The Akeidah: The Binding of Isaac and its Messianic Implications

Observant Jews (Messianic or otherwise), and many Messianic Gentiles like myself, read Genesis 22:1-19 every morning during Shacharit (morning) prayers. It is the story of the binding of Isaac. In Hebrew it is called the Akeidah, which means “binding.” How should we understand this story from a Messianic Jewish perspective? Let’s take a look at just a few of the dozens of connections to the Apostolic Scriptures found within this story.

The Akeidah is considered the last of ten tests that Hashem placed upon Abraham. Jewish literature makes reference to ten tests that Abraham passes in faithful obedience. However, there is some confusion over exactly what those tests are. Both Rashi and the Rambam have differing lists, which you can see in the chart below:

  According to Rashi According to Rambam
1 Abraham hid underground for thirteen years from King Nimrod, who wanted to kill him. Abraham's exile from his family and homeland.
2 Nimrod flung Abraham into a burning furnace. The hunger in Canaan after God had assured him that he would become a great nation there.
3 Abraham was commanded to leave his family and homeland. The corruption in Egypt that resulted in the abduction of Sarah.
4 Almost as soon as he arrived in Canaan, he was forced to leave to escape a famine. The war with the four kings.
5 Sarah was kidnapped by Pharaoh's officials. His marriage to Hagar after having despaired that Sarah would never give birth.
6 The kings captured Lot, and Abraham was forced to go to war to rescue him. The commandment of circumcision.
7 God told Abraham that his offspring would suffer under four monarchies. Abimelech's abduction of Sarah.
8 At an advanced age, he was commanded to circumcise himself and his son. Driving away Hagar after she had given birth.
9 He was commanded to drive away Ishmael and Hagar. The very distasteful command to drive away Ishmael.
10 He was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. The binding of Isaac on the altar.

Trials and Testing

The passage begins by saying, “After these things God tested Abraham.” Often, we tend to view the hardships of life as attacks from the adversary. However, just as Abraham, the father of our faith, was tested, we—the spiritual children of Abraham—should also expect testing. And we should not only expect testing, but we should also embrace it as a blessing from the Lord. Yes, this is more easily said than done, but it’s what the Holy Scriptures tell us. James, the brother of our Master, says we should “count it all joy” when we face suffering in this life:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)

Why does he say this? Because he has learned the lesson of his father, Abraham, and knows the result of such testing:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)

A similar statement is made in the Didache, one of the earliest non-canonical apostolic writings dating to the end of the first century, in regard to the last days:

Then the creation of man will come to the fiery trial of testing, and many will stumble and perish, but those who endure in the faith will be saved alive from under the curse. (Didache 16:5)

We can see by these references that not only was Abraham tested, but he passed those tests and became an example for all who would descend from him.

The Choosing

According to the midrash, when the LORD called to Abraham and commanded him to offer up his son, Abraham was confused as to which son he was supposed to bring. The sages imagined the story going something like this:

God said to Abraham, “Abraham!”
Abraham replied, “Here am I!”
“Take your son and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Abraham asked, “Which son?”
“Your only son.”
“But each son is the only child of his mother.”
“The one whom you love,” God responded.
“But I love each of them!”
“I mean Isaac.”

Once it was confirmed that, indeed, Isaac was the one to be brought up as an offering, both he and his father set out for the land of Moriah with two of Abraham’s “young men,” (נערים). Jewish lore designates these two young men as Eliezer and Ishmael. On the third day, Abraham saw the land of Moriah. At the time, he wasn’t sure which of the mountains he was to offer up Isaac on. However, as he looked, a thick fog appeared on the top of one of the mountains. He asked Isaac, “Do you see what I see?” Isaac replied that indeed he saw the thick fog that hung ominously over the mountain. He then asked his two young men if they saw it also. They did not. Abraham took this as a sign to leave his men there and travel the remainder of the distance with Isaac alone.

At that point, Abraham said something puzzling to his men. He said, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” What did he mean? God had already told him that he was to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice. How would they both return to his young men? The author of Hebrews explains:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17–19)

According to our translations, the author of Hebrews says that, “figuratively speaking,” Isaac was raised from the dead. What does this mean? If we look at the Greek behind our translations, it gives us a hint as to what he means. The phrase translated here as “figuratively speaking” is the Greek word παραβολη. It literally means “parable.” Our text alludes to a parable about Isaac that exists in Jewish lore. This parable is found in a midrash called Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer. It goes like this:

Rabbi Jehudah said: When the blade touched his neck, the soul of Isaac fled and departed. But when he heard His voice from between the two Cherubim, saying to Abraham, “Do not put your hand on the lad,” his soul returned to his body. Abraham set him free, and Isaac stood upon his feet. Isaac, therefore, knew that in this manner the dead in the future will be resurrected. He opened his mouth and said, “Blessed are You, O Lord, Who resurrects the dead.” (Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 31)

Of course this is a legend, but one in which Isaac actually dies and is resurrected. It is a beautiful foreshadowing the resurrection of both Messiah and the ultimate resurrection in which all souls will one day arise to stand before their Creator.

Carrying the Cross

When Abraham and Isaac left the two young men, the Scriptures say that “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together” (Gen. 22:6). When it says that Abraham took the wood and laid it on Isaac, we can’t help but envision our Master carrying his own execution stake toward Calvary. The sages couldn’t avoid the imagery either. The midrash says that Isaac bore the wood of his own altar “like one who carries his [execution] stake on his shoulder” (Genesis Rabbah 56:3). Just as Isaac bore the burden of his own suffering upon his back as he climbed Mount Moriah—the future site of the Holy Temple—so too our Holy Master carried the wood for his execution on his back up the hill to Golgotha.

This section of the narrative concludes by saying, “So they went both of them together,” literally, “and the two of them went together as one.” In a moment of clarity as to what was really going to take place, Isaac paused, turned to his father and asked, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (22:7). When Abraham responds by saying, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” Isaac fully realizes that he is the intended offering. The midrash fills in the gaps of Abraham’s response by having him reply, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. But if not, you will be the offering.” Yet, despite the obvious fate that loomed ahead for Isaac, a young man calculated to be between 36-37 years old (based on the age of his mother when she dies in the next chapter), the Scriptures affirm the unity between Abraham and Isaac by repeating the phrase, “and the two of them went together as one.”

The midrash explains, “One to bind and the other to be bound, one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered” (Genesis Rabbah 56:3). Abraham went to bind; Isaac went to be bound. Abraham went to slaughter; Isaac went to be slaughtered. They both went willingly and together in one mind and in one accord. Yeshua said that he is loved of the Father because he willingly laid down his life:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:17–18)

No one could take his life from him. Yet he gave it up willingly, just as Isaac had done nearly two thousand years previously. For this reason, the Apostle John tells us that we should lay our lives down for one another. He says, “By this we know love, that he [Yeshua] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). As we ponder the deeper implications of both the Akeidah of Isaac and the Passion of our Master Yeshua, let us remember that these events have taken place as examples of how we should live out our lives. We should follow in their footsteps, being ready to lay down our lives for the sake of our brothers and sisters. Sometimes that merely means that we need to be able to swallow our pride. One day it might mean that we literally have to lay down our lives for the sake of others. Whatever the case, may it be the will of the Father that we pass our test when the time arises. May we continually sanctify His name in both this world and the world-to-come.