The binding if Isaac, the story of how Abraham prepared to slaughter his son after being commanded to do so by God has been interpreted for nearly two millennia as the quintessential example of total submission to God’s Will, and of the exemplary suspension of one’s own sense of morality in the name of God’s Word as expressed in the Bible. Such is a common line of reasoning, still heard at the pulpit today.
A few questions: Firstly, from a Jewish perspective (the Hebrew Scriptures are after all – Jewish), is a “good Jew” really supposed to suspend his sense of morality? Is it not a principle in the Talmud that the Law “is not in Heaven”, namely that it is man’s responsibility to build, with his own judgment of right and wrong? Surely Abraham SHOULD be using his moral compass, and therefore should have refused to murder his son.
Secondly: What are we to make of the apparent contradictions in the text?
1) Abraham is told to sacrifice his son but the place of the sacrifice is not given to him until after 3 days of traveling.
2) God (Elokim) tells Abraham to sacrifice his son but an Angel of Lord (YW) stops him.
3) Abraham tells his two servants to expect both Isaac and himself to return after prostrating themselves to the Lord.
4) After being stopped, Abraham is rewarded for “not withholding his son”.
Before addressing these points, one should be aware of how Judaism’s greatest Orthodox Rabbi, Moses Maimonides explained prophecy in his book – The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides views the stories about God in the Bible to be anthropomorphic in nature, to the extent that ‘God said to Abraham’ really means ‘Abraham understood’. Prophecy for Maimonides is intellectual revelation of truth (incidentally he viewed scientists to be a certain part of the way towards prophecy). In any event, ‘God speaks’ should be understood as the Prophet hears something new which is true. Maimonides does not discuss the fact that had Abraham gone ahead with child sacrifice he would have been a murderer, but he does explain a line of reasoning that existed in the act for Abraham, namely that this would be service of God without reward, since the only reward Abraham wanted in his life was to have a son from his wife.It seems according to Maimonidean prophecy, that Abraham had reached a point where he had to know whether child sacrifice (prevalent at the time) was indeed the true way.
This is further indicated by the incomplete nature of the initial command – “take him to a place that I will show you” or namely – “travel with Isaac until the truth becomes clear”.The incomplete nature of the initial command, and the fact that when he did finally “see the place” (or understand what was true) he told his servants that both Isaac and he would return (the implication is – both return ALIVE) strongly suggest Abraham had made up his mind not to go ahead with child sacrifice. This is also indicated by his response to Isaac, when asked where the sacrificial animal was – “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering” or namely – it will become clear that there will be an animal not a human sacrifice.
But what are we supposed to make of Abraham’s actually binding Isaac, and lifting the knife “to slaughter his son”?
Although the text uses language of determination here (after all, it doesn’t just say Abraham lifted his knife, it adds the purpose “to slaughter his son”), it should be noted that this is where the story reaches it’s climax. It is now that Abraham has his name called twice (a Biblical sign of God’s Love, or as Maimonides would say, a new level of intellectual revelation). Some commentators say that Abraham was now testing God – but either way, it is only at this point of final action that Abraham can see this was not the true path.
Incidentally, we don’t hear from the Angel of the Lord who stopped him again until Moses and the burning bush, and some see Moses’ prophecy as a direct continuation of Abraham’s. Also, Abraham is not recorded as having spoken to God or Isaac after this harrowing story.Finally, what of the reward given to Abraham?
In verse 22:12 the Angel of the Lord tells Abraham that he will become a great nation specifically because he did not withhold his son. Doesn’t this imply that the text is suggesting there really was nothing wrong with the initial command and that it was only though God’s grace that Isaac was saved?
In Maimonidean terms, no. Abraham is being rewarded for what he was willing to give up for what was true. Had he concluded that child sacrifice was correct, he would have done the difficult deed. But this is the story of his discovery that child sacrifice was not, in the end, the true way.