Caravaggio's view of the Binding of Isaac (C.1601-2)
The sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most tragic episodes of the Hebrew Bible. After miraculously granting a son to a centenarian and to a hitherto sterile 90-year-old woman, the capricious Deity orders Abraham to kill his offspring. Abraham unhesitatingly obeys without revealing the divine command to his wife or his son.
Having no idea where the event is to take place, except that it must be in the region of Mount Moriah, he embarks on a trek with Isaac. On the third day of the trek, he sees the mountain from afar. Father and son carry the wood, the fire and the knife for the sacrifice while Abraham reassures the curious boy that God will provide the sacrificial lamb. On the mountaintop, he makes ready for the deed, binding Isaac on the altar. But just as he is about to plunge the knife into Isaac, an angel suddenly intervenes and substitutes a ram for the child.
What did ancient Jewish Bible interpretation deduce from this account? Two explanations have been preserved. One is contained in the Palestinian Targum (Aramaic translation of the Bible) and the other in the Talmud, a collection of legal rules mixed with Scripture interpretation, and Midrash consisting of scriptural exegesis with illustrative stories.
The targumic account of the sacrifice or Binding (Aqedah) of Isaac comprises five significant peculiarities:
(1) Isaac learns from his father that he will be the victim. Instead of the biblical wording (Gen 22:8), the Targumist writes: "The Word of the Lord shall prepare a lamb for himself, but if not, my son, you will be the burnt offering."
(2) Isaac is no longer a child.
(3) He willingly accepts his role and begs his father to bind him. "Bind my hands properly that I may not struggle in the time of my pain and disturb you and render your offering unfit."
(4) He is granted a heavenly vision. "Abraham's eyes were fixed on the eyes of Isaac, but the eyes of Isaac turned to the angels of heaven. Isaac saw them but Abraham did not see them. In that hour the angels of heaven said to each other, ‘Let us go and see the only two just men in the world. The one slays and the other is being slain. The slayer does not hesitate and the one being slain stretches out his neck.'"
(5) After sacrificing the ram, Abraham prays that his obedience and his son's self-sacrifice may benefit Isaac's descendants. "I pray before you, O Lord God, that when the children of Isaac come to a time of distress, you may remember on their behalf the binding of Isaac, their father, and loose and forgive them their sins... so that the generations which follow may say: On the mountain of the Temple of the Lord Abraham offered Isaac his son, and on the mountain of the Temple the glory of the Presence of God was revealed to Isaac."
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