Disturbing ‘Binding of Isaac’ story requires deep discussion

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

No Torah section may be more intellectually puzzling, more emotionally disturbing, and more polarizing then Genesis 22, known as “Akeidat Yitzchak,” “The Binding of Isaac.” For a deep and lively spiritual and intellectual encounter with friends or family, read it together and discuss it. 

As a young day school student, my teachers/rabbis taught Akeidat Yitzchak as I think it was intended — Abraham’s response showed his incomparable love of God, and we were blessed because of him.  I was young and the message was simple.  

Later, I encountered critiques of Abraham, and even of God; they unnerved and disturbed me; they seemed disrespectful, sacrilegious. However, I learned that critical inquiry of Torah could be enlightening, and that to inquire and explore with love was part of our tradition.  

After I was blessed to be a father, Abraham’s actions felt even more disturbing; still, I could not abandon my esteem of Abraham instilled by my early teachers.  I’ve learned that, especially in matters of faith, living with tension is not so bad; it is, in fact, enriching.  

By contrast, severing tension by prematurely discarding what does not appeal to us is a close-minded recipe for simplicity.

What is intellectually puzzling and emotionally disturbing? Abraham willingly heeds God’s call to offer his son. What does this say about Abraham? What does this say about God?  What does this say about Isaac? (Space limitations require me to forgo analysis of Isaac in this d’var Torah.)  

What does Akeidat Yitzchak reveal about God? Radical interpretations conclude that He is cruel and capricious, inhumane and irrational. But others remind us not to disregard the opening verse — it was a test. God never intended for Isaac to be offered and the conclusion proves it. We must not selectively omit the full narrative and violate it.  But, if so, why did God test Abraham this way?  

Some explain that God, of course, knew that Abraham would pass the test.  Abraham’s great character was revealed in this most challenging trial. Without moral tests, we can only speculate about what we might do. Moreover, this became proof positive, to Abraham and to the world, of Abraham’s great faith, and explains why he is rewarded. Still others explain that the narrative was aimed at a larger audience, but with a different message. This was the most effective way to repudiate local practices of ritual human sacrifice.

(Archaeological discoveries have revealed large concentrations of human bones; see JPS Commentary, D’varim, Tigay, Excursus 15.)  Only through a dramatic narrative like this could the message of Torah virtues — the sanctity of human life — and faith in this God be so forcefully delivered.

But what have we learned about Abraham? He didn’t know it was a test; had he known, it would have been meaningless. Why was he willing to offer his child — a thought that causes me to shudder?  And, to underscore the sacrifice — this was his old-age child with Sarah for whom he had longed and prayed!  Moreover, this was the child through whom God told him that the covenant with his children and his children’s children would be fulfilled!  

On both a personal and religious level, offering Isaac would be devastating.

Therein lies the clue.  Maybe, as some commentators suggest, Abraham realized the contradiction and concluded that it had to be a test. RaSHI (1040-1105) cites an earlier midrash (Tanhuma) that the seemingly superfluous “it was on the third day” (22:4) indicates that Abraham’s act was not impulsive; he had days to reflect. Eric Auerbach (quoted in Gunther Plaut’s “Gleanings” in the Reform Commentary on the Torah) understands Abraham:  Maybe Abraham realized that the God he knew abhors human sacrifice, and does not break His promise.  If Isaac were sacrificed, then the very God who commanded him would be a liar, or erratic and arbitrary; Abraham kept faith in God and His promise, even when it seemed incomprehensible.   

The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) cited by RaSHI may have understood it this way:  God does not say “sacrifice” or “slaughter” but rather “bring up for an offering.” (22:2) And when Abraham said to the others “we will return,” (22:4) perhaps it was merely to avoid worrying others, or because this type of faith remained within him, a faith filled with tension which is not blind but enlightened (midrash cited by RaSHI).

Abraham’s action is polarizing – it is religion at its best, or at its worst.  The worst:  It negates human values as it elevates irrational religious duties ascribed to God.  The best:  Abraham’s understanding of God is one of enlightened faith – Abraham submitted to the One Who keeps His promises (Isaac would be his heir and the progenitor of Abraham’s people) and Who opposes the human cruelties that persist even to our own day.  

When all is said and done, I am grateful to my teachers who instilled within me enduring faith in God and love of Torah.

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.