“Take Now Your Son”

How to understand the Binding of Isaac.

From Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603, by Caravaggio. Wikimedia.

From Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603, by Caravaggio. Wikimedia.

Observation
Nov. 6 2014
About the author

Jonathan Neumann, a 2011-2012 Tikvah Fellow, lives in London and writes on politics and religion.

The Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), known in Hebrew as the akeidah and a centerpiece of this week’s reading in the Torah, is one of the Bible’s most challenging stories. It plays a prominent role in Jewish liturgy and thought; Christian and Islamic thinkers, as well as more recent moral philosophers, have famously grappled with it. But much of what has been written about this episode misses its essential message.

The story, one of the great examples of the Torah’s sparse and powerful narrative style, is straightforward enough: God appears to the patriarch Abraham shortly after his wife Sarah has given birth to Isaac, their long-awaited son. God then tells Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and raise him up there as an elevation offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” Early the next morning, Abraham rises to comply dutifully with God’s command. He and Isaac ascend the mountain, and there Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood on which Isaac will be burned, and binds Isaac upon it. Then “Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”

At this very moment, an angel calls out from heaven: “Do not lay your hand upon the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God, and you did not spare your son, your only son, from me.” Noticing a ram caught in a nearby bush, Abraham “raised it up as an elevation offering instead of his son.”

And now the angel calls to Abraham again, with a new message from God:

For because you have done this thing, and not spared your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and multiply your offspring as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies; and through your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have listened to my voice.

 

The question that most perplexes modern readers is how God could ask such a thing of Abraham in the first place. The ancient rabbis were also perplexed by the story—but they were less concerned with the morality of God’s request than with His inconsistency. In rabbinic theology, God does not deceive or change His mind on a whim. Yet, if He did not intend for Abraham to kill Isaac, He surely played the deceiver. And if He did intend for Abraham to follow through on His command from the start, He must have changed His mind. No less perplexing, at the end of the episode, Abraham is rewarded, yet he has not really done what God demanded of him.

How did the rabbis resolve these contradictions?

One strand of traditional Jewish interpretation proceeds by rereading the story to suggest that Abraham actually did kill Isaac on the altar. Various midrashim (rabbinic homilies that embellish biblical narratives) refer to the “blood of Isaac” and “the ashes of Isaac,” even though the text makes clear that his blood is not spilled and his body remains unburned. One such commentary focuses on the end of the story, proposing that Abraham offers up the ram “after” his son rather than instead of his son, the implication being that Abraham sacrificed both ram and Isaac.

Others exploit an ambiguity in the text. When the angel appears to Abraham for the second time and says “Because you have done this thing . . . ,” what “thing” is being referred to? It might be his not-sparing Isaac, but it might be his sacrificing the ram. Or it might be both. Thus, one midrash has Abraham praying for the ram to be accepted as if it were Isaac; another suggests that the ram’s name is Isaac; and yet another infers that Isaac’s soul was transferred to the ram just prior to its sacrifice.

Such exegeses imply that something more than a simple substitution is taking place; instead, the sacrifice of the ram is tantamount to the sacrifice of Isaac. In this way, they resolve the problem posed by God’s reversal of His original orders, transforming the story from one about a sacrifice that did not happen into one about a sacrifice that did.

In so doing, however, these midrashic readings make the story even more unpalatable to the modern reader. That God asks Abraham to kill his child is bad enough. Why make it worse by having him actually kill the child, or even symbolically kill him? But with these readings in mind, we can now return to the original text for a closer examination of its message—a message as relevant today as ever.

 

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly does God ask Abraham to do? “Take your son . . . and go to the land of Moriah . . . and raise him up as an elevation offering [olah].” The Hebrew word olah comes from the root meaning “to go up,” as does the verb I have rendered “raise him up.” It is variously rendered as “burnt offering” or “elevation offering.”

What does this have to do with Isaac? The olah offering is distinctive. Unlike most sacrificial offerings, which according to the laws of the Torah are to be eaten after a few parts are thrown on the flames, in this one the animal, after being slaughtered, flayed, and sectioned, is consumed entirely by fire on the altar (Lev.1:3-9). Indeed, the term most likely has its origin in the ascent of the smoke and flames from the burning. In other words, it is as if the animal is literally ascending to heaven.

But, according to the plain sense of the text, Isaac is not burned. So let’s go to another meaning of “elevation,” which could refer simply to the raising-up of the animal to the altar. Does this apply in any way to Isaac?

In fact, Isaac physically ascends over the course of his journey to the mountaintop, and in this sense Abraham does indeed, as he was commanded, “raise him up” or “cause him to ascend.” One midrash makes the point explicitly: in it, after reminding Abraham that he was told to bring Isaac up, God explains that he can now take him down again. But elevation is to be understood in more than a literal sense. In Hebrew, one always “goes up” to the Temple Mount or to the land of Israel (hence the term aliyah, “ascent,” commonly used for Jewish immigration to Israel). The phrases in question may thus refer not just to the altitude of the designated places but to their elevated sanctity.

Nor is Isaac brought up only to the mountaintop or to the altar; he is elevated by being consecrated to God. God has demanded Isaac’s life, and Abraham cedes it. In this reading, the original command is not that Abraham actually kill Isaac but that he elevate him through absolute surrender, an order that can be fulfilled only if Abraham misunderstands it to mean the literal forfeit of a life. The ambiguity is deliberate: Abraham must believe he is required to kill Isaac, for only thus can he demonstrate to God, himself, and the world his acceptance of God’s acquisition of his son.

As some midrashim point out, the final verse of the story states that “Abraham returned” but says nothing of Isaac. If we read the episode as a story of Isaac’s spiritual sanctification, the meaning becomes clear: Isaac remains in a state of spiritual elevation. On Moriah, his life has been given completely to God.

 

Here it may be worth noting another detail of standard sacrificial procedure. Prior to an actual sacrifice, the animal is formally consecrated, made holy. (The Latin root of our word sacrifice means the same thing.) Once consecrated, an animal may not be used for practical purposes—it is forbidden to yoke a consecrated ox to the plow, or shear a consecrated sheep. Nor can the animal simply be replaced with another animal; it maintains its consecrated status even if it develops a physical blemish that disqualifies it from being actually sacrificed.

Rabbinic literature makes much of this idea, contending that Isaac maintains a consecrated status throughout his life. The olah, as many commentators have noted, is the ultimate offering,  the animal being entirely consumed by fire. As such an olah, Isaac is given over entirely to God. As for his father Abraham, he has passed the test by consecrating him to God with the sincere intent of killing him. And as for God, He does not change His mind; rather, He intends from the start that Isaac remain alive. That Abraham (and most readers of the Bible) misunderstand God’s command is by design; God, for His part, is consistent.

And there is something else at play here as well. The blessings that Abraham obtains in reward for his actions confirm those he has already received earlier in Genesis: he will beget many descendants (Gen.12:1-3; 13:16; 15:5); they will inherit the land of Canaan (Gen.15:7); and they will be a byword of blessing to other nations (Gen.12:3). These blessings are meaningful only if he has a son who will live long enough to beget his own children. It is his very willingness to sacrifice the son on whom these blessings depend that earns Abraham their fulfillment.

This impression is bolstered by the final blessing—that  Abraham’s offspring shall inherit the gate of his enemies (Gen.22:17)—which is peculiar to this verse and to a subsequent one in which Rebecca, Isaac’s future bride and mother of his children, is blessed almost identically. The genealogy that follows the akeidah also describes the twelve sons born to Abraham’s brother, foreshadowing the twelve children of Jacob. These literary allusions to the next three generations of Abraham’s descendants (indeed, to the tribes of Israel) underscore the point that Abraham had to sacrifice his progeny to merit having them.

When viewed in context, the Binding of Isaac thus appears to be the climax of the Abraham narrative. The opening of the akeidah episode, when Abraham is told to “go for yourself to the land of Moriah,” echoes God’s original call to Abraham in Gen.12:1: “Go for yourself from your land. . . .”  Moreover, the cadences of that earlier verse, “from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house,” are sounded again at the beginning of the akeidah narrative in the command to sacrifice “your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.” In both cases, the destinations are unknown: in the first, Abraham is to go “to the land that I will show you”; in the second, he is to sacrifice Isaac “on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” This internal mirroring, a characteristic of biblical style, links the two episodes as a way of indicating that the Binding of Isaac is a culmination of the narrative of Abraham; the subsequent chapters, dealing mainly with Isaac’s marriage, are the denouement.

The message of the akeidah, then, appears, to be that the Jewish people, the offspring of Isaac, are consecrated to God. As the Bible later explicitly declares, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God. God chose you to be a treasured people of all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deut. 14:2). Just as Abraham surrendered and offered up his son to God, so the Israelites must sanctify their lives, and those of their children, in His service. And just as Abraham was prepared to kill Isaac if necessary, so a Jew in extreme circumstances must be prepared for martyrdom. But God’s ultimate preference is for Isaac to live and, in life, serve Him. That service is the covenantal charge to the Jewish people, a living sacrifice to the God of Abraham.

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The author thanks Jon D. Levenson, upon whose scholarship this essay draws, for comments on an earlier draft.

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