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Near sacrifice of Isaac

The near sacrifice of Isaac, or Akedah, in Genesis 22, is to many readers one of the most challenging, and perhaps ethically troublesome, parts of the Bible. As such, it figures prominently in the writings of many major theologians, such as Soren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling and Shalom Spiegel in The Last Trial. The story is often referred to as “the binding of Isaac”, especially in the Jewish tradition.

The Bible states that God tests Abraham, by asking him to present his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mount Horeb. No reason is given within the text. Abraham agrees to this command without arguing. According to the text, God does not want Abraham to actually sacrifice his son; it states from the beginning that this is only a test. The story ends with God stopping Abraham at the last minute and making Isaac's sacrifice unnecessary by providing a goat to be sacrificed, which had become caught in some bushes nearby.

In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, the literary critic Erich Auerbach considers the Hebrew narrative of the Binding of Isaac, along with Homer's description of Odysseus's scar, as the two paradigmatic models for the representation of reality in literature. Auerbach contrasts Homer's attention to detail and foregrounding of the spatial, historical, as well as personal contexts for events to the Bible's sparse account, in which virtually all context is kept in the background or left outside of the narrative. As Auerbach observes, this narrative strategy virtually compels readers to add their own interpretations to the text.

Some have argued that the story should be read in the context of ancient Near Eastern culture. In the time and era in which Abraham lived, he was surrounded by cultures where the sacrifice of animals to gods was the normal way of showing devotion and loyalty. Abraham lived among some cultures that sacrificed human beings to their gods - sometimes even their own children.

One understanding of the text is that God inspired Abraham in this episode in order to teach him a lesson, in order to stop human sacrifices from happening.

Readers note that Abraham was put by God into a dilemma with no clear solution.

Whatever the original intent (which may never be totally elucidated) of the text, the episode has quite an effect on Abraham and Isaac; it is clear to them both that human sacrifice is not acceptable.

Many readers have noted Abraham's prophetic Freudian slip. he says "I and the boy will go there, bow down, and we will return to you". Many classical rabbinic commentators hold that Abraham knew that Isaac wouldn't die. The New Testament book of Hebrews says Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead after he had been sacrificed.

Table of contents
1 Jewish responses
2 Christian responses
3 Views of modern biblical scholars
4 The near-sacrifice in art, literature and music

Jewish responses

The majority view of Jewish biblical commentators is that God was testing Abraham to see if he would actually kill his own son, as a test of his loyalty. However, a number of Jewish biblical commentators from the medieval era found this theology repugant, and read the text in another way.

The early rabbinic midrash Genesis Rabbah quotes God as saying "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac (using the Hebrew root letters for "slaughter", not "sacrifice".) Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach (Spain, 11th century) wrote that God only demanded a symbolic sacrifice. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham's imagination led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes "How could God command such a revolting thing?"

On the other hand, some rabbinic scholars also note that Abraham was willing to do everything to spare his son, even if it meant going against the divine command: while it was God who ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, it was an angel, a lesser being in the celestial hierarchy, that commanded him to stop.

In some later Jewish writings, most notably those of the Hassidic masters, the theology of a Divine test is rejected, and the sacrifice of Isaac is interpreted as a punishment for Abraham's earlier mistreatment of Ishmael, his elder son, who he expelled from his household at the request of his wife, Sarah. According to this view, Abraham failed to show compassion for his son, so God punished him by ostensibly failing to show compassion for Abraham's son.

In The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel argues that these commentators were interpreting the Biblical story as an implicit rebuke against Christianity's claim that God would sacrifice His own son.

Christian responses

This story is mentioned in the New Testament book of Hebrews among many acts of faith recorded in the Old Testament:
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 18of whom it was said, "In Isaac your seed shall be called," 19concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.
(Hebrews 11:17-19, NKJV)

The majority of Christian biblical commentators hold this episode to be an archetype of the way that God works; this event is seen as foreshadowing God's plan to have his own son, Jesus, die on the cross as a substitute for us, much like the goat God provided for Abraham.

Views of modern biblical scholars

(to be added)

Abraham: Father of the Believers, (Hebrew), Aviezer Ravitziki of Hebrew University

The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Nahum M. Sarna, Jewish Publication Society, 1989

The near-sacrifice in art, literature and music


See also: Isaac, Bible, Theodicy, Free will