"And God said, 'Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you.'" (Genesis 22:2)
This is the story of the binding of Isaac known in Hebrew as Akedat Itzhak. God commanded Abraham to take Isaac, travel to a distant place which would be shown to him and offer Isaac, in place of the usual animal, as a sacrifice.
This is a very difficult and for many a frightening story to read in the Torah. It is disconcerting to imagine God instructing a parent to sacrifice his or her own child. Equally it is frightening that Abraham seems to comply so easily. The story of the binding of Isaac raises many issues and many interpretations.
In the Hebrew, God says to Abraham "kach na," literally "please take." Why would God begin the request with the word "please?" The rabbis explained that God knew how difficult the command was to take and sacrifice a son, but God also knew the importance of the lesson to be taught by this request. (The Rabbi's Bible p.40)
According to the Rambam the binding of Isaac illustrated the true meaning of the concept of the fear of God. "Fear of God," or in Hebrew " yirat shamayim," is not an expression of fear in the sense of being afraid but rather fear as a sense of overwhelming awe and respect. As the Rambam explains, Abraham had been asked to sacrifice his beloved, longed-for child. Additionally, Abraham had been promised that a great nation would descend from him and yet he was commanded to sacrifice his descendent. The Rambam explained that Abraham demonstrated his complete faith in God, and God's promises, by obeying this command. (Studies in Bereshit, Leibowitz p. 188-9)
God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but God did not request that this be carried out immediately. God told Abraham to journey to a place that would be pointed out to him, a journey that took three days to complete. As Rabbi Akiba taught, Abraham was tested unequivocally, that people might not say that God confused and perplexed Abraham [with this command] so that he did not know what to do. Abraham journeyed three days, ample time for reflection and thought about what he had been asked to do. (Midrash Rabbah on Genesis LV:6)
Saadia Gaon taught that God wished to demonstrate Abraham's righteousness to humankind by this trial. Ibn Ezra disagreed with Saadia Gaon stating, "Was not the Gaon aware that when Abraham was to sacrifice his son there was no one present, not even his servant?" Responding to his own question, Ibn Ezra explained that this trial was narrated in the Torah as testimony of the living God, it is as if the trial took place in the presence of every Jew, past, present, and future." (Studies in Bereshit, Leibowitz p. 190)
Ultimately, the sacrifice did not take place. As Abraham was about to slay Isaac a voice called from Heaven commanding him not to harm his son. In the midrash, Abraham questions why he was tested in this way. God's response was,
"That the world might know why I chose you from all others... when they witnessed your loyalty and trust in Me.... And also because there are those who offer their first-born to their gods. I, the God of Righteousness, do not wish such offerings. You suffered an agony of fear that the world might know that human sacrifice is an abomination to Me." (Midrash Tanhuma as found in The Rabbi's Bible p. 41)
To Talk About
- Ibn Ezra stated that each of us is a witness to this event. How does witnessing a test like this effect you and your Judaism?
- Why do you think Abraham was tested? Reread the Commentary section; what reasons do the commentators suggest? What explanation resonates most clearly for you? How would you justify this testing of Abraham?
- What would you have done if you were in Abraham's shoes?
- Do you think that God asked too much of Abraham? What about Isaac, who was essentially silent during this entire event, save his asking Abraham where the ram was for the sacrifice, to which Abraham replied, "God will see to the ram, my son." Do you think this was as much a test for Isaac as it was for Abraham? Why or why not? Explain.
- Abraham obeyed God and Isaac obeyed Abraham. What are or what should be the limits of obedience? What level of obedience do you expect from your children? What level of obedience do your parents expect? Discuss.
Try creating your own midrash about Akedat Itzhak. If Isaac had been given more of a voice what would he have said? What other questions would he have asked his father? Consider the role of Sarah. If she had been an active participant in this story what would she have said or done?
Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110