Abraham and Isaac, who is carrying the sticks for the 'burnt offering', or sacrifice in an illustration from "The Children's Friend" Vol XIII, published by Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, S.W Partridge &Co. in 1873. (iStock)

The Binding of Isaac

The dramatic story of the binding of Isaac is central to Jewish liturgy and thought, and has perplexed many generations of commentators.

The Akedah, or”Binding of Isaac”, is the account in the book of Genesis (22: 1-19)of Abraham, at the command of God, taking his son, Isaac, to be offered as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Abraham binds his son (hence “the Binding of Isaac”) to the altar and is ready to perform the dreadful deed when an angel appears to tell him to stay his hand and to promise him that his seed will increase.

There is no reference to this episode anywhere else in the Bible. Nor does it feature very prominently in post-biblical Jewish literature until the third century CE. Some biblical scholars, Jews included, have read the story as a protest against human sacrifice, the significant point being that the angel intervenes to prevent the murder as an obscene act that God, unlike the pagan deities, hates and could never really have intended.

But in traditional Jewish thought, the Akedah is used as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom; the Jewish people are ready at all times to give up life itself for the sake of the sanctification of the divine name (Kiddush Ha-Shem).

The Prime Proof Text for Mercy

On the judgment day of Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the year, God is entreated to show mercy to His people in the merit of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. A prayer of the day reads:

Remember unto us, O Lord our God, the covenant and the loving-kindness and the oath which Thou swore unto Abraham our father on Mount Moriah; and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Thy will with a perfect heart. So may Thy compassion overbear Thine anger against us; in Thy great goodness may Thy great wrath turn aside from Thy people, Thy city, and Thine inheritance.

“Thy city” in the prayer is a reference to the ancient tradition that Mount Moriah, the site of the Akedah, is the place in Jerusalem where the Temple was built. Thus, contrary to the “happy ending” theory mentioned above, the traditional view, whether historically accurate or not, is close to that of Kierkegaard, who reads the Akedah as an illustration of how far the “knight of faith” is ready to go in his “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

Did He Never Return?

The commentators find some features of the Akedah puzzling. Why, for instance, is there no mention of Isaac returning with his father after the ram had been substituted for him? Abraham is said to have returned together with the lads who accompanied him, but nothing is said of Isaac. Abraham Ibn Ezra (a 12th century Spanish commentator) records an opinion that the angel’s call came too late and that Isaac was, in fact, killed by Abraham. (On this opinion, Isaac, who reappears in the later narratives, was resurrected from the dead.)

Ibn Ezra rejects this as contrary to the plain meaning of the biblical text. But Shalom Spiegel, in a famous essay (“The Last Trial”), shows that such an opinion came to be widely held in the Middle Ages, possibly in order to deny that the sacrifice of Isaac was in any way less than that of Jesus; or as a reflection of actual conditions in the Middle Ages when the martyrdom of Jewish communities demanded a more tragic model than that of a mere intended sacrifice.

Scrutinizing God’s Intentions

Nevertheless it is constantly stressed in the literature that God never intended that Abraham should actually sacrifice Isaac. A Talmudic comment on Jeremiah 19: 5states: “?which I commanded not?- this refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab (2Kings 3: 27); ?nor spake it?; this refers to the daughter of Jephthah (Judges 11:31); ?neither came it to My mind?; this refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham.”

Philo (a first-century CE Jewish thinker and biblical interpreter) goes to the opposite extreme, defending the Akedah against the charge that it is by no means unique since, in the history of mankind, many people have been prepared to lay down their lives and the lives of their children for a cause in which they believed: Moloch-worshippers (those who offer their own children as sacrifices) for instance, who are condemned by Moses, and Indian women who gladly practice suttee (self-sacrifice). Philo replies that Abraham’s sacrifice was unprecedented in that he was not governed by motives of custom, honor, or fear, but solely by his love of God.

To Test or Not To Test

Another puzzling feature of the Akedah is the opening statement that God tested Abraham, as if the purpose were to provide God with information about Abraham’s trust He did not previously possess. According to Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3. 24) the words “God tested Abraham” do not mean that God put Abraham through a test but that He made the example of Abraham serve as a test case of the extreme limits of the love and fear of God. Nachmanides (also known as the Ramban, a 13th-century Spanish rabbi), on the other hand, states that God did indeed know beforehand how Abraham would behave but, from Abraham’s point of view, the test was real since he had to be rewarded not only for his potential willingness to obey the divine command but for actually complying with it. The implications of the Akedah are that, despite what appears to be a contradiction, divine foreknowledge is compatible with human free will.

That Abraham went to the Akedah in “fear and trembling” (the title of Kierkegaard’s work on the subject) is expressed in the Talmudic legend that as Abraham went on his way he was met by Satan, who tried to stop him by arguing that God had promised him that his future, and the future of all his teachings about the One God, would depend on Isaac and now he was about to frustrate that promise.

Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.

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