Thoughts on Reading the Akedah -- Again

By Bodoff, Lippman | Midstream, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Thoughts on Reading the Akedah -- Again


Bodoff, Lippman, Midstream


The Akedah has played such an important role in Jewish tradition and culture, history, and liturgy, that one is impelled -- even challenged -- to continually rethink its meaning to be sure we have it right. (1)

Doing so, it occurred to me that the secret of this challenge is the paradox that the Akedah presents, that national salvation requires that a cherished son of God, as all of humanity is, must be sacrificed to God. (2) If cherished, why sacrificed; and if sacrificed, in what way cherished?

It then occurred to me that the real paradox of the story may not be in the message but in the means necessary to convey that message -- a very different message -- in a text. If, as I have maintained, the test was, "Will Abraham obey Me with faith that I, God of the universe, will not let the sacrifice of Isaac come to pass," (3) and not "Will Abraham be willing to sacrifice Isaac at My Command," then I would argue -- and here is the paradox -- that it was necessary to portray Abraham as going forward ready to perform the sacrifice! This is so because, if the text instead said something like "And Abraham woke up the next morning (after being commanded to sacrifice Isaac) with faith that God would never, in the end, demand such a sacrifice, because this would not only violate His prior promise to Abraham to father a great nation through Isaac (4) but would run counter to everything that Abraham knew that God stands for and demands of mankind namely, justice, righteousness, and lovingkindness" -- then the text would be putting God on trial for the entire three-day trip to Mount Moriah. During that time, we would know how Abraham feels -- this sacrifice cannot be right, cannot be moral, cannot be what God really wants -- but we would not know where God stands!

Once you introduce the readers, the receivers of the tradition in each generation, to Abraham's inner faith, the story falls apart. We know, Abraham knows, God knows, everybody knows what Abraham believes about this demanded sacrifice, but no one knows yet what God believes, except that He requested it.

Moreover, there is another reason why it is inappropriate to tell the reader or listener, up front, about Abraham's faith that God will not let the sacrifice happen. Every human being has free will and is vulnerable morally, as Abraham showed on a number of occasions. (5) Therefore, until we know how strong his faith was about God's righteousness in this matter of sacrificing Isaac, that is, until the very last second before Abraham would have to slaughter or save his son, Isaac, we can't say for sure, and -- as we have already shown -- we certainly can't set the story up so that Abraham appears more righteous than God. So Abraham must be portrayed until the very end as silently proceeding as if prepared to sacrifice his son. And, at that very last moment, God's certain, eternal rejection of child sacrifice inevitably must, in the textual exposition, trump Abraham's faith that God would save Isaac. Divine rejection of human sacrifice must be the climax of the trial, and Abraham's faith must remain hidden in the text.

Well then, Abraham had faith, but he also knew that he had the human right, or opportunity, to back away at the last minute if God remained silent. "In the meantime, let me continue with the preparations, and give God a chance to prove His moral greatness beyond any other power in the universe, and justify my faith in Him."

Finally, if the text told us that Abraham knew that God would not let the sacrifice occur, then God's later order to Abraham to desist would not only be anticlimactic, it would suggest that the desist order came not because God is against human sacrifice, but because God wanted to be nice to the one person in the world who believed in Him. He simply did his servant a favor.

For all these reasons there is no other way to write this story, or tell this story orally (try it!) but for Abraham to obey and keep silent, and for God to make the second great move in the story, by saying, "Stop. …

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