“The Binding of Isaac”


Mary Ruf


            Upon first consideration, I am tempted to title the story in Genesis XXII “The Testing of Abraham.” With Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son being, arguably, the most salient and divisive element of the Akeda, it would follow that the foremost impression of the story reflect his importance. Moreover, “The Testing of Abraham” connotes the idea that Abraham made a deliberate decision to “take [his] son, [his] only son, whom [he loves], and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering…” (Genesis XXII, verse 2.) As such, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was his response to a test of his morality, faith, and relationship with God. In class, many discussions centered on grappling with the notion of blind faith and trust in God’s will. More egregious to our senses, though, were the concepts of child sacrifice and the possibility of a violent or abusing God. Through midrashim, various value-concepts and interpretations of the Akeda offered explanations and justifications of both God and Abraham’s motivations. Further, these midrashim, in addition to paintings, songs, stories, and poems suggested divergent resolutions for the story and addressed issues including the timing of the angel’s arrival, Isaac’s age and participation in the story, Abraham’s emotional struggle, and even Sarah’s role in the situation. While the variations on the text altered the significance of the story, changes in the plot most often involved Abraham and God. Therefore, “The Testing of Abraham” would serve as an appropriate tile in that it portrays the centrality of Abraham, God, and the actions and relationships of these figures to the Akeda.

            However, to use “The Testing of Abraham” as a representation of the text is to grant greater significance to the relationship between God and Abraham than to the implications of the story for future generations. Although one cannot diminish, much less ignore, the importance of Abraham and God to the story, it is “the binding of Isaac” that provides richer, more consequential meaning to the Akeda. Relatively undisputed in interpretations of the Akeda is the idea that Isaac was bound; regardless of whether Isaac was ultimately sacrificed, Isaac was prepared, was bound, to be sacrificed. This act, irrespective of what happened when Abraham “reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son,” demonstrated Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac in accordance to God’s command. Further, the binding of Isaac makes the tacit the idea that Isaac had some level of understanding and participation in, what appeared to be, his impending death. Abraham did not need to ambush Isaac, nor would he have likely been able to given his old age. In light of midrash as well as Islamic tradition that depict a scene in which Isaac asks his father to bind him, it is suggested that Isaac understood that his father would sacrifice him. As such, Isaac’s submission to his father demonstrates such value concepts as obedience and obligation to one’s parents. Moreover, this moment in the story confers both Abraham and Isaac’s faith and trust in God. Abraham’s trust in God gave him the strength to follow God’s orders. Similarly, Isaac’s faith in God engendered his ability to acquiesce to his father in order to follow God’s command. Therefore, the significance of the Akeda lies not only in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son but also Isaac’s understanding and acceptance of God’s will and of Abraham’s obligation to God. This becomes most apparent when Abraham binds Isaac; as such, the title “The Binding of Isaac” most aptly conveys the meaning of the Akeda.


            As an alternate ending, consider that Abraham built the altar and bound his son, his only son, Isaac. Abraham laid him down upon the altar and stretched out his hand, taking the knife to slay his son. Suddenly, the angel of the Lord appeared saying, “ Abraham, Abraham.” And Abraham replied, “Here am I.” The angel said, “Do not lay a hand upon your son. God knows now that you fear Him. You did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from Him. Take, instead, the ram and offer him up as a burnt offering to God.” Abraham cut the ties that bound Isaac and went to retrieve the ram that had caught his horns in a thicket. After offering up the ram, Abraham returned to his servants. Together, they went to Beersheba. Isaac descended the mountain alone, promising to return home in a few days. Sitting by his tent, God appeared to him. “Isaac. Why did you return with your father?” He asked. Isaac cried out, “Why did you spare me?! My father was ready to sacrifice me! Was I not worthy enough an offering? And can I be replaced by a ram?!” “Isaac,” the Lord consoled, “You were not sacrificed because you have yet to fulfill your purpose. You were born unto your father as a blessing. You will spread your seed to populate a nation as numerous as the stars. That is your sacrifice to me. Both you and your father have proven your devotion to me. You are worthy of my covenant.” As tears fell down, Isaac’s relief lulled him to sleep. Come the morning, he returned to Beersheba.