The Akeda from an Ancient Perspective

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Anton Losenko, 1765. (Wikimedia Commons)

We read about Akedat Yitzkhak (the Binding of Isaac) on Rosh Hashanah. People are uncomfortable with this for two reasons. One is that Tshuvah (repentance) is central to Rosh Hashanah, but the Akeda does not seem to be much about Tshuvah. The second, more profound reason, is that the Akeda features the founder of our religion doing something that seems, at best, questionable.

The Tshuvah part is easy to explain. The Akeda not about Tshuvah. The Akeda is about another theme of Rosh Hashanah, one we mark in the liturgy with the words “hayom harat olam” (today is the creation of the world). Rosh Hashanah marks the creation of the world, and the Akeda is an important moment in creation of Judaism as a new religion.

But the Akeda as a founding moment of a new religion doesn’t feel right. Here we have Avraham making a clean break with human sacrifice by preparing to offer a human sacrifice. As Avraham’s spiritual and biological descendants we wonder what this is saying to us. The answer is that the Akeda does not speak to us, at least directly. The Akeda speaks to Avraham’s contemporaries, and speaks to us only indirectly through our understanding of the importance of the Akeda in its time.

The purpose of the Akeda is stated in the first line of the text: “v’haeloheem nisa ett Avraham” (Genesis 22: 1). This is sometimes translated as “God tested Avraham”. But this is puzzling: in several places earlier in the text of Genesis Avraham is assured of greatness, not only for himself but for his descendants. There is another translation of “nisa” as “proved”, as in “God proved Avraham”, suggesting an audience to impress. The audience is not us; the Akeda shocks and repels us. The audience is Avraham’s biblical contemporaries. To appreciate this, it is important to know about child sacrifice in the milieu in which Avraham lived. Child sacrifice was one of the central rituals of Canaanite religions. Some quotes from the book of Kings help us begin to understand this at a gut level:

They made an Ashera [the female Canaanite god] and bowed down to the whole host of the heavens, and worshipped Ba’al [the male Canaanite god]. And they passed their sons and daughters into the fire. (Kings 2: 17: 16-17)

The Book of Kings goes on to describe King Yoshiyahu who:

… defiled the Tofet [the sacrificial site], which is in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, so no man may make his son or daughter pass through the fire for molech [referring apparently to a type of human sacrifice, not a deity] (Kings 2: 23: 10)

The horror of this all persists in both English and Hebrew, where Gai Hinnom (the Valley of Hinnom) is used as a word for a hell-like place, or for Hell itself. But these cultural memories are rather skimpy. There are a lot more details in later sources. One example is the city of Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians, a Canaanite people who migrated to create the city in North Africa. A Tofet was found in Carthage, containing 20,000 urns with charred remains of children or animals. From the inscriptions on urns and other objects, archaeologists were able to piece together that children were sacrificed to fulfill personal vows or sacrificed out of a sense of community obligation.

The classical Greek historian Siculus recounted how Carthage reacted to an invasion force sent 2,300 years ago by the King of Syracuse:

In their zeal to make amends for their omission to sacrifice their noblest children, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were not under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Kronos [the Greek name for Ba’al], extending its hands, palms up and sloping downwards towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereupon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire. (As quoted in “Child Sacrifice at Carthage”, Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1984)

Imagine yourself in a society with this cult of child sacrifice. Imagine starting a new religion to replace this pathological social consensus about religious sacrifice. It is clear what people would tell you: you are a wimp, you are neglecting your obligations to the community, you don’t have the backbone to do what needs to be done.

The Akeda inoculates Avraham against this accusation. Avraham can declare that he rejects human sacrifice for ethical reasons, but everyone knows he is capable of human sacrifice. When the Angel offered a ram in the place of Isaac, the angel said, “Now I know you are a god-fearing man”. Equally important was that Avraham’s contemporaries were able to say, “Now I know that you are not a wimp”.

But this is not a full understanding of the Akeda. You don’t have a full understanding of the Akeda until you understand it at a personal, emotional level. You can’t place yourself in Avraham’s shoes until you can imagine that you would sacrifice your own son.

This is hard to imagine. But it is easier to imagine if you think it through in Hebrew, putting yourself in the mindset of Avraham and his contemporaries. “Korban” in Hebrew means sacrifice, but it also refers to death in war. In English, these concepts are rather separate. I still remember being in elementary school, learning about the Korbanot of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. I was puzzled … “I thought we stopped doing that … I thought that was what the Akeda was about”. Several minutes later I realized we were hearing about people dying in war, in the conventional way.

Try to merge these korban concepts in your mind. Imagine an impending war, similar to the threat faced by Carthage. You would send your son, knowing he could become a Korban. Anyone who did not do so would be told: you are a wimp, you are neglecting your obligations to the community, you don’t have the backbone to do what needs to be done. In addition, the term “draft dodger” would be used, and you would be told you were unfit for leadership. Avraham couldn’t be dismissed in this way. In America today the phrase that encapsulates Avraham’s approach is “Nixon in China”. Nixon, through his staunch anti-Communist credentials, was trusted to lead the breakthrough of opening relations with China.

On Rosh Hashanah we trumpet Avraham’s breakthrough to a new religion by blowing the ram’s horn. It reminds us that the ram was substituted for Isaac because animals are a better sacrifice, not because we are wimps. Animal sacrifice was institutionalized by building the Temple at the very location of Akeda, stressing the centrality of that spot in the evolution of Judaism. Sacrifices evolved to take on the character of a central government, with portions going to the priestly and Levite institutions.

The ram’s horn still calls us on Rosh Hashanah, but our sacrifices are financial ones for the good of the community.

On Passover, the Haggadah tells us to approach the Seder as if we had gone out of Egypt ourselves.

On Rosh Hashanah, we should approach the Akeda as if we had lived in Avraham’s time. Instead of being puzzled by Avraham’s actions, we should celebrate his leadership in transcending human sacrifice.

About the Author
Michael Segal is a neurologist and neuroscientist in the United States.
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