God tested Abraham.
The Binding of Isaac is a mystery that will never be completely understood. Commentators, philosophers, poets, and artists have tried to uncover its secrets — yet there always remains some essential aspect that cannot be revealed. The Binding of Isaac is almost ineffable, an encounter between God and man where the full meaning of the encounter remains forever unclear. The more we discover, the greater the enigma becomes.
‘Take now your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the Land of Moriah; and bring him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you.’
What was the test, exactly? Was there only one way for Abraham to pass this test? If Abraham had refused, what would God have done?
Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took his two young men with him and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the offering, got up, and went to the place which God had told him.
Four chapters earlier, when Abraham learned about the prospective fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, he cried out, “Shall the righteous be swept away along with the wicked?… It is far from You to do something like this, killing the righteous with the wicked, such that the righteous are just like the wicked; it is far from You! Shall the Judge of the whole world not act justly?” Yet when asked to kill his own innocent son, Abraham was silently compliant.
On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place at a distance.
What did Abraham see? How did he know that this was the place? God said that He would tell Abraham, but there is no indication of further divine speech. Had Abraham heard from God after His initial command three days earlier? Or was God, like Abraham, silent?
Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey, while I and the lad go to that place; we will bow down and return to you.’
Was Abraham misleading the young men when he said that they would bow down and both return? Did Abraham question what would happen on top of the mountain? Did he retain hope that God might change His mind?
Abraham took the wood for the offering and placed it on his son Isaac; he took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two walked together. Isaac said to Abraham, ‘Father?’ He answered, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?’
Was Isaac’s question a child’s simple query, or had he figured out that something was amiss? Why did Isaac take notice of the fire and the wood, but didn’t mention the knife, the weapon that was destined to be placed on his own neck? And when Abraham answered, “Here I am, my son,” what was going through Abraham’s mind? Was he thinking that in a few moments, he would no longer be able to speak to his child… because of what he was about to do to him?
Abraham said, ‘God will look for a lamb for himself for the offering, my son.’ And the two walked together.
Was Abraham trying to reassure his son, or was he hinting at the unconscionable reality? Did he mean that Isaac was the lamb, or was Abraham privately hoping for a different conclusion? Was this, in other words, a prophecy or a lie? And when the Torah repeats the phrase, “And the two walked together,” what does that indicate about their confidence in God, their naivete, their love for each other?
They came to the place that God had said to him. Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood; and he bound his son Isaac, placing him on the altar, on top of the wood.
Why was Isaac, who was old enough to carry the wood, not involved in building the altar? Was binding Isaac part of the divine command, or was it something Abraham chose to do on his own? Is it possible that it was Isaac’s idea? Why, through the generations, have we called this moment, “The Binding of Isaac” when binding him was not part of God’s original directive?
Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife in order to slaughter his son.
What was going through Abraham’s mind when he picked up that knife? Did Isaac feel betrayed? At that moment, did Abraham love God? At that moment, did Abraham fear God? At that moment, did Abraham think anything at all?
The angel of God called him from heaven, saying ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Do not harm the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you are one who fears God, as you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.’
Taking the knife is the penultimate step; the real test should have been using the knife, rather than merely holding it. Why, then, was the test over before Abraham lowered the knife? God could have stayed his hand as he tried to slay Isaac, but the angel stopped the test before seeing whether Abraham would indeed follow through. Why is this the moment that demonstrates Abraham’s fear of God? And why is Isaac described here as, “Your son, your only one,” whereas in the original command he was called “Your son, your only one, whom you love”? Did the test change Abraham’s love for Isaac – or Isaac’s love for his father?
Abraham lifted his eyes, and saw – behold! A ram after it had been caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham went, took the ram, and gave it as an offering in place of his son.
What was the purpose of this alternate sacrifice? Why does the Torah emphasize that the ram was caught by its horns? Where is Isaac? Why, in fact, is there no indication from this point through the end of the story that Isaac was still with Abraham at all? His name is not mentioned, and his presence not recorded.
Abraham named the place, God Will See, about which it is said today, ‘On the mountain, God will be seen.’
What is the connection between the fact that God sees, and the reverse reality that on this mountain, God is seen? Is the mountain’s new name an echo of Abraham’s earlier answer to Isaac, “God will look for a lamb for himself for the offering,” or is it referring to something new that will take place in the future? Why, if this is the place that God will see, does the angel call Abraham from heaven rather than from the mountain itself?
The angel of God called Abraham a second time from heaven. He said, ‘By Myself I swear, says God, that since you did this thing, not holding back your son, your only one, I will surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of heaven and like the sand on the shore of the sea; your offspring will inherit the gate of their enemies. All the nations of the world will be blessed through your offspring, because you listened to my voice.’
Why did God promise His blessing to Abraham only after the sacrifice of the ram and the naming of the mountain, rather than when he passed the test? What is the connection between the test and its reward? For what reason does the reward include both the promise of children, and the guarantee that they will inherit the gate of their enemies?
Abraham returned to his young men. They got up and went together to Be’er Sheva, and Abraham settled in Be’er Sheva.
Once again: where is Isaac? Why did the Torah need to tell us that he returned to Be’er Sheva, when it doesn’t tell us where he was before the test began? What was Abraham thinking as he left the Land of Moriah? Did he question any of his actions? Did he tell the young men what had happened? Or did he walk in silence, leaving them to wonder if something had changed? Did he walk in silence, wondering how his own life would never be the same?
The Binding of Isaac is read on this Shabbat, just as it is read on Rosh Hashanah. Every verse alludes to questions that are unanswerable. The episode as a whole alludes to even more difficult questions.
Can God command something that is immoral?
Why does an all-knowing God choose to test – and, frankly, torture – Abraham and Isaac?
What does the Binding of Isaac teach us today?
We will never understand. As Rav Steinsaltz said about the first chapters of Genesis, “The more it is looked at and examined, the more of a secret it becomes, profound and insoluble… As greater illumination is turned on it, new facets of inscrutability become apparent.”
Yet one allusion among many beckons us this year:
The Abraham of 2023 has been commanded to send Isaac to the place that God has said. Only God knows why, only God understands the mystery. Isaac stands on the precipice, ready to sacrifice himself for his father and for his God on the altar that Abraham has built. Abraham of 2023 is silent, unable to comprehend why God has commanded that he put Isaac in harm’s way, while also recognizing that there is no other option, that any other option would somehow be less painful, yet a concession to evil. Abraham of 2023 does not believe in child sacrifice, he does not believe in a cruel God, he does not believe in death for the sake of death. Abraham of 2023 believes in life, he believes in children, he believes in the eternity of Israel and the need to preserve that eternity through our families and on our land. He also knows that the will of God is inscrutable, that God sometimes commands him to bring his son to the mountain because some things are important enough that potential sacrifice is necessary.
Abraham of 2023 knows that Isaac sees the knife, and willingly approaches it in order to continue the eternal line of Israel.
Abraham of 2023 prays, like his great ancestor, that “We will bow down and return to you.”
And we pray that Abraham of 2023 once again hears the divine voice declare in the dark of night:
‘By Myself I swear, says God, that since you did this thing, not holding back your son, your only one, I will surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of heaven and like the sand on the shore of the sea; your offspring will inherit the gate of their enemies. All the nations of the world will be blessed through your offspring, because you listened to my voice.’