Reflections on a Crime Not Committed

Had Abraham actually gone forward with the sacrifice, there would be no Judaism, for we would be no different than any other group, condoning infanticide in the name of God.

What would Abraham have done if he had not heard an angel’s voice telling him, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him ...” ‏(Genesis 22:12‏)? What if there had been only absolute silence? Would he have actually slain Isaac, his son?

It’s hard to think of a crime more abhorrent than the murder of a child by a parent. Israel has experienced several instances of this crime in recent years, including, just this summer, a case in which a father killed his three small children because of a dispute with his wife. The idea sends shivers down the spine.

One is reminded of a similar murder depicted in “Medea,” Euripides’ 5th-century B.C.E. play, in which the title character, when she is spurned and divorced by her husband Jason, takes her revenge by slaughtering their two children. The playwright’s feelings − and ours − are well expressed by the chorus: “O your heart must have been made of rock or steel, you who can kill with your own hand the fruit of your own womb.”

What then are we to feel when we read the tale in Genesis, in which the father of our people is commanded by God, no less, to do just such a terrible thing, and utters not a word of protest? Should we too not feel the terror that the Athenians must have felt when watching Euripides’ play?

True, the terror is blunted for us as readers because we all know that Abraham is going to hear the voice that stops his hand − that it would have been impossible to have him kill his son. The Torah gives the game away at the very beginning by telling us, “God put Abraham to the test” ‏(Gen. 22:1‏). But let us not forget that Abraham did not know what we do.

On the other hand, the midrash raises the possibility that Abraham may actually have shed Isaac’s blood, even killed him, and it goes so far as to contend that Isaac was brought back to life miraculously. If that sounds familiar, it may be because that interpretation was probably a response to the claims of early Christianity that forgiveness for sin was attainable only because Jesus ‏(the son‏) was sacrificed by God ‏(the father‏). The midrash states that the near-sacrifice of Isaac − so much earlier − had already taken care of this.

The creators of midrash also took it for granted that Abraham did not want to slay Isaac, but that “he repressed his quality of mercy” at God’s behest, in return for which God would repress his quality of justice in order to save Jews at times of trouble and to forgive them when they stood before him for judgment on Rosh Hashanah.

There had to be a voice saying “Stop!” But had there been no reprieve, would we not hope that Abraham at the last moment would throw down the knife and say “Lo!” ‏(“no”‏). It is difficult for me to imagine the Abraham we know − so sensitive to injustice, so caring for human life, so devoted to his children − doing that deed. I would rather he slay himself than lay a hand on Isaac.

No one will ever know what really happened. We only know the way in which the episode was transmitted within the framework of the biblical narrative. I should like to believe that the story does not support the murder of children, that at the very least it takes it for granted that God does not desire such a deed and that the killing of one’s child for any reason is an abomination.

But for the moment let us forget the place of the story in the biblical narrative and in the history of Judaism, and return to the event itself − assuming, for argument’s sake, that the story is based on an actual event in the life of a real individual. Imagine that this man Abraham is ascending a mountain in the belief that the God he worships is demanding the sacrifice of his son. This was a demand that was not considered unreasonable at that time. We know that his neighbors the Canaanites actually did sacrifice children and that the practice was also not unknown in Mesopotamia, where Abraham was born. And yet, in the end, Abraham did not do it. Why not? Because the conviction overcame him that this God − “the Judge of all the earth” − could not possibly be guilty of such an injustice. Abraham had already learned of God’s justice with regard to the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And so he stopped, he put down the knife, convinced that he had been commanded from heaven to stop. Had Abraham actually gone forward with the sacrifice, there would be no Judaism, for we would be no different than any other group, condoning infanticide in the name of God. The history of religion, indeed the history of the world, would be very different.

Reuven Hammer, head of the rabbinical court of the Masorti Movement, lives in Jerusalem and is the author of several books including “Entering the High Holy Days” and “Entering Torah.”