Rembrandt van Rijn, the Sacrifice of Isaac
This week we read the Torah portion of Vayeira in Genesis, which includes the great and terrible story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, in which God tests Abraham by having him almost, but not quite, sacrifice Isaac on a rock. This portion is read annually on Rosh HaShanah as well, its connection the fact that a ram appears at the end of the story caught in a thicket by its horns, the model for all future shofars.
But this passage is much more than a mere animal story. Cryptic yet oddly repetitive, it raises a host of painful moral dilemmas and challenges us to think intensely about just what our relationship to God truly is.
According to the text of Vayera, God tests Abraham, Adonai nisa et Avraham, by commanding him to sacrifice his son, his only son, his beloved son Isaac. This triple identification of Isaac mirrors an earlier command in last week’s Torah portion of Lech Lecha to Abraham to begin his great journey towards God and monotheism. There the phrase is “leave, leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home.” Now he is being told to kill “your son, your only son, your beloved son, Isaac.” Beyond the obvious moral quandary, there are textual problems here: Abraham has another, older son, Ishmael, so Isaac is not truly his “only son.” Isaac is actually the son of his older age with his wife Sarah—so Isaac is Sarah’s only son. Clearly all God needs to say here is “take your son Isaac” and there will be no doubt who is intended for the sacrificial altar. Why all the extra language?
But the bigger problem is the fact that Abraham, who has shown a tendency to argue and fight against injustice, obeys this terrible command immediately, and he even does so with apparent relish. He doesn’t make a peep, doesn’t say a single word of objection to God, and in fact gets up especially early in the morning in order to fulfill this horrible command with energy.
The Torah narrative sets up this drama beautifully, painfully and tragically. Isaac goes along with his father—the phrase “the two walked on together” is repeated—and finally asks, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies, correctly but ironically, “God will provide.” It is a weird and deeply troubling scene.
Finally, as Abraham is about to slaughter his son with a knife, an angel of God intervenes and the murder of the innocent, the sacrifice of Isaac, is stopped. Isaac lives, and the future of our people, Abraham’s children, is preserved.
Today we read this problematic text through our own contemporary eyes, and we likely miss what it meant in an ancient world in which children were often sacrificed to placate one god or another. In its place and time this was most probably a polemical tale designed to teach the prohibition on human sacrifice. Remember, ultimately Isaac is spared, and Abraham is told never again to think of sacrificing his son.
Children are not meant to be slaughtered on the altar of their parents’ beliefs. God does not want the blood of the human “lamb,” our Lord does not truly desire the destruction of His own children. In fact, God desires life.
Other religions have carried this Akeidah story to a different, bloodier, more horrible conclusion, believing that human sacrifice and suffering are the essential elements in religious life. But the story of the binding of Isaac makes it clear that killing our own kids, and the glorification of the loss of a child, will never be acceptable to Jews.
In fact, Abraham’s urgent rush to fulfill God’s weird and painful command to kill his son reminds us that we can embrace morally bad decisions with great fervor. And many, many times in human history we have sent out children off to die for causes that were far from ethical.
The great World War I poet Wilfred Owen paraphrased this theme in his verse, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not do so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
We still engage in such choices, and like Abraham we still fail the test too often. May we learn from this Akeidah test of Abraham’s to choose life, and not sacrifice, for our children.