What kind of message does the story of the binding of Isaac send?

September 4, 2013
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Question: I have always been troubled by the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah. Its moral seems to be that we must be prepared to put obedience to God’s will above reason and compassion. What kind of message can it have for Jews today?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Your question takes on a certain measure of urgency in a post-September 11 world. The biblical narrative of the binding of Isaac, also known by its Hebrew term the “Akedah”, makes it abundantly clear that God can, in fact, call on man to commit murder in His name. Where does that leave suicide bombers for instance?

Could the only difference Abraham and the 21st-century fundamentalist terrorist be that Abraham truly heard the voice of God, whereas the fundamentalists of today do not? How can we be so certain? The terrorist certainly believes that God calls on him to commit atrocities.

There are many ways of interpreting this difficult biblical passage. One approach is that put forth by the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who explores the ethical-religious tension of the Akedah in his Fear and Trembling. For Kierkegaard, the moral of the story is that of faith over belief.

Abraham went along with God’s instructions precisely because he had faith that God would in the end not allow him to sacrifice his son. Faith is not the same as belief. If Abraham believed that God would stop him from sacrificing Isaac, it wouldn’t have been a test. It’s a test because this certain belief is absent. All Abraham has to go on is faith. Too often we confuse belief with faith. While belief is comforting, faith requires a great emotional and mental leap beyond one’s comfort zone.

Another approach to the story of the Akedah is that it’s not about God calling on man to commit murder but rather it’s a cautionary tale about man misinterpreting God.

Rashi points out that God never asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. The term the Bible ascribes to God is veha’aleihu, which means to “offer him up”; the Bible deliberately does not use the term shechateihu,“slaughter him”.

All God ever asked of Abraham is to bind Isaac on the altar and then to release him. Abraham in his eagerness to fulfil the word of God misunderstood the command, believing that, after binding Isaac, he was to sacrifice him. The powerful lesson in this is that God’s messages are not always as clear as we might think.

If someone claims to hear the voice of God, he had better be absolutely certain that he understands what God is asking of him. If our great patriarch Abraham misunderstood God’s message, lesser mortals have little chance of getting it right.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

You are not alone in being troubled, for it is an episode both inspiring and alarming.

All praise to Abraham’s discovery of monotheism and his ability to forge his own path, but there are also two major problems. One is the apparent message of blind obedience at the cost of family. This is particularly troubling today when we live in an era of suicide-bombers whose supposed love of God causes blood-spattered atrocities. Rightly, we want to distance ourselves and our faith from the fanaticism they display, and say instead that Judaism is about celebrating life and positive relationships.

The Abraham episode is far removed from such horrors, but has an element of zealotry that still makes us uncomfortable. Still, the ultimate message is that God does not want us to behave in this way, and so Isaac was bound but not sacrificed.

In fact, one interpretation is that, far from passing the test set by God by being willing to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham thereby failed the test. It is noticeable that a few chapters earlier in Genesis, when God told Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed, Abraham protested that innocent life would be lost. He challenges God: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (18.25). That provides a far more powerful ethical guideline for us today.

The other main problem is its effect on children. Although it features in every single children’s Bible I have seen, including ones for very young children, it can be very frightening. It effectively says that one of the two people you trust most to look after you might not only be willing to kill you, but also receives praise from God for nearly doing so.

It is significant that the text records that only Abraham comes down from the mountain afterwards — suggesting that Isaac may have wanted to spend some time by himself, quite possibly traumatised by his experience and trying to reassess his relationship with his father.

But then so much of Genesis is difficult, tracing a series of dysfunctional families and involving murder, rape, incest and sodomy. Its strength is that it offers harsh realities not sugary fantasies, challenging us both to emulate some aspects and avoid others. Thus we admire Abraham’s faith, but admit his flaws, and what really counts is how we lead our lives as a result.

    Last updated: 2:18pm, October 3 2013