The Akedah - The Maze of its Meaning

Essay by Jay Wolin

            I grew up listening to the story of the Akedah each year at the Rosh Hashanah services.  I really paid little mind to it growing up.  We were taught that this story was told to explain that God did not want us to sacrifice humans.  As I entered my late teens and early twenties, I became infatuated with existentialism, which of course brought me face to face with the writings of Soren Kierkegaard.  In his writings he brought up the question “Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?” [1] .  The view of the Akedah at that point for me was a basic question as to whether humans should have complete faith in something greater than ourselves and our own experiences, to a point that we would do something unethical.  By looking at Abraham’s actions in this vein, we can see that such a view has led many people to do unspeakable things in the name of religion.

More recently, however, I had a much more personal experience that made me dwell on The Akedah.  When I received the call to Ministry, my youngest child was (and still is) in school.   Obtaining a Masters of Divinity was a requirement for me to obtain ordination in my denomination.  I had investigated and searched for Seminaries that would accept students from my denomination.  After months of searching, I realized that if I were to pursue my call from the divine, I would have to either move my family away from Central Florida (including my son from his school and friends), or travel away from my family.  Either course of action would cause severe pain to my son.  As I struggled with this decision, my minister mentioned that she had been to a preaching conference and had heard about the Florida Center for Theological Studies, and thought I should look into it.  In finding this seminary, it was as if God had left a ram in the thicket for me.    In my heart I knew I would never consciously do anything to harm my son.  Still it troubled me deeply that I would have this calling, and yet the only way to fulfill it would be to hurt my son.  Why would God do such a thing?   I didn’t look at it as a test from God, although perhaps it was.  When this incident happened, I immediately thought of The Akedah.  It is why I chose these verses as my final paper.  I wanted to dig into this verse and try to better understand its mystery, myself, and my mission.  These verses have always been challenging as they touch on such profound topics of faith, yet leave so much for interpretation.  Maybe that point, in and of itself, is part of the answer.  That we must search deeply between the lines of life for answers, as they are not always so obvious.  After much research, I found many challenging, thought provoking concepts regarding these verses, which guided me to find my answer.  It may not be everyone’s answer, but it is my answer, based on my experiences with the world and with the divine.

The first basic question that troubled me is why God would create such a test?  Did God question Abraham’s commitment?  What had God asked of Abraham initially?  In Genesis 12 he asked very little.  “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”.   He basically asked Abraham to follow his advice and he would give him great blessings and later on promised him land. In Chapter 15 there are more specific promises.   There were no other stipulations.  In Chapter 17  there is another covenant between God and Abraham.  Is this possibly another version of the same story retold in a different way?  There is no reference at all to the previous covenants.  In Chapter 17,  in exchange for God’s blessings, Abraham and his descendents had to “Walk in My ways and be blameless” and partake in the act of circumcision.  And then in Chapter 22, he asks for the sacrifice of Abraham’s son.   As the bible goes on, there are more and more requirements added.  It is almost as if God is continually requesting more and more, once the previous task is completed.  Israel Charney in “ And Abraham Went To Slay Isaac” states:

“We see in the story of the Sacrifice a stunningly clear statement of where man is in his development as a species, and just where the challenge lies if man is to hope to develop his evolutionary potential for nonviolence. [2]

Although Charney was not speaking specifically to this issue of additional requests, I think his point relates well here.  God continues to push us to reach our maximum potential.  Almost like a video game, once we reach a certain level, we are ready for higher, more difficult levels.  We will evolve as beings by constantly being challenged to reach another level of humankind. This concept is one of the messages of The Akedah.  We must constantly challenge and push ourselves to reach our maximum potential as human beings.

            The second question that always has troubled me about religion and this story in particular, is why does God require a living sacrifice (animal or human) from humans?  In fact, I do not believe God requires sacrifices from us.  God is not vain.  If God is all knowing, God would know what we think and feel about God.  I see two possible conclusions. One is that God is not all knowing and requires sacrifice to better know who loves God.  There is no way to determine this conclusion, and it would require a separate theological dissertation to explore this concept. The second conclusion is that God does not require the sacrifice, but rather humans have a desire to sacrifice to God.  This sacrifice might be out of thanks for all the blessings that God has given us, or it might be out of a lack of faith that God is really present in our lives, and we have to take some action to satisfy or justify that.  Ronald Green in “Abraham, Isaac, and the Jewish Tradition: An Ethical Reappraisal” tries to answer the reason why God would create such a test even if God knew the outcome quotes a midrash:

“It was my wish that the world should become acquainted with thee, and should know that it is not without good reason that I have chosen thee from all the nations”. [3]

I think this view is a rationalization.  First, this test of sacrifice was specifically a private ceremony and a private covenant between Abraham and God.  Second, I am not quite sure what the test proves to others and why it would impress them.  Thinking about it, why does God need to prove anything to anyone for what God does?  I found this answer unsatisfying.

            Howard Moltz in “ God And Abraham In The Binding Of Isaac” makes the case that “God had come to doubt Abraham” [4] and “uncertain of Abraham’s devotion, had devised a brutal test.” [5]   By questioning God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, and by questioning God regarding Sarah’s and his having children, Abraham had not shown faith in God.  Through such a test, he showed obedience to God.  I find this of little consolation.  Abraham had left his family and all he had known to follow God.  Again, does God know what we think and feel?  If so, why would God doubt Abraham?  If not, we know God had been in conversation with Abraham, why would God not just discuss his concerns with him as opposed to creating such a test.

            I think Walter Breuggmann captured it best for me when he said

“The command of God is that Isaac must be killed.  It follows that there will be no descendents, no future.  We are back to barrenness.  The entire pilgrimage from 11:30 has been for naught.  Abraham has trusted the promise fully.  Now the promise is to be abrogated.  Can the same God who promises life also command death?” [6]

Clearly Abraham knew that if he followed the order, God’s promise would be broken.  He had given up his past by leaving his family.  Now he faced giving up the future of his descendents.  The message this sends to me is very clear.  Our individual relationship with God is unique.  We each must progress and develop it on our own.  Our parents and our descendents have to come to their own peace with God.   We are alone in our relationship with the divine.  To me this is powerful.  Each of us must find our way to the divine.  It cannot be handed to us by a piece of paper, or by some community ritual, but rather we must experience it for ourselves. 

I was shocked by the extent of the writings that indicated Isaac actually was killed by Abraham (or at least severely injured), and then resurrected by God. There are some stories that he was severely injured by Abraham before the Angel could stop the knife.  There is even significant commentary as to whether Isaac willingly participated in the event.  There is some circumstantial evidence to these theories.  It states that “Abraham returned to his servants” with no mention that Isaac was with him.  Abraham never speaks to God again.  After this story, Isaac’s role in the Bible is limited.  He does not even search for his own wife; his servant is sent to find her.  This is a change from the standard storyline throughout the Bible of searching for a wife.  Abraham and Isaac never talk to each other.  The most difficult of these issues to explain is that the story doesn’t mention that Isaac came down the mountain with Abraham.  Some try to argue that Abraham sent him away to study torah, or to rush home to his mother, but there is no logical basis for those arguments.  My only thought is that if he was not killed, Isaac ran away.  His father just tried to murder him for no apparent reason.  I don’t think I would hang around too long with someone who tried to do that to me.  This could also explain why they never talked again. Perhaps Isaac never forgave Abraham.  There are many stories in history, and in the present, of fathers and sons not getting along.  What this says to me is that it is ok to go our separate ways if we cannot tolerate the situation in life we are faced with.  In addition, I believe this reiterates the theme of new beginnings.  This is a consistent theme throughout Genesis, with Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah.  Abraham started anew when he left his family.  Maybe he just didn’t get along with his family.  Now Isaac is starting anew without Abraham.

One commentary stated that Abraham abandoned Isaac on the mountain, “as an expression of estrangement” [7] , or I would think, possibly out of a sense of guilt.  Maybe Abraham had lost his faith or no longer cared about the future promise after being put through such an ordeal.  Why follow a God who makes you suffer?  This was a similar question asked by many Jewish people after World War II.

The issue of estrangement could also explain why Abraham never speaks to God again.  Although on a positive note, maybe he had realized that he had become one with God; that he didn’t need to speak to God.  He now knew and understood God.  He now knew Good and Evil. Or, it could be as simple as that the J author took over.  Under the E author, there is a pattern of God communicating directly with humans.  Under the J author YHWH does not (except the prophets).  Most of my research indicates that in the beginning of the verse the E author is present.  However, in the two episodes where the angel is talking to Abraham, the J author is present.  If the J author finished the story, or if this is a combination of two stories as is suggested often, then the literary style of the author could explain why Abraham never talked to God again.  I will touch on the different authors again when I reach my conclusion. 

Isaac’s lack of involvement later in the Bible could indicate a multitude of issues. It could indicate that he was injured and thus he did not have all his faculties. It could indicate that he died, and he was added back in order to continue the storyline. It could be that his role in this story and as a conduit to Jacob and Esau were all that was significant about Isaac in his lifetime.

The question I ask myself is,  what generated such a barrage of commentary on the death of Isaac?  In Shalom Spiegel’s “ The Last Trial” , there is extensive commentary on this.  His research points to the possibility that this stems from two stories, one a pagan story of actual child sacrifice edited to give an ending to prohibit such actions.  This idea is a rational possibility.  His research points to stories of the resurrection of the dead as it relates to Satan.  “He is Satan, he is the angel of death, and the victor over Satan is the victor over death” [8] .  There is also some discussion of the corollary to the story of Job.  Yet there is no history in Judaism of Satan as an evil character.  Even in Job, Satan is a servant of God, not the angel of death.  I think perhaps these are Judaism’s responses to some Christian concepts of Good and Evil. 

More likely than not, these commentaries were composed as a response to Christianity.  They wanted to show a sacrifice and resurrection as competition to Jesus.  They wanted to show that God had already done this to someone who pursued Judaism, so there was no need to create a new religion out of such an act. 

I also think to some degree this was a response to the oppression Jewish people felt during the Roman occupation and later during the crusades where Jewish people sacrificed themselves rather than convert from Judaism.  It gave people a reason to sacrifice themselves for a higher ideal. I think this is a dangerous concept to promote.  I have always struggled with this issue. Since we live in an “open” society in the United States, we can only imagine conditions that would lead one to do such a thing.  Even today, after 9-11, most people cannot and do not understand the motivation for a suicide bomber.  Yet here it is in these Bible commentaries. It is expressing this justification that this was an order from God to sacrifice oneself, and an innocent, rather than allow the corruption of your religion.  Of course I believe that as long as people are not harming others, they should be allowed to practice whatever religious beliefs bring them closer to the divine.  However, just because in a particular society, people are not publicly allowed to demonstrate their beliefs, it does not mean they can no longer have such beliefs.  In my view, religious beliefs in no way justify the suicide or murder of any being.  However, I think it is clear that such thinking has long been used in Jewish History, Christian History, and unfortunately, is being replayed again today in the religion of Islam.

It is amazing that such a short verse in the Bible is so rich with different and varying interpretations.  Although there were many subsequent interpretations, as discussed above, what was the original purpose of the verse?  Usually when there are various conflicting ideas regarding the origin of something, I like to utilize the theory of Occam’s Razor, which to paraphrase is “when there are multiple explanations available for a phenomenon, the simplest is preferred”.  The simplest explanation for the origin of this passage is what I was taught as a youth.   The story was used as a way to convince people not to sacrifice their children.  There are many stories of child sacrifices (particularly of first born children) throughout pagan cultures.  Gunkel speaks of

The Phoenician cult legend according to which El himself instituted this cult by offering his “only born son” as a burnt offering to his father Uraos in a time of distress on an altar erected for the purpose.  The son is called “darling” or “only son” [9]

There have been archaeological digs from pagan cultures that have found remains of a large number of children, suggesting that there had been many sacrifices of children.

Spiegel, in “ The Last Trial” also comments on the topic of doing away with human sacrifice.

The biblical account, then, came to enforce and validate a new way of worship; and, too, it came to abolish and discredit the statutes of the ancient world.  The Akedah story repels once for all the primitive notion of the sanctity of the human first born and its derivative demand for the literal sacrifice of children.  The Akedah story declared war on the remnant of idolatry in Israel and under-took to remove root and branch the whole long, terror-laden inheritance from idolatrous generations. [10]

In my view, the wise men included this story as a means to convince people that God did not want child sacrifices, which most moral and ethical people find abhorrent.  If one focuses not on the test of Abraham, but on the end result it shows God as merciful and humane. 

            One of the most interesting and thought provoking thoughts that came up in my studies was the effect that redaction of multiple authors had on the verse.  Omri Boehm makes a very strong argument that the J author added in the two angelic speeches in verses 11 and 15.  If that is true, it changes the whole nature and meaning of the story.   This actually makes sense. The story would then flow as if Abraham himself made the choice not to kill Isaac, and sacrificed the ram instead, based on his on free will.  Based on Abraham’s personality this view seems logical.  Abraham often was a very practical man, and didn’t always agree with God.  He hid the fact that Sarah was his wife to protect himself.  He argued with God to try to save people at Sodom and Gomorrah.  I think the story of having a child with Hagar is quite revealing as well.  At the point in the bible of the first Hagar story (verse 16), it had not been indicated that the blessings for descendents would be through Sarah.  This was only indicated in verse 17.16.  Abraham was being practical.  If he could not have a descendent through his wife, he would have one through someone else.  I don’t think that concept should be acceptable today (although I am sure it happens often), but the practice seemed fairly common for that period.  As a side note, it would be interesting if the naming of Sarah’s son as the receiver of the blessing was an added redaction in later times.  If so, that could mean that Ishmael’s descendents were the heirs for the blessing. Wouldn’t that throw (Jewish) religious thought upside down.  But I digress.  Clearly it is within Abraham’s personality to be practical and to question God’s command.  Secondly, if the original test is from God, why would not God communicate with Abraham? Why would God suddenly send an Angel to act and communicate to Abraham?  This does not seem logical to me. 

            The message here is that we as humans have to make hard choices.  We have free will.  Just because we receive an order to do something from an authority, does not mean we have to follow it blindly.  We have the knowledge of good and evil.  We have the ability to choose one over the other, and we have to make those choices wisely with an open mind and an open heart.  Abraham, as we are today, was faced with a difficult choice. He looked within himself, based on all the knowledge and all the instinct he had, and made what he felt was the correct moral and ethical choice.  Was that the test God had given him?  The theological issues this raises are many.  Did God give a blatant unethical order?  Was it a test to see if Abraham would use his ethical compass even if it differed from God’s command?  Next time the order might come from someone else, and we have to be to be strong willed enough to stand up against unethical orders.  If one can stand up to God, certainly one can stand up to a human being and defy an unethical order.  Maybe God put the ram there to give Abraham a clear choice.  I think Boehm summarizes this well:

In disobeying God’s manifestly illegal order, it is Abraham, the monotheistic believer, a knight of faith, who is responsible for the determination of Good and Evil, not God.  He thus presents us, not with the “suspension of the ethical”, but with a preference for it. [11]

This concept is where I found my answer.  We must continually strive to achieve an ethical and moral life.  This is not an easy thing to do.  Maybe God tests us to make us stronger, to make us realize our possibilities to make this a better world.  Personally, staying with my son, and giving him the best opportunity to succeed in the world, was in the correct ethical and moral choice to make.  Finding this school has been like a ram in the thicket.  Although doing this part time in addition to a busy full time schedule of work, church and family is a struggle, it has taught me many things.  It allows me to achieve my ethical choice, it has taught me patience, it has taught me to balance my life, and it has shown me that God offers up many alternatives.  Life is not always either this or that.  We have to keep our mind and heart open towards other alternatives, which is the ultimate meaning of The Akedah.

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1954), 64.

[2] Israel W. Charney, "And Abraham went to slay Isaac: A Parable of  Killer, Victim, and Bystander in the Family,"  Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 10.02., (2001): 308.

[3] Ronald M. Green, "Abraham, Isaac, and The jewish Tradition: An Ethical Reappraisal," Journal of Religious Ethics, no. 10.01 (2001): 5.

[4] Howard Moltz, "God and Abraham In The Binding Of Isaac," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 96:01 (2001): 67.

[5] "Ibid, 68

[6] Walter Breuggmann, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis, ed. James L. Mays (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 188.

[7] Howard Moltz, "God and Abraham in the Bindng of Isaac," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 96.01 (2001): 64.

[8] Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, trans. Judah Goldin (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993), 109.

[9] Hermann Gunkel, Genesis, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 239.

[10] Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, trans. Judah Goldin (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993), 73.

[11] Omri Boehm, "The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic On The Question of "Disobeying" a Manifestly Illegal Order," Vetus testamentum, no. 52.01 (2001): 12.

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