Philo on the Akeda

Philo on the Akeda
James Scott Trimm

As promised in an earlier blog, a detailed look at Philo of Alexandria’s fascinating understanding of the Akeda:

1  And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
(Gen. 22:1-2 KJV)

…thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest…

Philo writes:
For the appropriate progeny of God are the perfect virtues, but that offspring which is akin to the wicked, is unregulated wickedness. But learn thou, if thou wilt, O my mind, not to bear children to thyself, after the example of that perfect man Abraham, who offered up to God “The beloved and only legitimate offspring of his soul,” the most conspicuous image of self-taught wisdom, by name Isaac; and who gave him up with all cheerfulness to be a necessary and fitting offering to God. “Having bound,” as the scripture says, this new kind of victim, either because he, having once tasted of the divine inspiration, did not condescend any longer to tread on any mortal truth, or because he saw that the creature was unstable and moveable, while he recognised the unhesitating firmness existing in the living God, on whom he is said to have believed.
(Unchangeableness of God 4 )

In Philo’s drash, Isaac represents “self-taught wisdom”

3  And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
(Gen. 22:3-4)

…the place of which God had told him… the place afar off…

(1.63) According to the third signification, God himself is called a place, from the fact of his surrounding the universe, and being surrounded himself by nothing whatever, and from the fact of his being the refuge of all persons, and since he himself is his own district, containing himself and resembling himself alone. (1.64) I, indeed, am not a place, but I am in a place, and every existing being is so in a similar manner. So that which is surrounded differs from that which surrounds it; but the Deity, being surrounded by nothing, is necessarily itself its own place. And there is an evidence in support of my view of the matter in the following sacred oracle delivered with respect to Abraham: “He came unto the place of which the Lord God had told him: and having looked up with his eyes, he saw the place afar Off.” (1.65) Tell me, now, did he who had come to the place see it afar off? Or perhaps it is but an identical expression for two different things, one of which is the divine world, and the other, God, who existed before the world. (1.66) But he who was conducted by wisdom comes to the former place, having found that the main part and end of propitiation is the divine word (LOGOS), in which he who is fixed does not as yet attain to such a height as to penetrate to the essence of God, but sees him afar off; or, rather, I should say, he is not able even to behold him afar off, but he only discerns this fact, that God is at a distance from every creature, and that any comprehension of him is removed to a great distance from all human intellect. (1.67) Perhaps, however, the historian, by this allegorical form of expression, does not here mean by his expression, “place,” the Cause of all things; but the idea which he intends to convey may be something of this sort; –he came to the place, and looking up with his eyes he saw the very place to which he had come, which was a very long way from the God who may not be named nor spoken of, and who is in every way incomprehensible.
(On Dreams 63-67)

Philo offers two possible interpretations for “place” in verse 3.  He explains that “place” can refer to “the divine world” or it could be taken to refer to “the cause of all things”.

Philo offers two possible interpretations for the “place afar off” in verse 4.  He explains that the “place afar off” could refer to “God who existed before the world” or to “the God who may not be named nor spoken of, and who is in every way incomprehensible”.

Philo is telling us that wisdom can conduct us the LOGOS (Word) but this leaves us still afar to Ayn Sof.

The Word (LOGOS) is YHWH insofar as man can comprehend him.  The Word is synonymous with divine reason, logic itself and the Torah.  While Ayn Sof represents YHWH in his infinite nature, beyond human comprehension.

5  And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you,
6  And 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.
(Gen. 22:5-6 KJV)

…the fire in his hand, and a knife…

(27) I have also, on one occasion, heard a more ingenious train of reasoning from my own soul, which was accustomed frequently to be seized with a certain divine inspiration, even concerning matters which it could not explain even to itself; which now, if I am able to remember it accurately, I will relate. It told me that in the one living and true God there were two supreme and primary powers–goodness and authority; and that by his goodness he had created everything, and by his authority he governed all that he had created; (28) and that the third thing which was between the two, and had the effect of bringing them together was reason (the LOGOS), for that it was owing to reason that God was both a ruler and good. Now, of this ruling authority and of this goodness, being two distinct powers, the cherubim were the symbols, but of reason the flaming sword was the symbol. For reason (the LOGOS) is a thing capable of rapid motion and impetuous, and especially the reason of the Creator of all things is so, inasmuch as it was before everything and passed by everything, and was conceived before everything, and appears in everything. (29) And do thou, O my mind, receive the impression of each of these cherubims unadulterated, that thus becoming thoroughly instructed about the ruling authority of the Creator of all things and about his goodness, thou mayest receive a happy inheritance; for immediately thou shalt understand the conjunction and combination of these imperishable powers, and learn in what respects God is good, his majesty arising from his sovereign power being all the time conspicuous; and in what he is powerful, his goodness, being equally the object of attention, that is this way thou mayest attain to the virtues which are engendered by these conceptions, namely, a love and a reverential awe of God, neither being uplifted to arrogance by any prosperity which may befall thee, having regard always to the greatness of the sovereignty of thy King; nor abjectly giving up hope of better things in the hour of unexpected misfortune, having regard, then, to the mercifulness of thy great and bounteous God. (30) And let the flaming sword teach thee that these things might be followed by a prompt and fiery reason combined with action, which never ceases being in motion with rapidity and energy to the selection of good objects, and the avoidance of all such as are evil.  (31) Do you not see that even the wise Abraham, when he began to measure everything with a reference to God, and to leave nothing to the creature, took an imitation of the flaming sword, namely, “fire and a Sword,”{11} being eager to slay and to burn that mortal creature which was born of him, that so being raised on high it might soar up to God, the intellect being thus disentangled from the body.
(On the Cherubim 27-31)

In Philo’s Bible, the Greek Septuagint, the word for “knife” was μαχαιραν which can also mean “sword”.

Rashi says concerning the knife:

 the knife: Heb. הַמַאֲכֶלֶת, so called because it consumes (אוֹכֶלֶת) the flesh, as it is stated (Deut. 32:42):“and My sword will consume (תֹּאכַלוּ) flesh,” and because it renders meat fit for consumption (אַכִילָה). Another explanation: This [knife] was מַאִכֶלֶת because the people of Israel still eat (אוֹכְלִים) the reward given for it. — [from Gen. Rabbah 56:3]

Philo sees the reference to fire and sword here as suggesting the “flaming sword” of the cherubim (Gen. 3:24) Philo sees the two Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant as representing “goodness” and “authority” with the sword “between the two… bringing them together” representing the LOGOS “Word”.

It is impossible here not to recall Paul’s words:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart,
(Hebrews 4:12 KJV)

This triad represents the Three Pillars of the Godhead, as presented in the Zohar, with the LOGOS, the Middle Pillar of the Godhead reconciling the Pillar of Severity (authority) and the Pillar of Mercy (goodness).

7  And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
8  And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
(Gen. 22:7-8 KJV)

…Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? … God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering…

(132) I very greatly wonder at those persons also, I mean at him who is fond of asking questions about what is in the middle between two extremes, and who says, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt Offering?”{35} And also at him who answers, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering,” and who afterwards finds what is given as a ransom; “For behold a single ram was caught by his horns in a shrub of Sabec.” (133) Let us therefore consider what it is that he who is seeking doubts about, and what he who answers reveals, and in the third place what the thing is which was found. Now what the inquirer asks is something of this kind:–Behold the efficient cause, the fire; behold also the passive part, the material, the wood. Where is the third party, the thing to be effected? (134) As if he said, –Behold the mind, the fervid and kindled spirit; behold also the objects of intelligence, as it were so much material or fuel; where is the third thing, the act of perceiving? Or, again, –Behold the sight, behold the colour, where is the act of seeing? And, in short, generally, behold the external sense, behold the thing to be judge of; but where are the objects of the external sense, the material, the exertion of the feeling? (135) To him who puts these questions, answer is very properly made, “God will provide for himself.” For the third thing is the peculiar work of God; for it is owing to his providential arrangement that the mind comprehends, and the sight sees, and that every external sense is exerted. “And a ram is found caught by his horns;” that is to say, reason (LOGOS, The Word) is found silent and withholding its assent; (136) for silence is the most excellent of offerings, and so is a withholding of assent to those matters of which there are not clear proofs; therefore this is all that ought to be said, “God will provide for himself,”–he to whom all things are known, who illuminates the universe by the most brilliant of all lights, himself. But the other things are not to be said by creatures over whom great darkness is poured; but quiet is a means of safety in darkness.
(On Flight and Finding 132-136)

Philo understands the “fire” to represent “the efficient cause” and thus “the mind, the fervid and kindled spirit”.

Philo understands the “wood” to represent “the material” and thus “the objects of intelligence”.

Philo regularly speaks in terms of an active cause and a passive subject.  For example he speaks of the Creation saying:

…in all existing things there must be an active cause, and a passive subject; and that the active cause is the intellect of the universe, thoroughly unadulterated and thoroughly unmixed, superior to virtue and superior to science, superior even to abstract good or abstract beauty; (9) while the passive subject is something inanimate and incapable of motion by any intrinsic power of its own, but having been set in motion, and fashioned, and endowed with life by the intellect, became transformed into that most perfect work, this world.
(On Creation 8-9)

So now we come to the ram, which Philo understands as “the act of perceiving” “the peculiar work of God” i.e. “reason” (LOGOS, The Word”).

Elsewhere Philo identifies the LOGOS with the Messiah:

“The head of all things is the eternal Word (Logos) of the eternal God, under which, as if it were his feet or other limbs, is placed the whole world, over which He passes and firmly stands. Now it is not because Messiah is Lord that He passes and sits over the whole world, for His seat with His Father and God but because for its perfect fullness the world is in need of the care and superintendence of the best ordered dispensation, and for its own complete piety, of the Divine Word (Logos), just as living creatures (need) a head, without which it is impossible to live.”
(Q&A on Exodus, II, 117)

(For more on Philo’s understanding of the Word or LOGOS click here)

Here we again see the Three Pillars of the Godhead.  The active “male” principle of the Father represents Chokmah (Wisdom) which impregnates the passive “female” principle of the Mother, which represents BInah (Understanding) and the Middle Pillar of the Godhead, the Son of Yah, who reconciles these is represented by Da’at (Knowledge) the process of learning, the LOGOS, The Word.

Philo’s teaching here is not only in line with the Kabbalah but closely parallels the wisdom of the Tanya.  When we study Torah, the Wisdom of Torah gestates in our Understanding and gives birth to Knowledge of Torah. This is what is meant by having the Torah in our inward parts.

Philo came the place of the LOGOS, a place as close as he could, as a limited human being, get to comprehending YHWH and where he could see Ayn Sof afar.  He came to offer his self-taught, human wisdom of this world as an offering to YHWH, yet when Abraham was about to apply the “sword” of the LOGOS,  YHWH intervened at this place and substituted the LOGOS, the heavenly wisdom for Abraham’s earthly self-taught wisdom. 

 [9] And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
[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.

So Philo supplies us with a nice conclusion when he writes:

And so Isaac is saved, God supplying a gift instead of him, and honouring him who was willing to make the offering in return for the piety which he had exhibited. But the action of the father, even though it was not ultimately given effect to, is nevertheless recorded and engraved as a complete and perfect sacrifice,not only in the sacred scriptures, but also in the middle of those who read them.
(On Abraham 177)

Philo saw the Word, the Messiah, as “a complete and perfect sacrifice” not only giving salvation to Abraham and Isaac, but to you and me who read and understand the account as well!

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