The Binding of Isaac: Religious Paradoxes, Permutations, and Problems

By Bodoff, Lippman | Midstream, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Binding of Isaac: Religious Paradoxes, Permutations, and Problems


Bodoff, Lippman, Midstream


I believe it can be shown that the deep structure of the impulse and act of child sacrifice has had a continuing and destructive impact on human religious activity from its inception to the present day. Further, I will argue that only a rethinking of the concept can have any hope of reversing that destructive impact.

The original story in monotheistic religious texts embodying the ideal of child sacrifice is, of course, the Binding of Isaac (in Hebrew, the Akedah or Akedat Yitzchak), in which Abraham is commanded by God, as a test of Abraham's faith, to "raise up" Isaac, his cherished, first-born son (of his wife, Sarah), as a totally consumed burnt offering (olah) to God, at a place that God would show him.

In the story (Genesis 22), Abraham proceeds as instructed, without any words of agreement or disagreement with or question of this command, despite the fact that it conflicts with God's earlier promise to Abraham that his progeny would become a great nation through Isaac (Genesis 17:19) and, even more important, despite the fact that it also conflicts with God's much earlier, universal command to Noah, as part of the "Noahide Laws" (Genesis 9:6), prohibiting the killing of innocent human beings.

As Abraham raises his knife above Isaac in evident preparation to complete his task, a Divine voice commands him to stop and not to harm Isaac in the slightest way. This is followed by a divine blessing given to Abraham because he "did not withhold" his son from God.

The moral message of the Akedah in Jewish tradition is that God does not desire human sacrifice in any form, and humanity is forbidden to consider it a virtuous or pious practice. (Jeremiah 19:5) (1) We know that the ideal of child sacrifice harkens back to pagan practices. Like so many other elements of the Jewish religion, the Akedah is a transformation of pagan values, specifically, the idea that the pagan gods of nature, embodying as they do projections of human emotions and desires, need to be assuaged and flattered, and, as a result, become recipients of the ultimate pacification by human beings -- by the periodic sacrifice of their own kind. (2)

The Akedah takes that ideal and turns it on its head: such sacrifice is exactly and emphatically what God does not want; it represents the anti-pagan idea that the one God, of Abraham and of all humanity, is not subject to understanding in terms of projections of human characteristics and concepts and, most emphatically, is not a projection of human weaknesses and failings.

The Akedah transforms the pagan practice of human sacrifice into a moral test never meant to be fulfilled (Jeremiah l9:5); God uses the test -- and here is a paradox -- to announce for all time that human sacrifice, or any other form of arbitrary aggression against other human beings, all of whom are created in the image of God, is absolutely and eternally prohibited by the One God's moral law for mankind. The test, as most have since understood it, is to require Abraham to display a devotion to God in a form that is so extreme that it is unwanted by God. Again, the paradox. But there is no paradox in the underlying message. Having proved to mankind that humans are capable of excessive displays of love and loyalty even to God -- indeed, opportunities for such excessive displays invite the false attribution of them as God's will --it remains for man to strive as far as he can to serve God and obey His moral law without such excesses because and here we have another paradox -- such actions are even more counter to God's will than disobeying a Divine call to perform them! (3)

II

Christianity was born during a period of great social and political trauma and confusion. There were people looking for a Divine sign of redemption from poverty, persecution, and religious and political divisions that precluded any sense that the Second Commonwealth of Israel -- and, after its conquest by Rome in 70 CE, the Israelite people -- could survive its pressures and problems from within and without. …

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