Friday, October 2, 2015


In the Jewish tradition the “Binding of Isaac” (known in Hebrew as the Akedah) is read during the High Holidays, usually on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). It tmjells the story of how God “tested” Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his beloved son in order to prove his loyalty to the divine. 

This is a very difficult story, some would even say brutal, which is hard to accept as a test of faithfulness today. Even though placed within the book of Genesis (ch. 22), we do not know when it was written and by whom.  Furthermore, it is not clear what was its original purpose. What was the intended message when it was formulated?

There are lots of problems with the text, some literary and others theological: For example, if God is all-knowing and must have known that ultimately Abraham would sacrifice an animal instead of his son, why did he put him through this terrible ordeal? Was God cruel? How come Abraham did not protest the way he did when God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (see, Gen 19)?  Furthermore, we do not know where is Mt. Moriah, the location of the near- sacrifice. We are not told how old was Isaac during this ordeal. According to Josephus, he was 25 (Ant.1/13); many ancient rabbis say, he was 37! 

Over the centuries, many commentators had a hard time dealing with this episode. Some Rabbis tried to highlight the fact that Abraham was reluctant to do the deed; others claimed that God only said to “bring him up” to the mountain, but Abraham misunderstood the divine message; some stated that Abraham actually drew some blood and then stopped; also, when Sarah saw that Abraham returned from the mountain alone (Gen. 22: 19, the text does not mention Isaac), she assumed that he had killed their son, and died of a heart attack (about these rabbinic comments, see Tanh. Vayera). According to some modern commentators, the story repudiates the custom of child-sacrifice, which was prevalent in ancient times, but the text itself is totally silent about it. The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) gave up any hope of solving the dilemma, and called the story “a teleological suspension of the ethical” (See his Fear and Trembling). 

For me, reading the text in the 21st century, Abraham comes across as one of those religious fanatics who would do anything, because they claim they heard a divine command. This thinking is not too different from the other religious extremists of our times, who, in the name of religion, would not hesitate to murder and destroy anything and everything because of the divine will. This is dangerous thinking and must be rejected. Woody Allen, in his comedic commentary on this story (2009), nailed it when he wrote that the message of the story for us is that “some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Oct. 2015