Torah Portion of the Week: The Ultimate Sacrifice

Parashat Vayera.

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The painting "Sacrifice of Isaac" by the Italian master Caravaggio (c. 1598-1603). Dershowitz admits to only this one exception to Abraham’s 'protecting the innocent': the "binding" of his son.
"Sacrifice of Isaac" by Caravaggio (c. 1598-1603). Dershowitz admits to only this one exception to Abraham’s 'protecting the innocent': the "binding" of his son. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story of the Binding of Isaac, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24), has been given countless interpretations. It is, for example, the focus of the religious introspection of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who considered it to be a classic example of the worship of God for its own sake -- of the totality of religious commitment and its priority over all human values and interests. But is this the story’s real message?

If we place the story in the context of the relationship between religion and morality, we must admit that it is not about ethical decisions – at least not explicitly. God commands Abraham, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (Gen. 22:2). After Abraham passes the test of religious devotion, God praises him: “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me” (Gen. 22:12).

There is no moral dilemma here: The focus is not the value of human life, but rather the well-being of an individual: the only child of Abraham and Sarah. In any case, it is hard to escape the feeling that the message underlying the story is the importance of unconditional obedience to the Almighty, and that various interpretations of the Binding of Isaac try to soften this message.

One such attempt to deal with the message of totality involves the claim that Abraham’s greatness is expressed in the fact that he does not ultimately sacrifice his son, and that this constitutes the episode’s real drama. Another version of this approach highlights the patriarch’s ability to deal with his doubts and confusion in the face of God’s seemingly conflicting instructions: After being swept up in the passion of executing the divine commandment to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham must then restrain himself and persuade himself that God does not really want him to kill his own son.

This tempting exegesis ignores the text, which actually praises Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. While the appearance of the angel who prevents him from doing so is a dramatic moment for Abraham, God and the reader know in advance that this is the way the story ends, that this is simply a test of Abraham’s commitment: “God put Abraham to the test” (Gen. 22:1). Some scholars even attribute the angel’s appearance to another author, implying that the story embodies two contrasting views, although the text introduces the story with the statement that what ensues there is intended to be a trial.

Sometimes the Binding of Isaac is explained as a polemic against the Early Near Eastern custom of sacrificing firstborn sons to the gods. However, the polemical element is missing here. God does not tell Abraham, “You should know that I do not want you to sacrifice your son,” nor does the angel, like the prophet Micah, ask, “Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins?” (Micah 6:7), or answer, like Micah, that God really wants us to “Only do justice, and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8). As a polemic, the story is not sufficiently direct: Abraham agrees to sacrifice Isaac and is praised, not censured, for this. A more reasonable version of this interpretation is that the story seeks to emphasize that, although human sacrifice is not acceptable in the Israelite religion, Abraham is willing to offer his son to God.

Another way of dealing with the seemingly cruel demand that Isaac be sacrificed is to recognize the grave consequences of the episode. The sages take this approach, connecting the story with Sarah’s death, described in next week’s portion; they claim that the news that Abraham is going to sacrifice her son kills Sarah, and that she does not live to hear that the act never took place. Modern interpretations of the crisis following the incident note that, after the binding, God no longer appears to Abraham, which alludes either to their estrangement from one another or to Abraham’s decision to refuse to speak to a god who nearly caused him to kill his own son.

In addition to the consequences for Abraham and Sarah, some scholars argue that Isaac himself is seriously affected, apparently suffering post-trauma; that he is a pale figure compared to his more dynamic father and his own son, Jacob; that his marital relationship with Rebecca is strained; and that his parenting abilities are limited. Although these interpretations are tempting and offer an important critique of the demand for total devotion expressed in the story, they are not supported by the text and, in attempting to highlight the destructive outcome of the events, they actually confirm that the story views with favor such religious commitment.

Perhaps we should return to Leibowitz, who declares that the story’s purpose is “to show us how strong is the faith of the greatest believer, Abraham.” “In the binding,” he notes in “Five Books of Faith” (in Hebrew), “God reveals himself to Abraham as a supreme being that will not protect him, that will grant neither him nor his descendants any promises or any role in the world, and that demands that he sacrifice everything in the name of devotion to God.” However, this approach does not see the whole picture: Although willing to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham is ultimately not required to do so. Moreover, if commitment to God means giving up everything without receiving any promises or rewards in return – that idea is actually contradicted by Abraham’s experiences and by the Torah in its entirety. The binding is connected to God’s promises to Abraham, but there is a paradox, which Leibowitz cannot resolve: Abraham is worthy of God’s promises because he is willing to forsake them. The concept of reward is present here, but the reward should be the byproduct of religious commitment, not its goal. In any event, this is also speculative insight that is not firmly rooted in the text.

This story is a riddle, but its enigmatic nature is also not its message. In that regard, we cannot find in it the kind of discussion portrayed in the Book of Job about the human incapacity to understand God’s ways. The tale of the Binding of Isaac demands explanation, but it succeeds in eluding all understanding.

All biblical quotations are from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.

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