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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Ibn Ezra rejects this as contrary to the plain meaning of the biblical text.  But Shalom Spiegel, in a famous essay (The Last Trial), shows that such an opinion came to be widely held in the Middle Ages, possibly in order to deny that the sacrifice of Isaac was in any way less than that of Jesus; or as a reflection of actual conditions in the Middle Ages when the martyrdom of Jewish communities demanded a more tragic model than that of a mere intended sacrifice. 

Scrutinizing God's Intentions

Nevertheless it is constantly stressed in the literature that God never intended that Abraham should actually sacrifice Isaac.  A Talmudic comment on Jeremiah 19: 5states: "?which I commanded not?- this refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab (2Kings 3: 27); ?nor spake it?; this refers to the daughter of Jephthah (Judges 11:31); ?neither came it to My mind?; this refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham."

Philo (a first-century CE Jewish thinker and biblical interpreter) goes to the opposite extreme, defending the Akedah against the charge that it is by no means unique since, in the history of mankind, many people have been prepared to lay down their lives and the lives of their children for a cause in which they believed: Moloch-worshippers (those who offer their own children as sacrifices) for instance, who are condemned by Moses, and Indian women who gladly practice suttee (self-sacrifice). Philo replies that Abraham's sacrifice was unprecedented in that he was not governed by motives of custom, honor, or fear, but solely by his love of God.

To Test or Not To Test

Another puzzling feature of the Akedah is the opening statement that God tested Abraham, as if the purpose were to provide God with information about Abraham's trust He did not previously possess. According to Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3. 24) the words "God tested Abraham" do not mean that God put Abraham through a test but that He made the example of Abraham serve as a test case of the extreme limits of the love and fear of God. Nachmanides (also known as the Ramban, a 13th century Spanish rabbi), onthe other hand, states that God did indeed know beforehand how Abraham would behave but, from Abraham's point of view, the test was real since he had to be rewarded not only for his potential willingness to obey the divine command but for actually complying with it. The implications of the Akedah are that, despite what appears to be a contradiction, divine foreknowledge is compatible with human free will.

That Abraham went to the Akedah in "fear and trembling" (the title of Kierkegaard's work on the subject) is expressed in the Talmudic legend that as Abraham went on his way he was met by Satan, who tried to stop him by arguing that God had promised him that his future, and the future of all his teachings about the One God, would depend on Isaac and now he was about to frustrate that promise.

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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.