The Binding of Isaac

Jeremy Fischler


            There are several reasons why this is the best possible name for the event of the Akeda. Other titles include “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” and “The Testing of Abraham”. The Binding of Isaac is best because it is the most accurate reflection of the events that are described in the text and leaves who is being tested up to the interpretation of the readers.

            The story as written leaves many small details unknown and thus opens itself up for debate on important issues. Various interpretations of the story through the midrash and other sources allows for possible details in the story. One point frequently argued by scholars is whether Isaac knew upon arrival to the place of sacrifice that he was the intended sacrifice, or if he believed the sacrifice was going to be an animal. Another crucial issue in the story is who was being tested, Abraham or Isaac. Isaac could have been tested by deciding if he should sacrifice his life for G-d, but G-d may have been testing Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his own son.  Satan’s actual involvement is argued amongst scholars, whether or not he tempted Abraham to disobey G-d.   If one of these interpretations could prove to be correct then it would have a drastic effect on which name best describes the event. However, there is no such way to do this and thus we are left with attempting to best describe the biblical text.    

            The “Binding of Isaac” is most true to the biblical story. Genesis chapter 22 verse 9 states that “He (Abraham) bound his son Isaac” so this title is accurate according to the text. “The Sacrifice of Isaac” or “The Sacrifice of Abraham” implies that a sacrifice took place though. This is not an unheard of interpretation of the story.  Rabbi Jehudah, in the Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer says that Isaacs soul left his body only to return later, and Natan Nuchi’s 1984 painting “The Binding of Isaac” shows Abraham holding Isaac who is quite clearly dead. However, there is no textual proof that this occurred so these titles are possibly misleading.

            There are various opinions on the question of who is being tested in this story. There is a strong tradition stating that this was indeed one of Abraham’s many tests. Additionally there is evidence of this because in the end it is Abraham who receives the blessing, not Isaac. However, many believe that this is Isaac’s test. At a certain point he must have figured out what was going to happen to him and that makes the test his reaction, to lay down his life or run. Several interpretations have Isaac telling his father to bind his hands and feet, lest he have a sudden reflex which could lead to an injury, thus making the sacrifice non-kosher. Additionally, though G-d talks with Abraham when conferring the blessing, it is clear that the blessing is fulfilled through Isaac. Both sides of this argument have merit, and this is precisely why The Binding of Isaac makes the most sense as a title. Interpreters and our own class often operate on the faulty assumption that G-d could only have been testing one of them. This title allows Abraham to be considered tested because he did the “binding” while it certainly could have Isaac be tested during the same event. The Testing of Abraham clearly states that this is strictly Abrahams test while The Sacrifice of ______ implies that the test is for the person being sacrificed. The open-endedness of this title is what makes it far superior.

            While I personally believe The Binding of Isaac is the best title, different people would prefer different titles depending on their situation. Sacrifice of Abraham may apply to a father who reluctantly spanks his child because he does not feel it is morally justified on its own. The feeling may arise that when the spanking occurs it is not just the son being punished, but the father as well. The Sacrifice of Isaac is a title that a child learning the story for the first time would likely prefer. The child reading the story would be more likely to identify with what the son is giving up as opposed to that of the parent. A sage, rabbi or a saint may be more inclined to view this story as The Testing of Abraham. A constant issue for those who involve themselves in a life of what they deem to be holiness is trials that one must overcome to show how pious they truly are. However, as someone who is trying to view the multiple facets of the story, recognizing that none are necessarily contradictory I prefer The Binding of Isaac because it leaves the most room for interpretation about who is being tested and what we are supposed to be taking away from the story. 

            An alternative ending that could make this story more central to Jewish life and religion would include the involvement of a third party ready to sacrifice Isaac. If one of Abraham’s servants were to come with the two of them up to the altar, while Abraham bound Isaac but left actual sacrifice to the servant. Then, as the blade is about to touch Isaac, Abraham calls out to stop, his voice being projected by the heavens. At this point his servant puts the knife down, and Abraham decides Isaac cannot be sacrificed, so he sacrifices a ram he notices in the thicket nearby. At this point G-d gives Abraham his reward, thanking him for listening to the word of G-d, but ultimately knowing that the murder of innocent people, even when instructed by G-d, is wrong. This would be the central story to a Jewish concept of protest, making it not merely a human idea, but a divine one as well.