In a scant 19 lines, Genesis Chapter 22 reports that God once instructed Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering. This notorious incident, known as the Akedah or the Binding of Isaac, is read every Rosh HaShanah and has inspired an unknowable number of sermons, essays, artworks, and interpretations.
Commentators of various faiths have speculated endlessly about Abraham’s motivations and Isaac’s response. They look for clues in the text as to what Sarah must have thought. But few, if any, writers have disclosed to us how Sarah (mother of the intended sacrificial offering) would have responded had God had approached her rather than Abraham (father of the intended sacrificial offering).
Earlier in Genesis (18:14), God spoke directly to Sarah to reassure her about giving birth in her old age. Thus, it makes sense that God would again approach Sarah when that child’s fate was on the line. In the tradition of midrash, using clues from biblical texts to interpret other biblical texts, I offer two scenarios of how the conversation in which God directs Sarah to sacrifice her child, her only child, might have played out.
“Hineini. Here I am.”
“Take your child… and go forth to the land of Moriah to offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall show to you.”
“No. Wait what? I don’t understand… Are you serious?”
“Take your child, your only one… and go forth to the land of Moriah to offer him up as a burnt offering.”
“No! Is this You, the God who chided me when I laughed at the thought of giving birth in old age? You showed me a miracle; You proved me wrong; and You granted me great comfort as I aged. You would take this from me?”
“Take your only child, the one that you love…”
“Offer up the child as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall show to you. I must know that you fear me.”
“Abraham has another son; talk to him, not me.”
“Take your child…”
“I have loved you. I have honored you. I have followed the pathway you set out and taught my child to honor and follow as well. Now, I no longer love you. Now, I do fear you.
“When Abraham, the husband of my youth and of my old age, asked You to waive the severe decree on Sodom for 10 innocent men, you agreed. You showed favor and compassion. After Your great flood, You sent a rainbow to seal Your promise not to again destroy the world.
“How can You promise to make our offspring grow into a great nation and now demand that the one child who can fulfill that promise be sacrificed? I do not expect to know You, God, to know who or what You are. I know You are One. But I never thought You were one to break Your promises.
“God, fearsome God, instead of death, won’t you teach us to choose life?”
“Hineini. Here I am.”
“Take your child, your only child, whom you love and go forth to the land of Moriah to offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall show to you.”
And Sarah rose early in the morning and saddled her donkey and took with her two servants and her child Isaac. She split wood for the offering and went to the place where God had instructed. On the third day, Sarah raised her eyes and saw the place from afar.
And Sarah took the wood for the offering and loaded it on Isaac her son, and she took the firestone and the cleaver, and the two of them went together.
And they came to the place that God had said to her, and Sarah built an altar and laid out the wood and bound Isaac, her son, and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. And Sarah reached out her hand and took the cleaver to slaughter her son. And God’s messenger called out to her from the heavens: “Sarah, Sarah!” And she said, “Hineini, Here I am.” And God said, “Do not raise your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and it seems that you would not have held back from Me your child, your only one.”
And God declared: “By My own Self, I swear, because you have done this and have not held back your child, your only one, I will greatly bless you and greatly multiply your child’s children, as the stars in the heavens and as the sands on the shore. But, Sarah, I must ask you this: “if I had not stopped you, grabbed the knife, would you have slaughtered your child at My command?”
“You would have disobeyed me?”
“No. Though you are a just, if fearsome, God, I hoped, prayed, and trusted that You would relent.”
“Now, Sarah, heed my command: Choose life so you and your children shall live and long endure.”