‘The LORD will provide’ – the sacrifice of Isaac (the ‘akedah’) in Rabbinic writings

“The Lord will make it known who shall be His.
My son, the Master will look to His lamb
And whosoever is holy, He will draw to Him.”
R. Ephraim ben Jacov of Bonn 1

The binding of IsaacMany Jews are unaware that concepts usually associated with Christian theology are contained in the Aggada. Although these are numerous and widely dispersed throughout the Rabbinic writings, no single event gives rise to a more blatant emanation of these than the sacrifice of Isaac.

Why should the Rabbis deliberately draw parallels between Isaac and Jesus? Is Isaac’s binding (the Akedah) a way of demonstrating that the suffering of the Jew equals the suffering of Christ? Support for the hope that Isaac’s descendants would thus be redeemed by the merit of their own suffering? Or was it a hankering after a saviour of their own, one that would be comparable to the “Christian” Jesus, yet exclusively Jewish? Or did disputes with Christians rouse the perception that the unconsummated sacrifice of Isaac was somehow defective – for which Judaism then compensated by endowing the Akedah with emulations of Christianity?

Whatever the reason for the similarities, it is these unexpected (and sometimes even astounding) elements of congruity that are considered here – as relating to the events ensuing from God’s command to Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. We follow the Biblical narrative from Genesis twenty-two as a convenient way to explore this theme.

Abraham’s last trial

And it came about after these things, that God tried Abraham, and said to him, Abraham: and he said, Here I am. And he said, Take, I pray, your son, your one and only, whom you love – Isaac – and go into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will name to you. (Genesis 22: 1-2)

The trial was comprised in the fact that Isaac was the Son of Promise, through whom Abraham’s seed would be appointed (Genesis 21:12). The possibility that Ishmael might serve as a surrogate had been precluded (Genesis 17:18-21). Isaac was thus Abraham’s only son in the sense of being “the only son through whom the promise could be realised.” The Hebrew יחידך thus describing Isaac as unique rather than singular. The same word is related in the Sifre Dvarim and in the Vayyiqra Rabba to Abraham’s soul 2 and Rabbi Kalonymos in his Akedah poem describes Isaac as “him to whose soul he [Abraham] was tied” 3 . In the poem of Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, Abraham is similarly described as “the one whose life was bound up in the lad’s”. 4

The two were thus inextricably linked, heirs to the same promise and sharing in a common destiny. It was this son that God was asking Abraham to put on the altar.

The supremacy of God’s Word

And he said, Take, I pray, your son, your one and only, whom you love – Isaac – and go into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will name to you. (Genesis 22:2)

The Law of Moses requires, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’ (Genesis 9:6); and, ‘Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire’ (Deut. 18:10).

Clearly, then, the merit which Father Abraham obtained in the matter of the Akedah did not come from upholding Torah, but was obtained rather by acting contrary to its requirements in obedience to God’s Word. The Genesis Rabba 5, describes a contest between Abraham and Satan on the road to Moriah – in which Satan tries to withhold Abraham from the Akedah, by tempting him with the prescripts of the Law:

An elder of your years to make such a mistake! He [the Lord] ordered this only to mislead and deceive you! Lo it written in the Torah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” – and you are going to slaughter your son?

The Genesis Rabba upholds Abraham’s obedience in defiance of Torah as the mitzvah upon which the Jewish race was founded and presents Satan as the advocate of Torah in opposition to the Word of God. This is a fundamental of Christian teaching, namely that faithfulness means obedience to God’s Word and that righteousness can be obtained outside of the provisions of the Law. 6

In obedience to God’s Word, Abraham prepared for his three day journey to Moriah.

The Akedah and the resurrection of the dead

And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and cleft the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose and went to the place which God had named to him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place from afar. And Abraham said to his young men, Abide you here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and return to you. (Genesis 22:3-5)

Talmudic sources variously pin the resurrection hope of the Jews on the events of the Akedah. Some sources suggest that it is on the merit of the Akedah (namely because of Abraham and Isaac’s obedience) that the dead will be raised for the life to come 7, while others suggest that Isaac died and was resurrected at that time.Neither of these claims are founded on Scripture.

The Midrash on the Eighteen benedictions of the Prayer attributes to Isaac the benediction “blessed is He who quickens the dead.” 9

‘Now when Isaac, lying on top of the altar, heard the angel say, “Put not forth thy hand,” he acclaimed: “Blessed is He who quickens the dead.”’ 10

The Zohar, however, attributes the same words to Abraham: “When Isaac was sacrificed on the altar, his soul which was in him in this world departed. But when it was said by Abraham ‘Blessed is He who quickens the dead,’ his soul of the world to come came back to him.” 11

The New Testament also links the sacrifice of Isaac with the resurrection, but on a different basis. The New Testament teaches that Abraham’s assurance to his servants (“I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and [both of us] shall return to you”) demonstrates his unwavering confidence in the promise of God.  If Abraham continued without doubt to believe in the One who said, “Through Isaac your offspring are appointed,” but also required of him “take Isaac and offer him for a burnt-offering,” then it clearly follows that “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead.” 12

It was with this confidence that Abraham proceeded with the sacrifice, and not, as the Rabbis suggest, because of sheer fatalistic determination.

Isaac as the suffering servant and paradigm of Jewish victimology

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife: and they went both of them together. And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt-offering: so they went both of them together. (Genesis 22:6-8)

The aggadic literature is replete with claims that – contrary to the biblical account – the sacrifice of Isaac was indeed consummated, i.e. that Isaac’s blood was shed and that his ashes covered the altar.14 After a detailed consideration of the portrayal in Talmudic writings of Isaac’s role in the Akedah, Shalom Spiegel concludes as follows: “Isaac is the paradigm of whom? Not of the survivor of the ordeal, but of everyone who paid for the sanctification of the Name with his life.” 13

The Yalkut Reubeni 15 further claims that Isaac spent three years in Paradise “to be healed from the wound inflicted upon him at the occasion of the Akedah”.

It has vexed Jewish scholarship that “the literal meaning of Scripture forbids and makes impossible this strange legend – which is in fact a flat denial of the Biblical account”.16Spiegel suggests that the variant rendition of the Akedah may stem from Judaism’s contest with Christianity, whereby Jewish apologists built on legends and superstitions to make the Akedah a more equal counterpoint to the story of the Cross.

‘The ancient argument was not silenced, that at the Akedah there had been no consummation of the act … in Christian kingdoms, in the Middle Ages, when the taunt was frequently directed against Israel that the Akedah was no sacrifice in truth, but only a hint of what was to come, the completed act in the days of Jesus.’ 17

Spiegel’s thesis is supported by statements such as the one quoted below from theGenesis Rabba, in which the allusion to the seminal event of Christianity is much too stark to be unintentional:

And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering, and put it on his son Isaac (Genesis 22:6) – like one bearing his own cross. 18

For the same reason, Isaac would later become identified with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgression, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off from the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. (Isaiah 53:4-8)

Whereas the sages originally understood Isaiah’s prophecy as looking back to the Akedah for its analogy, but then applying it forward as typology to a future event, claiming thus that “our Rabbis, with one voice, accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of King Messiah,” 19 Isaac must now be rendered – in the face of the Christian challenge – as the consummate reality of this prophecy, with the blood of successive generations of Jewish martyrs simply adding to and perfecting the merit of his Akedah.

Let [the blood of the martyrs] atone for Jacob’s iniquity … If for one offering You granted grace, all the more for these You will pardon inquity! 20

It is this association of Father Isaac with Isaiah’s prophecy that certain of the literature on the Akedah is at pains to establish, affirming of Isaac that: he threw himself down before his father like a sheep that is sacrificed 21 (compare Isaiah 53:7); and referring to Isaac also as that sheep who bound on the altar bared his throat for the sake of Thy Name22

So, too, the allusion in Rabbi Ephraim’s Akedah poem :

(The father) seized him to slaughter him once more.
Scripture bears witness! Well grounded is the fact.

“Which scripture?” Jewish scholarship has repeatedly asked, since the Genesis account contradicts Rabbi Ephraim’s claim. But it is surely Isaiah 53 to which Rabbi Ephraim refers!

This ‘reverse substitution’, i.e. Isaac for the ram, the redeemed for the redeemer, has this implication in relation to the Biblical account of the Akedah: if the ‘Christian’ Messiah was indeed the ultimate substitute foreshadowed by the ram, it follows that the rejection of him would place the generations of Isaac perpetually on the altar. In the absence of the ram, Isaac is the sacrifice! And thus in Isaac – as the progenitor of Israel – the entire Jewish race! It is from this perspective that Rabbi Eliyya da Vidas proposed:

The meaning of ‘He was wounded for our transgressions … bruised for our iniquities’ is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of his being bruised, if follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.

Although few may concede to such a startling conclusion, could it be that the Jew’s heroic response to martyrdom and his continuing obsession with the suffering and sacrifice of his people is born from a subliminal acceptance of Rabbi da Vidas’ proposition?

To this end, it became necessary to hold that Isaac poured out his blood at the Akedah, as Jews continue to do throughout history.

‘Saved by the blood’

And they came to the place which God had named to him; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order; and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing to him: for now I know that you fear God, seeing thou hast not withheld from me thy son, thy only son. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. (Genesis 22:9-13)

The land of Moriah is confirmed in Scripture as the general area in which the Temple was later to be located (2 Chronicles 3:1). The name Moriah (מריה) was linked by the sages to the word temurah meaning “substitute or exchange”. Thus it is generally acknowledged:

‘… had it not been for this substitute that God provided in the place of Abraham’s son, Isaac would never have had offspring, nor could the covenant and the promise have been fulfilled’ 23

The Jerushalmi Ta’anit equates the redemption of Isaac with that of the entire race:

‘For it is through Isaac that offspring will be continued for you’ … since Isaac was redeemed it is though all Israel had been redeemed.’24

The ram is thus considered a creature of very great importance, and is included by the Talmud in the list of things created on the very first Sabbath eve at twilight.25 Already there is a close correspondence with the Christian teaching that the Redeemer was appointed “before the foundations of the world,” “to die for us” (i.e. in place of the collective body of the redeemed).26  But the aggada extends the parallel by teaching also that after its death, the ram was resurrected and restored to life!

… the Holy One, blessed be He, restored it to its original state.27

The redemption wrought through the Akedah is moreover attributed to the fact that the death of the surrogate is imputed to Isaac (and through him, as stated previously, “to all Israel”).28 In the words of Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat,

Although Isaac did not die, Scripture accounts it to him as though he had died and his ashes lay on top of the altar.

Imputed death brings us once again dangerously close to New Testament theology. Since “the consequence of sin is death”, and since Torah is only binding on a man as long as he lives, Christianity concludes that the substitutionary death pays the penalty for sin and that those Jews to whom Messiah’s death is thus imputed are no longer under Torah.29 Rabbi Yochanan said: What is the meaning of the verse (Psalm. 88:6), “Among the dead, free”? When a person is dead he is free of the mitzvot (commandments).30

Judaism also teaches imputed righteousness as the corollary of imputed death:

‘Whenever the children of Isaac sin and as a result come into distress, let there be recalled to their credit the Akedah of Isaac and let it be regarded by Thee as though his ashes were heaped up on top of the altar, and do Thou forgive them and redeem them from their distress.’ 31

This concurs with the Talmudic teaching that “the death of the righteous acts as an atonement” 32 and corresponds in the New Testament with “God made him who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 33

Consider further that the imputed righteousness taught by Judaism is not for the Jew only, but extends – as in Christian doctrine – to all nations.

‘The very day that Father Abraham put up his son Isaac on top of the altar, the Holy One, blessed be He, instituted the two lambs, the one for morning and the one for twilight. And to what end? So that at the hour that Israel offer up the tamid (perpetual sacrifice in the Temple) … the Holy One, blessed be He, might recall the Akedah of Isaac the son of Abraham. I summon heaven and earth as my witness! When Gentile or Jew, man or woman, male or female slave, recite this verse … the Holy One, blessed be He, recalls the Akedah of Isaac ben Avraham.’ 34

As in Christianity, a single act of redemption is invested with an enduring effect through all generations:

… as long as Israel make mention of Isaac’s Akedah before Him, [may] it continue to serve as an atonement for them … 35

Thus when God sent the destroying angel upon Jerusalem in the days of David, it is written that “as he was about to destroy, the Lord beheld, and He repented of the evil, and said to the destroying angel: It is enough; now stay thy hand”.

Berakot 62b (in the Babylonian Talmud) discusses what it was that God ‘beheld’“Said Rab: He beheld Father Jacob … and Samuel said: It was the ashes of Isaac He beheld, as is said (Genesis 22:8), “God will for Himself behold the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

The same view as Samuel’s is held by the Aramaic Targum 36 and is ultimately expressed in the Mekilta of Rabbi Ishmael:

‘”When he was about to destroy, the Lord beheld”. What did he behold? He beheld the blood at the Akedah of Isaac.’ 37

Even now, on account of this merit, it is said:

When you appear on trial before Me on Rosh ha-Shanah, come with the shofar [the horn of the shofar representing the horn of Isaac’s substitionary ram]. Then even if there are many accusers against you, I shall recall Isaac’s Akedah and acquit you. 38

To be saved by the atoning blood of a redeemer is thus a firmly established tenet within the orthodox religion of the Jews. It is only the identity of the redeemer that is at stake.

The LORD will provide (Adonai-yire) and the promise of salvation

And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-yireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it will be provided. (Genesis 22:14)

What remains to be answered, is whether Judaism is entirely satisfied with the ram of history, or whether there is evidence of a future hope, whereby the ram continues to be understood prophetically, as type or prototype of a redeemer yet to come?

It has been said that the “conviction … at the heart of the Midrash at all time [is that] the Scriptures are not only a record of the past but a prophecy, a foreshadowing and foretelling, of what will come to pass.” 39 In the same Spirit it was said that “Every one of the prophets prophesied only of the Messianic Age” 40

It is also evident that certain Rabbinic sources associate the Akedah with the Passover and with future redemption.

‘When the Holy One, blessed is He, chose His world, He also fixed for Himself an order of new moons and years. And when He chose Jacob and his sons, he fixed for Himself the new moon of Redemption, in which Israel were redeemed from Egypt and in which they will be redeemed in the future, for as it is said (Micah 7:15), “As in the days of thy coming forth out of the land of Egypt, I will yet show unto him marvellous things”; and in this month Isaac was born, and in it he was brought to the Akedah.’ 41

In the Exodus Rabba the connection between the Akedah and the Passover is clearly made. The Pascal lamb at the time of Moses is simply the familial equivalent of the generic ram of earlier history, i.e. the substitute provided for Isaac – bringing the redemption home at the level of the family.

The original Passover instruction was given:

‘Speak ye to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house … And ye shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side-posts, and on the upper door-post of the houses, in which they shall eat it.’ (Exodus 12:3-7)

Even the three day intermission prescribed between the selection of the lamb and its slaughter is reminiscent of the three day journey to the Akedah.

The prophet Zechariah also associates a future Akedah with the Passover.

And they will look to me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son, and will grieve bitterly for him, as one grieves for his firstborn … And the land shall mourn, every family apart … All the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart (Zechariah 12:11-14).

In this prophecy, “only child” (היחיד) and “firstborn” (הבכור) are reminiscent of Isaac, and the segregation of Israel into families clearly alludes to the celebration of the Passover.

With reference to this passage Sukkat 52a states,

‘It is well according to him who explains that the cause (of the mourning) is the slaying of the Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scripture verse: ‘And they shall look upon me, whom they have pierced: and shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son.’’ 42

On the basis of these authorities, there continues to this day a school within Judaism which expects a suffering Messiah (but not the Christian Messiah) to complete God’s redemptive work.

And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold, behind him a ram …

The Palestinian sages claimed, when Abraham lifted his eyes, that he looked to the end of days, and –

‘… said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Father Abraham … after many generations, in the future your children will be caught in sins and entangled in all kinds of distress; but in the end they will be redeemed.’ 43

‘And because He responded to Abraham on Mount Moriah and Isaac was redeemed, for there by God’s will they were provided with a living creature as a sacrifice in place of the son, Abraham called the place by the name Adonai-yire, that is to say, the Lord will see to substitute … He will find the appropriate ransom – as if to say, This is the place destined for salvation and here the Lord in His graciousness will make Himself available to those who call upon Him.’ 44

“On the Mount of the Lord it will be seen” was once a popular saying in Judaism. But what is it that must yet appear on the Mount of the Lord? Where according to history and Christian testimony, “also our Lord was crucified”? 45

We must conclude with the words of Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra: 46

‘If you will use your wits, etc. “On the mountain of the Lord there will appear,” etc. you will recognize the truth.’


1. The Akedah, lines 34-36. Published in Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, Pantheon Books, New York, 1967, p.146, translated by Judah Goldin.
2. By virtue of its correlation with nephesh in Psalm. 22:21. Spiegel, op. cit. p. 72.
3. Rabbi Kalonymos bar Judah, The Akeda, line 20.
4. op. cit. line 45.
5. 56:4; Yalkut f.98; cited in Spiegel, op. cit. p. 104.
6. Rom ch.4, inter alia.
7. Spiegel, op. cit. p. 111.
8. ibid. pp.30 et seq.
9. The ‘Resurrection of the Dead’ Benediction in the Shemoneh Esreh Prayer.
10. Spiegel, op. cit. p.28; Sefer ha-Eshkol, by R. Abraham of Narbonne, ed. S. and H. Albeck, part I, p.27.
11. Zohar, Noah periscope, Tosefta 60a. Cited in Spiegel, op. cit. p.33.
12. Hebrews 11:19
13. Spiegel, op. cit.
14. See the sources quoted in part (v) below.
15. Va-Yera (Maggid, Toledot).
16. Spiegel, op. cit. p.8.
17. Spiegel, op. cit. p.129.
18. Genesis Rabba 56.3. Cf. Pesikta Rabbati ch. 31, 143b.
19. Rabbi Moshe al Sheikh (Alshech).
20. R. Joel bar Isaac he-Levi of Bonn, Akedah. Cited in Spiegel, op. cit. p.27.
21. Leviticus Rabba 2:10.
22. Targum Yonathan and Targum Jerushalmi on Leviticus 22:27.
23. Spiegel, op. cit. p.38.
24. 2:4, 65d. Cited in Spiegel, op. cit. at p.38.
25. Avot 5:6; Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 54a.
26. Jn 17:5; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:20; Rom 5:8. Cf. Micah 5:1-2
27. R. Bahya on Exodus 19:13. See also the other sources cited by Spiegel, op. cit. p.38 at n.4. Compare the beliefs of Lubavitch in relation to Rebbe Schneerson.
28. Sefer ha-Yashar, p.81 and other sources quoted by Spiegel, op. cit. p.41.
29. Rom 6:23; Rom 7:4; Gal 2:19-21.
30. Babylonian Talmud Niddah 61a.
31. Tanhuma, Va-Yera, 23.
32. Mo’ed Katan 28a. Cf. Jerushalmi Yoma 1:1, 38b.
33. 2 Cor 5:21.
34. Seder Eliyahu Rabba, ed. Friedmann, p.36. Cited by Spiegel op. cit. p.74 with other sources.
35. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, part V, p.157. Cited by Spiegel, op. cit. p.42 at n.18.
36. Spiegel, op. cit. p.43.
37. Mekilta, Bo 7 & 12, ed. Friedmann.
38. Spiegel op.cit. p.92; Peskta Rabbati, 167a.
39. J Golden, Introduction in Spiegel, op. cit. p.(xvi).
40. Babylonian Talmud Berakot 34b.
41. Exodus Rabba 15:11.
42. As Rashi and other of the later Rabbis also confirm, i.e. that the Sages of old interpreted this verse as referring to Messiah son of Joseph.
43. Jerushalmi Ta’anit 2:4, 65d and Genesis Rabba 56:9. See additional sources in Spiegel, op. cit. p.98 at n.82.
44. Spiegel, op. cit. p.68.
45. Rev 11:8.
46. Spiegel, op. cit.