By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Offer My Beloved Son or Offer a Ram: A Profound Ambiguity in God's Command to Abraham?

It is the great story of Adonai instructing Abraham to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son. Among Jews, it is known as the Akedah, "The Binding," because Abraham bound Isaac to the wood to be used for the burnt offering. While taking a Syriac exam, I was translating this famous passage found in Genesis 22. The Syriac translation of Genesis 22 closely follows the Hebrew original. The translation exercise made me aware of something that I had not noticed before in Genesis 22:2. I translate this verse from the Syriac (a prominent dialect of Aramaic): "And he [God] said to him [Abraham]: 'Lead your son, your only one whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and lift him up  there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell you.' "

In Syriac, as in the Hebrew, the word for "lifting him up" is a verb plus a suffixed objective pronoun. In plain English, the verb "lift up" has attached to it a suffix meaning "him," much as we say in informal English, "Get'im," as one word meaning "Get him."  In the same way, in both Hebrew and Syriac the pronoun "him," which is the object of the verb, can be attached to the verb to form one word.

So, in Genesis 22:2, we basically have God telling Abraham, "Take your beloved son and offer him as a burnt offering" (I paraphrase here and in the next quotation for the sake of economy). The text does not say: "Take your beloved son and offer your beloved son as a burnt offering." Rather, the text in both Hebrew and Syriac uses the masculine singular pronoun "him" to refer back to Isaac. Why could this be telling?

Further down in Genesis 22, we come to verse 13, which reads in pertinent part: "Abraham went and took the ram, and he lifted it up as a burnt offering instead of his son." We have again the same verb ('"lift up") plus the object pronoun "him." Since the ram is masculine, the same object pronoun is used for the ram as is used for Isaac in Genesis 22:2. The same is true in the Hebrew original.

This use of  the same masculine pronoun suffix-- that is as equally applicable to the ram as it is to Isaac-- means that, to a Hebrew or Syriac speaker hearing Genesis 22:2, there is some inherent linguistic ambiguity present (I paraphrase again): "Take your beloved son Isaac and lift him up." But it is the same "him" that grammatically applies to the ram.

In other words, we could translate Genesis 22:2 as follows to highlight this ambiguity for an English-speaking audience: "And he [God] said to him [Abraham]: "Lead your son, your only one whom you love, Isaac, and lift him or it up there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell you." The "it" implies an animal as the offering. [The Hebrew text refers to a ram as being the sacrifice after the angel stops Abraham from slaying Isaac. Earlier, Isaac refers to the animal as a "sheep" when asking Abraham where the animal for the sacrifice is. The Syriac translation follows this Hebrew usage concerning what the animal is called.]

Strictly speaking, the same masculine object pronoun can refer either to Isaac or the ram. Thus, there seems to be an ambiguity here in God's command to Abraham: is Abraham to take Isaac with him and also offer Isaac up, or is Abraham to take Isaac with him but offer a ram up?

This ambiguity is bolstered by other verses. In Genesis 22:5, Abraham instructs his two servants to stay behind and wait, observing that "we will return to you" (in both the Hebrew and Syriac). In other words, the servants are told that both Abraham and a live Isaac will return after the sacrifice. To further add to the ambiguity, when Isaac asks Abraham where is the lamb for the burnt offering, Abraham replies that God will provide a "lamb" (in both the Hebrew and Syriac) for the burnt offering.

Is Abraham anticipating that God will indeed provide a lamb or ram for the burnt offering? It certainly seems to be the case. Otherwise, we have to interpret Abraham's reply to Isaac as being somewhat tricky and misleading. But, if we go back and see the initial ambiguity inherent in God's initial command to Abraham, there is no basis for finding any misinformation here: Abraham is holding out hope for the provision of a lamb to take the place of Isaac--a hope that is literally present, grammatically, in God's initial command to Abraham in Genesis 22:2. Other commentators have wondered about such a hope. This grammatical point makes me wonder about it also. It is certainly something to consider in this seminal story that, like the rest of Scripture, is inexhaustible in meaning.

Postscript: Muslims apply this story to Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs, rather than to Isaac, the ancestor of the Jews. Surprisingly, I recently heard a prominent Muslim academic relate that some medieval Islamic commentators did apply the story to Isaac, as is recounted in the Hebrew Bible.