This story is so famous and confounding it has its own name: Ha’Akedah, or “The Binding.” God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham does it, but just before he’s about to stab his son to death, an angel stops him. A very short story, but it has influenced Jewish thought and action for thousands of years, as well as Christianity, Islam, geography, art, literature, even war — you name it.
At the beginning of Chapter 21 in the Book of Genesis, we are told that God remembered Sarah and she gave birth to Isaac. She convinces Abraham to kick out Hagar (his mistress) and Ishmael (his first-born son by Hagar). Dying of thirst in the desert, God appears to Hagar to tell her to keep going, that she and her son will survive, and that Ishmael will develop his own line of descendants.
God approaches Abraham, who responds “Hineni”, meaning “here I am.” God tells Abraham to take his son “whom you love” and offer him as a sacrifice on top of Mt. Moriah. Abraham binds Isaac to a makeshift altar, draws a knife, and stretches out his hand to slay him. But he is stopped at the last second by the appearance of an angel sent by God. Abraham instead sacrifices an animal.
God appears to Abraham to repeat the covenant: that because Abraham did this thing, because Abraham did not withhold his only son from God, God will bless Abraham, his descendants will be as numerous as the stars and the sand, and, essentially, everything is going to be fantastic from this moment on.
God: orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but then stops him and repeats the terms of the covenant.
Abraham: father of Isaac, dutifully and without argument obeys God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac.
Sarah: gives birth to Isaac, and insists that Abraham exile Hagar and Ishmael.
Ishmael: the first-born son of Abraham who is considered by Muslims to be the father of Islam and the rightful heir of Abraham’s covenant with God.
- The Hebrew phrase “hineni" appears in the Bible as an answer to God calling one’s name for a purpose. Here it is meant to indicate Abraham’s spiritual willingness to respond to God’s command.
- Is God testing Abraham’s loyalty? Why? The covenant has already been established — Abraham has accepted the will of God, has circumcised himself and all the men in his household, has been promised several times now to be the father of a great nation — so why the need for yet another, even more extreme, test when Abraham has already proven himself? Maybe the idea is not for God to find an answer to the test, but for Abraham — he needs to discover for himself the depths of his faith in God as he continues along this journey to lead a great nation.
- Abraham acted out of the faith that God would not ultimately allow him to kill his own son. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote about the “teleological suspension of the ethical”: what the Jewish Study Bible explains as the voice of God overriding the voice of human conscience. Abraham puts aside his ethical concerns because he has faith that God will bring about a just outcome.
- Historically, this story may be a cautionary tale against human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was part of ancient cultures but Judaism really frowns on it. This story may explain why ancient Jewish cultural practice did not include human sacrifice.
- Mt. Moriah, where the binding took place, is traditionally considered the site of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem today. The large rock that sits underneath the Dome of the Rock is associated with the exact spot.
- The binding of Isaac is considered by Christianity to a foretelling of the Crucifixion — a son of some divine merit carrying the wood for his own sacrifice to God on behalf of humanity.
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© 2017 Jason Harris