The story of Abraham and Isaac, known as the Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac), or Akedah in Jewish tradition, has long haunted the imaginations and consciences of Jews and Christians. The Torah recounts in suspenseful, harrowing prose God’s request to Abraham that he slaughter his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice. Abraham famously acquiesces and takes Isaac up Mt. Moriah to a makeshift altar. He is stopped by an angel of God at the last moment. Do not stretch out your hand against the child, the angel says, you have passed the test.
What exactly is the test? How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Are we supposed to applaud Abraham for the seemingly horrifying willingness to kill his own son? In the days of ISIS and other forms of violence across the religious spectrum these questions gain a new urgency. I want to suggest that the point of this story is somewhat different than most of us take it to be, and that there is still something important to learn from it 3,ooo years or so on from the events it purports to describe.
Growing up in a Jewish context I was told that this story has two main points: 1) Abraham’s incredible faith in God; and 2) God’s lesson that Israel was not to sacrifice its children in religious ceremonies, unlike the tribes that Israel would later dispossess in the land of Canaan. I agree that these two points are among the lessons of the story. But they still leave many questions which Jewish and Christian thinkers have struggled with.
Kierkegaard famously opens his masterpiece Fear and Trembling with several re-imaginings of the story. What really happened? In one harrowing version Kierkegaard imagines Abraham indeed carrying Isaac up the mountain but before drawing the knife confessing to Isaac that he, Abraham, is in fact a fraud- an idolater and a violent man, and he intends to sacrifice Isaac to an idol. Better he not believe such a thing true of God and believe me evil instead, Abraham reasons.
In some Jewish versions the Rabbis notice that Abraham is described returning from the mountain but Isaac is not mentioned. He remained alone on the mountain, scarred by what happened and unwilling to descend, say some. Others, more shockingly: Abraham did kill him.
Mainstream Jewish tradition has always affirmed Abraham’s virtuousness in the story, though the horror of it continued to surface in Jewish midrash. As an old man Isaac was blind because His eyes were weakened by the sight of the angel that saved him. Or: His eyes were ruined by tears shed because his father was willing to sacrifice him.
Surely in all of our imaginings the shadow that haunts us is this: how could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice his son, and what kind of faith is this willing to do such a thing? Is this faith actually commendable? Let’s look at the story in more detail.
God calls Abraham personally and unequivocally. Abraham responds: Hineni!, “Here I am!” a phrase which in Hebrew suggests total availability. At this point in his life Abraham has shown himself to have deep faith in God. God has been at times inscrutable and God’s time frame in delivering promises has tested Abraham’s trust, but Abraham has trusted and has thus far followed God’s voice, and his trust has proven trustworthy.
God opens without preamble to a shocking request: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…..God’s wording is strange. Why does he not just say “take Isaac”? God’s wording bears within it explicit reference to the intense meaning of Isaac for Abraham. Isaac is his son (his first son Ishmael is lost to him now). Isaac is his “only one”, his only son, who carries the whole weight of Abraham’s life into the future. Whom you love. Isaac is not just the bearer of Abraham’s legacy; Abraham dearly loves him.
Why does God speak this way? It is as if he is affirming Abraham’s feelings and signalling that He understands them. I think God speaks this way, counter-intuitive as it might at first seem, to evoke Abraham’s trust. In other words, at the moment that supremely tests Abraham’s faith he speaks in such a way as to simultaneously support it. As we shall see, it is essential that Abraham be reminded of what we could call the humane nature of God.
Most amazing is Abraham’s response to the request. Early the next morning Abraham woke up and loaded his donkey. Abraham indeed responds with trust. What, though, is the exact nature of that trust? Does Abraham believe that whatever God ordains is good, and so he must comply? Is Abraham’s trust a simple submission to God’s inscrutable but always authoritative will? That was the way the text was presented to me as a child, and I think it is a very common reading. I also think it is wrong. Is this not the same Abraham who argued with God over the punishment of Sodom? The same Abraham who called out the challenge, will not the judge of the world deal justly?
I believe the text itself tells us the nature of Abraham’s trust in the next harrowing moment in the story, surely one of the most spine tingling in all religious literature.
Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain together alone. Isaac seems to intuit that something strange is going on. Perhaps Abraham’s hand trembles. Perhaps Isaac has heard stories of Canaanites who offer their children as sacrifices. Father? he asks.
Yes, my son?
The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?
Abraham’s answer holds the key to the whole story. YHVH himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he replies. Adonai yireh, he literally says, God will see to it.
When I was a child I thought this answer was evasive and meant to reassure Isaac. It wasn’t until I read Yoram Hazony’s discussion of it (in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) that the scales fell from my eyes. Hazony argues simply that Abraham is here saying exactly what he means. God will see to it. Abraham does not believe that YHVH will actually require him to sacrifice Isaac. This is likewise why Abraham explicitly tells his servants not just to wait, but says, “we will return to you.”
To believe that YHVH will in the end truly ask that heinous deed of Abraham would contradict everything Abraham believes about Him. Abraham’s trust is not just about trusting in God. It is about trusting in God’s character. The point of the monotheism of Israel is not just that there is one God. It is not a religion finally about the nature of divine authority- about its singularity. Judaism is not a numbers game. Israel’s monotheism is the belief that the universe is ruled by one good God, that any God worth worshipping is a God of love and justice.
The fact that what is central to Abraham’s trust is his trust in God’s character is proven by his reaction when God does indeed send an animal in Isaac’s place. Abraham names the spot to commemorate the wonder of what has happened. He does not name it “test passed.” He names it, “God will see to it (adonai yireh).” God will provide the sacrifice. That is the central meaning of what has happened to Abraham: He, Abraham, was right. Right about God’s character. Right about God’s justice. Right about God’s promises and faithfulness. Right about God’s intelligibility.
The test that YHVH set for Abraham is significantly different than we might have thought. It is not in the final analysis a test of Abraham’s submissiveness. It is a test of Abraham’s faith: its nature and its object. It is as if God is speaking through the test to Abraham, and he is asking the question, Do you know me?
God is not interested in mere submission. What God wants is for Abraham to know His heart. God does not want Abraham just to trust Him, but to trust Him for the right reasons. God wants Abraham to know who He is trusting. In the story of the Akedah God does not just test the nature of Abraham’s faith, He also vindicates and reveals His own character.
Imagine that you wake one night to find your house on fire. You grab your sleeping infant and turn around to find your wife trapped in a part of the room that is becoming engulfed in flames. “Hand me the baby!”, she says.
Your reaction will tell us everything about your opinion of your wife. If you trust her with your life (and the life of your baby) you will hand over the baby to her even though it seems that this is a homicidal act. So you do, and she then passes the baby out the window into the arms of waiting firemen you couldn’t see.
If you believe your wife to be irrational or even delusional you will not pass the baby to her. Your trusting aquiescence, or lack of it, tells us about your understanding of her character and your consequent faith in her (or lack of). This is the meaning of the last line of the story of the Akedah: now I know that you revere YHVH, because you have not withheld your only son from me.
In CS Lewis’ The Final Battle a cunning ape named Shift convinces a gullible, weak donkey named Puzzle to dress up like Aslan the lion, the spiritual ruler and creator of Narnia. The Narnians are well aware that Aslan is “not a tame lion” so when he begins making questionable, even violent requests many Narnians go along with it. Their instincts rebel and they feel sick, but who, after all, can understand the inscrutable Aslan?
Lewis brilliantly depicts the trap of perceiving God as above morality, a God of absolute power beyond good and evil. If God is not “tame”, i.e. does not conform to human demands and expectations, then who are we to judge his actions? In the end God may request anything of us, which means that his “representatives” may request anything of us.
Kierkegaard’s analysis approaches the truth of the story but also obscures it. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard correctly asserts that Abraham surrenders his son, his family obligations, his ethics and even his very self in a transcendent trust of God. His brilliant insight is that Abraham does not do this merely as a “knight of resignation” who acquiesces out of his sense of nothingness before God. Abraham acts as a “knight of faith” who against all rational evidence trusts that since God has promised him Isaac God will deliver- Isaac will somehow be returned to him in this world.
Kierkegaard is right in thinking that the nature of Abraham’s faith transcends normal reasoning and is based in a trust that he will not lose Isaac because God has promised him Isaac and will not himself be unfaithful. He is wrong though in considering this a “suspension of the ethical” or a trust which is entirely irrational or absurd. This line of thinking actually obscures the nature of Abraham’s faith as routed in an apprehension of the supremely ethical nature of God.
The Akedah teaches us about what Abraham believed of God’s character, and what God wanted him to believe. The point is not submission, not obedience beyond reason. Abraham trusts God not just because He is God, but because Abraham knows God. Abraham has seen God’s character and believes in Him as a God of grace and justice. Abraham trusts that God will not ask him to do something unjust, capricious, or immoral. If it appears that that is what God is asking than the reality must be otherwise, and Abraham complies and trusts, waiting to be proven right. God Himself will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, son. And He does. Abraham proves the nature of his faith, and God proves the nature of His faithfulness. The kind of faith that God wants is not simple obedience to pure authority, but a knowing and intelligent trust in His nature as love.