Took the Cleaver to Slaughter His Son

Sacrifice of Isaac [cropped], Painting by Matthias Stom, Musee Fesch, Ajaccio, France.

Sometimes we read words or hear them recited, which are not the ones we are accustomed to reading or hearing. Consider, for example, these phrasing differences between the Protestant and Catholic English versions of the Lord’s Prayer. Protestant: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; Catholic: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. When words we are accustomed to reading or hearing are replaced by ones we’re not familiar with, it can shock us a bit.

This is the last of three posts focusing on English translations of Genesis 22:1-19 (the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac). In the first one, I discussed various translations of the Hebrew word הִנֵּֽנִי (hineni); in the second one, I looked at translations of the Hebrew word נָא (na). In this one, I want to review two renderings of the Hebrew word מַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת (ma’achelet).

Langenscheidt’s Pocket Hebrew Dictionary defines מַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת as “knife.” I venture to say that if you have one of the standard English translations of the Bible, and you look at Genesis 22:6 or 22:10, you will see the word “knife.” Imagine my surprise when, for the first time, I read those verses, and instead of “knife,” I found the word “cleaver.” Huge difference! Instead of envisioning a rather messy but straightforward throat-cutting, I’m all of a sudden seeing a hacking, chopping up of the body into pieces, thing.

Butcher Slaughtering a Calf.
Fifth Dynasty (Egyptian, 2494–2345 BCE)
(c. 2445-2414 BCE). Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

In the Akedah text, מַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת occurs in verses 6 and 10. Let’s look at how three translations deal with it. I will use the same three translations here that I used in my earlier posts on the Akedah. They are the King James Version, the Anchor Yale Bible, and The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter.

For those who know Biblical Hebrew, here are the relevant texts (right to left):

1. וַיִּקַּ֣ח בְּיָד֔וֹ אֶת־הָאֵ֖שׁ וְאֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו
2. וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ

I colored the word I’m interested in red.

For the first text, the KJV reads: “And he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.”

For the second text, the KJV reads: “And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

For the first text, The Anchor Yale Bible (AYB) reads: “The firestone and the cleaver he carried in his own hand. And the two walked off together.” [Note: The use of the word “firestone is also an intriguing difference.]

For the second text, The Anchor Yale Bible (AYB) reads: “He put out his hand and picked up the cleaver to slay his son.”

E. A. Speiser, the AYB translator, notes why he uses “cleaver” instead of “knife.”

cleaver. The pertinent Heb. noun (see also Judg [Judges] xix 29 and Prov xxx 14) is used expressly for butcher knives.

Genesis, AYB, translated by E. A. Speiser, note p. 163.

For the first text, The Five Books of Moses (trans. by Robert Alter) reads: “And he took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together.”

For the second text, The Five Books of Moses (trans. by Robert Alter) reads: “And Abraham reached out his hand and took the cleaver to slaughter his son.”

Knife or cleaver? Look again at the picture of the ancient Egyptian butcher. He’s not holding something I would ordinarily describe as a knife. Note that the calf is bound, something our text tells was done to Isaac by his father, Abraham. Alter acknowledges his agreement with Speiser in a footnote:

the cleaver. E. A. Speiser notes, quite rightly, that the Hebrew term here is not the usual biblical term for knife, and makes a good argument that it is a cleaver. Other terms from butchering, rather than sacrifice, are used: to slaughter (verse 10) and to bind (verse 9—a verb occurring only here but used in rabbinic Hebrew for trussing up the legs of animals).

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

So, what difference does it make; what do we gain by reading “cleaver “instead of “knife?” For me, cleaver drives home more forcefully the brutality of what is planned, what God asked Abraham to do, and what Abraham was willing to do. The text’s use of the word מַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת makes a big difference in how I understand the Akedah. As an English reader, I know this only because of the diligence of translators like Speiser and Alter.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

One thought

  1. Interesting visual. God doesn’t tell Abraham what to take, simply to take his son to sacrifice him. Abraham has to figure out the “packing list” based on what would be normal and reasonable. The word מאכלת is also used in Judges 19:29, when they describe hacking apart the concubine in Giv’a.

    Liked by 1 person

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