughout the Hebrew Bible. To my knowledge (based on lexical searches and a brief survey of Psalms and Leviticus commentaries, below), this method of preparation is nowhere else attested. (And why would it be necessary to bind what is already dead? unless the whole sequence is to change.) If Ps 118:27 indeed describes binding of a sacrifice to the altar, it seems to have been an unusual way to go about it.

2. Hebrew students are taught not to translate narrative sequences "...and....and...and...", but the relentless sequence of seven "and" verbs in these two verses isn't fully conveyed in the good English style achieved by the variation in conjunctions and syntax of most translations. See Young's Literal Translation or your interlinear of choice.

3. The LXX translator was also almost certainly looking at this same Hebrew when he wrote "συστήσασθε ἑορτὴν ἐν τοῖς πυκάζουσιν" ("celebrate the feast with thick branches" [Brenton; NETS gives the (no doubt appropriately) unintelligible, "arrange a feast with the thick ones"]).

4. I think this should apply whether one takes this at face value as an historical account or assumes it is a literary creation and applies whatever variety of redaction paradigm.

Helpful Commentaries

Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (WBC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 160-168.

Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16 (AYB; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 154-155.

Gerhard von Rad. Genesis: A Commentary (OTL; Westminster John Knox Press, 1973), 244. I unfortunately have only been able to see the limited Google books preview of this.

Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 109.

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  • Highly unorthodox practice of putting a footnote within a footnote (i.e. note 3 inside note 1). Perhaps an asterisk, and the comment added below note 1 would be better? Or was this a leftover remnant of when you perhaps were planning to have the note 1 text inside the main body text? – ScottS Jan 29 '16 at 18:18
  • For me, your "banal" answer is the most appropriate one for the reason of binding and the difference with other sacrifices. A live sacrifice would have a tendency to run away if not so constrained (of course some argue Isaac let himself be bound, but even if he was willing, would he have possibly ran in the heat of the moment...). – ScottS Jan 29 '16 at 18:18
  • Re. unorthodox: just to see if you would notice. ;-) This needs some more proofreading, maybe tomorrow. I'll attempt to normalize the notation structure at that point. (Inline it's just too many parentheses! I need to be less tangential. Or learn to communicate in Greek.) – Susan Jan 29 '16 at 18:33
  • Re. banal: between the two items: 'live sacrifice on the altar' and 'binding of the sacrifice', it seems to me the former is primary (i.e. entails the latter). This is why I resist stopping at the binding which, we agree, itself makes most sense as a mechanism of restraint. (To your parenthetical: I believe it was Wenham who suggested that the binding may have been a demonstration of Isaac's complicity -- that Abraham would have been able to cut his throat surreptitiously but not able to bind him against his will.) – Susan Jan 29 '16 at 18:33
  • I fight against being too "tangential" all the time in my writing as well... :-) I'll delete that comment in the near future to clean up the comment string, but leave the other comment (which is why I separated the two). – ScottS Jan 29 '16 at 19:09
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It is quite arguable that the reason Abraham bound Isaac was to simply ensure that Isaac wouldn't try to escape under the stress of impending death.

Pain motivates the individual to withdraw from damaging situations, to protect a damaged body part while it heals, and to avoid similar experiences in the future https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-preservation

Lets look at the following argumentation. In all the Biblical narrative preceding the discussed event, we can notice that Abraham did not disobey God even once, and can therefore be hypothesised to always, at least since his first encounter with God mentioned in the Bible, to have been diligent in never allow himself to disobey God. To strengthen this hypothesis, we can have a look at the fact that sin nature, which dwells in people [1], would always try to get Abraham to disobey. So his mental process therefore had to continuously fight against his own sin nature. If he did not diligently and at all times strive against his sin nature, we would be the more likely to have read of one or more mishaps that he had committed, but we do not find even one, at least in relation to the holistic image of righteousness that is presented by the Bible. But, the strengthening of the hypothesis that Abraham sought to diligently ensure that his obedience to God would not be compromised, logically leads to the strengthening of a hypothesis that it was not an exception in the discussed Biblical event, namely the one concerning Abraham's intention to obey God by slaying his own son. And because the risk of his son running away was real, as was shown earlier, a hypothesis that Abraham could have tied his son for the reason of preventing this (i.e. the running away of his son) from happening gains at least some ground.

As a side-note, we can also notice a parallel here with the nailing of Jesus to the Cross. The Cross was used as a tool for the self-Sacrifice of Jesus (Romans 3:25), who is also called Lamb (John 1:29). So a parallel, however obvious or clear, can be drawn here between the Cross and an altar, since it was on the altar that priests sacrificed animals (Exodus 20:24). And given the richness of symbolism used in the Bible [2], a hypothesis that the nails of the cross represented the cords with which Isaac was tied, gains at least some ground. As for the parallel between Isaac and Jesus, one can indeed be drawn, however obvious or clear, based on noting that Isaac had twelve sons, just as Jesus had twelve apostles, as well as based on the fact that Isaac was placed by Abraham on the "altar" too, as we can read:

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9).

Annotations:

[1] See Romans 7, especially verses 14 and 15-25; the term sin nature or "original sin" is used by at least some denominations, including Orthodox and Catholic, to denote an evil kind of nature everpresent in human beings, there to provide an opposibg force to their attempted practice of righteusness, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin#Eastern_Orthodoxy

[2] Matthew 13:34; also The A to Z Guide to Bible Signs and Symbols by Neil Wilson, ‎Nancy Ryken Taylor

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  • Hello and welcome. Re. Abraham bound Isaac... [to] ensure that Isaac wouldn't try to escape under the stress of impending death. -- this seems to me self evident, but then we have to ask why he put a live sacrifice on the altar in the first place. – Susan Jan 29 '16 at 15:17
  • @ Susan: I don't think this is relevant in this question. What you are asking is a question relating to the procedure by which a sacrifice would be presented to God in those days, and has nothing to do with the question at hand: what was the motivation of Abraham to bind his son. – Dmitri Jan 29 '16 at 15:25
  • @ Susan: It may seem obvious to you that that's what the author have asked and that's fair. My opinion is that the author used the mention of the standard way to prepare a sacrifice as a way to express his bewilderment, and the real question was to find out Abraham's motivation. – Dmitri Jan 29 '16 at 15:27
  • Yeah, sorry, this is a bit unfair -- I actually wrote the second part of the question, but only at the request of the author, after confirming his intentions (and without any intention of answering myself at that point). From what I have been able to figure out, though, it was not a standard way to prepare a burnt offering. – Susan Jan 29 '16 at 15:40
  • @ Susan: The question was not clear, so I hope my answer is allowed, since it is not actually off-topic, being an explanation of a possible reason as to why Isaac was bound. In his question the author calls for a reason to explain Abraham's action of binding Isaac. And even if, as you say, the author wanted a confirmation and specifics of it being a rite, my answer is then a clarification of the error in the very basis of the author's (and your's) assumption that the motivation was to fulfill a standard way to do this rite. – Dmitri Jan 29 '16 at 16:08
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Psalm 118:27 speaks of binding the sacrifice with cords. So yes, it appears to have been somewhat standard to prepare sacrifices by binding them first.

Matthew Poole also refers to this in his commentary:

and bound Isaac his son, partly, because burnt-offerings were to be bound to the altar; of which see Poole on "Psalms 118:27"; partly, to represent Christ, who was bound to the cross. And that Isaac might be the more exact type of Christ, he was bound by his own consent, otherwise his age and strength seem sufficient to have made an effectual resistance. It is therefore highly reasonable to think that Abraham, having in the whole journey prepared Isaac for such a work by general but pertinent discourses, did upon the mount particularly instruct him concerning the plain and peremptory command of God, the absolute necessity of complying with it, the glorious reward of his obedience, and the dismal consequences of his disobedience; the power and faithfulness of God either to prevent the fatal blow, or to restore his life lost with infinite advantage. Upon these, and such-like reasons, doubtless he readily laid himself down at his father’s feet, and yielded up himself to the Divine will.

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  • 2
    The Hebrew of Psalm 118:27 is pretty unclear. – Susan Jan 25 '16 at 6:10
  • @Susan - not if you use a real translation. :P But seriously, 'asar' means to bind and is almost always translated as such. A few places it is used for preparing a chariot (Ex 14:6; 1 Ki 18:44; et al), but to prepare (make ready) a chariot you have to harness (tie/bind) horses to it. A lesser amount of times it is used as starting a military battle (1 Ki 20:14; 2 Ch 13:3), but again this is "binding" two armies against each other. – user6503 Jan 25 '16 at 20:16
  • 1
    :-) Well, ḥag doesn't normally mean "burnt-offering" (rather "festival" or "feast"), so we're left translating one or the other oddly. If ʾsr were elsewhere used of preparing a sacrifice, it wouldn't be too far-stretched (--> "festal offering"), and maybe this is still most likely (I, as ever, defer to the ESV), but using this verse to show that this (a different verb from Paul's passage in any case) is what one does with a "sacrifice" ....is more difficult. – Susan Jan 25 '16 at 20:33
  • @Susan - in my defense, I said: "it appears to have been somewhat standard to prepare sacrifices by binding them first." If a festal sacrifice was indeed bound before being slain, then it's not too far fetched to think that at least some other regular/non-festive sacrifices were as well. Also, #2 of that definition you linked to says "festival sacrifice".........why are we arguing about this again? – user6503 Jan 25 '16 at 21:45
  • @Susan - one more thing...while you are correct that "bound/aqad" in Gen 22:9 is a different word, it means the same thing as "bind/asar" in Ps 118:27. The only difference being that 'asar' can include a much broader sense, whereas 'aqad' is relatively narrow in its scope of active meaning. – user6503 Jan 25 '16 at 22:35

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