Podcast: Jon Levenson on Understanding the Binding of Isaac as the Bible Understands It

The temptation is overwhelming to excuse or soften the drama of Genesis 22. A leading professor of Jewish thought explains how to get past that, and what meaning lies beyond it.

Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) sacrifice. Timurid Anthology, Shiraz, 1410-11, Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Wikimedia.

Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) sacrifice. Timurid Anthology, Shiraz, 1410-11, Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Wikimedia.

Sept. 15 2023
About the authors

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).

A weekly podcast, produced in partnership with the Tikvah Fund, offering up the best thinking on Jewish thought and culture.

Podcast: Jon Levenson


Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, when Jewish communities celebrate the new year and, as part of this celebration, read chapter 22 of Genesis. This contains the famous story in which God asks Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain and offer him there as a sacrifice.

What is this passage all about? What does it mean? What can be learned about Abraham, about Isaac, or about God by reading it carefully? Joining Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver today to discuss these questions is Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School and frequent Mosaic contributor. Levenson has written about this episode in several books, including The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son published in 1993 by Yale University Press, and also in Inheriting Abraham, published in 2012 by Princeton University Press.

Akeidat Yitzḥak, the binding of Isaac, as the Jewish people traditionally refer to this episode, has a long afterlife in Christian and Muslim traditions; it is also a centerpiece of philosophical reflection among modern thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard. Reading the text now in the aftermath of those later reflections, it’s difficult to retrieve its original meaning. The temptation is overwhelming to propose moral justifications for Abraham and for God, to excuse or at least to try to soften the drama of Genesis 22.  To hear what the text of the Hebrew Bible really might have to say in response to that temptation requires undoing some modern assumptions—a task that Levenson and Silver take up.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

More about: Binding of Isaac, Hebrew Bible, Religion & Holidays, Rosh Hashanah