According to one of the most famous Biblical stories, God tested Abraham by instructing him offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. Abraham obeyed; he took Isaac up a mountain, gathered wood, bound his son, and was only prevented from killing him by divine intervention. A ram was provided in Isaac’s stead and everyone, expect the ram, went home relieved. But now, archeologists have discovered and published an ancient version of the story in which Isaac actually died.
The unhappy ending to the Isaac story, first reported by Live Science and originally translated by University of Oxford scholar Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, was found on a 1,500 year old piece of papyrus. The papyrus was discovered in 1934 near the pyramid of Pharaoh Senwosret I, and is owned by the Metropolitan museum. It is written in Coptic (the latest form of ancient Egyptian) and refers on numerous occasions to God as “the one who presides over the Mountain of the Murderer.” In contrast to the biblical account, Zellman-Rohrer says, the papyrus describes the binding of Isaac story as if the sacrifice actually occurred. He told LiveScience, “the tradition of a literal sacrifice seems in fact to have been rather widespread.”
All of which raises the question, which version of the story is oldest?
This might, at first blush, seem like an easy question to answer. After all the book of Genesis is a lot older than this Christian era manuscript. And there are plenty of stories about the adventures of Isaac after he came down the mountain. But this intriguing new find is not the only ancient document to suggest that Isaac died on Mount Moriah. As Harvard professor Jon Levenson has argued in his book, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, there is a rabbinic text that seems to suggest that Isaac died. Why would people in the ancient world have thought this? Well, in Genesis 22, after the ram is sacrificed, only Abraham is mentioned as going down the mountain. There is no reference to the recently imperiled Isaac.
This has led some scholars to argue that the version of Genesis 22 found in our Bibles was originally put together from more than one source. In at least one of those, the argument goes, Isaac ended up dying. As the stories were woven together, the death of Isaac dropped out of the official version. Liane Marquis Feldman, an incoming assistant professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, told The Daily Beast that in general “human sacrifice in the Pentateuch, at least, is completely at odds with the way the [ancient Israelite] sacrificial system is set up. It’s really about the purification of the temple, and human sacrifices don’t accomplish that goal.”
The story about the near-sacrifice or binding of Isaac is one of the most influential in the Bible. Among Christians this moment is seen as a prefiguration of the actual death of Jesus. In the Gospels, at his baptism, a heavenly voice singles Jesus out by saying “this is my beloved son.” The same phrase “beloved son” is used when God directs Abraham to take his son Isaac (presumably to distinguish Isaac from Abraham’s other son Ishmael). The parallelism between the two stories is one of the reasons that Christian artwork will sometimes place the binding of Isaac story and the story of Jesus’ crucifixion alongside one another. One might imagine that theologically speaking the parallel would be better if Isaac had actually died.
That said it is very possible that we are reading too much into this text. David Frankfurter, William Goodwin Aurelio Chair of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University
and a specialist in Coptic magical texts, told me that “ the term ‘Mountain of the Murderer’ doesn’t necessarily mean the site of the [binding of Isaac] – Coptic ritual texts use all sorts of arcane allusions, often made up ad-hoc.” This text, he added, “belongs to a period of creative Christian monks imagining formulas, names, and images that might draw down the powers of heaven. Because monks were well-versed in the Old Testament and venerated heroes like Abraham and Elijah, often to the exclusion of Paul and Jesus, it is not surprising that such a manuscript would have the characteristics in this Metropolitan Museum artifact.”
It seems unlikely, therefore, that Abraham actually killed Isaac. But this doesn’t exonerate the Bible. As Brandeis scholar Jacqueline Vayntrub told me, for all of the scandal this text elicits, we don’t have to turn to papyri or reconstructions of the Genesis story to find human sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible. In Judges 11, she said, Jephthah makes a vow to God that if he is victorious over the Ammonites he will sacrifice “whatever comes out of the house to meet him” when he first returns home. His nameless daughter is the first to appear and while her death is not explicitly described the Bible concludes that “he fulfilled his vow.” Is it possible to argue that Jephthah didn’t kill her? It is possible. But it’s not the most obvious reading, leading Vayntrub to ask, “Why is that story not already scandalous to us?”