Book review

When Abraham murdered Isaac

A young New York scholar believes he has unearthed the earliest version of the Bible, which features infanticide, a senseless massacre and only seven commandments

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Bible scholar Tzemah Yoreh questions the common telling of the binding of Isaac -- the version that inspired Caravaggio -- in which an angel stops Abraham moments before he sacrifices his son. (Photo credit: From Wikipedia)
Bible scholar Tzemah Yoreh questions the common telling of the binding of Isaac -- the version that inspired Caravaggio -- in which an angel stops Abraham moments before he sacrifices his son. (Photo credit: From Wikipedia)

NEW YORK — When he first came to believe he had discovered how the Biblical forefather Isaac died, Bible scholar Tzemah Yoreh says he went into mourning.

“I literally sat shiva for him, for the forefather I had lost, and for the Abraham who could perpetrate such a thing,” said Yoreh, who was then just 21.

The Biblical story we have inherited is not the original story, Yoreh believes. Using a variation of a well-known approach to Biblical scholarship, he sees hints of a bloodier version of Isaac’s binding that he finds too convincing to ignore.

In the earliest layer of the Biblical text, Yoreh believes, Isaac was not rescued by an angel at the last moment, but was in fact murdered by his father, Abraham, as a sacrifice to God.

One eye-opening hint at what he believes is the original story lies in Genesis 22:22. Previously, in verse 8, Abraham and Isaac had walked up the mountain together. But in verse 22, only Abraham returns.

“So Abraham returned unto his young men [waiting at the foot of the mountain], and they rose up and went together to Beersheba,” the text relates.

That strange contradiction, Yoreh says, may be why a few ancient midrashim, or rabbinic homilies, also assumed Isaac had been killed.

In one homily quoted by Rashi, the revered 11th-century French rabbi and commentator, “Isaac’s ashes are said to be suitable for repentance, just like the ashes of an [animal] sacrifice.”

“That’s a very weird midrash,” Yoreh says, “since Isaac is clearly alive in the next chapter. But that’s the way midrash works. It analyzes episodes without looking at the larger context. That’s why you can have midrashim about Isaac dying, because it doesn’t have to notice that he’s alive in the next chapter.”

There are many hints of Isaac’s untimely demise. The sacrifice story itself contains strange contradictions and clues that are best resolved, he believes, by assuming a very different, earlier narrative.

Tzemah Yoreh hopes his books will inspire fresh debate about how the Bible was assembled. (Courtesy of Tzemah Yoreh)
Tzemah Yoreh hopes his books will inspire fresh debate about how the Bible was assembled. (Courtesy of Tzemah Yoreh)

In verse 12, after staying Abraham’s knife-wielding hand in mid-air, the angel of God tells the father of monotheism, “I now know you fear God because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

That phrase, “have not withheld your son,” “could indicate Abraham was merely willing to sacrifice his son, or that he actually did so,” Yoreh says.

One hint that it may have been the latter is contained in the names for God used in the story. The Biblical text calls the God who instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son “Elohim.” Only when the “angel of God” leaps to Isaac’s rescue does God’s name suddenly change to the four-letter YHWH, a name Jews traditionally do not speak out loud.

Elohim commands the sacrifice; YHWH stops it. But it is once again Elohim who approves of Abraham for having “not withheld your son from me.”

These sorts of variations, rampant throughout the Bible, have led scholars to conclude that different names for God are used by different storylines and editors.

Indeed, Isaac is never again mentioned in an Elohim storyline. In fact, if you only read the parts of Isaac’s life that use the name Elohim, you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to see the story as one in which Isaac is killed in the sacrifice and disappears completely from the Biblical story.

“Not that the YHWH portions make much of an effort to bring him back to life either,” Yoreh notes. Indeed, Isaac seems to fade after the sacrifice, with his life story told in just one chapter, compared to more than a dozen chapters for both Abraham and Jacob.

Worse yet, Isaac’s chapter “is all recycled from Abraham’s life.” Just as Abraham signs a pact with the king Avimelech, so does Isaac. And just as Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister to avoid being killed by Avimelech, so does Isaac with his own wife, Rebecca.

“It’s hard to characterize [Isaac’s life after the sacrifice] as distinct stories,” says Yoreh. “They’re just repeated elements, a recycling of the material.”

In the earliest Biblical narrative, Yoreh believes, Isaac died that day on Mt. Moriah. Far from setting an example in which God intervenes to end human sacrifice, Abraham, the father of monotheism, is revealed as a man who can walk his own son to the altar and even wield the blade himself.

A Gentler Explanation

It’s not easy to produce new readings of a text that has been read, reread, deconstructed and reconstructed as many times and in as many ways as the Hebrew Bible. Then again, few texts have yielded as many layers and spurred as much intellectual innovation.

In a new book series titled “Kernel to Canon,” Yoreh, an Israeli-American dual citizen who now lives in New York, is attempting to add his own voice to the vast ancient bookshelf of Biblical commentary.

A surprisingly young 34, Yoreh’s love for the Bible has only grown since his discovery of what was hidden in its layers. He earned his PhD in Bible from Hebrew University in 2004, and has taught at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Ben-Gurion University, and elsewhere.

He knows 15 languages, 13 of them self-taught. They range from modern Italian and Dutch to Akkadian and Hellenistic-era Greek. He is an avid enthusiast of the invented language of Esperanto.

And the Bible is not a new love. He was the Diaspora champion of Israel’s prestigious International Bible Contest as a teenager.

His Bible commentaries (the second volume will be published next week) are audacious and surprising. Yet, in his search for the earliest layer of the Biblical story, a layer he describes in the title of his first book as simply “The First Book of God,” he is actually a more sympathetic critic of the Biblical text than most of his colleagues.

There is nothing new about scholars pointing out differences in vocabulary or style, or contradictions in the Biblical narrative, to attempt to sift out one historical author from another. Indeed, such observations make up much of what has been taught about the Bible in the Western world’s universities for the past two centuries.

In the past, scholars have used such techniques to suggest the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, is actually composed of four distinct documents stitched together by a later editor. This is called the documentary hypothesis.

As a teenager, Yoreh was the Diaspora champion of Israel’s prestigious International Bible Contest

But Yoreh offers a gentler explanation for how the Bible came to be.

“Imagine the Bible as an urn,” he writes in the introduction to “Jacob’s Journey,” his second book. “As a nascent Bible critic, I was taught to shatter the urn, to fracture the canonical text into tiny shards. My teachers, colleagues and I were much less adept, however, at picking up the pieces.”

His problem with the documentary hypothesis “was its inability to provide me with anything whole. None of the sources posited by the documentary hypothesis were preserved in their entirety, and the reconstruction of these elusive documents was very incomplete, forcing us to glue our urn together with scholarly fantasies.”

The theory also felt disconnected from what scholars know of the ancient world’s treatment of written myth. The ancients revered written text. Yet the documentary hypothesis suggests they haphazardly cut and pasted it to suit their immediate purposes.

Instead, Yoreh sought a theory “more organic to the time and place in which the Bible was written.”

The result: a version of what is called the supplementary hypothesis, which is “one of the major paradigms in Biblical scholarship,” but one that is scarcely known to the general public.
 “There is not presently any book that presents a version of it for people outside the field.”

Yoreh has sought to fill that vacuum for years. On his website, he offers a more detailed comparison of the two methods, and a lengthy, rich commentary on much of the Bible.

At its core, the supplementary theory suggests that rather than stitching together different texts, the Bible was formed from one early story line that saw successive additions to the original text.

Using the tool kit of the supplementary theory, “I searched for that original text, and I found it,” Yoreh writes in Jacob’s Journey.

“I found it not because I wished to rebuild an imaginary urn to heal the fractures of my shattered heart, but because the text was present and waiting to be discovered. It is the text that tells us of Abraham’s sin and Isaac’s murder. It is coherent, complete and altogether a work of literary genius. It is E, the Elohistic narrative — the first book of God.”

The Massacre and the Rape

The earlier a person dives into the Bible’s layers, Yoreh has discovered, the more brutal and unflattering – and dismayingly human – the story becomes.

In Genesis 34, readers find one of the most savage episodes of the Bible, the rape of Dinah and the subsequent massacre and pillage of the city of Shechem by Jacob’s sons.

There, too, the story is stilted and confused, and seemingly filled with contradictions.

In Genesis 34:2, readers learn that “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite” raped Dinah “and humbled her.”

In the next verse, however, he is deeply in love with her, and speaks tenderly “to her heart.” In verses 11 and 12, Shechem offers Jacob any dowry he might request in exchange for Dinah’s hand in marriage. In verse 18, Shechem rushes eagerly to circumcise himself (and later to demand all the men of his city do likewise) because the Israelites have made it a condition for the marriage.

But the Israelite retribution for the rape comes quickly, in verse 25.

“And on the third day, when they [the circumcised men of the city] were in pain, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took each man his sword, and came upon the city unawares, and slew all the males.”

They then murder Shechem and his father, pillage the city’s livestock, and likely enslave its women and children.

“The rape in the context of chapter 34 simply doesn’t make sense,” Yoreh believes. Why, after the rape, does Shechem speak to her tenderly, express his love and consent to self-mutilation in an age without anesthetic?

In "Jacob's Journey," Yoreh examines one of the Bible's bloodiest episodes -- the rape of Dinah and her brothers'  grisly retaliation. (Courtesy of Tzemah Yoreh)
In “Jacob’s Journey,” Yoreh examines one of the Bible’s bloodiest episodes — the rape of Dinah and her brothers’ grisly retaliation. (Courtesy of Tzemah Yoreh)

“If he rapes her and has her in his house, he definitely doesn’t need to negotiate with her family,” Yoreh points out. “He’s the ruler of a major city. Jacob is living outside the city in tents. There’s a power relationship that makes it laughable.”

Once one looks closer, however, “you begin to see a whole layer that’s trying to excuse what the sons of Jacob did to the Shechemites.”

The original story, Yoreh concludes, was of an Israelite massacre and the pillage of Shechem, a massacre whose brutality left Jacob distraught and afraid, complaining to his sons in verse 30: “You have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land, including the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and, I, being few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and smite me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.”

In response, a later editor weaves into the text a narrative that limits the damage to the reputation of the House of Israel.

“The first excuse is the rape, which dishonors the house. But there are other justifications given. Shechem is specifically called a Hivite, one of the seven nations the Israelites will later be commanded to annihilate — a lot later, but it’s still important for the text to identify him that way. Also, [in verse 23] the Shechemites’ agreement to circumcise their men is interpreted as an attempted takeover that seeks to absorb the Israelites’ property.”

And finally, “the text restricts the guilty parties to just two, Simeon and Levi. Can Simeon and Levi alone kill all the men of Shechem, a major city? That stretches credulity. Their sword arm probably got a little tired.”

The earlier text, Yoreh believes, likely used the common reference “sons of Jacob,” a phrase that included 11 sons, but also many more slaves, servants and even fellow travelers.

The tale ends weakly, with Jacob’s sons petulantly responding to their father’s fearful admonition, saying, “Can someone do with our sister as with a whore?”

With the threat of annihilation hanging in the air, and a response that scarcely speaks to Jacob’s fears, it’s strange that readers do not hear more from Jacob. Perhaps Jacob does not reply because he never heard, as it were, his sons’ excuses, which were added into the story many generations later.

The Seven Commandments

For the Bible critic, reading the “Book of Books” is an altogether different experience from that of most readers. The two-dimensional text gains a third dimension — layers of editors and redactors, each with his own motivations and responses to the story.

Thus, when Yoreh reads even a supposedly straightforward text, such as the recitation of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, he can’t help but wonder at the “mishmash of extremely different styles” contained in the short list.

Seven of the Ten Commandments are simple negative demands, ordained by God at Sinai. They forbid “having other gods,” making an idol or “graven image,” murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness and coveting “anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Yoreh believes the Ten Commandments may have started as a terse list of seven legal principles

But the other three, the positive commandments to honor parents and sanctify the Sabbath, and the elaboration on the idol commandment that forbids taking God’s name in vain, are very different sorts of commandments.

“Are we to understand the Ten Commandments as principles or discrete laws?” Yoreh wonders. Negative commandments against murder, worshiping other gods and theft are not specific demands, but rather broad principles of law. The Sabbath, on the other hand, “is a discrete law,” as is the prohibition against taking God’s name in vain.

Another difference: the positive commandments receive elaborate justification, as do the prohibitions against idols.

“You have a series of very short, specific commandments, and then a complete contrast between those and the massive justification and elaboration for the positive ones and for the prohibition against idolatry. Someone was very concerned about idolatry,” Yoreh says.

He posits an early version of the Ten Commandments that was a terse but stylistically coherent list of seven legal principles, without elaborate explanations and relying only on their ostensibly divine origin for justification.


Midrash, it has often been noted, is characterized by a refusal to offer decisive, authoritative interpretations of Biblical text. No one has the power to seal the gates of interpretation, the sages of the Talmud and midrashic literature believed. Instead, rabbinic literature employs strategies for reading a text that serve to open up new avenues of meaning. Success lies in finding new ways of reading the old stories and skillfully weaving new readings as coherently as possible through the many layers of the original text.

Yoreh’s work, though rigorously academic, consciously follows that tradition. Even as he offers interpretations that run counter to millennia of accepted notions about the Biblical text, Yoreh insists that his sort of Biblical criticism requires a profound humility.

“Biblical criticism is an art,” he says, almost apologetically.

‘What makes a message valid is whether it offers new and interesting insights about a text’

“In the humanities, we’re always thinking we’re engaged in the hard sciences. But we’re not. What makes a message valid is whether it offers new and interesting insights about a text, and gives you coherence. That’s why the documentary hypothesis is a completely valid method, because it taught me so much about the text and how it works. That’s why midrash is completely valid in my eyes. It taught me reading strategies that make the text more understandable.”

Academics, Yoreh insists, “take themselves too seriously. Academics have to cultivate a level of humility in that respect. I don’t pretend for a second that mine is the only valid way to read the text.”

Which may explain his passion for offering his own reading of the Bible in books accessible to the reading public.

“Whatever skills or background you have,” he says, “the gates of interpretation are never shut.”

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