The Binding of Isaac

The dramatic story of the binding of Isaac is central to Jewish liturgy and thought, and has perplexed many generations of commentators.

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Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press.

The Akedah Gained Prominence in the Late Roman Period

The Akedah, or"Binding of Isaac", is the account in the book of Genesis (22: 1-19)of Abraham, at the command of God, taking his son, Isaac, to be offered as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Abraham binds his son (hence "the Binding of Isaac") to the altar and is ready to perform the dreadful deed when an angel appears to tell him to stay his hand and to promise him that his seed will increase.

There is no reference to this episode anywhere else in the Bible. Nor does it feature very prominently in post-biblical Jewish literature until the third century CE. Some biblical scholars, Jews included, have read the story as a protest against human sacrifice, the significant point being that the angel intervenes to prevent the murder as an obscene act that God, unlike the pagan deities, hates and could never really have intended.

But in traditional Jewish thought, the Akedah is used as a paradigm for Jewish martyrdom; the Jewish people are ready at all times to give up life itself for the sake of the sanctification of the divine name (Kiddush Ha-Shem).

The Prime Proof Text for Mercy

On the judgment day of Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the year, God is entreated to show mercy to His people in the merit of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. A prayer of the day reads: "Remember unto us, O Lord our God, the covenant and the loving-kindness and the oath which Thou swore unto Abraham our father on Mount Moriah; and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Thy will with a perfect heart. So may Thy compassion overbear Thine anger against us; in Thy great goodness may Thy great wrath turn aside from Thy people, Thy city, and Thine inheritance."

"Thy city" in the prayer is a reference to the ancient tradition that Mount Moriah, the site of the Akedah, is the place in Jerusalem where the Temple was built. Thus, contrary to the "happy ending" theory mentioned above, the traditional view, whether historically accurate or not, is close to that of Kierkegaard, who reads the Akedah as an illustration of how far the "knight of faith" is ready to go in his "teleological suspension of the ethical."

Did He Never Return?

The commentators find some features of the Akedah puzzling. Why, for instance, is there no mention of Isaac returning with his father after the ram had been substituted for him? Abraham is said to have returned together with the lads who accompanied him, but nothing is said of Isaac. Abraham Ibn Ezra (a 12th century Spanish commentator) records an opinion that the angel's call came too late and that Isaac was, in fact, killed by Abraham. (On this opinion, Isaac, who reappears in the later narratives, was resurrected from the dead.)

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.