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It’s the classic biblical tale that speaks of obligation to divine commands. But it’s all okay in the end because God provides a ram for Abraham so he doesn’t have to sacrifice his son. That would be terrible and nothing that God would ever condone anyway (Jephthah’s daughter, anyone?).

In April, many outlets reported on a newly translated fragment that tells of a rather different outcome:

Scientists have deciphered what they describe as a 1,500-year-old ‘magical papyrus’ that was discovered near the pyramid of the Pharaoh Senwosret I.

The text dates to a time when Christianity was widely practiced in Egypt.The unnamed person(s) who wrote the incantations in Coptic, an Egyptian language that uses the Greek alphabet, invoked God many times….

The Book of Genesis says that God stopped Abraham before he actually sacrificed his son. However in this papyrus the story is described in such a way that it sounds as if the sacrifice wasn’t stopped wrote Zellmann-Rohrer noting that other texts from the ancient world also claim that the sacrifice was completed.  “The tradition of a literal sacrifice seems in fact to have been rather widespread,” Zellmann-Rohrer wrote.

The papyrus was uncovered during a 1934 expedition by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the papyrus is now at the Met but had never been deciphered or detailed in a scientific journal until now.

“The text surely belongs to a Coptic phase of habitation at the pyramid complex, noted by the excavators, which is marked by substantial burials,” wrote Zellmann-Rohrer in his paper. He told Live Science that it’s possible that the papyrus was put in one of the burials.

It has been said that the belief that Isaac was killed, or at least the account that this happened, was widespread in certain communities. Bible scholar Tzemah Yoreh has before staked claims about this:

The Biblical story we have inherited is not the original story, Yoreh believes. Using a variation of a well-known approach to Biblical scholarship, he sees hints of a bloodier version of Isaac’s binding that he finds too convincing to ignore.

In the earliest layer of the Biblical text, Yoreh believes, Isaac was not rescued by an angel at the last moment, but was in fact murdered by his father, Abraham, as a sacrifice to God.

One eye-opening hint at what he believes is the original story lies in Genesis 22:22. Previously, in verse 8, Abraham and Isaac had walked up the mountain together. But in verse 22, only Abraham returns.

“So Abraham returned unto his young men [waiting at the foot of the mountain], and they rose up and went together to Beersheba,” the text relates.

That strange contradiction, Yoreh says, may be why a few ancient midrashim, or rabbinic homilies, also assumed Isaac had been killed.

In one homily quoted by Rashi, the revered 11th-century French rabbi and commentator, “Isaac’s ashes are said to be suitable for repentance, just like the ashes of an [animal] sacrifice.”

“That’s a very weird midrash,” Yoreh says, “since Isaac is clearly alive in the next chapter. But that’s the way midrash works. It analyzes episodes without looking at the larger context. That’s why you can have midrashim about Isaac dying, because it doesn’t have to notice that he’s alive in the next chapter.”

There are many hints of Isaac’s untimely demise. The sacrifice story itself contains strange contradictions and clues that are best resolved, he believes, by assuming a very different, earlier narrative.

In verse 12, after staying Abraham’s knife-wielding hand in mid-air, the angel of God tells the father of monotheism, “I now know you fear God because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

That phrase, “have not withheld your son,” “could indicate Abraham was merely willing to sacrifice his son, or that he actually did so,” Yoreh says.

One hint that it may have been the latter is contained in the names for God used in the story. The Biblical text calls the God who instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son “Elohim.” Only when the “angel of God” leaps to Isaac’s rescue does God’s name suddenly change to the four-letter YHWH, a name Jews traditionally do not speak out loud.

Elohim commands the sacrifice; YHWH stops it. But it is once again Elohim who approves of Abraham for having “not withheld your son from me.”

Isaac does not appear again in the Elohim version of the biblical text.

What does this mean, especially for the skeptic? I’m not really sure other than showing that people are willing to worship a god no matter how morally abhorrent. This version of the story takes a pretty despicable tale and makes it worse.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...