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THE BINDING OF ISAAC - THE NON-EVENT THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

 

As with many stories in Genesis, the Binding of Isaac story (the Akeida) is multidimensional, and its 19 sentences contain layer upon layer of profound ideas.

 

The story of the Binding of Isaac is familiar to most Bible readers.  Yet this very familiarity can lead to the misconception that this is a very simple and straightforward account; but this is far from being the case.  As with many stories in Genesis, the Binding of Isaac story (the Akeida) is multidimensional, and its 19 sentences contain layer upon layer of profound ideas.

It is also a jewel of literary composition.  The literary format of Torah stories is little emphasized by traditional Jewish orthodox exegetes, possibly because they viewed these stories solely from an historic perspective.  However, appreciation of their literary format can aid considerably in appreciating the messages these stories were designed to impart.  

 The basics of this story are as follows: as a test, God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac.  Just before the knife is plunged into Isaac’s body, God calls to Abraham to stop and admits that this was a test of his fear of God.  Abraham is promised blessings for his descendants.  The participants in this drama depart from the scene.

There is a fundamental question that needs to be asked at the outset.  How could a moral God command Abraham to do such an immoral act as to kill his own son?   

 

One answer in particular provides a perspective on this and other early Biblical stories.  Many of the early stories in Genesis were written as polemics against prevailing pagan customs.  At the time the Torah was given, child sacrifice in Canaan was not considered an immoral act but the very height of religious devotion.  The Akeida story is a polemic against this pagan notion.

 

Child sacrifice was not routinely practiced in the main centers of ancient civilization, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  The religion of these ancient civilizations promoted the interests of the ruling class, and killing their own children was not part of this self-interest.  Moreover, nature was favorably disposed to both these countries, and both were well endowed with water for drinking and irrigation via their main rivers so that the people in these countries felt no need to appease their gods.  However, the situation was very different in Canaan and its inhabitants were far more dependent on the vagaries of the weather and its effect on their land’s fertility.  Rain and fertility were controlled by the gods, and this resulted in a far more devotional approach to religious practice; including child sacrifice.

 

The attitude of the Torah to this practice was unequivocal – child sacrifice is completely forbidden: 

 

Do not give any of your children to be passed through [the fire] to Molech for you must not profane the name of your God. 1 am the Lord.” (Lev. 18:21)

 

It is possible that “the passing through the fire to Molech” described here did not necessarily entail certain death but was more of a devotional trial.  Nevertheless, it did run the risk of death for these children if they misstepped.1   The following sentences, though, seem to describe certain death through child sacrifice:

 

“You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:31)  

 

Despite the admonitions of the Torah, pagan child sacrifice was certainly practiced in the Jewish state during the First Temple period.  A revealing passage in the Book of Kings reads as follows:

 

“And it was at the time of Solomon’s old age, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not whole with the Lord, His God, like the heart of David his father…..  Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab on the mountain that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. And so he did for all of his alien wives who offered incense and slaughtered sacrifices to their deities.” (I Kings 11:7-8)

 

The Bible does not state here that Solomon actually worshipped at these pagan sites, but only that he constructed them for the use of his multiple alien wives.  Nevertheless, Solomon would seem to have given approbation to pagan worship only a short distance from his Holy Temple. 

 

From the book of Jeremiah it is apparent that a favored place for children sacrifice in the southern kingdom of Judah was the Valley of Ben Hinnom.  This valley is just outside the walls of the present Old City.  It is from the name of Ben Hinnom’s Valley and the gruesome acts performed there that the name Gehinnom (or hell) is derived. 

 

“And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart. Therefore behold, the days are coming," says the Lord, "when it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Tophet until there is no room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32) 

 

The Medieval commentator Rashi explains how child sacrifice to Molech was practiced as follows: 

Tophet is Molech, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.” 

 

The extent to which these rites penetrated into the northern kingdom of Israel in late Biblical times is seen from this passage in Ezekiel: 

And you took your sons and your daughters whom you bore to Me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? You slaughtered my children and made them pass through (the fire) to the idols.” (Ezekiel 16:20-21)

 

The Book of Kings relates that this rite was even practiced by the monarchs of Northern Israel and we are talking here about the echelons of society:

 

He (Ahaz) walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and also he passed his son through fire following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.” (2 Kings 16:3) 

 

Not surprisingly, child sacrifice in the Valley of Ben Hinnom would become an immediate target during periods of religious reform in the Southern Kingdom:

He (King Josiah) desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to Molech.” (2 Kings 23:10)

 

But how did the Torah justify its extremely negative approach to child sacrifice, since at first glance it would seem to be an extremely devotional act? 

 

The purpose of child sacrifice was to appease Molech by offering that which was most precious to a person – his own child.  Even from a monotheistic perspective, it is possible to argue that since God is the source of all fertility, He is at liberty to request the return of that gift.  In fact, this may well have been one of Abraham’s justifications for following through with God’s request.  

 

Nevertheless, the message of the Torah is very clear – God did indeed provide a son for Abraham; nevertheless, killing that son is never an option even within the framework of religious devotion.

 

Unlike pagan gods, the Jewish Deity does not need to be appeased by material gifts.  But how then can one earn His favor?  The Torah is clear on this matter too.  Adhering to His commandments and walking in His ways brings in its wake material benefit.  In fact, this may well be the reason why there is so much emphasis in the Torah on the topic of rainfall and agricultural blessing.  

 

In our time we are often confused as to why the Torah places such emphasis on material rather than spiritual rewards for adhering to the Torah’s commands.  However, these rewards have to be viewed within the context of prevailing pagan ideas.  Appeasing the gods brings prosperity and fertility.  Hence, the Torah also emphasizes that keeping to God’s commands brings agricultural bounty.

 

Animal sacrifice

 

A new and radical idea in the evolution of religion is found in the Akeida account. 

 

In pagan times, the burnt meat of a sacrifice was considered to be “food” for the gods and this gift served to appease the gods.  

 

This is beautifully illustrated in the Gilgamesh myth when Ut-napishtim exits his boat and offers a sacrifice on the occasion of his delivery: 

The gods smelled the odor, the gods smelled the sweet odor and they gathered together like flies over the sacrifice.” (Gilgamesh, tablet XI)

 

During the duration of the flood the gods had been without food.  Now, because of their hunger, they gather around Ut-napishtim’s sacrifice like flies!

 

By contrast, the Torah teaches teaches that the purpose of this animal sacrifice is not appeasement of the Deity but a vicarious form of self-sacrifice and the devotion attending this can be on a par with that achieved by child sacrifice.  

 

In the Binding of Isaac story an olah animal sacrifice is offered by Abraham “instead of his son.”  In an olah sacrifice the entire animal goes up in flames to God.  In effect, Abraham is now offering up the blood and flesh of an animal in lieu of the blood and flesh of his son. 

 

Nachmanides explains matters in this way: 

All the acts are performed in order that when they are done, a person should realize that he has sinned against God with his body and his soul, and that “his” blood should really be spilled and “his” body burned, were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator, Who took from him a substitute and a ransom, namely this offering, so that its blood should be in place of his blood, its life in place of his life, and that the chief limbs of the offering should be in place of the chief parts of his body.”2

 

Support for this idea comes from the laying of hands on the sacrifice.  The laying and leaning of hands on the animal’s head is a first step in an individual’s animal sacrifice and serves to transfer the persona of the individual offering the sacrifice onto the animal.3

 

Laying of hands can also symbolize transfer of authority as described in these sentences from the Torah:   

 

Single out Joshua son of Nun and lay your hand (vesamakhta) upon him. Have him stand before Elazar the priest, and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole community may obey…  Moses did as the Lord commanded him  …. He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him – as the Lord had spoken through Moses.” (Numbers 27:18-23)

 

Nevertheless, the concept that a sacrifice is food for God never disappeared entirely from the Bible, although its meaning is in a far more metaphorical sense than that understood by Israel’s pagan neighbors: 

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command the Israelite people and say to them: Be punctilious in presenting to Me at stated times the offering of food due Me, as offerings by fire of pleasing odor to Me in its appointed time …….  as a perpetual olah every day, two yearly lambs without blemish…..  It is the continual olah that was done at Mt. Sinai, for a satisfying aroma, a fire offering to God.” (Numbers 28:1-6) 

 

Animal sacrifice is often scorned upon nowadays as a primitive form of worship.  However, once one appreciates what the oleh sacrifice was attempting to achieve, it can be seen that it was a very meaningful ritual and one that is only poorly imitated by the forms of worship we have today.  

The literary format of the Akeida story

 

The Akeida account is built around a three-fold repetition of a group of sentences possessing similar form. 

 

Each of the group of sentences consists of an exclamation by God or Isaac calling upon Abraham either by name or just as “father,” followed by Abraham’s immediate reply “I am fully here for you!” (הִנֵּנִי) (hineini).  

This is followed by a request by God or a question by Isaac.  Finally, there is quick-fire action by Abraham expressed by a string of 5 to 6 verbs. 

 

This literary format serves to fill in important details about the attributes and state of mind of the principal players, thereby highlighting the messages being promoted by the story.  

 

The first of the triad opens up the story and expands upon Abraham’s character and his relationship with God and his son:

God says: “Abraham!”

Abraham replies: “Here I am.” (הִנֵּנִי) (hineini).  

God requests that he bring up Isaac as an offering.

Abraham: arises early, saddles his donkey, chops the wood, arises, and goes to “the place”. (Genesis 22:1-4)

 

The Medieval exegete Rashi explains that the multiple verbs in the final sentence of this grouping emphasize Abraham’s loving devotion in carrying out this mission.  He arises “early in the morning” rather than tardily, and He himself saddles his donkey, gets the wood, and chops it, rather than subordinating these tasks to his servants as befitting his status.4  

 

The second of the triad occurs in the middle of the story and it maintains the tension that has been building up regarding Abraham’s love for his precious son versus his desire to fulfill God’s request to kill him.  This particular grouping of sentences also tells us much about Isaac and his relationship with his father and with God:

 

Isaac says: “Father!” 

Abraham replies: “Here I am, my son” (הִנֵּנִי) (hineini).  

Isaac questions the whereabouts of the sacrifice.

Abraham: builds the altar, arranges the wood, binds Isaac, places Isaac on the altar, stretches out his hand, and takes the knife. (Genesis 22:7-10)

 

Abraham is as much available for Isaac as he is for God and immediately answers “Here I am, my son.”  Isaac now questions his father as to where the lamb is for the sacrifice and receives an ambiguous answer  - “God will see the lamb for Himself for the offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8)  

 

It is likely that at this stage Isaac becomes suspicious that he is to be the sacrifice.5  Despite his suspicions, however, there is no hint in the text of Isaac objecting in any way.  He could easily have cried out or resisted, especially when he finds himself being bound to the altar.  

 

The story reaches its climax with the third group of sentences as God calls out again to Abraham.  This time there is urgency to the situation as the knife is outstretched ready to slaughter Isaac.  God calls out to him twice “Abraham, Abraham!”  reflecting this urgency.  The focus is once again on the interaction between Abraham and God, but this time it is also God who is subject to textual analysis! 

God says: “Abraham! Abraham!

Abraham replies: “Here I am.” (הִנֵּנִי) (hineini).  

God’s comment.

Abraham: raises his eyes, sees a ram, goes to the ram, takes it, offers the ram instead of his son. (Genesis 22:11-13)

 

There is no let down and no complaints.  Abraham seems almost emotionless and remains completely centered on what God wants from him.  The camera now turns to God.   He is the one who initiated this test.  What are His plans now for the future?

 

One answer relates to the blessings he now bestows upon Abraham.  But another answer may lie in the different meanings of the verb “to see;” since the verb “to see” is an important one in this story.   

 Abraham “sees” on two occasions and God also “sees” on two occasions. 

“On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and he saw (וַיַּרְא ) (vayar) the place (הַמָּקוֹם) (hamokom) from afar.” (Genesis 22:4)

 

But how did Abraham recognize “the place” he was supposed to find, since at least from the words of the Torah no instructions were given?  A suggestion is that Abraham had sufficient religious sensitivity to appreciate God’s presence from afar.  One midrash even suggests a Godly cloud hovered above the mountain.7 

 

After God calls upon Abraham to desist from killing his son, Abraham experiences another “seeing” – this time a ram:

And Abraham raised his eyes and he saw (וַיַּרְא) (vayar)  – and behold a ram! afterwards, caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering instead of his son. (Genesis 22:13)

 

However, it is not only Abraham who is “seeing” during this story but also God.  When Isaac questions his father as to the nature of his offering to God, Abraham tells him:

“ Elokim will see for Himself (i.e. seek out/provide for Himself) (יִרְאֶה לּו)) (yire lo) the lamb for the offering, my son,” and the two of them went together.” (Genesis 22:8)  

 

The words “yireh lo” (יִרְאֶה לּו)) mean literally  “He will see to Himself,” but more true to the meaning may be “He will see to it Himself” or “He will choose or provide.” 

 

Finally, after offering up the ram, Abraham immortalizes the significance of the moment and gives a name to “that place,” again in a manner related to “seeing.”

 

And Abraham called the name of that place “YKVK will see (Òיִרְאֶה),” as it is said to this day, on the mountain YKVK will be seen (בְּהַר ה יֵרָאֶה) (behar YKVK yeroeh).” (Genesis 22:14)

 

But what did God “see to/provide”?   It could have been the location of Mount Moriah.  More likely, Abraham is referring back to the ram that God provided and that was also “seen” by Abraham.  

 

Now, viewing the expanse of Torah history, a popular folk saying recognized a further dimension to God’s “seeing”.  

“….. as it is said this day: on the mountain YKVK will be seen.” (Genesis 22:14)

 

Not only does God arrange matters to their successful conclusion, but in the future He will appear or cause Himself to be seen on this special mountain.  

 

But when is “this day” on which this saying was initiated?  The most logical answer is that the Bible is referring back to the time the Torah was presented on Mount Sinai.  Nevertheless, the way this sentence is written does endow it with a certain timelessness, and the verse may well be telling us that in the future God will be seen in whatever place of worship he chooses to attach His name to.8

 

So far we have translated this phrase as “on the mountain, God will be seen.”  However, it is also possible to read it as “on the mountain of God, will be seen,” with the subject of the “will be seen” being not God but the Jewish people. 

 

In fact, the Jewish people are in fact instructed to appear before God three times a year and the Torah uses the very same word yero’e (to be seen) (יֵרָאֶה):

 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains matters in this way:

Even when we, and where we, do not see, God sees, freely and willingly have we to subordinate our own judgment to His ……..  Thrice yearly, he will be seen ( יֵרָאֶה) (yeroeh), every son of Abraham and Isaac must be seen on this mount  and not empty handed, with mere inner passing devotion, but with the sacrificing dedication of the whole of his being as expressed in the olah re’iyah.”9 

 

God and the Jewish people are involved in a mutual pursuit of “seeing”.  We show ourselves on His mountain and look out for Him, while He looks out for us in terms of our spiritual needs.  There is also the anticipation that on a holy mountain He ups the ante so to speak and makes His presence recognized.

 

From the very beginning of the story a tension is evident between Abraham’s paternal instincts towards the son he has been asked to slaughter and his willingness to perform God’s command.  This tension is maintained throughout the narrative by three other literary forms that also serve to highlight the monumental challenge that Abraham has been asked to overcome and the willingness of Isaac to cooperate with his father’s mission.

 

One of these literary forms is the phrase Abraham and Isaac “went together” (Óיַחְדָּו) (yachdov) which is repeated three times.  

 

At the beginning of the story, it is unlikely that Isaac has any suspicion that he is to be the sacrifice, and his togetherness with his father reflects their usual mode of interaction:

 

And Abraham took the wood for the offering and placed it on Isaac his son, and the two of them went together (åיַחְדָּו) (yachdov). (Genesis 22:6) 

 

Isaac now questions his father about the sacrifice.  However, even when his suspicions are aroused, he still goes “together” with his father; such was the bond between them that Isaac goes willingly to be sacrificed:6 

 

And Abraham said: Elokim will see (or seek out) for Himself ( יִרְאֶה-לּו ) (yireh lo) the lamb for the offering, my son,” and the two of them went Ótogether (יַחְדָּו) (yachdov). (Genesis 22:8) 

 

Finally, in the very last sentence of the Akeida story, as they wend their way home they are still “together” - there are no recriminations.  

 

Abraham returned to the young men, and they stood up and went together (יַחְדָּו) (yachdov) to Beersheba, and Abraham dwelled in Beersheba. (Genesis 22:19) 

 

Another literary form is the constant repetition of the word “his son” when the text could just as easily have said “Isaac.”  In fact, the story repeats the words “his son” eight times.

 

This repetition may also have another function.  Psychologically, Abraham could have acceded to God’s request to slaughter his son in a number of ways.  Probably the easiest would have been for him to block out from his mind the notion that Isaac still belonged to him.  Isaac now belongs to God.  However, this is not the way that Abraham thought.  The text goes out if its way to draw attention to the fact that mentally Isaac still existed in Abraham’s mind as his “son”. 

 

The third form is that God twice points out to Abraham that Isaac is his “only one.”  Ishmael was expelled from the home many years previously, so Isaac is indeed his only son in his home.  This phrase is found once when He calls upon Abraham to participate in the test  - “And He said: “Please take your son, your only one (אֶת-יְחִידְךָ) (et yechidcha), whom you love – Isaac –  ….” (Genesis 22:2), and again when God acknowledges that he has passed the test:  “since you have not withheld your son, your only one (אֶת-יְחִידְךָ) (et yechidcha) from Me.”  (Genesis 22:12)  

 

It is instructive to pose the question - what is the significance of the Akeida story being written in this way with such of an abundance of literary forms?

 

In earlier chapters it was suggested that this type of literary formalism is indicative of poetry, since pure history is not usually written in this way.  But if an account is not pure history, then what else can it be?  Could it be that the Akeida is an allegoric account? 

 

According to Jewish belief, Abraham is firmly rooted in history and an allegoric Abraham is unacceptable.  In fact, much of the direction of Jewish history, including the Exodus, is based on God recalling the attributes of the forefathers.  This could only be possible if they were historic people who did historic things.  Nevertheless, is it still possible for an historic Biblical person to function in an allegoric way such that his actions have significance and meaning for the rest of Jewish history?  Nachmanides has opined that this is indeed the case for many of the stories in Genesis, but he provides no explanation as to how this is logically possible.10  

 

A suggestion.  Could it be that the forefathers were so attuned to God’s ways and what God wanted of them that they functioned not only historically but also in a allegorical way such that their actions became examples for and indications of future Jewish history? When the Torah waxes stylistic this is a place in particular to notice this allegorical style.

But where is “the place”?

 

The question seems a no-brainer.   Where is “the place” (הַמָּקוֹם) (hamakom) where the offering of Isaac took place?  In Jerusalem of course, on Mount Moriah, where the Holy Temple is destined to be built! 11  

 

The tradition regarding the location of the Akeida is first recorded in the Book of Chronicles.  Mount Moriah is where God “appeared” to King David, the mountain on which David bought the threshing floor, and where Solomon built his temple: 

And Solomon commenced to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah (הַמֹּרִיָּה), where He had appeared to his father David, which he had prepared in David’s place, in the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” (II Chronicles 3:1) 

 

It is noteworthy that “the place” in the Akeida is always described with a definite article.  It is not “a place” but “the place,” a special location.      

 

“The place” is first mention in the Akeida at the beginning of the story: 

So Abraham arose ………  and went to the place (הַמָּקוֹם) (hamokom) of which God had spoken to him. (Genesis 22:3)

 

The Bible continues:

On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and he saw the place (הַמָּקוֹם) (hamokom) from afar.” (Genesis 22:4)

 

And soon:

 

“They arrived at the place (הַמָּקוֹם) (hamokom) of which God had spoken to him. (Genesis 22:9) 

 

“That place” becomes immortalized when Abraham provides it with a name: 

 

And Abraham called the name of that place (הַמָּקוֹםהַהוּא) (hamakom hahu) “YKVK will see (יִרְאֶה) (yire).” (Genesis 22:14)

 

“That place” is not a random mountain in the “Land of Moriah,” but one specific mountain identified by Abraham with God’s help that has now achieved timeless significance.  

 

It is likely that the forefathers maintained a tradition about this particular “place”, and it is next mentioned in the Torah in relation to Jacob.  Jacob is fleeing from home concerned that his brother Esau intends to kill him after deceiving his father and stealing his brother’s blessing: 

 

“And Jacob departed from Beersheba and went to Haran.  He encountered “the place” (בַּמָּקוֹם) (bamokom) and spent the night there because the sun had set ….“ (Genesis 28:10-11) 

 

Jacob comes upon “the place” fortuitously.  Nevertheless, the fact that he came upon it may be not surprising given that its location is close to the main road leading from Beersheba to the north of Israel.  

 Following his vision of angels on a ladder with God above, Jacob realizes the awesomeness of this special site:

 

“Jacob woke from his sleep and said: “Surely YKVK is in this place (קוֹם הַזֶּה   )  (bamakom hazeh) and I did not know it.”  And he became frightened and said: How awesome is this place (הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה ) (hamakom haze)!  This is none other than the abode of God and this is the gate of the heavens. ……  And he called the name of that place (הַמָּקוֹםהַהוּא) (hamakom hahu) Beth-el; however Luz was the city’s name originally. (Genesis 28:16-19).

 

But there is a difficulty here.  “The place” described in Jacob’s dream is in Luz/Beth-el.  This is some distance from Jerusalem! 

 

Rashi was well aware of this problem and he quotes a midrash that the foot of the ladder which Jacob viewed in his vision was in Beersheba, its upper end was in Beth-el, while the middle section of its incline was over Jerusalem.12  Nevertheless, this is a highly interpretative explanation since there is no mention in the Bible that Jacob’s ladder was set at in incline.  Moreover, if this were indeed the case, it is strange that he names “that place” Beth-el, meaning the House of God, when the House of God is really over Jerusalem.

 

If “the place” is really in Beth-el (and not in Jerusalem) it is the case that Abraham was quite familiar with its location.  After entering the land of Israel, Abraham came first to Shechem, to the Plain of Mamreh, where YKVK appeared to him and where he built an altar.  The Torah continues:

From there he relocated to the mountain east of Beth-el and pitched his tent, with Beth-el on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to YKVK and called on the name of YKVK.” (Genesis 12:8)

 

To maintain a literal understanding of the text there seems to be two alternatives.  One is to assume, as does Rashi, that the Torah’s use of the word “hamakom” (“the place”) for both the Abraham Akeida story and Jacob’s vision of a ladder refers to a single location, in which case it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Akeida took place in Beth-el.  

 

Alternatively, the phrase “the place” does not refer to any one particular location, but to whichever religious site God attaches His name.  The site of the Burning Bush is also called “the place.”  In Deuteronomy, Moses consistently refers to the place of worship where God chooses to put His name as “the place.”  However, more often than not, its use in the Torah is not related to any place of worship.  This means that “the place” is no one particular site.  Hence, the Akeida may well have taken place on Mount Moriah, the site of the future Temple Mount, and Jacob’s vision in Beth-el.   “The place” is wherever God chooses it to be.  In fact, the Torah leaves the Jewish people considerable flexibility in choosing a central place of worship.13  

 

Regardless of which alternative is correct, there is a message here worthy of note.  Throughout Biblical times there were local altars.  However, from the perspective of the Torah it was important that there be only one central place of worship and that local altars be closed down.13  From a practical perspective, it was frequently very difficult to do this.  There were also times when no one central place of worship existed.  Nevertheless, the Akeida prepares the Jewish people for the concept that God involves Himself in choosing His place of worship and will “see to it” that eventually there will be one or “the place”where He will manifest His holiness.  

 

Why was Abraham tested?

 

The opening sentence of the Akeida story tells us that this was a “test.”  Much has been written by Jewish exegetes and philosophers as to what this test was meant to achieve, and this discussion is worth reviewing since it touches on important areas of Jewish thought.

 

There are two general approaches among the commentators.  One is that this test was entirely for the benefit of Abraham.  Nachmanides, for example, elaborates on how this test was intended to bring Abraham’s potential into actuality:

 

“But the Tester, blessed is He, commands the tested party to perform a certain act in order to bring forth the matter of that person’s righteousness from the potential to the actual, so that he should have the reward of having done a good deed and not only the reward of a good heart.” 14  

 

There is much in the Torah to support Nachmanides’ approach.  There are, for example, three other places that discuss God’s testing – although on these occasions it is the Jewish people being tested and not an individual.  In two of them the expressed purpose is for their improvement.  The Hebrew verb “lenasot” means not only to test but also to elevate.

 

Hence, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells of the hardships that the Jewish people endured during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and explains that these were tests of their commitment to the Torah: 

So as to cause you hardship to test you, to know that which was in your hearts whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:12)

 

The purpose of this test was for their own benefit, presumably to bring them to a love and fear of God:15 

“…… so as to cause you hardship, so as to test you, to do you good at your latter end.”(Deuteronomy 8:16)

 

Also in Deuteronomy, Moses discusses the subject of a false prophet and specifically mentions there that this prophet would bring them to the fear and love of God: 

 

If there should stand up in your midst a prophet or a dreamer of a dream --- saying “Let us follow gods of others that you do not know and we shall worship them” ….  do not hearken to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of a dream, for YKVK your God is testing you to know whether you love YKVK your God with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-4)

 

There is another source that Nachmanides could base himself on.  The notion that testing was for self-improvement was discussed hundreds of years previously in a midrash.  This midrash tells us that God is very specific in whom He tests for the sake of improvement, and restricts Himself to those whom He feels are likely to pass:

 

“It is written: “God examines the righteous one, but He despises the wicked and lover of injustice (Psalms 11:5).  Rabbi Yonasan said: the flax maker, when his flax is inferior, does not beat it too much, because it would break if he did so, but when his flax is of superior quality he beats it a great deal. And why does he do this. Because as he beats it, it progressively improves in quality.  So too the Holy One, blessed is He, does not test the wicked.  And why is this?  Because He knows they will not withstand the test.”16  

 

There is another midrash, however, which provides a very different approach:

 

Rabbi Yose HaGelili said: This means that God elevated Abraham like the banner on the masthead of a ship.”16 

 

The word נס (nes) means a flagpole, banner or miracle, and may well be related to the word for testing נסה (nisa) (although it has no ה at the end the word). 

 

This is the approach that is adopted by Maimonides.  Maimonides has great difficulty with the notion that God would deliberately subject a person to hardship in order to improve him since it would seem to negate His attribute of justice.  He therefore proposes a reason for the test which is in line with the idea of Rabbi Yose Hagelili:  

The doctrine of trials is open to great objections; it is in fact more exposed to objections than any other thing taught in Scripture …  People have generally the notion that trials consist in afflictions and mishaps sent by God to man, not as punishment for past sins, but as giving opportunity for great reward.  The principle taught in Scripture is exactly the reverse; for it is said: “He is God of faithfulness, and there is no iniquity in Him (Deut 32:4) ..… The teaching of our Sages, although some of them approve of this general belief, is on the whole against it.  For they say: ”There is no death without sin, and no sin without affliction.”18 

 

Maimonides continues:

 

The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired; it is but an example for our instruction and guidance ..… The account of Abraham our father binding his son ……  shows us the extent and limit of the fear of God.”18

 

The purpose of the Binding of Isaac was not to improve Abraham but to teach the Jewish people the extent to which a person can extend himself in the fear of God.  Indirectly, Abraham’s accomplishment would also be an example to the rest of the world.  

 

I would propose that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive.  Both have validity.  The reason for the test depends on which aspect of God is doing the testing.  YKVK is the personal God of self-improvement.  The purpose of a test by YKVK is to elevate a person and bring him to a greater love and fear of God.  Prior to the tests described in the Torah, this aspect of the people’s devotion was not fully evident.   By contrast, a test by Elokim, the universal aspect of God, is not primarily for self-improvement but for instruction.  

 

The Akeida account opens with a request to Abraham by Elokim, the universal God of humanity, to sacrifice his son.  The name YKVK does appear in this story, but not until Abraham is about to sacrifice his son and an angel of YKVK tells him to desist.  Abraham then offers up a ram that has been caught in a nearby thicket instead of his son.  YKVK is always associated with sacrifices, since this is the aspect of God most associated with a personal relationship between God and man.19  However, this is not the aspect of God that initiated this test.  In this instance, Maimonides’ approach is closer to the intent of the text.

 

It is of interest that a “testing” experience through the Elokim aspect of God is also found in one other place in the Torah - at the theophany at Mount Sinai:

 

The entire people saw the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and trembled and stood from afar. They said to Moses: “You speak to us and we shall hear; let not Elokim speak to us lest we die.” Moses said to the people: “Do not fear, for in order to test you has Elokim come; so that fear of him shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin.” (Exodus 20:15-18)

 

The accompaniments at Sinai were not a matter for self-improvement.  God was already before them and they were petrified for their lives. The fear of God was already upon them.  Rather, the Sinai experience was a demonstration of the power of the Almighty, and the memory of the awesomeness of this event would be maintained for all future generations.20

 

There is one further philosophical problem worth addressing in this section.  God is all-knowing.  He knows all there is to be known about the future, including the outcome of this test.  Why then does the Torah speak as if He really did not know?

“……… for now I know (עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי) (ata yodati) that you are God-fearing (yirei Elokim). (Genesis 22:12) 

 

It would seem from this verse that previously God was not absolutely sure of Abraham’s devotion to Him, but “now” He is sure.  Admittedly, He could have strongly suspected the outcome based on His familiarity with Abraham, but “now” it has been convincingly demonstrated.

 

This question is not specific to Genesis.  In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses, in his discussion of the trials of the Jews wandering forty years in the desert says;  “to know that which was in your hearts whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:12).  Similarly, when speaking of the trial of the false prophet, Moses says: “ …… for YKVK your God is testing you to know whether you love YKVK your God with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 13:4).  

 

It very much sounds from these verses as if God does not know the outcome of these tests.  Admittedly, these verses have been reinterpreted by Jewish exegetes to be compatible with God’s already knowing.21  For example, rather than God knowing, it is the people who will know. However, it can be questioned whether these explanations are convincing enough to ignore the plain meaning of the text. 

 

The question has to be asked - is it is possible that God does not know in advance the result of man’s choices?  He can certainly guess based on His knowledge of what has been.  Doubtless, His guesses will be infinitely more accurate than human guesses - but man’s free choice is never compromised.  

 

The issue is discussed by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah with respect to repentance:

 

One might ask since God knows everything that will occur before it comes to pass, does He or does He not know whether a person will be righteous or wicked?  If He knows that he will be righteous, [it appears] impossible for him not to be righteous. However, if one would say that despite His knowledge that he would be righteous, it is possible for him to be wicked, then His knowledge would be incomplete. ….. we do not have the potential to conceive how God knows all the creations and deeds.  However, this is known without any doubt: That man’s actions are in his hand and God does not lead him or decree that he do anything.”22 

 

According to Maimonides, God knows the future even though everyone has free will.  But is it really possible to have free will if the outcome is already known?  Does this not suggest a deterministic future?  To Maimonides, a question like this has no answer since no one can determine God’s ways.  But is not this no-answer just avoiding providing an answer to the question?

 

Virtually all the classic Jewish commentators agree with Maimonides that God has perfect knowledge of the future, including the results of a person’s free will.  Nevertheless, there is another answer that is more compatible with the plain meaning of the text.  This is that God does not know absolutely the results of a person’s free will.  God functions on the basis of probabilities rather than certainties, but He is so good at mathematics that His estimate of probabilities is almost akin to certainties.  Moreover, in certain circumstances He has the capability of influencing a person’s free will, as for example when “YKVK strengthened the heart of Pharaoh” (Exodus 11:10); so that the future does indeed become knowable. 

 

These are weighty issues, but to my mind a literal reading of the text is preferable to changing its meaning so as to fit into preconceived philosophical concepts.

 

What is “fear of God”?

 

The Akeida story is the ultimate demonstration of Abraham’s “fear of God”:  

And He (the Angel of YKVK) said: “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are an Elokim-fearing person (Òיְרֵאאֱלֹהִים) (yerei Elokim) since you have not withheld your son, íyour only one, from Me.”  (Genesis 22:12)

 

People often do things that appear to be altruistic but which in actuality include elements of self-interest.  Abraham’s offering of his son was definitely not of this nature.  His actions were completely selfless.  In effect, Abraham was sabotaging the very future that had been planned for him: 

 

But what exactly is “fear of God”?  And would not Abraham’s actions be better described as exhibiting love of God?

 

There are commands in the Torah to both love and fear God. Maimonides explains in his writings that fearing God includes two aspects - fear of punishment and awe of the Creator, with the latter being a more elevated aspect of fear than the former.  He also describes how it is possible to both fear and love God, since at first glance they would seem to be mutually exclusive emotions.  The following passage from his Book of Commands explains how fear of God is a natural outcome of loving Him.  

“What is the path to attain love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Him, yearning with tremendous desire to know God’s name, as David stated: “My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God.” (Psalms 42:3). When he continues to reflect on these matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, appreciating how he is a tiny, lowly and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge.”23  

 

However, it is difficult to be sure that Maimonides’ ideas perfectly reflect the narrative sections of the Torah.  

 

The concept of fear of God occurs a number of times in the Pentateuch, even in relation to pagans.  

 

In the chapter before the Akeida story, for example, Abraham arrives in the lands of the Philistine king Abimelech and is concerned that the people there will kill him so that they can take his beautiful wife Sarah into the royal harem.  Abraham decides to tell everyone that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife.  His reason for doing this is stated thus:   

And Abraham said: “Because I said, there is but no fear of God in this place and they will slay me because of my wife.” (Genesis 20:11)

 

But there is no indication from the Bible that Abimelech was monotheistic.  How then could he be “God-fearing”?  

 It may be that our definition of God-fearing has to be adjusted a bit.  The expression that someone is “fearing of Elokim” in the Bible may mean solely that a person acknowledges the existence of a Higher Power in the universe who cares about the moral course of humanity.  

 

Abraham felt the presence of Elokim in the universe around him, recognized that there is a moral directive to the world, and was passionate about fulfilling His every request.  

 

In contrast to the Elokim-aspect of God, YKVK desires not only fear but also love, and how to achieve these two emotion is described by Maimonides in the passage above.  

 

Abraham doubtless felt and displayed love of God.  He also loved people.  Nevertheless, love of God is not the topic of these verses, which are about Abraham’s fulfillment of a directive of Elokim, the God of general providence and the universal God of mankind.24

 

Through the Akeida account we learn how far it is possible for a human being to extend himself in fearing and obeying Elokim, to the extent that Abraham was prepared to sabotage the very future that God had promised him.  In that God retracted His request, we also learn that murdering one’s own son on religious grounds has no place in the fear of God.

 

New blessings for the Jewish people

 

As a result of Abraham’s devotion, God, through His aspect of YKVK, makes a number of promises to Abraham.  Some are new while others are reiterations of promises given previously: 

“The angel of YKVK called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said: “By Myself I swear, declared YKVK, that since you have done this thing and have not withheld our son, your only one, that I shall increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall inherit the gates of its enemy; and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves  (וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ) (vehitborachu)through your seed,because you have listened to My voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18)

 

It is helpful to review the promises made up to now to Abraham in order to appreciate what God is adding here.  These are the blessings in their chronological order:

#1.  “And YKVK said to Abram: “Get yourself from your country, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who curse you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

#2.  “YKVK said to Abram after Lot had parted from him…. For all the land that you see, to you I will give it, and to your descendants forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted.” (Genesis 13:14-16)

#3.  “Then Abram said: “See, to me you have given no offspring; and see, my steward is my heir…  That one will not inherit you ….. And He (YKVK) took him outside and said: “ Gaze, now, towards the heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them” And He said to him; “So shall your offspring be!” (Genesis 15:3-5)

 

In contrast to the three earlier promises, here God swears an oath.  Is there a difference between a promise and an oath?  Commentators suggest that whereas a promise is conditional and depends on the behavior of Abraham’s offspring, an oath is non-conditional and is forever.25  Whether or not this assumption is true, this oath is clearly an intensification of God’s commitment and it is referred to a number of times in the Torah.26

 

Moreover, this blessing is directed in its entirety specifically to Abraham’s offspring, whereas the previous promises were directed to Abraham.  For a moment the very notion that Abraham would have offspring who would perpetuate themselves was hanging in the balance.  This issue has now been resolved and God addresses Himself directly to their future.  The blessing they would increase like the stars in the heaven and the sand by the seashore has been promised previously.  Now, in addition, they will achieve victory over their enemies.  Nevertheless, there is the implication here that there will also be struggle throughout history.  

 

YKVK also promises that all the nations of the earth “through your seed will bless themselves (וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ) (vehitborachu)” (Genesis 12:3 as above).

 

But what does vehitborachu (וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ)mean?  Previously, God had promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed because of Abraham (Genesis 12:3 above).  Now, however, the nations will pray to God: “Please bless us as you blessed the offspring of Abraham.”27 

 

This will have been a hard sell throughout much of Jewish history, particularly during the years in exile.   However, with the return to Zion it has the potential to actually occur when the values that the Jewish people espouse become evident to all – not only as individuals but as a nation.  

 

Admittedly, the Jewish state is frequently rocked with religious-secular conflict.  State religious authorities would also seem to have little to show the non-Jewish world regarding the role of religion in state politics. 

 

Yet this is not quite what we are talking about.  Rather, it is the values that Judaism provides to the political system and to individual behavior that make Judaism worth emulating.

 

Christian America provided many values to the Western world, such as freedom of expression and religious tolerance.  However, America and much of Europe are becoming increasingly secular and value-free.  This is a prescription for the erosion of public values.  In the Muslim world, religion forms the basis of society for many countries.  Yet the values they espouse are not ones that lead to optimally functioning societies.  It is only the Jewish people who possess a working prescription for creating an ideal balance between religious values and everything else that determines the functioning of a state.  

 

Many orthodox Jews look solely at the place of religion in the Jewish state in terms of Sabbath observance, conversion and marriage.  These are important items, but they are not the only ones that influence how a state functions.  

 

The State of Israel is in the process of creating a country in which there is justice for all, regard for human life, freedom for all faiths, equality of the sexes, concern for the poor, healthcare for all, concern about the elderly, ethics in warfare, and a relative absence of corruption.

 

There is a long way to go, but the seeds have been sown to produce a governing system that people from around the world will want to emulate because of the Jewish values it promotes. 

Conclusions

 

This story is only 17 sentences long, but it is one of the greats, if not the greatest, of religious writing.  It is multi-dimensional and contains within it a stream of fundamental ideas.  No other religion has produced anything like it.

  • It taught the Jewish people (and by extension the world) the extent to which a human being can extend himself in the fear of God. 

  • It taught the Jewish people about the non-permissibility of human sacrifice.

  • It introduced the Jewish people to Biblical ideas on animal sacrifice.

  • It taught the Jewish people the ideal of family togetherness for the sake of maintaining the covenant.

  • It taught the Jewish people that God chooses His portal to heaven and that He will attend to matters on His holy mountain.

  • It taught this people that they would have to struggle for their beliefs.

  • It taught this people that the values they espouse would be a source of inspiration to the rest of the world.

 

The Akeida was a turning point in Abraham’s life, akin to his coming to Canaan.  The expression “lech lecho” (go you) (לְךָ-לֶךְ) is found twice in the Torah – once when Abraham is asked to move himself and his family to the Land of Canaan and a second time in the introduction to the Akeida.

 

But in reality the Akeida story was not only a test for Abraham.  It is also a test for all who read this story.  It what way do we measure up to Abraham in his devotion to God?  

 

References  

1.   According to Maimonides, the child was made to pass between bonfires (Mishna Torah, Laws of Idolatry 6:3).  However, Nachmanides suggests that the child was intentionally burnt to death.

2.  Nachmanides Commentary to the Torah to Leviticus 1:9 

3.  Leviticus 1:4, 3:2,8,13, 4:4,15,24,29,33

4.   Rashi notes that Abraham himself saddled the donkey rather than command one of his slaves to do it, for love interrupts the correct order of things (since people deviate from their normal behavior when acting out of love). (Rashi to Genesis 22:3)

5.  Rashi to Genesis 22:8.

6.   By contrast, Rashi sees in this expression of “togetherness” that Isaac was not yet aware (Rashi to Genesis 22:8).

7.  Rashi to Genesis 22:4 based on Midrash Rabbah 56:1.

8.  Rashi to Genesis 22:14.

9.  Commentary to the Torah by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Genesis 22:14. 

10.   Nachmanides, Commentary to the Torah to Genesis 12:16.

11. According to Jewish tradition it was from here that the world expanded into its present form and also where God gathered the dust for the creation of the first human being.  It was also the site of the Akeida. 

12.  Rashi to Genesis 28:17, based on Bereishis Rabba 69:7. 

13. Deuteronomy 12:5, Deut 12:11, Deut 14:25, Deut 16:6, Deut 17:8, Deut 18:6, and Deut 26:2

14.  Nachmanides, Commentary to the Torah to Genesis 22:1 

15.  Of Divine Tests and a Knowing Heart by Chanoch Waxman in Torah Metzion. New Readings in Tanach. Devorim p131. Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, Israel, First edition 2012.

16.  Midrash Rabba 55:2

17.  Midrash Rabba 55:6

18. The Object of Trials, chapter 24 in Moses Maimonides The Guide for the Perplexed. Translation by M. Friedlander p 304. 2nd edition, Dover Publications Inc, New York. 

19. Lecture 3 More about the Divine names in The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch by Umberto Cassuto, p41, Shalem Press, Jerusalem and New York, 2008.  There is, however, one exception to this rule.  This is when Yithro, the father-in-law of Moses, offers sacrifices to Elokim.  One must assume that Yithro was not Jewish and that he had a different more universal conception of God than did Moses.  In other words, this was the first inter-faith type of sacrifice ever described! 

20. This explanation is based on the comments of Rashi to Exodus 20:7 who sees this test as a banner נס (nes) held high.  Having witnessed manifestations of the Almighty, the people will know there is no God but He, and will fear Him.  Consistent with his overall approach to this topic, Nachmanides disagrees with this explanation and sees this test as a means to accustom them to faith in Him. (Nachmanides to Exodus 20:17)

21.  Maimonides interprets the words “now I known” to mean “now it has become known.”  The words “ata yodati” (עַתָּהיָדַעְתִּי) are actually in the past test.  Hence, their literal meaning is “now I have known.”  The word “ata” (עַתָּה) usually has the meaning of “now,” which places its meaning in the present rather than past tense).  Nevertheless, the Kli Yakar suggests it can also have the meaning of “behold!” as for example in the following sentence: “And now/behold what does YKVK your God require of you but to fear …..” (Deut 10.12).  Clearly, the requirement to fear God was present even before Moses uttered these words.  It could be suggested therefore that its meaning is “Behold, I have known. ”  Nevertheless, the words “ata yodati” (עַתָּהיָדַעְתִּי) would seem to be an idiom in the sense of “now I have come to the realization.”  There are numerous examples in the Torah of its use in the present tense in this way, see for example Exodus 36:7. 

22.  Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 5:5  

23. Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot Mitzvah #4 

24. Note though that this explanation is at variance with the Talmud (BT Sota 31A), which does regard Abraham’s fear as stemming from love.  The Talmud states: “It was taught in a Baraisa: R’ Meir says: The expression fearing of God is stated regarding Job and the expression fear of God is stated regarding Abraham. Just as the expression fearing of God that is stated regarding Abraham refers to a fear stemming from love, so too the expression fearing of God that is stated regarding Job refers to a fear stemming from love.  And regarding Abraham himself, from where do we know that his fear of God actually stemmed from love? For it is written: “But you, Israel, …the offspring of Abraham who loved me.” (Isaiah 41:8)

25. See the Commentaries to the Torah of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Nachmanides on Genesis 22:16

26. For example: Exodus 32:13 and Deuteronomy 26:15.

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