Thursday, July 7th | 8 Tammuz 5782

March 4, 2022 10:29 am

The Binding of Isaac

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I was reeling from the inhuman aggression of the maniacal, “Strangelove” Putin on an independent country causing the deaths of hundreds of children when I thought of the words of Leonard Cohen in “The story of Isaac:”

You who build the altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
You never have been tempted
By a demon or a god

He was misusing the story of the Binding of Isaac to condemn the needless aggression of the Vietnamese war. Abraham took Isaac up Mount Moriah, bound him, bodily lifted him on an altar, and raised his hand to kill him because he thought that was what God wanted. What kind of God would ask that? And yet it is a completely false analogy.

It is true that in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam this story is fundamental. But it is interpreted in ways, each reflecting cultural differences. Why, though, is it called a sacrifice when there was none?

Abraham seemed to have been willing to sacrifice his son because he thought that this was what God wanted. In this, perhaps he was simply conforming to a deeply held belief at the time that offering your child to the gods would ensure they were on your side. Just think of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis in the epic of the Trojan War. But the Torah is clear that he was mistaken. As the text says this was not what God wanted. This was a definitive, unmistaken response that God (the Jewish religion) does not want human sacrifice. This is why we call this episode the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, not the sacrifice. It is one of the most recurring motifs in our literature, theology, and liturgy.

The text says explicitly that this was a test. “After these things, God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). We know in advance that this is not to be taken as the will of God. According to tradition Abraham was tested ten times and passed each one (Mishna Avot 5:4). This episode is sending us messages, both about what God really wants, Abraham’s faith, and the limits of faith.

The poetry of the narrative reveals a whole raft of unspoken intentions and responses. Abraham reacts to the call with the word Hineyni, “here I am.” By contrast, the Bible uses the similar word Hin’ni when talking about God’s future responses to human failure and redemption. But the word Hineyni on the other hand is only used by Joseph, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah when they are uncertain of their mission to play a part in the unfolding of a Divine plan, but ready to accept it, nevertheless.

Returning to the narrative, Abraham saddled his own donkey and personally chopped the wood. He set off secretly with two attendants and Isaac at dawn. They headed off towards an unknown destination. It is a three-day journey. Note the parallel with the three days of preparation for the Revelation of Israelite law on Mount Sinai. This is a precursor of the idea that obedience to God requires obedience to a moral system, not just a nighttime vision.

There is no record of any conversation during those three days. It is only when Abraham handed over the wood, the container with fire to Isaac that Isaac asked where the sacrifice was. Abraham replied that God would provide it. A lie perhaps, but equally a prophesy. Did Abraham really believe he would have to kill his son? And why did he not challenge God as he did over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra when he asked whether God could possibly kill innocent people? Even more surprising is the phrase “and they went on together,” together in body and together in thought.

Isaac allowed himself to be bound and to be placed on the altar and he saw his father raise his hand with the knife ready to strike. And still not one word. All the more surprising if, as some rabbis had calculated that Isaac was in his forties and Abraham well over one hundred at this time! Could he really have bound and lifted Isaac up without his co-operation? Indeed, some commentators say that Isaac was the real hero of the story. While others suggest he was so traumatized by the experience it affected the rest of his life.

Another anomaly is the constant reference to Abraham’s only son. When he has repeatedly asserted his love and concern for Ishmael who was born first? Is this therefore a story to explain why Isaac was the heir to his spiritual tradition if not the biological first?

This episode is the most commonly repeated work of Christian art in the Jewish Bible. I know of over twenty world-famous paintings of what was called the Sacrifice of Isaac. Amongst them are my three favorites Carravagio, Jordaens, and Rembrandt. But why are they called the sacrifice rather than the binding?

Christianity, reconfigured this biblical story, in line with its specific theology, to refer to Jesus as the only begotten son of God and the lamb of God who was sacrificed by the Romans to atone for the sins of humanity. The phrase Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, is a core theme in the Mass linked directly to the binding of Isaac. As if to say that if in the Old Testament Abraham only went so far, only in the New Testament was the Son of God sacrificed (albeit as a sheep and not a ram!).

It originated with John the Baptist who imagined he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Thus, the binding is compared to the Crucifixion and the last-minute stay of sacrifice in Abraham’s case is a symbol of the Resurrection which is so crucial to Christian theology.

The story plays an important part in Islamic theology too, but there it was Ishmael, who the Koran claims was the favored son, who was nearly sacrificed.

I am not going to try to describe all the fanciful scholarly or psychological theories which often try to claim that Abraham actually did kill his son or that this was an early rite of passage. They may be ways of looking at the Bible as a primitive random collection of stories stitched together by some pretty incompetent editors of no relevance today.

Needless to say, I think such a view is facile. The Bible is as I believe a record of spiritual struggles that take us on a journey towards the realization that whoever we are, religious or not, we need a clear moral behavioral code. Fine abstractions, noble sentiments of goodwill, or pious motions purporting to support peace are far too vague and subjective to be our guide. We need a constitution more than theology and we must fight for what we believe in against those who prefer to turn a blind eye or appease.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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