Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In a bind about the Akeidah

First of all - sorry about the title.

This post happened because of a line in some article online. The writer mentioned in passing that his co-worker, a "modern" Egyptian told him that the feast at the end of Ramadan is to celebrate the aborted sacrifice of Ishmael by Abraham.

When I read this, I was not completely taken aback, because I remembered hearing this sometime a while back. But for some reason I decided to look into it a little more.

The belief that Ishmael is the son that was meant to be sacrificed comes from the Muslim equivalent of Midrash, and is not explicitly mentioned in the Koran, and there is some disagreement between the Muslim theologians of whether it is Isaac or Ishmael who is bound, however, Ishmael seems to be the dominant opinion. The key reasons for this belief seem to be the phrase "your only son" in the Torah. The Muslims argue that since Isaac was not the only son, the verse must refer to Ishmael. The fact that Isaac is named explicitly in the Torah is explained away by tahrif, the belief that the Jews corrupted the Torah to further their interests. They support this idea of corruption by citing, among others, Jeremiah 8:8
"How can you say, "We are wise,
for we have the law of the LORD,"
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?
[For those interested in the whole back and forth argument, which is just as spirited as anything you'll find on XGH or DovBear, feel free to visit the answering-islam and answering-christianity websites.]

Obviously the notion of God asking you to sacrifice your only child is so jarring that the meaning of the akeidah has been debated for thousands of years and reinterpreted many times from Midrash to Kierkegaard. Wikipedia mentions Chassidic interepretations that change the meaning of the episode from a "test" of Abraham to a "punishment" for sending Ishmael and Hagar away into the desert. In the Koranic version of the Akeidah, Abraham reveals his plan to Ishmael who willingly submits to his destiny - hence the test of faith is for both the father and the son, consistent with the idea of submission to God's will (Islam means "submission" in Arabic).

For Christians, of course, the idea of the Akeidah is a foreshadowing of God sacrificing his only son through the Crucifixion, even to the point of Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice foreshadowing Jesus carrying the cross. Interestingly enough, there are Jewish traditions of Isaac actually being sacrificed and then resurrected. It is hard to say what the intent of these "unorthodox" traditions was.


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