Few episodes in the Torah have the power to fascinate, disturb, and even encourage us that the Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac, has. (Genesis 22:1-19) This tale of terror tests not only the central characters but readers as well. The story implicitly asks us how we would react in the same situation. An aged father receives a divine call to offer his son as a sacrifice. At the last possible moment, another divine voice intervenes to prevent the sacrifice, praises Abraham for his obedience, and promises him and his offspring abundant blessings for the future. The questions is, Why does an omniscient God, who surely knows Abraham very well, require such a test? And why does Abraham (and for that matter Isaac) respond to it the way he does? What can we learn from this story?
Surely the oldest way to interpret the story is expressed by those rabbis who celebrate Abraham for his exemplary devotion to God. The testing of Abraham is necessary because God really does not know the outcome, because God's merely knowing the outcome is not enough to silence Satan―who casts aspersions on Abraham's untested devotion (Sanhedrin 89b, Rashi on Genesis 22:1)―or because only Abraham's actual compliance can justify the future blessings that God promises to shower upon Abraham and his descendants. (Yehuda Halevi, Kuzari 5:20; Ramban on Genesis 22:1) Abraham obeys God's will even though his doing so would result in sacrificing not only the life of his beloved son but also his own future in this world and in the world to come, since the death of Isaac would obviously bring the line of Abraham and Sarah to an end and would likely hasten Abraham's death, just as believing that Isaac was dead hastened Sarah's.
A second interpretive tradition largely rejects this explanation by questioning its main assumptions. According to this tradition, Abraham fundamentally misunderstood what was being asked of him. While God did call upon him to take Isaac up to the mountain, God never asked him to slaughter Isaac, only to prepare him as a burnt offering (veha'alehu le'olah). Presumably, God wanted to see how Abraham would interpret the request le'olah as well as what he would do in response. By the time the angel appears, it is no wonder that the midrash depicts Abraham as confused and frustrated. The midrash says that God at that time was really saying:
When I told you, 'Take your son...,' I was not changing My promise that you would have descendants through Isaac. I did not tell you to slaughter him but rather to take him up to the top of the mountain. You have indeed taken him up. Now take him down again. ( Genesis Rabbah 56:8 and Rashi on Genesis 22:12)
Thus the point of the story is that we need to learn how to interpret carefully what God wants of us without doing harm in the process. This is never as clear or as simple as it might seem, no matter how well-meaning, faithful, or distinguished one may be. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, strongly criticizes Abraham's behavior on ethical grounds. Kant maintains that "we ought ... to do a thing not because God wills it but because it is righteous and good in itself-and it is because it is good in itself that God wills it and demands it of us." (Kant, Lectures on Ethics, London: 1930, p. 22) Since even preparations to slaughter one's son are patently immoral by this standard, the story of the Akeidah seems to have no lesson worth learning, and certainly not a rational or moral one.
According to recent interpreters of the Akeidah, Abraham's preparations to sacrifice Isaac are viewed as even more than a misunderstanding or even a moral lapse-they are identified as a sign of serious mental derangement. Thus, for example, Michael Lerner sees Abraham as victimizing Isaac because of an unconscious compulsion on Abraham's part to repeat in reverse his own earlier experience of victimization inflicted by King Nimrod, who, according to the midrash, condemned the young Abraham to die in a fiery furnace for rebelling against the state religion of idolatry. (Genesis Rabbah 38:13) Moreover, the voice that told Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice was not really the voice of God but a projection of his own mind. Only the angel truly represented Adonai. (Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, New York, 1994, pp. 41-45 and Jon Levenson, "Abusing Abraham...," p. 262 ff.) Burton Visotzky likewise stresses the psychological dimensions of the story but mainly because he is interested in moral development. Visotzky depicts Abraham as an inwardly depressed child abuser, whose God hovers in the background as a convenient alibi for his own tyrannical behavior. That is why Visotzky pays relatively little attention to the appearance of the angel with God's mandate that Isaac be spared. (Burton Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development, New York, 1996, pp. 102-111 and Jon Levenson, "Abusing Abraham...," p. 262 ff.)
The third interpretive tradition views the Akeidah more as an illustration or example of faithfulness than as a test of faith. Thus the midrash presents Rav Jose the Galilean as saying that the meaning of the words Veha'Elohim nissah et Avraham, (usually rendered as "And God put Abraham to the test") [Genesis 22:1] is really "God exalted Abraham like a ship's ensign." (Genesis Rabbah 55:6) This means that God raised Abraham up like a flag or banner for all to see, in effect making Abraham a standard bearer or role model for people to follow. Accordingly, Maimonides tells us that the purpose of all trials is to let people know what they ought to do or what they ought to believe. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Chicago, 1963, part 3:24, p. 498)
Admittedly, these three traditions of interpreting the Akeidah do not exhaust all the ways in which the Akeidah story can be read. But they do embrace a great many of them, and they also help us clarify our thoughts about what we ought to believe. Doing that is important because as the story of Abraham itself makes clear, what we believe or do not believe can often make the difference between life and death, safety and danger, joy and despair.
At the time of this writing in 1998, Rabbi Barry Kogan was Professor of Philosophy and Jewish thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH.