Gary Epstein
And now for something completely different . . .

The Unbinding of Isaac

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About 50 years ago, I was teaching in the English Department of Iowa State University and living in Des Moines, Iowa. My shul, Beth El Jacob, hosted an itinerant lecturer, a young scholar who had recently co-authored a book on basic Judaism (and has since become a prominent anglo-Jewish conservative commentator). He was quite young, very confident, well-spoken, and glib. He appeared to know pretty much everything about everything. I was impressed.

During the course of his lecture, he touched upon the story of the binding of Isaac. Its lesson for us, he said, was that being Jewish meant being so committed to God and the faith that one must be prepared, in every generation, to sacrifice one’s children. Jewish parents, he said, had done that from time immemorial. Remaining Jewish, he said, involved acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that someone, some time, might kill your child, simply because he or she is Jewish.

In the audience, unbeknownst to the speaker, was an Auschwitz survivor who had lost his wife and children in the camps and who had, after the war, married a woman who had, similarly, lost her entire family. They had two teenage children on whom they doted. He was a gentle, quiet, soft-spoken man, a kindly man. I had never previously even heard him speak in public, much less raise his voice, and I had certainly never seen him angry. But now he rose as if possessed, shaking his head, his white-knuckled hands clutching the pew in front of him, heavily accented words spitting from his mouth. “No!” he said, “No! That is not what being Jewish means. And if that is what being Jewish means, I want no part of it. No! Nein! Not the children. Never again the children.”

The speaker was unprepared for such raw emotion. He had been speaking, in the manner of such speakers, only of the idea of sacrifice, not of its actual embodiment. Flustered, he said, “But what do you think the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, is about?”

I was in my early 20s, a new father, a graduate of yeshiva day schools and Yeshiva University, shomer shabbat, familiar with the recitation of the Isaac story every day in the morning prayers, and with its centrality in the high holiday service, in which we plead that God recall the binding of Isaac and, in return for our forefather Abraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice his only son, judge us with mercy.

That is to say, I hadn’t spent 30 seconds of my life actually thinking about it. But the episode that morning caused me to revisit it, reconsider it, and see how troubling it was. It also caused me to closely examine the carefully constructed biblical narrative (comprising less than a single chapter, a mere 19 verses) and, these many years later, after much thought and discussion, to arrive at an interpretation that is thematically consistent with, but diametrically opposed to, the traditional reading.

Acknowledging that there are shivim panim l’torah, seventy exegetical ways of interpreting a Biblical text, and that my approach is highly heterodox, my interpretation is the only one that satisfies me, the only one that is, I believe, consistent with our image of God and the character of Abraham, and the only one that is fully supported by the entire text.

I dedicate it to that survivor in Des Moines, Iowa.

In order to accept the traditional reading–that Abraham was so committed to performing the bidding of God that he was willing, even eager, to sacrifice Isaac–one must also accept both that God was (kaviyachol–assuming such a thing were possible) a liar and Abraham was a liar. One must accept that Abraham, counter to every Biblical bit of evidence and suggestion as to his character, was reluctant and unwilling to argue with God’s decisions and insensitive to the welfare and fate of other human beings, including even his beloved child. Or, with me, one can conclude, based on the clear evidence of the text, that Abraham knew, from the outset, that no harm would befall Isaac and that they were all players in a drama designed to send a transformational message to the world.

Let’s look at the text. I urge you to have the text (Genesis 22) available. Otherwise, if you have even a cursory traditional religious education, given your indoctrination in the accepted narrative, you may not believe that I am dealing off the top of the deck.

God appears to Abraham while he is sleeping and tells him to take his only son, whom he loves, specifically Isaac, to the Moriah region and to offer him as a sacrifice upon a mountain that God will reveal to Abraham. Without any recorded hesitation, expressed doubt, or dialogue, Abraham awakens early in the morning (eager, say the commentators, to perform God’s will), saddles his donkey, and embarks on the journey, together with Isaac and his two attending youths (according to the commentators, Eliezer, his servant, and Ishmael, his son from the concubine, Hagar).

Consider: This is the same Abraham who, overstepping the bounds of what he himself considered proper, pleaded incessantly for the reprobates of Sodom–perhaps there were fifty worthy souls, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or ten–would God destroy the righteous together with the wicked? What kind of God would do that? Chalila! It would be a disgrace. Abraham didn’t forsake his idolatrous family and homeland for that kind of God. And yet we are to believe that Abraham, the paragon of chessed–kindness–could not even spare a word, a single word, of supplication for his innocent, beloved son. Really?

This same Abraham who was willing to risk his life for Lot, the nephew who abandoned him? The same Abraham who is devastated when Sarah insists on sending away Ishmael and only acquiesces when God Himself insists and assures him that Ishmael too will prosper? Are we to believe that this is the Abraham who immediately and eagerly marches off to sacrifice his son, without a word of demur? I doubt it.

It is reasonable, even without supporting texts, to assume that the Abraham that we know from the Bible would not have behaved so . . . unless he knew from the outset that no harm would befall Isaac. Reason impels us, then, to look for clues in the text pointing to that knowledge. And we need not look far.

When God commands Abraham to follow Sarah’s direction to exile Ishmael (using the term, Shma be’kolah–hearken to her voice, which, we will see later, is a significant usage, fraught with meaning), He not only assures him that Ishmael will be just fine and the father of multitudes, but He also, critically, advises him that the Jewish destiny will be fulfilled by the progeny of Isaac. “Ki b’yitzchak yikareh lecha zara”–from among the offspring of Isaac your descendants will be known.

And Abraham does not only believe in God; Abraham believes God. He knows, as we should know, that God is not a liar. Therefore, he can proceed on the journey with Isaac (as yet unmarried and childless) fully confident that no harm will befall Isaac on this adventure, that he will survive the journey, and, ultimately, produce the progeny God has vouchsafed will be called the children of Abraham.

That, indeed, is the point of the entire story. Abraham has absolute faith in God’s promise, in the eternal survival of the Jewish people, and in the covenant into which God has entered with him and, by extension, the Jewish people. And both the promise and covenant are contingent on the survival of Isaac, for it is through him, God has said, that Abraham’s progeny will be known. Abraham believed–no, Abraham knew–that nothing he did could possibly keep Isaac from being his heir, as God had promised. Abraham knew that Isaac was never at risk. And so he could proceed as he did.

Do we require further evidence? The Torah provides it. The trip takes three days. Presumably the travelers had occasion to speak to one another. But the Torah, in its concision, records a grand total of two verbal exchanges, both highly meaningful to our analysis, and presumably intended to be so.

Near the end of the journey, Abraham says to the two accompanying youths: “You stay here with the donkey. I and the lad will proceed to the destination, make our obeisance, and we will return to you.” [emphasis added] Abraham had no need to deceive his companions. They, certainly Ishmael, would undoubtedly have been delighted to see the last of their rival for Abraham’s estate. Moreover, Abraham owed them no obligation or explanation; he was the master. He could as easily have said, “you two stay here with the donkey.”  If he had intended to sacrifice Isaac, why would he lie about Isaac’s return? The only reasonable answer is that he had no intention of sacrificing Isaac or returning alone. After all, he had God’s assurance that Isaac would survive and have children. So Abraham, like God, tells the truth, right there, in the story itself.

Again: As they proceed together, Isaac asks, “We have the fire and the kindling, but where is the lamb to be offered?” And Abraham answers, “God will provide the lamb.” This could be rationalized as idle chit-chat or evasion, or even a veiled reference to Isaac himself, but, given the fact that this is exactly what actually happens–God provides a substitute, is it really beyond the realm of possibility that Abraham suspected, or knew, what would happen? Why would he lie? It appears that Isaac willingly mounted the altar. Isaac believed Abraham. Abraham believed God. That is the point of the story.

Given that these two conversations are the only two recorded from the journey, is it not reasonable to assume that the Bible wanted us to know that the two principal participants in the narrative believed, even knew, that Isaac would return safely?

At the denouement, Abraham binds his son and extends his arm as if to slaughter him, and an angel intervenes, commanding him (as Abraham apparently knew–had to have known–he would) not to proceed. Miraculously, or perhaps predictably, just as Abraham had assured Isaac, a ram is discovered caught in the brush by its horns and is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead.

The angel speaks: “Abraham, Abraham . . . do not extend your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you are one who fears God* and did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.” [fn:*“fearing God” in pre-Sinai scripture appears to have been a moral rather than religious category, referring to an elevated level of humanity and decency; Abraham lies about Sara being his sister for fear that he will be killed and she abducted because the citizenry did not “fear God”; the midwives in Egypt decline to kill the Hebrew newborns because they “fear God.” It does not appear to refer to obedience to God’s commands or the willingness to engage in infanticide. Given the other examples, it is hard to imagine that it could conceivably apply to the slaughter of an innocent child. On the contrary, in the cited examples, it refers to a heightened regard for human life, including children.]

Granted that this utterance is, at best, ambiguous with respect to why Abraham is being praised, the Bible follows, quite remarkably, even unprecedentedly in the Bible, where, typically, a single utterance by God suffices and economy of language is the quotidian standard, with what appears to be an exercise in sheer redundancy.

The angel speaks again, blessing Abraham with the promise of innumerable progeny, and again rehearsing God’s approval for basically the same thing in basically the same language, with one notable difference: “Because you did this thing, and did not withhold your son, your only son from me…[the blessing proceeds] . . . because you hearkened unto my voice (again, shammatta bekoli).” The language the angel uses, “Shammatta bekoli” could be translated “you obeyed me,” or “you listened to me,” or “you listened to the meaning within my words.”

Biblical Hebrew has a word for “command” but it has no unique word for “obey.” Instead the verb “lishmoa,” to hear or to hearken, is used to refer to acceptance and acquiescence, as noted above, when Abraham is commanded to listen to Sara, i.e., do what she asks. But lishmoa, to hear, clearly has a more active, creative element than mere obedience. One can listen and hear constructively and imaginatively, which is not the case with mere obedience. One can hear shades of meaning. One can hear words within words, and levels of intent.

Abraham did not merely obey. He listened. He heard. He heard when God promised that his descendants would issue and ensue from Isaac. He heard when God commanded him to offer his only son. He heard, within God’s own words, that Isaac would inevitably emerge unscathed from this episode. He understood. God compliments Abraham for listening–hearing–understanding that He is neither the kind of God who lies nor one who requires human sacrifice. “You listened to the meaning within my words” clearly refers to more than simply not withholding your only son, which has been stated twice already.* [*f.n. As noted above, the word “lishmoa” means not only to obey, and not only to hear, but also to understand. Thus, the brothers were unaware “ki shomea Yoseph.” They certainly did not doubt his hearing, only his understanding. The Israelites tell the Assyrian messenger to speak Aramaic “ki shom’im avadecha.” We understand your language.]

When the angel tells Abraham that he will be rewarded because “shammatta bekoli,” he is complimenting Abraham’s insight, not his hearing. “Because you hearkened to my voice.” If this merely referred again to the willingness to sacrifice Isaac, why repeat the phrase with this addition? Moreover, it does not say, “shammatta lekoli”–you listened to my voice, but “shammatta bekoli,” which implies a deeper attentiveness to the meaning within the words. Abraham is being promised this great reward because he trusted God to keep his original promise, to the point that he was willing to go through the motions of appearing to sacrifice Isaac, because he knew it would never happen, and could never happen. It should have been obvious that Abraham’s greatness was not that he was willing to kill his son; the idolatrous adherents of Moloch did that on a regular basis. The point is that he had absolute faith in God’s word, in God’s covenant, in God’s promise, to the point that he was willing to go through the entire process, confident that the result would be benign. That faith permitted him, nay impelled him, to proceed through this entire illustrative and didactic drama.

So, my inspiring Holocaust survivor was right. Being Jewish does not mean being willing to sacrifice the lives of loved ones. It means believing in the Jewish destiny promised in the covenantal faith. It means believing God’s promise to Abraham. We are not a people whose mothers could ever take pride if their children were to seek entry to heaven by turning themselves into human bombs.* [*fn: the contrast between the stories of the binding of Isaac in Genesis and that of Ishmael in the Koran is outside the scope of this article, but fascinating.]

That is not what God requires of us. How do we know? Through the survival, the unbinding, of Isaac.

The Bible provides us with one additional bit of evidence. According to tradition, the binding of Isaac took place on Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Abraham renames the mountain, calling it “Har Hashem Yireh”–the mountain where God will see, but the Torah immediately advises us that the place became known as “Har Hashem Yayraeh”–the mountain where God will be seen (or revealed). The message appears clear. This episode is dispositive in revealing the nature of God, a God who keeps His promises and does not require human sacrifice.

One question remains: does this interpretation, in which, in Abraham’s view, Isaac’s survival is assured, diminish Abraham’s achievement? What, if anything, has Abraham risked? Why should he be rewarded? Should we be recalling his actions on the High Holy Days as a merit that should protect us, his children? Or was he just going through meaningless motions, with no risk of loss, and therefore no deserved reward?

I would submit that Abraham’s achievement is at least as great, if not greater, than if he were actually intending to sacrifice his son. Abraham understands that God has bound himself to certain standards and that we can rely upon them, and only upon them. God is trustworthy to keep his promises to us. God is a merciful father who does not desire the death of His children. So Abraham’s greatness resides not in the fact that is willing to kill his son at God’s request. Abraham is great because he knows that God does not require the killing of sons, that He has bound himself by His word not to allow it to happen, and that Abraham can rely on those attributes of God.

Therefore, Abraham may proceed, may participate fully and wholeheartedly in the demonstration, without protest, delay or remonstrance, may arrange the kindling, may bind his son, may seize the knife, may even, perhaps, commence the downward motion of the slaughtering arm . . . secure in the knowledge that it will not happen, that God keeps his word, his promise, his covenant. He does not go with the intention of slaughtering Isaac, and that is crucial; he goes, believing, knowing, it will not happen. But, if Abraham were to have been proven wrong in his faith, Isaac would have perished. Abraham, hearkening to God’s word, knows that he will not be proven wrong, and that is what merits praise and reward. If he is wrong, he loses everything–his son, his God, his destiny. What greater risk could he take?

It’s a difficult concept. Perhaps an illustration might work. Imagine a disease that results in a swift, painful death. Imagine a scientist who develops an innovative antidote to the disease. He is confident–no, absolutely certain based on faith but no empirical evidence–that the antidote will work.  But he has no human tests. If he injects himself (or his son) with the disease, proving his complete confidence and faith in its efficacy, does his belief mitigate his courage and faith? Clearly not.

Abraham believes that God will keep His word. That belief does not diminish his courage, On the contrary, that is absolute faith, even more praiseworthy than blind obedience.

About the Author
Gary Epstein is a retired teacher and lawyer residing in Modi'in, Israel. He was formerly the Head of the Global Corporate and Securities Department of Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm with an office in Tel Aviv, which he founded and of which he was the first Managing Partner. He and his wife Ahuva are blessed with18 grandchildren, ka"h, all of whom he believes are well above average. He currently does nothing. He believes he does it well.
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