By Harriet P. Gross
The only time Abraham ever spoke directly to Isaac — at least in the Bible — was when father gave directions to son, making it pretty clear that some not-nice things were about to follow.
So said Jon D. Levenson, Ph.D., Jewish studies professor in Harvard’s Divinity School, delivering his recent Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Lecture at Southern Methodist University.
Its full title was “The Binding of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Jesus.” Now, at the end of Passover, with Easter already over, seems a good time to review what he has given us to think about.
I’m used to Christians harking back to Isaiah for validation of their belief that Jesus is a “hidden” presence whose later coming is actually foretold in Torah. But Dr. Levenson examined something else: a lesser-noted comparison of Isaac’s near-sacrifice to Jesus’ actual death.
We associate the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, with the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when Genesis 22:1-24 is our Torah reading. “God promised Abraham that he’d be father of a great nation,” Levenson reminded us. But what would happen to that promised “great nation” if Isaac actually died as a sacrifice? He had to be saved, or there’d be no more to our story!
In Exodus, God tells the Israelites that their every firstborn male must be redeemed by sacrifice. This may sound like, but isn’t the same as, the pidyon haben, which redeems baby boys from priestly service with a few silver coins. The redemption in Exodus is the saving of Hebrew firstborns’ lives through the sacrifice of a lamb, whose blood — spread on the lintels and doorposts of the slaves’ Egyptian homes — becomes our symbol of their redemption. It is foreshadowed in Genesis, when Isaac is redeemed with the offering of a ram — like the lamb, a member of the sheep family.
Both stories, Levenson emphasized, derive from the same underlying ritual. In Genesis, a ram substitutes for a son. In Exodus, a lamb saves many sons. And later, for Christians, Jesus’ crucifixion becomes a symbol of one sacrifice for many redemptions. The paschal lamb was our ancient sacrifice. A sacrificial lamb saved the Israelites in Egypt. And Christians today often refer to Jesus as “the lamb of God.”
So far, pretty standard stuff. But now come some matters that were new to me, at least. Isaac couldn’t have been the child we see illustrated in kids’ Sunday school story books, the trusting young boy holding his dad’s hand. He had to be old enough to know about sacrifice, and to believe in it, because a Talmudic discourse gives us this: “At the time that Abraham sought to bind Isaac, his son said to him, ‘I am a young man, and I am afraid that my body might flinch from fear of the knife, and I will cause you distress, and the slaughter will be invalid and thus not count for you as a sacrifice. So bind me very tightly.’”
The Talmud pegs Isaac’s age as 37, and Levenson asks us this question: “Could anybody tie up a man 37 years old except with his consent?” Isaac not only recognized what was happening, he accepted it, and actually warned his father not to let his own inadvertent movements ruin the precision required in sacrificial cutting (and still required today in kosher slaughter of animals for food, another kind of “sacrifice”).
Christians also recognize the requirement of sacrificial perfection. The New Testament notes that the legs of Jesus’ two crucifixion “companions” were broken when they were taken down from their crosses. But not his. Exodus requires that no bone of the paschal lamb can be broken; the apostle John says “These things took place that scripture might be fulfilled,” another foreshadowing similar to what’s so often read into Isaiah.
Levenson’s message: Isaac is the prototype of the Jewish martyr who shows devotion by being a willing participant in his own destruction, who obeys God even to death. And Christians echo this in the Book of Maccabees: “Remember, it is for God’s sake you were given a share in the world and the benefit of life, and accordingly you owe it to God to endure all the hardship for his sake….”
Now I remember Hannah and her seven sons, whom I usually think of only at Chanukah, willingly giving up their lives for the sake of their beliefs, and our Holocaust martyrs, who sang “and still I believe” even as they went to their deaths. Levenson’s lecture also sharpens my recall of the primitive painting above the altar of Rome’s ancient St. Clement’s Church, where a sheep with the face of Jesus leads a flock of lamb-like disciples to holy slaughter.
By Harriet P. Gross