People with the power to change influential stories often do so, and desire to make people believe a new version of events.
There is a well known scene in the movie Star Wars: A New Hope where Han Solo shoots and kills an alien who had just shot at him from across a table and somehow missed. But this scene is not the original. The original version of the film released in theaters depicted Han Solo shoot first and kill the alien without his enemy ever firing a shot. The director, George Lucas, explained that he made the edit because he felt that the original scene made Han Solo’s character appear too cold and murderous.
The same sorts of edits have occured in the Bible over its long existence. And, to me, one of the most interesting of these edits that we have strong evidence for is that in the original story of Abraham and Isaac, Abraham indeed kills his son and God did not try to stop him.
Most of the information in this article is drawn from evidence provided in the excellent study resource The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Friedman.
The main passage in question (Gen 22:9-19) as it appears in the King James Version:
10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.
15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,
16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
So what gives scholars cause to believe the story has been altered from a version where Isaac dies? It coems down to a series of intriguing factors:
1) Multiple sources or editors
First, there is overwhelming evidence that the current version of the Hebrew Bible was assembled from numerous different sources and edits made by people during distinct time periods. The evidence for this includes contradictions in stories, similar stories appearing twice, and seemingly multiple separate narratives running side by side that can be cut out and read almost entirely independently. And lastly: strong patterns of terminology paired with certain ideas about God and his interactions with humans for extended portions of the text. Analyzing which parts of the text appear to have been written by different sources or editors indicates where alterations were made. And one of these portions of text occurs during the would-be sacrifice of Isaac.
2) God then an angel
Genesis 22 follows the patterns of the source called E until the exact sentence after it tells us that Abraham raised the knife to kill Isaac. Up until that point in this series of events, God himself was the one speaking to Abraham. Then suddenly right after Abraham raises the knife we are told that an angel appears instead, with no apparent reason for this change of messenger.
3) Elohim switches to Yahweh
In Genesis chapter 22 before the angel appears, God was only referred to as Elohim. But as soon as the angel appears, the name used for God becomes “Yahweh” in all but one instance in verses where Abraham is stopped and substitutes the ram in place of Isaac. This is is a suspiciously random switch in its own right, but making it even more suspect is the fact that later in the biblical narrative, God tells his name to Moses when Moses inquires, and then soon tells him again in what is treated like another reveal where God says his name is Yahweh but he had not revealed it to humans before Moses. And yet, the large sections of text attributed to a source called J has been using Yahweh since Adam and Eve and explictly declares that invocation of the name Yahweh began at that time (Gen 4:26). This is one of the indications that there are multiple editors and multiple different sources being awkwardly combined.
4) A resumptive repetition encloses where Abraham is stopped
The set of verses where the angel interrupts the sacrifice appears to be opened then closed using a literary technique called a resumptive repetition. According to thetorah.com, a resumptive repetition is a technique used to insert remarks, notes, or supplementary sources into a text. It does this by starting with a certain phrase, then ends the inserted text with a very similar phrase thus fluidly indicating that the original text is resuming again. In the case of the angel, this line is the stated fact that the angel calls out to Abraham. The angel does this once to get Abraham’s attention and deliver his instructions, then after Abraham carries out those instructions the text states that the angel called out again. Then the text which seems to belong to the E source resumes.
5) “You have done this”
The voice speaking to Abraham after angel calls out the second time says “because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son…”. This statement can potentially mean just the Abraham intended to comply or that he genuinely carried out the sacrifice and lost his son. This is not proof that Isaac died in the original version but the fact it is phrased this way is suspicious, especially in context of all the evidence together.
6) Only Abraham returns
In verses 5-6 of this chapter before Abraham and Isaac went up the mountain, Abraham had explicitly told his other sons that both he and Isaac would come back to them, and the text makes a point of saying – twice – that Abraham and Isaac set off together. Yet after the events on the mountain, the text only states that Abraham returned (verse 19).
7) Where else Isaac appears in the Bible
Every other time Isaac is mentioned in the Bible, it is in sections evidenced to belong to other sources. He never appears in text from the E source again. It seems that in the E source, Isaac’s story had come to an end at precisely this event.
The argument is certainly interesting and I am personally of the opinion that it is probably true.
For more on this topic, check out articles by Dr. Tzemah Yoreh, an agnostic scholar of the Bible, who makes the case that Isaac was indeed sacrificed in the original E source. He also mentions some rabbinic commentaries known as midrash that speak as though Isaac were indeed sacrificed, meaning they had similar hypotheses centuries ago.