By: Alick Isaacs


Our second lecture deals with material which may be considered "pre-historic" or "mythical". Early allusions in the book of Genesis, to the "stairway to heaven" motif which we discussed in the previous lecture, are firmly established symbols which we associate with the city of Jerusalem. They therefore deserve careful consideration. But, are they historical? We shall describe ancient archeological finds from the 19th century BCE which testify to the existence of an ancient city built near the site of Mount Moriah bearing the 'Jerusalem' sounding names - Rusullimum and Urusalim. But these provide no "scientific" confirmation of the Biblical narrative.

The question which naturally arises is; to what extent can we treat the book of Genesis as a historical document? This is a complex methodological question which no doubt fascinates and perplexes Bible historians, but not one which I feel our present purposes require of us to attempt answering. Our concern is not with the authenticity of the story of Abraham and Isaac, but with its impact on the "documented" history of the city. I shall, however, permit myself to digress briefly here in order to share with you some of my thoughts on this topic. I offer these opinions, which may stimulate some discussion, with no authoritative stamp and I am happy to discuss them with any of you who should wish to take issue with me:-

While the Biblical narrative comfortably belongs to the genre we call 'historiography' my expectations of this form of history are very specific. The essential 'historical' truth of the Biblical story is appreciated through an act of faith. The Bible focusses on the character of God whose Divine qualities we learn through His revelation in history. Appreciation of the Bible, for believers and non-believers alike, comes through the recognition of its internal truth. To reduce the Bible to the status of an 'early historical source', while neither harmful nor pointless, does require an unhealthy level of cynicism. That is not to say that the Genesis stories are not of historical significance, nor do I mean to imply that the endeavour to verify the famous stories would be a waste. I am simply suggesting that such an enterprise would contribute to the understanding of the Biblical period, but not to the understanding of the Bible itself whose symbolic significance is not dependent on historical verification. I prefer to read the book of Genesis as an introduction; an allusive preface to a story the point of which is the formation of a relationship between God and man which is sanctified in the observation of His Divine commandments by the people of Israel in the land of Israel.

Paradoxically, the historical relevance of the Bible to our course does not rely on the authenticity of the Bible as a historical source. The stories are historically important whether they happened as described in Genesis or not!

2. What's in a Name? 
The name of the city of Jerusalem derives from the ancient Canaanite names which date as far back as the 19th century BCE. An execration text found on the chest of a small clay figurine, curses the enemy city of "Rusullimum". The curse was to be activated by smashing the figurine in an ancient ritual somewhat akin to the practice of stabbing a Voodoo doll with a long pin. The second ancient name "Urusulim" appears repeatedly in the 14th century BCE Tel El Amarna letters. This collection of clay tablets describes the military strength of the city and its diplomatic position in relation to the Egyptian Empire. The city rested on the trade route connecting the great empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The trade route which by-passed the impasse caused by the dessert, ran through the Land of Israel and through Urusalim, bringing merchants, messengers, emissaries and soldiers to the city.

The Hebrew name of the city "Yerushalayim" rings just like both Rusullimum and Urusalim. Yet, according to Jewish tradition the source of the "Hebrew" name for the city derives from two early references to Mount Moriah in Genesis. The first, describes Abraham's encounter with Malchitzedek the king of Salem in Genesis 14.18-20:-


  • "And Malchitzedech king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High. And he blessed him and said: 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth..."

The second is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.2:-


  • "And He said: Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah (that I shall show you).."

The Hebrew verb "to show" YAREH, forms the grammatical base of the word Moriah, the same letters which form the first two syllables of the Hebrew name of the city - YeRU; while Shalem, the city of king Malchitzedek forms the last two syllables of the name "Yerushalem" - Yerushalayim.

3. Malchitzedek king of Salem 
The story of Malchitzedek quoted above is a remarkable one.It is really nothing more than a short passage. It appears in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis after the description of Abraham's wars with the four Canaanite kings who had taken his nephew Lot captive. Malchitzedek greets Abraham with bread and wine and congratulates him on his victories in battle, blessing him in the name of the "God Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thine hand". The appearance of Malchitzedek is somewhat unexplained in the Biblical narrative. He comes simply to greet and bless the victorious Abraham, and then he disappears.

The whole episode 'interrupts' the main plot recounted in these early chapters of Genesis. The main plot deals with God's revelations to Abraham, and his promises of offspring and land which form the essential part of the Covenant between God and the forefathers known in Hebrew as Brit Avot. In the middle of this, Abraham goes to battle against warring kings who have names which suggest that they are evil and corrupt. For example the king of Zevoim means the king of the hypocrites and the king of Amalek bares the name of a nation which was later to be cursed most bitterly for its aggression against the children of Israel in the Exodus story. In the midst of all these strange and violent figures Malchitzedek is mentioned; the king whose name means "king of righteousness".

Malchitzedek of Salem is different from all the other Canaanite kings.

He recognises the sovereignty of the Most High God. The name of this God, "El Elyon" is not generally used in the Bible as a term of reference for The God of the Bible. But it is made quite clear that Malchitzedek is no ordinary pagan. While he worships his local God as would a pagan, the qualities of that God have left a deep impression on him. His God is the God of Salem. Through the good qualities of the king of Salem, the Bible wishes to suggest to us the true identity of that God. Malchitzedek is inadvertently a priest of the One God, i.e. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God's presence among the people of Salem inspires the warmth, generosity and justice of their king. The Bible implies here that God's presence is an inherent quality of the city of Jerusalem, stimulating the instinctive recognition of the one true God by all who dwell there.

4. Bread and Wine 
Malchitzedek greeted Abraham with bread and wine. This ritual form of greeting, which is still practiced today by the Jerusalem municipality, is in itself an important symbol. Bread and wine, the two most basic and essential foods, develop tremendous ritual significance both in the Jewish Temple service and in Christian communion. In both faiths the sacrifice of bread and wine is connected with the concepts of freedom i.e. redemption and atonement. Malchitzedek's use of bread and wine, like his recognition of the One true God, implies that the rituals involved in the worship of God are also spontaneously stimulated by Jerusalem itself.

5. The Sacrifice of Isaac 
This story, perhaps one of the most dramatic passages of the Bible, embodies the central symbol for Jerusalem in Genesis. The story of the intended sacrifice of Isaac, averteby the intervention of a Benevolent God, has tantalised thinking men for thousands of years and must surely be one of the corner stones of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Abraham's sacrifice of an animal in place of his son is of course the precursor of the sacrificial practice which dominated Mount Moriah throughout both the First and Second Temple periods (approx.960-586 BCE; 515 BCE - 70 CE). This sacrificial ritual which involved the offering of an animal and its consumption atoned for the sins of the Jews. A similar image is expressed in the Christian Eucharist: God who commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, relented and granted him the alternative of atoning for sin through animal sacrifice. The son who was to be sacrificed in place of Isaac was God's own son whose suffering on the alter (The Cross) atoned for the sins of all men. They too must partake of the sacrifice. The Jewish practice of eating the sacrifice is carried over into Christianity in the form of communion i.e. the symbolic consumption of the flesh and blood of Jesus. Incidentally this practice echoes the motif of bread and wine which we discussed earlier.

The Christian interpretation, formulated by Augustine in the 4th century reflects the perspective that the story is incomplete. Mankind, as it were, still owed God the flesh of a beloved son. The command to sacrifice a son is perceived as the ultimate test, while willingness to comply is the truest reflection of a man's complete devotion to God and of his total submission to His will. The idea that Abraham was never given the opportunity of fully demonstrating his faith is frustrating.

The midrashic interpretation of the story which follows the dramatic scene on Mount Moriah to its fatal end is, in effect, an attempt to compensate for this frustration.

I should like, however, to offer an alternative reading of the story. As Abraham climbed to the summit of Mount Moriah he may well have looked down into the valley below. The name of the valley which is positioned to the south of Mount Moriah, the Hinnom valley, has come to mean 'Hell'. Gei Hinnom meaning the Hinnom valley is Gehinnom or Gehenna. It was in this valley, the antithesis of the Temple Mount, that the pagan god of Molech was worshipped. This form of paganism demanded the sacrifice of a son to the outstretched arms of Molech, the arms which beheld the flames of Topheth,(hence the association between the valley and Hell). Child sacrifice was not unheard of in Abraham's day. This was no ultimate test which had never been allowed to run its full course.

Many people before had demonstrated the same willingness which Abraham displays in responding to God's bidding.

The true greatness of our forefather is indeed portrayed in this chapter but not necessarily by his willingness to offer his child as a sacrifice to God. At the dramatic moment when the dagger has already been raised up high, when his passion is running high, when the adrenalin is pumping through his veins, Abraham learns the difference between pagan worship and the service of God. At that critical moment Abraham pushes aside his eagerness to prove himself and in an act of remarkable humility acquiesces to the will of God who commands him, "Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him.." Herein lies Abraham's test. The will of God is to command. The will of God is to communicate and share His benevolent presence with the people of the world. Abraham learns that the sacrifice of a beloved child is a despicable, perverse and egotistical ritual performed by pagans who believe that the life of the son which they waist in the flames is really theirs to give. Abraham displays his greatness when he desists from his fatalistic course, casts aside his passion and listens to the word of God. This act of communication marks the beginning of a new pact between God and the children of Abraham. The place where God reveals His Divine justice to Abraham is the place where men who seek His presence must flock. The pact between God and man is consecrated on Mount Moriah, the eternal symbol of God's presence in the world.



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14 Jun 2015 / 27 Sivan 5775 0