Believers have always pointed to Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac, as a typological foreshadowing of the Messiah's passion and resurrection. The parallels seem obvious enough. Here is an only begotten, promised, son of his father who goes to be sacrificed by his father in the place that will be Jerusalem. It is a foreshadowing of the Gospel. That is the Christian reading of the story. But what about the Jewish reading of this story?
Judaism calls the story of Genesis 22 the Akedah. Seven days a week, twelve months a year, the story of the Akedah is read and prayed over in the morning prayer service. It is also the second Torah reading for Rosh HaShanna and, of course, it occurs once in the regular cycle. All together, that makes a total of 367 times a year that the devoutly observant Jew reads this story! No other Scripture narrative is so often read, recited and prayed over as Genesis 22.
Is there a reason? Is the Torah trying to tell us something?
The Parable of the Lost Parable
When commenting on the Akedah of Isaac in Genesis 22 the writer of the book of Hebrews makes a strange allusion to an unknown parable. He says,
"By faith, being tested, Abraham offered up Isaac . . . reckoning that God was able to raise him from the dead; from where indeed he obtained him in a parable." (Hebrews 11:17-19, Hendrickson Literal Translation)
What parable are we talking about here? In what parable did Abraham obtain Isaac from the dead? The answer is not to be found within the cannon of Scripture. There is no such parable among the stories of Yeshua or in Christian literature at all. So uncomfortable is this lost allusion that the translators of the NIV render the passage as follows:
"Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death."
By obscuring the translation with the phrase, figuratively speaking the NIV smoothes the verse out. We are no longer left wondering, "What parable is he talking about." That's too bad, because the parable still exists in several versions. It has been preserved for us and transmitted to us by the ancient Jewish commentaries on the Scriptures, that is the Midrash, and indeed, the Hebrew word for this kind of parable is midrash.
The Death and Resurrection of Isaac
According to our lost parable, that is the midrashic version of the Akedah, Isaac died on the altar. As soon as Abraham's knife reached Isaac's neck, his soul departed. Even if only for a short instant, Isaac died. Then when the Angel of the LORD called out to Abraham, staying his hand, Isaac's soul was returned to him. It's right there in the midrash. It's a parable. A story. Figuratively speaking or not, that's the parable from which Abraham obtained Isaac back from the dead.
R. Judah says: When the sword touched Isaac's throat his soul flew clean out of him. And when He let His voice be heard from between the cherubim, "Lay not thy hand upon the lad." The lad's soul was returned to his body. Then his father unbound him and Isaac rose, knowing that in this way the dead would come back to life in the future; whereupon he began to recite, "Blessed are You, LORD, who resurrects the dead." (Pirkei Rabbi Elieazer)
Because Jewish tradition and the Rabbinic writings treat Isaac as if he actually did die upon the altar, Isaac became an early symbol for resurrection. The Midrash goes on to further emphasize the connection between Isaac, his Akedah and resurrection, even going so far as to state that on Isaac's merit, all the dead will be resurrected in the future.
By virtue of Isaac who offered himself as a sacrifice on top of the altar, the Holy One blessed be He, will resurrect the dead in the future, as it is said, "To hear the groaning of him who is bound; to open up release for the offspring appointed to death." (Psalm 102:21) "Him who is bound" is interpreted as Isaac bound on top of the altar. "To open up release for the offspring appointed to death" [is interpreted] as the dead whose graves the Holy One, blessed be He, will open up so that He may set them on their feet in the Age to Come. (Mekilta Simeon)
In addition to these, the choice of haftarah to accompany Genesis 22 is also very telling. The haftarah reading from the prophets always compliments and sometimes restates the week's Torah reading. The haftarah for Genesis 22 is the story of the death of the Shunnamite's son and his miraculous resurrection at Elisha's hand. (2nd Kings 4:1-37)
The concept of Isaac's death and resurrection was so well established in the sage's minds that the story of the Shunnamite's son seemed like a natural choice to reflect the Akedah of Isaac. Both stories were about boys prophetically promised to barren women who subsequently died and were miraculously restored. To the sages that developed our reading schedules, the story of the resurrection of the Shunnamite's son was the obvious choice to compliment the story of the Akedah of Isaac because they believed that Isaac had died and come back to life.
But did Isaac really die? Probably not, but it is definitely a concept well cemented in the early traditions and parables of Rabbinic Judaism. The parable to which the writer of Hebrews referred is almost certainly the same midrashic tradition we have just cited. He must have been aware of the parable of Isaac's death and resurrection, and he must have been confident that his readership was also equally well versed in midrash in order to catch what would otherwise be a very obscure reference. That the writer and readers of the epistle were familiar with this particular midrash should not surprise us. The authors of the New Testament were, after all, Jewish men who had learned the Scriptures from within a thoroughly Jewish context.
The Two Trumpets
There are plenty more parables where that one came from. For example, in the Midrash we learn some things about Abraham's mysterious ram which was caught by its horns. The midrash claims that the two horns of the ram became the two trumpets, that is shofarot, of God.
The shofar blown at mount Sinai, when the Torah was given, came from the ram which had been sacrificed in place of Isaac. The left horn was blown for a shofar at Mount Sinai and its right horn will be blown to herald the coming of Moshiach. The right horn was larger than the left, and thus concerning the days of Moshicah it is written,'on that day, a great shofar will be blown.' (Tz'enah Urenah)
But wait! There is a problem with the idea that the shofarot of Sinai and Messiah come from Isaac's ram. Rabbi Bechaye points this out as he asks, "Was not the ram burnt as a burnt offering together with its horns, skin and flesh? How could this be the source of the shofar that was blown on Mount Sinai?" It is a literal objection from a Rabbi who takes things very literally. But in the same source he goes on to answer his own question saying, "The answer is that God created a new ram out of the ashes." How can the horn from Isaac's ram be the horn that will herald the Messiah when that ram was completely burned? The answer is simple. The Ram was resurrected.
Speaking of Abraham's ram, there is an interesting textual problem around the description of this ram. It is an anomalous grammatical form in verse 13 which has caused many a Rabbi to scratch his head. The verse literally reads, "And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold a ram after caught in the thicket . . ." The Hebrew word rxa "achar" is best translated as after. Its appearance in the text here seems somewhat clumsy and misplaced. In order to explain this, several possible interpretations have been made. The most widely accepted is the KJV, which renders the sentence, ". . . and behold, behind him, a ram caught in a thicket."
The sages struggle with the word. Does it mean the ram was behind Abraham? One commentator suggests that it means that the ram was caught in the thicket only after Abraham saw it. Another says that it was after the proceeding events that Abraham saw the ram. Still another opinion has it that Abraham saw the achareit yomim, "the last days." There are still other explanations, and all of them are possible, but none seem completely satisfactory. The question is, "Where and when did Abraham see the ram?" More literally, the construction of the sentence implies that he saw the lamb "afterwards." Some believers have suggested that perhaps it is a reference to a prophetic vision. Perhaps what is being implied is that when Abraham looked up, he saw not only this ram caught in the thicket, but he saw a future sacrifice, one that would come long after his day.
Where did and when did Abraham see the ram? Yeshua makes a statement about what Abraham saw. He says in the Gospel of John: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad." (John 8:5-6)
What did Abraham see? Perhaps he saw the Lamb provided by God.
It is recorded for us in the Mishnah (Avot 5:6) that this particular ram was created for this purpose since the first days of creation. In other words, Isaac's ram was prepared for sacrifice since the foundation of the world. In the same way, Peter described the Master as "a lamb without blemish or defect, chosen before the creation of the world." (1st Peter 1:19-20)
The Ascension and Second Coming of Isaac
There are more parables and stories around the Akedah. The Midrash is full of them. Some are well known and remembered even today. Some are more obscure. For example, consider the manner in which the midrash attempts to resolve the question of Isaac's absence at the end of the Genesis narrative. The Torah reads thus:
"So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba." (Genesis 22:19)
In the same stark, simple language with which it began, the Torah concludes the story of Akedah by stating that Abraham returned to his servants and they went together to Beersheba. Conspicuously absent is Isaac. Why does the Torah not say, "Abraham and Isaac returned . . ." Twice previously the Torah emphatically stated that Abraham and Isaac went together. But here, at the conclusion of the passage, Abraham returns alone. Isaac is not seen in the Torah again until he meets his bride, Rebekah.
Two contradicting traditions explain Isaac's absence. The most widely accepted and well known explanation is that Isaac remained in Salem to study under Melchizedek. However, there is another tradition which explains his absence as follows:
And Isaac, Where was he? The Holy One, blessed be He, brought him into the Garden of Eden, and there he stayed three years . (Midrash Hagadol)
After the sacrifice on Mount Moriah, Abraham returned to Beer-Sheba, the scene of so many of his joys. Isaac was carried to Paradise by angels, and there he sojourned for three years. Thus Abraham returned home alone. (Ginzberg)
In this version of the story, Isaac ascends into heaven following the Akedah. Absurd and preposterous as this parable may sound, we are again reminded of another Biblical character who met a similar appointment in Salem. He was bound, sacrificed and resurrected, and then ascended to heaven.
Consider one, last, lost parable. This one is a midrash on Genesis 24:62-64 in which Isaac is depicted as descending from heaven to claim his bride:
"And Isaac came from the way of Beer-le-hai-roi . . . And Isaac went out . . ." From where did he go out? From Paradise. No wonder Rebekah lost her equilibrium as it says "and she fell from the camel" -for what she perceived was Isaac coming down from Paradise . . ." (Minchat Yehudah)
So much for the Jewish reading of the story. At least in the version of the Akedah presented by this collection of parables, the Jewish reading sounds more Christian than the Christian reading of the story. How is that possible? Is it possible that the Torah is trying to suggest something to her people?
The Hands and Feet of Isaac
Incidentally, what does the word Akedah mean? The word is actually derived from the Hebrew verb akod translated as "bound" in verse nine. It is an unusual word. Akod literally means "ringed" or "striped." Rashi explains that the use of this verb refers to the stripe-like marks left by ropes on the ankles and wrists of a person who is tied hand and foot. A person bound in this manner would bear the impression of the ropes on their skin. It is from this particular verb, akod, that we derive the word Akedah. Therefore, the entire story is named after the marks left on Isaac's body.
Even the skeptic will have to admit that the Messianic foreshadowing, down to the choice of a single word, is astounding. Was it not Yeshua who was bound for sacrifice in such manner that his wrists and ankles were marked, even scarred for all eternity?
Maybe the Torah is trying to tell us something.