Binding Isaac

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen


I was reeling from the inhuman aggression of the maniacal Strangelove Putin on an independent country causing the deaths of hundreds of children when I thought of the words of Leonard Cohen in “The Story of Isaac”.


You who build the altars now

To sacrifice these children

You must not do it anymore

A scheme is not a vision

You never have been tempted

By a demon or a god


He was misusing the story of the Binding of Isaac to condemn the needless aggression of the Vietnamese war. Abraham took Isaac up Mount Moriah, bound him, bodily lifted him on an altar, and raised his hand to kill him because he thought that was what God wanted. What kind of God would ask that? And yet it is a completely false analogy


It is true that in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam this story is fundamental. But it is interpreted in ways, each reflecting cultural differences. Why, though, is it called a sacrifice when there was none?


Abraham seemed to have been willing to sacrifice his son because he thought that this was what God wanted. In this, perhaps he was simply conforming to a deeply held belief at the time that offering your child to the gods would ensure they were on your side. Just think of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis in the epic of the Trojan War. But the Torah is clear that he was mistaken. As the text says this was not what God wanted. This was a definitive, unmistaken response that God (the Jewish religion) does not want human sacrifice. This is why we call this episode the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, not the sacrifice. It is one of the most recurring motifs in our literature, theology, and liturgy.


The text says explicitly that this was a test. “After these things, God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). We know in advance that this is not to be taken as the will of God. According to tradition Abraham was tested ten times and passed each one (Mishna Avot 5:4). This episode is sending us messages, both about what God really wants, Abraham’s faith, and the limits of faith.


The poetry of the narrative reveals a whole raft of unspoken intentions and responses. Abraham reacts to the call with the word Hineyni, “here I am.” By contrast, the Bible uses the similar word Hin’ni when talking about God’s future responses to human failure and redemption. But the word Hineyni on the other hand is only used by Joseph, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah when they are uncertain of their mission to play a part in the unfolding of a Divine plan, but ready to accept it, nevertheless.


Returning to the narrative, Abraham saddled his own donkey and personally chopped the wood. He set off secretly with two attendants and Isaac at dawn. They headed off towards an unknown destination. It is a three-day journey. Note the parallel with the three days of preparation for the Revelation of Israelite law on Mount Sinai. This is a precursor of the idea that obedience to God requires obedience to a moral system, not just a nighttime vision.


There is no record of any conversation during those three days. It is only when Abraham handed over the wood, the container with fire to Isaac that Isaac asked where the sacrifice was. Abraham replied that God would provide it. A lie perhaps, but equally a prophesy. Did Abraham really believe he would have to kill his son? And why did he not challenge God as he did over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra when he asked whether God could possibly kill innocent people? Even more surprising is the phrase “ and they went on together,” together in body and together in thought. Isaac allowed himself to be bound and to be placed on the altar and he saw his father raise his hand with the knife ready to strike. And still not one word. All the more surprising if, as some rabbis had calculated that Isaac was in his forties and Abraham well over one hundred at this time! Could he really have bound and lifted Isaac up without his co-operation? Indeed, some commentators say that Isaac was the real hero of the story. While others suggest he was so traumatized by the experience it affected the rest of his life.


Another anomaly is the constant reference to Abraham’s only son. When he has repeatedly asserted his love and concern for Ishmael who was born first? Is this therefore a story to explain why Isaac was the heir to his spiritual tradition if not the biological first?


This episode is the most commonly repeated work of Christian art in the Jewish Bible. I know of over twenty world-famous paintings of what was called the Sacrifice of Isaac. Amongst them are my three favorites Carravagio, Jordaens, and Rembrandt. But why are they called the sacrifice rather than the binding?


Christianity, reconfigured this biblical story, in line with its specific theology, to refer to Jesus as the only begotten son of God and the lamb of God who was sacrificed by the Romans to atone for the sins of humanity. The phrase Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God is a core theme in the Mass linked directly to the binding of Isaac. As if to say that if in the Old Testament Abraham only went so far, only in the New Testament was the Son of God sacrificed (albeit as a sheep and not a ram!).


It originated with John the Baptist who imagined he saw Jesus coming toward him and said “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Thus, the binding is compared to the Crucifixion and the last-minute stay of sacrifice in Abraham’s case is a symbol of the Resurrection which is so crucial to Christian theology.


The story plays an important part in Islamic theology too, but there it was Ishmael, who the Koran claims was the favored son, who was nearly sacrificed.


I am not going to try to describe all the fanciful scholarly or psychological theories which often try to claim that Abraham actually did kill his son or that this was an early rite of passage. They may be ways of looking at the Bible as a primitive random collection of stories stitched together by some pretty incompetent editors of no relevance today.


Needless to say, I think such a view is facile. The Bible is as I believe a record of spiritual struggles that take us on a journey towards the realization that whoever we are, religious or not, we need a clear moral behavioral code. Fine abstractions, noble sentiments of goodwill, or pious motions purporting to support peace are far too vague and subjective to be our guide. We need a constitution more than theology and we must fight for what we believe in against those who prefer to turn a blind eye or appease.


PS I have heard several people argue that Ukraine deserves what is happening because of its record of anti-Semitism.


What a facile argument. Almost every European country hated Jews and co-operated with Hitler in exterminating them, some more than others. We have a principle in the Torah that children do not die for the sins of their parents. They may suffer the consequences, but you cannot justify killing them. Otherwise, Russia could justify invading Germany. And if anyone is a Nazi it is Putin. Ukraine has a popularly elected Jewish president.


It could be argued that previous USA regimes mishandled Putin, and as with Iran, naively ignore their agendas and failed to stand up over Georgia, Crimea, and Syria. Nothing can excuse his blitzkrieg against an independent State and a civilian population. Doubtless, China will learn the lesson and invade Taiwan.


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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.