Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

The ‘Binding’ of Isaac: Do we have the meaning right?

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For many religious Americans, the Akeda poses a conundrum. How could our loving and merciful G-d order Abraham to sacrifice his favored son? And the virtuous Abraham? He, who championed the rights of Sodom and his love for Ishmael- rushes to “roast” his child- and we clap? This is too hard for many to handle.

For Israelis, sacrificing one’s children for the sake of our legacy is something done every day – and certainly in the context of the Gaza war we now face. While some parents are demanding negotiations to return their children, others are championing the superior importance of the country and subordinating their parental piety.

Who is right?

This is the lesson, I suggest, our Parsha Vayera comes to teach us.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, which really gives no answers to the current dilemma (other than demonstrating Abraham’s blind devotion to a G-d who, if popular wisdom is to believed, contradicts His own directives against child sacrifice, articulated no less than seven times in a Torah in which Abraham is supposedly well-versed), my own take, based on Rashi and the Ralbag and corroborated by modern icons such as Rabbi Riskin, is that G-d did not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Indeed, whether Abraham proceeds as he understands G-d’s directive, I maintain, is not what the tenth test was all about.

In fact, objective evidence suggests if the test is framed as whether Abraham will adhere to this horrific command to sacrifice his son, he failed. Had he succeeded, we would not expect the ensuing events which are not compatible with rewards one might otherwise expect:

Thus, following the Akedah, three things happen to Avraham personally:

  1. Isaac doesn’t speak to him anymore;
  2. Sarah doesn’t speak to him anymore (she immediately dies on learning of Abraham’s attempted escapade), and
  3. G-d doesn’t speak to him anymore.

And yet the Mishna tells us that Abraham was given ten tests (the Akeda- or “The Binding” conventionally regarded as the tenth) and passed them all. See Avot 5:3:

עֲשָׂרָה נִסְיוֹנוֹת נִתְנַסָּה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם וְעָמַד בְּכֻלָּם, לְהוֹדִיעַ כַּמָּה חִבָּתוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם:

With ten trials was Abraham, our father (may he rest in peace), tried, and he withstood them all; to make known how great was the love of Abraham, our father (peace be upon him).

Interestingly, we are never told precisely what the tests are. We merely presume that the tenth test is blind obedience – no matter how abhorrent the command.

But maybe that’s not right. Maybe we need to reformulate or reframe the test.

Instead of interpreting this test as whether Abraham will act in a rather inhumane and incomprehensible fashion to satisfy the G-d he has adopted, we can craft the test somewhat differently. To do so, we return to the first words of Chapter 22. It begins:

“And it came to pass after these things…”

According to the Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson), these words signify that the following words are to be read in conjunction with what has just transpired. And what has just transpired is incredibly relevant to today’s going on.

At the conclusion of Chapter 21, we find Abraham negotiating with the King of Gerar over water rights to wells near South Gaza. Abraham negotiates a treaty – a binding covenant for generations- actually three separate accords in which Abraham seeks to ally himself with the King to provide safety and security. Although the exact terms aren’t clear, per the Rashbam, G-d isn’t happy with Abraham’s pact. Whether this is because Abraham demonstrated his lack of faith in G-d to protect him, or whether he was relinquishing land meant for him and his progeny isn’t quite clear. But, per the Rashbam, G-d is displeased, and the “test” of the Akedah is considered a rebuke.

“As a result of Avraham’s high-handed action, G’d now subjected Avraham to a painful test, something … bound to cause him grief. In this instance, G’d, …, indicated to Avraham that he had been foolish to think that he could guarantee’s Yitzchok’s and his descendants well-being into the future,… as he might have to terminate his life before he even had produced any offspring who would be called upon to honor his father’s deal with Avimelech.

“Avraham and Avimelech had concluded their covenant according to which until the fourth generation Avraham’s descendants would not register a claim against lands owned by the Philistines at this time. G’d became very angry at this high-handed action by Avraham, seeing that he had given away lands which were part of what G’d had promised to Avraham and his descendants at the “covenant of the pieces” in chapter 15. We know that a condition of that covenant had been not to allow a single soul of the Canaanites to survive in that land….”

With this in mind we can reformulate the tenth test.

Recall that Abraham was the first Baal Teshuva. It would seem that hubris or over-zealousness may have been a failing, one he must learn to undo, and perhaps this is the real purpose of the Akedah – which might be relabeled “the teaching” rather than “the test.”

The Akedah- The Meaning of  the “binding” of Isaac,

This interpretation provides some understanding for the bizarre word choice used to describe the “test”, i.e., The Akedah – or the “Binding”. Seemingly G-d was concerned that Abraham, via this diplomatic arrangement, was “binding” Isaac to an accord that would later prove untenable. Indeed, Abraham’s acts resulted in Isaac’s torment, not only here on top of Mt. Moria, but later on in Toldot, when he contends with Avimelech’s descendants over the same wells. In other words, before Abraham even took his son up to the mountain, he had bound Isaac to an accord with the King of Gerar long before G-d ever tested Abraham with the command to sacrifice Isaac.

Let us then reframe the test as follows to conciliate with other elements of Scripture:

“Is Abraham, the first Chozer B’Teshivah, the first returnee, who has already proven his willingness to put aside his own needs and comforts to do G-d’s will, to suffer a painful, covenantal brit, whose strong parental bonds engender lament at the banishment of Yishmael, and whose notion of “right and justice” is so compelling that he frontally confronts G-d when he feels G-d is doing unjustly — is this man capable of learning that his perspectives and views of G-d – may not be what G-d wishes? Is he capable of admitting he was wrong –that his actions may have resulted from overzealousness? Can he concede that this desire to “prove” himself and his worthiness to G-d (but by so doing subject another to grievous bodily harm) – was the ultimate in wrongness?

This test is not relegated to the pages of history and heritage.

The failing

To teach someone, one first must demonstrate the need to learn. Indeed, the Ralbag (Gersonides, the grandson of the Ramban, and the formulator of geometric sine curve equations) believes, per the Abarbanel, that Abraham failed this first lesson, a view supported by Rashi:

bring him up: He did not say to him, “Slaughter him,” because the Holy One, blessed be He, did not wish him to slaughter him but to bring him up to the mountain, to prepare him for a burnt offering, and as soon as he brought him up [to the mountain], He said to him, “Take him down.” – [from Gen. Rabbah 56:8].

See Rashi: The language of G-d’s commandment does not precisely ask for sacrifice.  Rather, G-d  asks/commands Avraham to “bring Yitzchak up לעולה. ” Gen. 22:2 s.v. Ve-ha’alehu, citing Pesiqta Zutreta. See also Gen. 22:1, Be’ur Ha-millot, s.v. Nissah.

In the Ralbag’s view, the directive Abraham heard was intentionally ambiguous. The plain-reading is that Abraham is commanded to bring his son up – as an Olah (upraising) sacrifice. (The Olah sacrifice is one burned or roasted through, akin to child-sacrifice prevalent at the time in the worship of the Moloch G-d., and specifically and repeatedly forbidden, including the portion read on Yom Kippur Mincha service.) Instead, the Ralbag opines that the text was not meant to be interpreted as bringing Isaac as a Korban Olah sacrifice — but rather for Isaac to be upraised or for elevating him (perhaps by teaching him the procedure of making the sacrifice using animals).

Some modernists claim this is tortured reading. Perhaps. But to one looking for an “out”- as Abraham skillfully did in the past — any discrepancy or ambiguity is fodder for dispute.

Moreover, as Abraham supposedly held knowledge of the Torah, his understanding of bringing Isaac as a human sacrifice contradicts explicit commands that this is unacceptable to G-d -forbidden as is any taking of human blood, a message surfacing as early as Cain and Abel.

Indeed, Abraham has shown no problem with confronting G-d for commands he feels are unfair and unjust. Here, however, he rises early to saddle his donkey and be on his way to sacrifice his favorite son. Not only does he proceed with alacrity, but he forgoes the option of validating his understanding of this admittedly bizarre command with Sarah- who he has previously been told has prophesy at a level superior to his — by checking with her before he leaves.

Perhaps Abraham, embarrassed by his earlier failure with the King of Gerar, wants to demonstrate that he is now able to put his entire faith in G-d, and do as He commands even if it seems senseless. And to this, G-d says, NO! There are certain principles that may not be forsaken, including taking the life of another- even for My sake.

Abraham eventually “gets” this. And he signifies his apprehension by re-naming the locus Adonai-jireh:

“Here, G-d will be seen”, Abraham says, by me and all the nations; the descendants of Yishmael, who has accompanied them, and of Isaac. There will be no killing in the name of G-d. Both sons are signatories to the Noah-dite laws. Murder is forbidden.

In this place Abraham says, G-d has enlightened him; G-d has opened his eyes – G-d and His ways are seen:

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where the LORD is seen.’

Only after Abraham makes this utterance does the angel renew the blessings conferred by G-d earlier. This does not happen upon the substituted sacrifice of the Ram – only after the acknowledgment that human sacrifice is forbidden.

And so, ultimately Abraham passes his test. In this place, –where G-d is his teacher.

Do we have proof of this interpretation?

Only by the name of the locus where the test takes place. We know it is Jerusalem, but the place is not called by that name. G-d directs Abraham to perform this test “into the land of Moriah.,” a made-up name, never used in Tanach before or after (other than an obscure reference in the Book of Jeremiah). The Author does not use the real name of the place,  but substitutes one of His own choosing.

The land of Mori-Yah. The place where G-d is my teacher.

To cement this view, had Mori- Yah been explicitly written, it would optimally have another Yud. Gramatically, where letters are omitted, we often find a Dagesh – a certain dot.

Look carefully at the text and you will see the dagesh- the dot


The place where G-d is my teacher. The site where Abraham passes the tenth test and learns that G-d does not want parents to sacrifice their children —

that murder is forbidden — even if you think G-d commanded it.

And the prophecy is there for us: there will come a time when the entire world will see this.


About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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