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The Binding of Isaac

October 6, 2011 – 9:14 pm9 Comments

By George Schneider

And God tempted Abraham and said to him, Take Isaac, your only son, whom you love, go into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon the mountain which I will show thee. – Gen. 22:1-2

On second day Rosh HaShanah, during those quick breaths between the schmoozing, we listened and read bits of the story of ‘The Binding of Issac’. No one can have a neutral response to this story.

You admire Abraham’s faith, or berate his madness. You may have a reaction of anger toward both characters; Isaac for his absolute lack of agency, and Abraham for his inability to stand up for his child as he did for the evil-doers of Sodom and Gomorra. You may think of child abuse. And your heart will most certainly weep a little for Sarah.

Lately I have been struggling with this event in the biblical narrative which really is the foundation upon which the three major religions are built. In Judaism it is the final test of Abraham which secures his inheritance and relationship with God; in Christianity it has been interpreted as a prelude to the sacrifice of Jesus; whilst in the Muslim narrative Isaac is replaced by Ishmael.

The text is difficult, dramatic, painful and heart wrenching and leaves me questioning: “Did Abraham replace ‘morality’ for ‘obedience’?”

First I want to analyse the text a little. The bible is structured upon a technique called ‘gapping’ which means that it couldn’t fit everything into the text so we need to be careful readers and pick up patterns to fill in the holes we might find. One of the first instances that this happens in our story is when God calls to Abraham and commands him to sacrifice Isaac. God could have just said “Oy! Go and kill Isaac” but instead there is a build up and narrowing down of who exactly God wants sacrificed. There is almost an implied dialogue – word’s in brackets are my interpretation of what’s missing:

God: “Take now your son”
[Abraham: Who?]
God: “Your only son”
[Abraham: Ishmael?]
God: “The one you love”
[Abraham: Which one exactly?]
God: “Isaac.”
[Abraham: Oh…]

The sentence structure is very similar to “Go, from your house, from your birthplace, from the land of your father to the land that I will show you,” which is the original ‘God-Promise’ to Abraham that begins his journey. Only here, there is no promise of a reward.

The elongated command to sacrifice Isaac is there to emphasise the love-bond between the two. To explain to the reader that this isn’t someone Abraham wants to kill. With each specification of who his is to take, the tension increases.

It’s like when a mother gets a call from the police saying; there’s been an accident, someone in your family has been killed, someone you love, your one and only son. It’s a dramatic technique.

Abraham tries to avoid the command, but God doesn’t let him get away easily. Emmanuel Kant in his book ‘The Conflict of the Faculties’ says:

“…but if God should really speak to man, Man can still never know that it was God speaking, it is quite impossible for Man to apprehend the infinite by his senses, distinguish it from sensible being and recognise it as such. But in some cases Man can be sure the voice he hears is not God’s; for if the voice commands him to do something contrary to the moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, and no matter how it may seem to surpass the whole nature, he must consider it an illusion.”

In Kant’s opinion Abraham failed the test completely, he should have apprehended the voice he heard, saying, “If you want me to butcher my son, you must not in fact be God at all”. Kierkegaard tries to validate what Kant is denying in his Fear and Trembling, he shares the thought with Kant that the sacrifice is immoral, but he believes that God’s will transcends the moral order. It is a teleological suspension of the ethical.

They start off early the next morning; rabbinic tradition interprets this as a sign of Abraham’s eagerness to fulfil the word of God, but it seems to me that either he received the vision in his sleep, or he delayed starting his trip. Why didn’t he leave straight away?

It gives me chills when I read how the father and son then walk together, the son looks up to his father of the age of hundred and says, “My father,” to which Abraham responds, “Yes my son”. The possessive pronominal suffixes, ‘my’, solidify the deeply emotional connection between the two.

There are two people with them who are identified by the Midrash as Ishmael and Eliezer, two of the three potential heirs to Abraham’s wealth – Isaac being the third. (I don’t include Lot, he’s a douche). The reason that I bring up the ‘heir’ thing is that without an heir to inherit Abraham’s wealth, the promises God made to him cannot be fulfilled.

Abraham stops after 3 days of walking and tells the two unnamed men to wait as they go up the mountain to pray to God. But Abraham says, “We will go up, and we will return” (וְנָשׁוּבָה). Questions:

  • Does this imply that Abraham knows it’s a test?
  • Is he lying to prevent Isaac from freaking out?
  • Or is it both? i.e. is it something he hopes will come true, that they will return together?

Maybe he has faith in the promise from God that he will be a great nation, and he know he can only become a great nation if he has a living son who can procreate. Because if your parents don’t have kids, you won’t have kids.

The wood that is meant to burn his body to ashes as a sacrifice is laid upon Isaac. It’s like making someone dig their own grave.

Side note: It is not absolutely clear how old Isaac is, but he would have to be old enough to be able to carry enough wood to burn his body. Which could also mean that Isaac is 5 years old; a 5 year old can only carry a small amount of wood but also needs less wood because their bodies are smaller. Morbid mathematics.

“The two walked together” or “walked as one”. The Midrash says Isaac is 37 years old. He knows what’s going on, but he walked with Abraham as though he is on board with the cause.

You would think that, but then Abraham actually needs to tie Isaac up. You don’t need to tie up someone who is willing to be sacrificed. At the same time, Abraham couldn’t tie up his strong son without consent. Maybe Isaac is on board, but is worried he’ll have involuntary flinching and then he’ll get a small cut that will render the sacrifice invalid.

The Book of Jubilees suggests that the reason for the test is that the angels of God could see Abraham loved both God and his son, but want to see who Abraham loved more.

When the countermand comes for Abraham to stop there is a similar dialogue to when Abraham was commanded to make the sacrifice, which the Midrash unravels. The Rabbinic tradition explains that an angel went down and told Abraham for stop but Abraham responded “The Almighty Himself commanded me to offer my son to Him—only He can countermand the order: I will not hearken to any messenger!”

You would think that if someone was really apprehensive toward carrying out a task, he would take any opportunity to avoid the task. But not our Abraham, he is caught up in this blind trance and wants to carry through with it. You can see this because when the ram appears he just goes and kills it! Firstly, rams belong to people, they don’t grow wild. Even in Israel today if you find a ram and decide to slit its throat, a shepherd will shoot you. And secondly, God doesn’t commant Abraham to kill the ram; he has the kill look in his eyes and needs to carry out the action.

There is a Midrash that says the sheep’s name was Isaac. A direct substitute for Isaac. There is also a Midrash says that Abraham looked identical to his son, only when Abraham’s hair turned grey could people differentiate between them. So the ram becomes a substitute for Isaac, who is a substitute for Abraham.

Verses 15 through 18 are classified by academics as the earliest interpretation of the Akeida (binding), which were actually inserted into the text. God speaks to Abraham “a second time” and we get the original promises again from Genesis 12, only here it is a consequence of the obedience of Abraham, previously it was baseless: “Go from your land and I will make you a great nation etc” [paraphrase]. Yay Abraham! You’ve destroyed the relationship with your son, but you get showered in material possessions! A fair trade.

In verse 19, “and Abraham returned to the young men,” where is Isaac? Abraham descends the mountain alone. There is no dialogue between Abraham and the rest of his family after this event.

The lists of names that come after this break the tension and move the story along. Abraham’s brother Nachor has 12 children, a parallel birth of a nation to that of Jacob later on. Nachor has 8 children with his primary wife, and 4 by secondary wife – Jacob too has 8 children by primary wives (Rachel and Leah) and 4 by his secondary wives (Bilha and Zilpa). Abraham’s grand niece, the daughter of Bethuel is Rebeka, Isaac’s future wife and second cousin.

This Akeida is a climax in the Genesis story; after that event the story mellows out a bit. I still have the question “Does Abraham replace morality with obedience?” Yeshayahu Leibowitz’ in his The Meaning of Halakhah (1953) says:

“Ethics, when regarded as unconditionally asserting its own validity, is an aesthetic category par excellence… The Torah does not recognise moral imperatives stemming from the knowledge of natural reality or from awareness of man’s duty to his fellow man. All it recognises are Mitzvot, divine imperatives… Halakhah [Jewish law and practice] as a religious institution cannot admit the category of the ethical.”

Which is a similar view to Kierkegaard’s mentioned above, that God’s will is above ethics. I’m not so satisfied with that: Abraham argued his guts out for the sinner in Sodom and Gomorrah but said nothing to God regarding the life of his son.

Regarding the Ancient Near East and sacrifice we learn that sacrifice doesn’t necessarily involve killing. In Leviticus when they discuss the method of ‘burnt offering’ they don’t mention the killing at all. The Haftorah for this Torah portion is that of Hannah begging God for a son which she promises to give back to him in service. This is equally as sad but is it an example of a sacrifice that doesn’t involve killing at all? Also in the Temple there were grain and fruit libations which were sacrifices that did not involve killing (sorry fruitarians). And we’ve all heard our parents say, “Do you know what I’ve had to sacrifice to give you this?” – lets just hope its a “what” and not a “who”.

So maybe Isaac was sacrificed on that mountain top, but wasn’t killed. Or maybe he was only sacrificed in the form of a ram. What’s clear to me is that the father-son relationship was what was given up. Abraham chose God over his son. They didn’t walk together as one down the mountain as they did on the way up.

Another point, Kierkegaard sees Abraham as being “double-minded”, torn between obedience and faith. When Isaac asks his father, “Where is the ram?” Abraham responds, “God will provide it.” Abraham cannot bring himself to speak of what God commanded him to do because his faith in God tells him that God will not let him go through with it. His obedience keeps him walking up the hill in “fear and trembling with a dagger in his hand. Kierkegaard goes on to say that:

“One may stay ethical, and have a satisfying life. Or one may go farther and embrace in fear and trembling and in dread and awe the faith in one’s own choices, facing the terrifying possibilities of being deceived and of deceiving oneself.”

Its starts with the “I choose” and continues with the “I shall now act”.

Levinas, in Existence and Ethics, sees friction between the religious fervour of Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” and morality, he views it as a subversion to ethical foundations and suggests that you need external justification and cannot just rely on internal isolated passion.

Nietzsche says:

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege for owning yourself.”

Each time Abraham does something separating himself from the tribe, he leaves his environment. He leaves his homeland to become a nation and then he leaves his encampment for the Land of Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. Maybe the real reward Abraham sought after was owning himself.

George Schneider is an Australian who lives in Israel. This article is an edited version of George’s original published on his blog Takin’ a Blog: A Migrant’s Tale

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  • ariel says:

    Well analysed George, this is terrific.

    What of the oft-posited position that Halacha is inherently ethical?

    How would it fit with the Akeida?

    If we hold by this, is it ethical that Hashem commands genocide?

    Or is it that sometimes Hashem must suspend His own ethical system in order to achieve something of ultimate supreme importance?
    In which case, why does He need to do that?

    After all, lehavdil, Winston Churchill is the hero of the West for defeating Nazism, but he did so by ordering the carpet bombing of Dresden, killing thousands of civilians. If he had done so today, he’d be accused of war crimes. But in hindsight, we see that what he did was a “one off” which was probably necessary to defeat the evil of his time…

    “On one, how much and how much” (Hebrew speakers will get it), vis a vis Hashem?

  • ariel says:

    There is also the question of whether it was indeed Avraham who was being tested or whether he was a tool in the real test…

    Perhaps the whole time, Hashem is testing Ishmael and Eliezer to see if they would actually allow Avraham to go ahead with sacrificing Issac?

    After all, as potential heirs to Avraham’s estate, they would benefit from Isaac being dead – but would their ethics as taught to them by Avraham override them. It appears they failed. Hashem gives them to the last moment to show up and stop Avraham, but they fail. So the angel is sent to stop Avraham.

    Food for thought in our own lives?

  • Les says:

    Such an insightful article!

    Well written and a good original flavour to it!

    Keep em coming!


  • Melleh says:

    Well done George, beautifully written and very thoughtful!!
    I love:
    Its starts with the “I choose” and continues with the “I shall now act”.
    Deep reverberations…


  • George – great piece – insightful & challenging. Where did you get “tempted” as a translation for nisah? I’ve always seen it translated as “tested”.

  • Robert says:

    The best article ever written,so proud of you, keep making a difference.
    Love Dad

  • ariel says:

    I just heard on Yom Kippur a nice idea.

    The concept of the Akeidah was that one must be willing to let go of their children.

    We must give them strong roots, but then also strong wings.

    It’s an acknowledgement that they are not our children, they are Hashems’s children; we are just their guardians…

    @David W,
    That’s a great question, I’d love to hear from George.

    The midrash translates nissah as “lifted up [as a banner]”

  • George says:

    Thank you for all your comments.

    re: “The concept of the Akeidah was that one must be willing to let go of their children. We must give them strong roots, but then also strong wings.´´

    I think that is a nice concept with regard to raising children, but I dont see that in the text at all.

    Perhaps, really loosley you could see that in Abraham sending away Ishmael. Even more so in God´s commandment to Abraham to leave his father´s home (to establish himself). But how does sacrificing your child alow them to live with strong roots and wings?

    re: translation as “tempted´´ – The word “nisa´´ can be translated as tempted. I admit it could be a more ´Christian´translation, but I liked it better for the point I was tryng to convey.

  • ariel says:

    Thanks George.

    I think the concept of the Akeida being about letting your children go is like Hannah giving her only son away to Hashem even though he was the only thing she ever wanted…

    Although yes, putting your child on an alter an raising a knife is hard to understand…

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