“The” Message of the Akedah?
According to the traditional interpretation, the Akedah, binding of Isaac, is the ultimate example of obedience to God. Although Abraham loves his son Isaac and has been told that he will be blessed through his posterity, he is willing to offer Isaac as an olah or burnt offering at the behest of God.
Even though I have sat through nearly 140 readings of the story (twice per year, on Rosh Hashanah and parashat Vayera), I still tremble when I hear it. It is impossible to ignore the mounting tension as Abraham ascends the mountain with Isaac, even knowing that he will not go through with the sacrifice.
When Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice, is he merely trying to placate Isaac or does he believe or hope, as ultimately happens, that God will back down at the critical moment and provide an animal as a substitute? Then, at the height of tension, there is a sudden release when the angel says:
בראשית כב:יב אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי.
Gen 22:12 Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.
Interpretations of the story often seek a simple lesson or theological conclusion within it.
a. Initiating Animal Sacrifice
Some suggest that the story relates the transition from human to animal sacrifice. Yet according to the Torah, animal sacrifice goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. In addition, Isaac seems perfectly familiar with animal sacrifice:
בראשׁית כב:ז וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה.
Gen 22:7 Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
If the story were trying to make a point about how to worship God, we would expect it to end with a general statement like “no child’s blood shall ever be offered as a sacrifice to God.” But no such statement occurs. In short, nothing indicates that Abraham is introducing a new practice to be taken up by others.
b. Abraham Should Have Objected
Others argue that Abraham should have challenged God as he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet this too is unlikely, for at the end of the story Abraham is praised and rewarded for what he has done:
בראשׁית כב:טז וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם־יְ־הוָה כִּי יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידֶךָ. כב:יז כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם....
Gen 22:16 He [the angel of YHWH] said, “By Myself I swear, YHWH declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only one, 22:17 I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore....
c. Abraham Misunderstood God’s Intent
Abraham is initially addressed by God, but later he is addressed by an angel of YHWH. Putting aside the explanation that more than one hand was involved in writing the story, we could argue, in sympathy with Maimonides, that the difference represents Abraham’s intellectual growth from the time he receives the command to sacrifice Isaac to the time he hears the angel say not to lay a hand on him.
At first Abraham thinks that to be loyal to God, he has to be willing to sacrifice everything he has including his only son. But after three days of what Maimonides terms “exhaustive reflection,” he comes to see what the limits of love and fear of God are.
Following up on this, we could say that the introduction of the Tetragrammaton (“the angel of YHWH”) signals that Abraham now has a better conception of God that he did at the beginning. But there is a problem: Why would Abraham be rewarded for being willing to sacrifice Isaac (vv. 12–13) if this is a misapprehension of what God really wants?
d. Abraham as the Father of Faith
Søren Kierkegaard presents Abraham as the Father of Faith, arguing that he embraces an absurdity: he will both lose Isaac and be blessed by his prosperity. The act requires him to put aside his love for Isaac as well as his moral intuitions and commit to a faith that is completely unqualified.
Other texts in Genesis belie this interpretation. Though Abraham is loyal to God, he falls on his face laughing when God says that Sarah will bear him a child (17:17) and also challenges God, in the name of justice, over God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (18:23). Nothing in the stories of Abraham seems consistent with an image of him as a man of unqualified faith.
e. A Standard Firstborn Offering
Biblical scholar Jon Levenson (Harvard Divinity School) takes issue with Kierkegaard, arguing that there is nothing improper about God’s command to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. After all, the firstborn of everything, whether animal or human, belongs to God. Yet, if God has every right to ask for the sacrifice, why does Abraham seek to placate Isaac by saying that God will provide a lamb (22:8)? And why does he not confide in Sarah about his intentions?
The Torah offers an alternative to child sacrifice in the requirement to ransom back the firstborn son, as in the practice of pidyon ha-ben, “redemption of the son.” Indeed, some biblical authors treat child sacrifice as an abomination. According to Deuteronomy, God detests the killing of any children, which implies even firstborns. Jeremiah denies that God ever thought of asking children to be sacrificed:
ירמיה ז:לא וּבָנוּ בָּמוֹת הַתֹּפֶת אֲשֶׁר בְּגֵיא בֶן הִנֹּם לִשְׂרֹף אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם וְאֶת בְּנֹתֵיהֶם בָּאֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִי וְלֹא עָלְתָה עַל לִבִּי.
Jer 7:31 And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire—which I never commanded, which never came to My mind.
Could the sacrifice of Isaac be viewed as an exception to the normal rule? If child sacrifice is this horrible, there is no reason to think exceptions are allowed. Accordingly, Nahum Sarna declares of the Akedah: “The demand of God is presented as something extraordinary, something that a man would not dream of doing on his own initiative.” If so then there is a sense in which Kierkegaard is right: Abraham would have had to put aside his love for Isaac and his moral intuitions to carry out God’s command.
f. Midrashic Justifications
Any number of midrashim attempt to downplay the horror of God’s request lest people form the wrong idea of God. One midrash tries to capitalize on a linguistic ambiguity by saying that when God asks Abraham to “take him [Isaac] up” on the mountain as on olah, which can mean “something rasied up,” he doesn’t mean that Abraham is supposed to sacrifice Isaac:
בראשית רבה נו כשאמרתי לך קח נא את בנך, לא אמרתי שחטהו, אלא והעלהו, לשם חבה אמרתי לך, אסקתיה וקימת דברי, ועתה אחתיניה.
Gen Rab 56:8 When I said to you: “Take your son,” I did not say: “Slaughter him,” but rather, “take him up.” I said this to you in affection. You have taken him up and fulfilled My words, now take him down.’
At the end of the story, he is then supposed to take Isaac back down.
In another midrash, Isaac knows what is going to happen and willingly submits to being bound so that he will not flinch, and thus Abraham will not slaughter him in the way that is suitable for a sacrificial offering.
בראשית רבה נו אמר רבי יצחק בשעה שבקש אברהם לעקד יצחק בנו, אמר לו אבא בחור אני וחוששני שמא יזדעזע גופי מפחדה של סכין ואצערך, ושמא תפסל השחיטה ולא תעלה לך לקרבן, אלא כפתני יפה יפה.
Gen Rab 56:8 Rabbi Yitzḥak said: When Abraham sought to bind Isaac his son, he said to him: “Father, I am a young man, and I am concerned that my body will tremble due to fear of the knife, and I will [thereby] upset you, or perhaps the slaughter will [thereby] be rendered unfit and it will not be counted for you as a valid offering. Therefore, bind me very well.”
In both cases, the rabbis recognize that the story is troubling and want to push back against the idea that God can be cruel. They also want to push back against the idea that Abraham acted like a religious fanatic.
The ending of the story leaves the reader with crucial questions that the Torah never answers.
Abraham – What does it mean when the angel of YHWH says that Abraham fears God?
בראשׁית כב:יב ...כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי.
Gen 22:12 “For now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”
Sometimes fear (יראה) God and love (אהבה) are either synonymous or closely related. At other times, however, they are responses mandated by separate commandments. If fear or awe suggests distance from God, love suggests closeness to or affection for God.
Do Abraham’s actions indicate that he exemplifies both fear and love (as Maimonides thought) or do they indicate that all he exemplifies is fear? If the latter, then he does not represent the highest level a person can reach in serving God.
Sarah – Although Sarah figures prominently before the binding of Isaac (ch. 21), she is not mentioned in the story. In fact, at the end of the story, we are told that Abraham settled in Beer-Sheba, which is odd because Sarah was in Hebron. Did his intended action end their marriage?
The next thing we hear about Sarah is that she died (23:1). Following rabbinic tradition, Rashi says she died out of grief and shock for what Abraham was willing to do to her son. If one member of his family is saved, and another is not, how does it bear on the meaning of the story?
Isaac – There is no mention of Isaac after he is spared. As far as we know, the father and son who went to the mountain together never communicate with each other again.
Although Abraham marries again and raises another family in a subsequent chapter, his second family pales into insignificance compared to his first. It is Isaac who will carry on the patriarchal line. So while Abraham will be blessed through his posterity, he loses any direct contact with it. Moreover, after hearing the angel tell him not to lay a hand on Isaac, Abraham never again has a revelatory experience. Isaac, Sarah, and God all go silent.
The Unresolved Tension is Intentional
I suggest it is misguided to try to uncover the meaning of the Akedah. Should Abraham have found another way to respond to God? Was his willingness to go through with the sacrifice of Isaac worth the price he paid? These and similar questions invite multiple responses.
In view of this, it is hard to believe that the author(s) who wrote the story and the editors who put it in its final form were unaware of how perplexing it is—it is hard to believe that they did not realize they had created a story that would challenge our religious sensibilities like no other.
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Prof. Kenneth Seeskin is Professor of Philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Yale University in 1972 and has been at Northwestern ever since. He specializes in the rationalist tradition in Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on Maimonides. Publications include Maimonides on the Origin of the World (CUP, 2005), Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair (CUP, 2012), and Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (JPS, 2016).
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