‘Binding of Isaac’ Focus of FARMS Conference, Lecture

Akedah Conference
Genesis 22 records that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac upon an altar but intervened at the last moment, providing instead a ram for the actual sacrifice and greatly blessing Abraham for passing what has come to be viewed as the ultimate test of obedience to God’s will. The account, simple enough in outline, is nevertheless seen by different religious traditions as profoundly symbolic and even enigmatic, its moral and religious implications having spawned numerous interpretations.

Known as the Akedah (Hebrew, “the binding”), this dramatic episode is of central importance to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It is of no less consequence to Latter-day Saint Christians, whose scriptural canon, though it does very little to elucidate the Akedah beyond what is known from the biblical account, supports that account while providing significant new revelation on Abraham’s ministry and stature in religious history in general.

Latter-day Saint researchers who have studied the Akedah shared their findings at a conference held at Brigham Young University on 6 March 2004. Sponsored by FARMS and BYU’s Religious Studies Center, the six-hour event titled “Genesis 22: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on the Binding of Isaac” began with a showing of the film Akedah (The Binding) and then featured 14 presentations in five sessions.

In opening remarks, Brian M. Hauglid, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU, noted that Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke of “relevance in antiquity” and that the clear relevance of the Akedah was that Abraham’s obedience to God in the near sacrifice of Isaac is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Son of God (Jacob 4:5). From that common ground, the presenters probed the Akedah from many angles, illustrating the truth of Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham’s observation (quoted by David Bokovoy in the first session) that “no other episode in the Old Testament can match the sacrifice of Isaac in its haunting beauty or theological depth.”

Topics included art, archaeology, and Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Akedah. The contributors were David Bokovoy, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, E. Douglas Clark (his paper was read by his brother), David C. Dollahite, Blair Van Dyke, John Gee, Jared M. Halverson, Amy Hardison, Kristian Heal, Jared Ludlow, Daniel B. McKinlay, Stephen D. Ricks (with Michael Lyon), John S. Thompson, John A. Tvedtnes, and Camille S. Williams.

James Kugel Lecture
A week after the conference, world-renowned biblical scholar James Kugel gave a lecture at BYU on “The Angels That Wept at the Binding of Isaac: Some Reflections on a Curious Text from the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Formerly the Harry Starr Professor of Classical, Modern Jewish, and Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, Kugel is a professor of the Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He discussed how Abraham’s offering of Isaac is an example of a story transformed by ancient interpreters beginning in the third century bc. To preclude any mistake in how the missing Hebrew consonants should be read in a certain line in the account, the interpreters added “to everyone” in “I have made known to everyone that you [Abraham] are faithful to me [the Lord] in everything that I have told you”). The authors of the later Dead Sea Scrolls text 4Q225 Pseudo-Jubilees (written ca. 200 bc) found this interpolation unsatisfactory and emended the text so that everyone referred to angels–good ones who wept at the prospect of Isaac’s death upon the altar, and bad ones who rejoiced thinking that Abraham would prove false. These interpreters, Kugel argued, did not just solve textual problems, they transformed the Bible. Jewish traditions entered into Christianity via Jerome and Augustine, he said, and any conception of what the Bible is has to take into account the influences of ancient interpreters. The lecture was sponsored by FARMS and the Religious Studies Center.