The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac story (Genesis 22), is one of the great classics of literature: 15 short, moving verses of unparalleled artistry.
For Jews, it shows that Abraham would go anywhere and do anything for the sake of God. For Christians it denotes that God’s “son” gave his life for the sake of humanity. For Islam, it depicts Ishmael, happy to be martyred.
Some Jews see Isaac as the historical Jew, offered on the altar of God and His Torah. Jewish legend even says that Isaac was burnt to ashes and later resurrected. Not that the text itself says there was a sacrifice. There was a test, not a murder: a willingness for martyrdom, not martyrdom itself. Isaac, though not unscathed, survived; Abraham too survived, though subdued and changed.
When the text says, “God tested Abraham”, the commentaries put in the mouth of God the words, “Please stand by Me in this trial so no one will say the earlier trials had no substance”. There were ten trials imposed on Abraham. The first nine earlier ones are listed in Avot D’Rabbi Natan. Why was the patriarch tested so much? The rabbis said that as a potter tests not his worst but his best work, so God tests the righteous, not the wicked. He knows the wicked are full of holes and He needs no further evidence (Psalm 11:5; Gen. R. 54).
From God’s point of view there is no plan to cause an actual killing. But from Abraham’s point of view, and Isaac’s? Maybe they had an inkling that God would push them hard but not require a death. They realized that the Torah forbids child sacrifice.
The rabbis were highly exercised about the problem. According to Pir’kei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Abraham’s two “lads”, whom the Midrash names as Ishmael and the servant Eliezer, were discussing who would inherit the patriarch’s estate after Abraham’s return from sacrificing Isaac. A Heavenly voice said, “Neither of you will inherit: the heir will be the rightful owner” – a prophecy that Isaac would not lose his life but return from the mountain with his father. Pir’kei Avot 5:9 avers that the ram offered in Isaac’s place existed from the time of Creation, suggesting that the Almighty never intended there to be a sacrifice.
Our generation cannot see any text or event without relating it to the Holocaust. Does the destruction of the six million counter the view that no actual sacrifice took place? Whatever the answer, the fact is that our people, bruised and battered, lost huge numbers but remnants survived, and Judaism lives! Like Isaac, we were horrifically shaken, but like Isaac we lived to tell the tale.
Did God really need to test Abraham? By definition He knows all His creatures. Maybe it is the nations who need to know Abraham’s merits, and for their sake the patriarch must show his own determination and quality (Yalkut Shim’oni, Lech-L’cha 62). This view interprets “nissah” (God “tested” Abraham) as “nes” – God made him into a banner to unfurl before the nations.
Others say it was Abraham who needed the test: else he might never realize his own spiritual and personal strength. There is also a view that Abraham had let God down by making a covenant with Avimelech that would have alienated some of the Promised Land, and God now threatened him, “If you give away land promised to your children, you may end up without children”.
Some criticize Abraham for going along blindly with God’s command. But what could he have done? Could he have said “No”? We have a tradition of confrontation with God, pioneered by Abraham who said, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Gen. 18:25), couldn’t he have insisted on the Almighty explaining Himself?
A further question: Abraham was tested, but did his son Isaac have no say? The repeated words, “The two of them went together”, hint that Isaac realized he was part of the test. He did raise any objection because he was a good and obedient son (Netziv, Ha’amek Davar 22:1). God tested Abraham, and Abraham tested Isaac.
The Akedah often figures in our prayers. Sephardim and Chassidim read it daily. It comes in the Tachanun supplications on Monday and Thursday. In the Egyptian rite, people lie on the ground during Tachanun like lambs about to be slaughtered.
The story has many layers. Its infinite variety is an inspiration.