“The Sacrifice of Isaac”
Interpretation of the Akeda
“The offering [desirable] to God is a contrite spirit; a contrite and broken heart, God, You do not disdain.”
(Siddur - Prayer Before Retiring At Night)
The best description of the Akeda event is “The Sacrifice of Isaac” as Isaac was the one being sacrificed to God as it was he who experienced the binding and the internal sacrifice. However, God’s release of Isaac’s bonds eternally bound him and his descendants to God. Abraham enacted the sacrifice at the command of God but it was Isaac who was willingly bound, prepared for slaughter, and experienced the extreme trauma of facing death. Isaac survived the sacrifice but his psyche could not have escaped unscathed. This paper proposes that as a reward for Isaac’s trauma and persistent faith, God bestowed blessings upon his descendants and the Temple Mount was delineated as His abode in the world.
Isaac experienced the paradigmatic religious experience, as frequently displayed in Psalms, in which one confronts horror and death but experiences God’s renewal of life which, in turn, results in an exalted spiritual connection. Pain and despair often draw one closer to Presence and Isaac’s descent into suffering and his visceral realization of mortality can be seen as having propelled his awakening in a higher spiritual state. Isaac’s encounter with death may have achieved spiritual immortality or continual Presence by escaping future sins, as wrongdoing and spiritual failure often result from a fear of death. Therefore, during the Akeda, Isaac was initiated into the covenant with God by transcending the emotional planes that separate life from death.
Death as Proof of Spiritual
Isaac’s yearning for his father’s connection to God and his desire to comply with God’s request surpassed his fear of death. Therefore, the sacrifice revolved around Isaac’s willingness to prove himself worthy of spiritual inheritance. Thus Abraham was more of a stage manager for the harmonious wills of God and Isaac. The sacrifice came at the expense of both God and Isaac but was engaged in response to both of their desires: Isaac’s desire for his father’s spiritual connection and God’s desire for a worthy successor to Abraham.
God tested Isaac’s worth as Abraham’s spiritual successor by overriding His abhorrence of human sacrifice and directly requesting “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Isaac’s inheritance of God’s covenant was legitimized with unrelenting devotion that proved greater than life itself. God’s intervention in “The Sacrifice of Isaac” can be juxtaposed with the sacrifice of the King of Moab’s son whose actions lacked spiritual worth and only deserved political intervention and not the prevention of his death.
The test God imposed upon Isaac required his death but Isaac’s success required God’s intervention. Once the test had reached the moment of proof and consequently the point of no return, God was forced to intervene to prevent the death of His chosen successor to Abraham. God would protect the spiritual successor of Abraham, as He had shielded Abraham and would shelter the descendants of the covenant, even if God was defending the successor from Abraham and His own command. The sacrifice was God’s ultimate gamble as both sides understood that either Isaac would be killed because he was not worthy of God’s covenant or God would be forced to intervene because He could not unjustly nullify the covenant which Isaac was needed to fulfill. Also, God would be required to endow a hefty reward in order to restore justice in light of unjust demands.
Once Isaac proved his worth with Presence and inner strength in the face of death, his direct connection to God began and Abraham’s ended. “The Sacrifice of Isaac” marked the culmination of Abraham’s spiritual journey, as he would no longer speak with God, and the beginning of Isaac’s journey as he inherited his father’s covenant. The experience of confronting death and the inherent spiritual results delineated the significance of the ongoing inheritance of Abraham’s connection to God. Therefore, the original text’s reference to descendants and blessings pertained to both Isaac and Abraham. Isaac’s extreme faith and surrender of life overshadowed all of Abraham’s tests which demanded the sacrifice of happiness, pleasure and safety but not earthly existence itself.
An Alternate Ending
angel of the Lord thrust forth from heaven, in glory. Abraham lowered the
knife. The angel uttered a melodious roaring sound which resounded, “Isaac.”
Isaac shouted in fear and awe, “Here am I.” The angel proclaimed, “Thus says
the Lord your God and God of your father, the One who brought your father out from
the Land of Ur, ‘I know that you fear the Lord your God, since you have not
withheld yourself; so strong is your faith. So shall you be unto me as was your
Out of compassion for Isaac’s suffering, the
Presence of God permanently descended upon the mount and a heavenly voice
proclaimed, “This ground will forever remain hallowed for here Isaac; your
heritage has been proven righteous with My test. I
will bestow My blessing upon you and make your
descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands upon the seashore;
and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of
the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed
When Isaac looked up,
his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. Isaac and Abraham
took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of Isaac. Isaac
proclaimed, “This site shall always
be remembered as Zion for it is true that here the Lord will always dwell with
The Ram and the Temple
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” urges man’s interaction with God and promises rewards for fulfilling God’s will. The ram was a nonlinguistic communication between man and God and was used by God to appease man’s religious sentiments while in turn man used the sacrifice to appease God as would be continued upon the Temple Mount.
Isaac’s offering the ram did not merit a response from God but suggests the need to let off the pressure and anguish after a psychologically painful event by externalizing the internal death of the ego to God. Thus, spiritual vulnerability is shown as a prelude to physical power. The ram was provided by God as He understood that the offering created a Divine language which Isaac needed to express his thanksgiving. Yet, the response and context shows that animal sacrifice was needed more by the human as a way to express thanks to God. However, as many prophets explained, God is really concerned with what occurs within the individual and the sociopolitical implications. Isaac’s sacrifice of the ram led to his proclamation of the future Temple as a way for his descendants to give thanks to God which suggests the continuation of a similar human-to-God interaction pattern.
To legitimize the First and Second Temples, Mt. Zion needed to be included as the original text lacked an explicit connection between “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and the Temple Mount. God needed to bestow eternal blessings upon Isaac’s descendents in order to restore His mercy, justice and benevolence which He had violated by creating inhumane suffering. The merit of Isaac’s sacrifice ultimately provided for the later Temple Mount which reenacted “The Sacrifice of Isaac” through animal sacrifice that expressed thanksgiving for God’s mercy and gift of life. “The Sacrifice of Isaac” legitimized the holiness of the Temple Mount but its focus is directed upon God’s compassion for humankind which would be a cause for rejoicing even in light of physical destruction. Therefore, the Western Wall would not become the Wailing Wall.
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” teaches that, although God bestows His blessings upon the pious, the individual must also strive to receive. Therefore, one may influence the Almighty by seeking challenges while acting in accord with God’s will and retaining faith amid danger and agonizing psychological situations. However, martyrs could easily misinterpret “The Sacrifice of Isaac” as calling for self-imposed martyrdom or God requiring death for His service.
God’s intervention in “The Sacrifice of Isaac” firmly answers the question, “Shall
I give the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul” (Micah 6:7-8). The
sacrifice of one’s body was such an anathema to G-d that it warranted His
intervention. The internal “Sacrifice of Isaac” was rewarded by a spiritual
gift that freed Abraham but perpetually bound Isaac and his descendents, the
Jewish people, to the hardships and rewards of serving God.
Isaac was the one being
sacrificed to God and it was he who experienced the binding and the
“Then, when the goose was pressed firmly to the rock, Isaac watched as his
father drew pulled back the white throat and drew the blade. He saw how
especially white was the neck and how cleanly the blade cut through.” Schwartz, Howard, “The Dream of Isaac,” Gates to the New City: A Treasury of Modern Jewish Tales, ed.
Howard Schwartz (New York, Avon: 1983) 149.
Abraham enacted the sacrifice
at the command of God but it was Isaac who was willingly bound, prepared for
slaughter and experienced the extreme trauma of facing death. “What happened… or almost happened…on top
of that mountain was so awful. It still gives me nightmares.” Steigman, Linda, “Letters from
Isaac,” Reading between the Lines: New
Stories from the Bible, ed. David Katz and Peter Lovenheim
(Northvale, N.J, Jason Aronson: 1996) 57.
Isaac survived the sacrifice but his psyche
could not have escaped unscathed. “He felt the blade poised to press down when the sun emerging from
behind a cloud blinded them both” (Schwartz, 149).
During the Akeda, Isaac was
initiated into the covenant by transcending the emotional planes that separate
life from death. “The knife descends, I wake
up screaming” (Schwartz, 149).
THEY WENT BOTH OF THEM TOGETHER (ib.): one to bind and the other to be bound,
one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered. Midrash Rabbah, ed. and trans., H.
Freedman and Maurice Simon (London: Soncino Press:
1939) Genesis LVI:3.
Isaac’s yearning for his father’s connection
to God and his desire to comply with God’s request surpassed his fear of death. “Yet even so, his heart rejoiced to obey the
will of his Creator” (Midrash Rabba, Genesis LVI:8). “Either of God's greatness, or
of loyalty to God even at the cost of one's life” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:11). “A potter does not examine defective vessels, because
he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he
examine? Only the sound vessels, for he will not break them even with many
blows” (Midrash Rabbah,
God desired of me that I be slaughtered, I would not refuse” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis
Abraham, thus, was more of a stage manager
for the harmonious wills of God and Isaac. “Forthwith, HE BOUND ISAAC: can one bind a man thirty-seven years old?
(another version: twenty-six years old) without his
consent?” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:8).
“And don’t say you
made a sacrifice, For the one sacrificed was me”
(“Dear Father When You Stand Over My Grave,” Profane Scriptures, ed. Ruth Kartun-Blum
(Hebrew Union College Press: 1999) 56-57.
Meanwhile, God’s covenant
was passed onto Isaac who legitimized his inheritance with unrelenting devotion
which proved greater than life itself. “In order to know his heart,
whether he would be able to preserve and keep all the commandments of the Torah
or not” “The Binding of Isaac Upon the Altar,” Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31, [38 A. i.].
God’s intervention in “The
Sacrifice of Isaac” can be juxtaposed with the sacrifice of the King of Moab’s
son whose actions lacked spiritual worth and only deserved political
intervention and not the prevention of his death. “’Shall I give my firstborn
for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ Now in the
case of Isaac the deed was not actually done, yet He accepted it as though it
were completed, whereas in the case of Mesha it was
not accepted” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LV:5).
actual human sacrifice, such as Mesha's, is abhorrent
to Him” (Midrash Rabba,
Once the test had reached the moment of proof
and consequently the point of no return, God was forced to intervene to prevent
the death of His chosen successor. “Did I tell thee,
Slaughter him? No! but, ‘Take him up.’ Thou hast taken
him up. Now take him down” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:8).
Once Isaac proved his worth
with Presence and inner strength in the face of death, his direct connection to
God began and Abraham’s ended. “The Lord trieth the
righteous” (Midrash Rabbah,
“The Sacrifice of Isaac”
marked the culmination of Abraham’s spiritual journey, as he would no longer
speak with God and the beginning of Isaac’s journey as he inherited his
father’s covenant. “THAT IN
BLESSING I WILL BLESS THEE, etc. XXII, 17): a blessing for the father and a
blessing for the son; AND IN MULTIPLYING, WILL I MULTIPLY: an increase for the
father and an increase for the son. AND THY SEED SHALL POSSESS THE GATE OF HIS
ENEMIES (ib.) (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:11).
kept on talking about his relationship with G-d, and how it was up to me to
carry on this relationship, this covenant, after he died.” (Steigman, 56).
“Isaac, my son, seest thou what I see?’ ‘Yes,’” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:2).
“‘They saw the glory
of the Shekhinah.’ Clement of Alexandria says…on the
text ‘Abraham, when he came to the place G-d had told him of on the third day,
looking up, saw the place afar off,’ for the first day is that which is
constituted by the sight of good things, and the second is the soul’s best
desire; on the third the mind sees spiritual things” (Strom. V.
11). Thus the third day was the consummation of a spiritual progression
in a physical spiritual journey. (See also, Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer. Chapter
31, [38 A. i.] 223-230).
Subsequently, Isaac’s extreme faith and
surrender of life overshadowed all of Abraham’s tests which
demanded the sacrifice of happiness, pleasure and safety but not earthly
existence itself. “The fact, however, is that this was the last trial,
which was as weighty as all the rest together, and had he not submitted to it,
all would have been lost” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:11).
God needed to
bestow eternal blessings upon Isaac’s descendents in order to restore His
mercy, justice and benevolence which He had violated
by creating inhumane suffering. “When the Patriarch Abraham stretched forth his
hand to take the knife to slay his son, the angels wept, as it says, ‘Behold,
their valiant ones [the angels] cry without- huzah’
(Isa. XXXIII, 7). What does ' huzah
' mean? R. ‘Azariah said: ‘It is unnatural’” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis
The merit of Isaac’s
sacrifice ultimately provided for the later Temple Mount
which reenacted “The Sacrifice of Isaac” through animal sacrifice that
expressed thanksgiving for God’s mercy and gift of life. “While the Rabbis said: All eating (akiloth) which Israel enjoy in this world, they enjoy only
in the merit of that MA AKELETH (KNIFE)” (Midrash
Rabbah, Genesis LVI:3).
verse teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed him the Temple built,
destroyed and rebuilt” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:10).
For it is stated, ‘This is My resting-place for
ever; here will I dwell for I have desired it’” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:2).
“I have installed My
King on Zion, My holy mountain!” (Psalm 2: 6).
interpretations suggest Mt. Moriah was, “the place
whence religious awe (yirah) went forth to the world”
also is set His tabernacle, and His dwelling-place in Zion (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis
“R. Isaac said:
Everything happened as a reward for worshipping…The Temple was built only as a
reward for worshipping. ‘Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at His holy
place’” (Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer,
Chapter 31, [38 A. i.] Pg 230).
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” teaches that,
although God bestows His blessings upon those He loves, the individual must
also strive to receive. “Can you do what Abraham did?” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis
Katz, David, and Peter Lovenheim. Reading between the Lines: New Stories from
N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1996. Linda Kersh Steigman, “Letters from
“The Binding of Isaac Upon the Altar.” Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer. Chapter 31. [38 A. i.]
“Genesis.” Midrash Rabbah. Ed. Trans. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon. London:
Soncino Press. 1939. 10 vols.
Schwartz, Howard. “Biblical Themes.” Gates to the New City: A Treasury of Modern
Jewish Tales. New York: Avon, 1983. “The Dream of Isaac.” 149-150.
Siddur: Tehillat Hashem. Annotated Version: According to the Text of Rabbi Shneur
Zalman of Liadi. Brooklyn: Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch. 2007.
Tanakh. The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation Acording to the Traditional
Hebrew Text. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. 1985.
* To God, the reader,
and my conscience: many ideas expressed in this paper are blasphemous and
although intended to stimulate thought do not represent spiritual or religious