This week’s Torah reading begins with Abraham’s reception of three mysterious guests, a gesture held up in rabbinic literature as a model of righteous hospitality. It then juxtaposes two of the most dramatic stories in Genesis: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Binding of Isaac. Sarah Rindner notes important parallels between these passages. In Sodom, Abraham’s nephew Lot imitates his uncle’s hospitality by inviting the same mysterious guests into his home, but when a mob of Sodomites demands that he turn them over, he engages instead in his own act of child sacrifice:
Many read the story of the Binding of Isaac as an act of blind and heroic faith on the part of Abraham. Others understand it to be an articulation of the Torah’s supersession of the pagan custom of sacrificing one’s firstborn. This second group focuses on the moment when God tells Abraham that he does not need to sacrifice his son. Yet, in interpreting the story and Abraham’s actions here, it may be instructive to examine the only other case of child sacrifice we see in the book of Genesis—when Lot offers up his daughters to the mob. For Lot, this is the ultimate act of generosity, of giving up something that is dear to him to satisfy the imperative of hospitality.
When Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, perhaps he also interprets this request in a similar vein as reflecting the darker side of . . . self-abnegation and sacrifice, of the intertwining of the death-instinct with the life-instinct. The triumph of the story is that Abraham learns that . . . that his generosity toward God does not have to involve losing something of himself. . . . Hospitality is in some ways the inverse of sacrifice; it represents the possibility of giving without depletion. The Binding of Isaac represents one powerful paradigm for understanding the life of faith, and too often in Jewish history we have seen our own Isaacs bound and led to slaughter. We should not forget, however, that Abraham is defined primarily by his expansive and life-affirming hospitality, and this, too, can enrich our sense of the Jewish mission in the world.