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Notes from Limmud 2014

The Akeida in its Historical Context

Dr Rami Arav

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

How do we reconcile the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son after God had promised him his descendants would inherit the land? And did Abraham know that the sacrifice would not go ahead?
Genesis 22:1-19 בראשית כב א-יט
It came to pass that after these things, God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!", and he said, "Here I am." [God] said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah;2 and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall show you."1 וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי׃ וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ׃

1. You don't get any description of how Abraham reacts. Like Hemingway, the author puts the tension in the conversation, not the description.

2. This is an unknown place, never referred to elsewhere. מורה means to point out [aside: it's from the same root as "Torah"]. מֹרִיָּה therefore can be broken into מוֹרֶה יָהּ: the place God will show you. [Aha; how come I'd never noticed this before?]

Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; he cut the wood for the burnt offering and set out, and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham looked up, and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there and worship, and come back to you." Then Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, "My father." He replied, "Here am I, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering", so they went both of them together.

When they came to the place which God had told him of, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order; he bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. Then Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I."

He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy, neither do anything unto him: for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me."

And Abraham look up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by his horns. Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

So Abraham called the name of that place "The Lord will see", as it is said to this day,3 "In the mount of the Lord4 it shall be seen."

וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת־חֲמֹרוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ וְאֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיְבַקַּע עֲצֵי עֹלָה וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַר־לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים׃ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו שְׁבוּ־לָכֶם פֹּה עִם־הַחֲמוֹר וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר נֵלְכָה עַד־כֹּה וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם׃ וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה וַיָּשֶׂם עַל־יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ אֶת־הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו׃

וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה־לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו׃

וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר־לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת־הָעֵצִים וַיַּעֲקֹד אֶת־יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים׃ וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת־בְּנוֹ׃ וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ ה׳ מִן־הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי׃

וַיֹּאמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל־הַנַּעַר וְאַל־תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי־יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי׃

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה־אַיִל אַחַר נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הָאַיִל וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ׃

וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא ה׳ יִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר ה׳ יֵרָאֶה׃

3. When is "this day"?

4. Later on, Judaism interpreted this as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Samaritans hold that it is Mt Gerizim, their holy place. It is not named directly as either of these: this is prior to the conquest of the land: it would be anachronistic.

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham out of heaven a second time, and said, "By myself have I sworn, says the Lord, for because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son: I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies; And by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves; because you have obeyed my voice." So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheva; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheva. וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ ה׳ אֶל־אַבְרָהָם שֵׁנִית מִן־הַשָּׁמָיִם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם־ה׳ כִּי יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת־הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידֶךָ׃ כִּי־בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת־זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל־שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו׃ וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי׃ וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל־בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע׃

This episode is a millennia-long topic of discussion and arguments. Most deal with the questions: Why would God command this unethical command?

Answers divide into three categories:

  1. God tried the faith of Abraham—a very rabbinical interpretation.
  2. To reject all sorts of human sacrifice among Israelites. We don't know that there was really human sacrifice amongst the Canaanites; we only get the account from their enemies. [Though: the "tophet" at Carthage?]
  3. To emphasise the role of Mt Moriah and Jerusalem in the Israelite religion.

Theologians tend to concentrate on the first two of these. The speaker here, however, presents a non-theological interpretation.

While the first and second answers deal with the aftermath of the story as a cause, the speaker suggests to look at the historical context of the ninth century BCE as the drive to the story.

The story gives a hint that the story was not written at the time it was set, in the phrase "to this day" and the fact that the mountain was referred to as the place God will show.

In the ninth century BCE the Land of Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel. The capital of the kingdom of Israel was originally Shechem, then moved to Tirzah for fifty years, but by now had moved to its long-time home of Samaria, named by Omri after the person he purchased the land from, Shemer. The capital of Judah is of course Jerusalem.

The two kingdoms differed in geography, economy, demographics, even a little in English [er, I think I must have meant "language" there]. The north was fertile, but the south semi-arid. The north was larger in territory, and denser in population; it contained ten of the twelve tribes. The fertile north would support a wealthier and stronger econmy based on agricultural products such as wheat, barley, fruits, vegetables and cattle. It contained the Jezreel Valley, which to this day is the breadbasket of Israel. The south contained two tribes, and its economy was based on herding sheep and goats, and growing small amounts of fruits, vegetables and grain.

The cult centre for the southern kingdom was Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The northern kingdom had two cult centres, one in the north at Dan, and one in the south at Beth-El. In establishing these, King Jeroboam followed a Mesopotamian tradition of building up cult centres at both ends of the kingdom.

Jeroboam did not build these places on barren land. Both places, in particular the southern one, Beth-El, had a long tradition as a cultic centre:

Genesis 28:10-19 בראשית כח י-יט

Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place, and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed of a ladder set up on the earth, with the top of it reaching heaven: and angels of God ascending and descending on it.

The Lord stood above it, and said, "I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac: the land on which you lie, I give it to you and your offspring. Your offspring shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, east, north and south: and in you and in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.1 Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you again into this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of."

Jacob awoke, and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it." He was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.2" So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillow; he set it up for a stele, and poured oil upon the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city had been Luz beforehand.3

וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה׃ וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי־בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיִּשְׁכַּב בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא׃ וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ׃

וְהִנֵּה ה׳ נִצָּב עָלָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֲנִי ה׳ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ׃ וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה וּבְזַרְעֶךָ׃ וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם־עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ׃ וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה׳ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי׃

וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם׃ וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר־שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ מַצֵּבָה וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן עַל־רֹאשָׁהּ׃ וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית־אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם־הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה׃

1. Very similar language to the blessing God had given Abraham at Mt Moriah.

2. The gate of heaven then is not in Jerusalem, but in Beth-El.

3. This tells us the narrator was writing close enough to the time that the old name was still remembered; it must have been written earlier than the story of the Akeida. Luz means "almond".

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will guard me on this way I am going, and will give me bread to eat, and clothes to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace; then the Lord shall be my God; and this stone, which I have set for a stele, shall be God's house, and of all that you shall give me I will surely give the tenth unto you." וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר אִם־יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן־לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ׃ וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל־בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה ה׳ לִי לֵאלֹהִים׃ וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר־שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן־לִי עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ׃
Later on:
Genesis 35:1-15 בראשית לה א-טו
God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there; make there an altar to the God Who appeared to you when you fled from the presence of Esau your brother." Then Jacob said to his household, and to all those with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and be purified, and change your clothes. Then we shall arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar to the God Who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak by Shechem.

As they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon upon the cities around them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel: he and all the people with him. He built there an altar, and called the place El-Beth-El: because it was there that God had appeared unto him, when he fled from his brother. There Deborah Rebekah's nurse died; she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allon-Bachuth.

God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padan-Aram, and blessed him. God said to him, "Your name is Jacob: your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name"—and He called his name Israel. God said to him, "I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land I gave Abraham and Isaac, I give to you, and to your offspring after you will I give the land." And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. Jacob set up a stele in the place where he talked with him, a stele of stone; he libated a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־יַעֲקֹב קוּם עֲלֵה בֵית־אֵל וְשֶׁב־שָׁם וַעֲשֵׂה־שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לָאֵל הַנִּרְאֶה אֵלֶיךָ בְּבָרְחֲךָ מִפְּנֵי עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־בֵּיתוֹ וְאֶל כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עִמּוֹ הָסִרוּ אֶת־אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּתֹכְכֶם וְהִטַּהֲרוּ וְהַחֲלִיפוּ שִׂמְלֹתֵיכֶם׃ וְנָקוּמָה וְנַעֲלֶה בֵּית־אֵל וְאֶעֱשֶׂה־שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לָאֵל הָעֹנֶה אֹתִי בְּיוֹם צָרָתִי וַיְהִי עִמָּדִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר הָלָכְתִּי׃ וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶל־יַעֲקֹב אֵת כָּל־אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדָם וְאֶת־הַנְּזָמִים אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם וַיִּטְמֹן אֹתָם יַעֲקֹב תַּחַת הָאֵלָה אֲשֶׁר עִם־שְׁכֶם׃

וַיִּסָּעוּ וַיְהִי חִתַּת אֱלֹהִים עַל־הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבוֹתֵיהֶם וְלֹא רָדְפוּ אַחֲרֵי בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב׃ וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב לוּזָה אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן הִוא בֵּית־אֵל הוּא וְכָל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־עִמּוֹ׃ וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא לַמָּקוֹם אֵל בֵּית־אֵל כִּי שָׁם נִגְלוּ אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בְּבָרְחוֹ מִפְּנֵי אָחִיו׃ וַתָּמָת דְּבֹרָה מֵינֶקֶת רִבְקָה וַתִּקָּבֵר מִתַּחַת לְבֵית־אֵל תַּחַת הָאַלּוֹן וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת׃

וַיֵּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶל־יַעֲקֹב עוֹד בְּבֹאוֹ מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר־לוֹ אֱלֹהִים שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב לֹא־יִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי פְּרֵה וּרְבֵה גּוֹי וּקְהַל גּוֹיִם יִהְיֶה מִמֶּךָּ וּמְלָכִים מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ יֵצֵאוּ׃ וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם וּלְיִצְחָק לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת־הָאָרֶץ׃ וַיַּעַל מֵעָלָיו אֱלֹהִים בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ׃ וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ מַצֶּבֶת אָבֶן וַיַּסֵּךְ עָלֶיהָ נֶסֶךְ וַיִּצֹק עָלֶיהָ שָׁמֶן׃ וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶת־שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ שָׁם אֱלֹהִים בֵּית־אֵל׃

So we see here Beth-El set up as a cultic centre competing with Jerusalem. The final shape of both stories are post-exilic, but the stories go back to the ninth or tenth centuries.

1 Kings 12:25-33 מלכים א יב כה-לג
Jeroboam built Shechem in mount Ephraim, and dwelt in it; he went out from there and built Penuel. But Jeroboam said to himself, "Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: If this people continues to sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then this people's heart shall turn again unto their master, King Rehoboam of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to King Rehoboam of Judah."

Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves1 of gold, and said to them, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough: behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt." He set one up in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. This thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even to Dan.

וַיִּבֶן יָרָבְעָם אֶת־שְׁכֶם בְּהַר אֶפְרַיִם וַיֵּשֶׁב בָּהּ וַיֵּצֵא מִשָּׁם וַיִּבֶן אֶת־פְּנוּאֵל׃ וַיֹּאמֶר יָרָבְעָם בְּלִבּוֹ עַתָּה תָּשׁוּב הַמַּמְלָכָה לְבֵית דָּוִד׃ אִם־יַעֲלֶה הָעָם הַזֶּה לַעֲשׂוֹת זְבָחִים בְּבֵית־ה׳ בִּירוּשָׁלִַם וְשָׁב לֵב הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶל־אֲדֹנֵיהֶם אֶל־רְחַבְעָם מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וַהֲרָגֻנִי וְשָׁבוּ אֶל־רְחַבְעָם מֶלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה׃

וַיִּוָּעַץ הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיַּעַשׂ שְׁנֵי עֶגְלֵי זָהָב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רַב־לָכֶם מֵעֲלוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת־הָאֶחָד בְּבֵית־אֵל וְאֶת־הָאֶחָד נָתַן בְּדָן׃ וַיְהִי הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְחַטָּאת וַיֵּלְכוּ הָעָם לִפְנֵי הָאֶחָד עַד־דָּן׃

1. The bull as representation of El is not unusual in the northern part of the country. El was the chief Canaanite god; he was symbolised with the animal representing the strongest power known at the time.

This story was of course written by the Jerusalemites rejecting their form of worship, as for them God was unseen and formless.

The altar in Beth-El has not been found; the Byzantines built a church in the sixth century (now itself destroyed) completely destroying anything which lay underneath. But the altar in Dan has been found. Dan is only mentioned twice as a cult centre [and Josephus writes of the shrine of the golden calf as still being there a thousand years later].

(The identification of the site was not certain until fifty years ago. In Arabic it was called تل القاضي Tel al-Qāḍi, which is a calque on "Dan": both words mean "judge". There is one archaeologist who disagrees with the identification, but there is a Greek inscription at the high place there which refers to "the gods of Dan".)

He also erected the building of the high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, who were not Levites. Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like the feast that is in Judah, and he went up on the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made, and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.

So he offered on the altar he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in the month which he alone had devised;1 and ordained a feast unto the children of Israel: and he offered upon the altar, and burnt incense.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֶת־בֵּית בָּמוֹת וַיַּעַשׂ כֹּהֲנִים מִקְצוֹת הָעָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־הָיוּ מִבְּנֵי לֵוִי׃ וַיַּעַשׂ יָרָבְעָם חָג בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁמִינִי בַחֲמִשָּׁה־עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ כֶּחָג אֲשֶׁר בִּיהוּדָה וַיַּעַל עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כֵּן עָשָׂה בְּבֵית־אֵל לְזַבֵּחַ לָעֲגָלִים אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה וְהֶעֱמִיד בְּבֵית אֵל אֶת־כֹּהֲנֵי הַבָּמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה׃

וַיַּעַל עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה בְּבֵית־אֵל בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁמִינִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־בָּדָא מלבד (מִלִּבּוֹ) וַיַּעַשׂ חָג לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעַל עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְהַקְטִיר׃

1. He also changed the calendar. Every religion has its own calendar, to distinguish it.

Conclusion: In the light of the Beth El narratives, Jerusalem had to come up with a more powerful narrative, to stop people from going off to worship at Beth El instead. The Akeida is a powerful dramatic narrative that could have cast a shadow over the temple in Beth El.

Jewish learning notes index


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