The Sacrifice of Isaac

TitleThe Sacrifice of Isaac
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2004
AuthorsNibley, Hugh W.
Book TitleNibley on the Timely and the Timeless
PublisherReligious Studies Center, Brigham Young University
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsAbraham (Prophet); Angel; Isaac (Son of Abraham); Isaiah (Prophet); Law of Substitution; Name; Resurrection; Ritual; Sacrifice; Suffering Servant

When I was in high school, everybody was being very smart and emancipated, and we always cheered the news that some scholar had discovered the original story of Samson or the Flood or the Garden of Eden in some ancient nonbiblical writing or tradition. It never occurred to anybody that these parallels might confirm rather than confound the scripture—for us the explanation was always perfectly obvious: the Bible was just a clumsy compilation of old borrowed superstitions. As com­parative studies broke into the open field, parallels began piling up until they positively became an embarrassment. Everywhere one looked there were literary and mythological parallels. Trying to laugh them off as "parallelomania" left altogether too much unexplained. In the 1930s English scholars started spreading out an overall pattern that would fit almost all ancient religions. Finally men like Graves and Santillana con­front us with huge agglomerations of somehow connected matter that sticks together in one loose, gooey mass, compacted of countless resemblances that are hard to explain but equally hard to deny. Where is this taking us? Will the sheer weight and charge of the stuff finally cause it to collapse on itself in a black hole, leaving us none the wiser? We could forego the obligation of explaining it and content ourselves with contemplating and admiring the awesome phenomenon for its own sake were it not for one thing—Joseph Smith spoils everything.

A century of bound periodicals in the stacks will tell the enquiring student when scholars first became aware of the various elements that make up the superpattern, but Joseph Smith knew about them all, and before the search ever began he showed how they are interrelated. In the documents he has left us, you will find the central position of the Coronation, the tension between matriarchy and patriarchy, the arcane discipline for transmitting holy books through the ages, the pattern of cycles and dispensations, the nature of the mysteries, the great tradition of the Rekhabites or sectaries of the desert, the fertility rites and sacrifices of the New Year with the humiliation of the kind and the role of substitute, and so forth. Where did he get the stuff ? It would have been convenient for some mysterious rabbi to drop in on the penniless young farmer when he needs some high-class research, but George Foote Moore in­forms us that "so far as evidence goes, " apocalyptic things of that sort were "without countenance from the exponents of what we may call normal Judaism."

Take, for example, the tradition that the sacrifice of Isaac merely followed the scenario of an earlier sacrifice of Abraham himself. Nobody has heard of that today—until you tell them about it, when, of course, they shrug their shoulders and tell you that they knew about it all along. Which prompts me to recommend a simple rule for the ingenuous investigator: always ask the expert to tell you the story first. I have never found anyone who could tell me the Joseph Smith Abraham story, and the apocrypha records which report it have all been published since his day. Today the story of Abraham casts a new light on the story of Isaac. Here is some of it.