The obvious question in relation to the story of the binding of Isaac arises in comparison with the previous story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when God decrees to destroy the cities, Abraham questions and argues with God on behalf of wicked people who he doesn’t know – “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25); while in the story of the binding of Isaac, he is unquestioningly obedient when asked to offer as a sacrifice his beloved son who is innocent of any wrongdoing. The obvious question is – how can the very same Abraham, who questions and argues with God on behalf of wicked people, be silent when asked to offer as a sacrifice his beloved son, innocent of wrongdoing? Abraham’s silence in the story of the binding of Isaac is deafening!
From a historical point of view, the story of the binding of Isaac is an attack upon child sacrifice as a form of ritual rite and worship – a custom and rite that existed in the ancient near east, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. According to such an understanding of the story, Abraham is unquestioningly willing to carry out the command of God to sacrifice Isaac not because he is obedient despite the command violating his reason or conscience. If the command violated Abraham’s reason or conscience, we learn from the previous story of Sodom and Gomorrah that he would have protested – “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”. If, on behalf of wicked people who he does not know, he protested, then surely on behalf of his son, innocent of wrongdoing, he would have protested – had the command indeed violated his reason or conscience.
Abraham is unquestioningly obedient because he does not perceive the command to be immoral at all – as child sacrifice was an accepted custom and rite in the Biblical world. On a historical level, the conflict that Abraham faces is not one of personal human reason and conscience, on the one hand, and the external authority of God’s will, on the other hand; rather, the conflict is between his natural love for his beloved child, on the one hand, and his devotion and loyalty to God, on the other hand. The story is teaching on a historical level that child sacrifice is unacceptable as a form of devotion to God to be replaced by animal sacrifice.
In the plain meaning of Scripture, Abraham is worthy of praise, as he is blessed by the angel of God in being obedient to the command of God to sacrifice Isaac – “because you have obeyed My voice”. However, I emphasize that it is not written here that Abraham’s obedience was in violation of his own reason or conscience – and, when the story is understood within the historical context of the Biblical world in which child sacrifice was an accepted ritual practice, the command to sacrifice Isaac does not violate Abraham’s reason or conscience because child sacrifice was an accepted rite and way of worship.
In being obedient to the command of God, Abraham is expressing “fear of God”, a central Biblical concept and the ultimate purpose of the test of Abraham – “for now I know that you are God fearing”. Abraham’s fear of God, and willingness to be obedient to such a harsh command to sacrifice Isaac, expresses his devotion to God – and, again, the conflict that Abraham faced was not of his personal autonomy and the external authority of God, but of his love of his son and his devotion to God.
Moreover, there is no actual contradiction between the story of the binding of Isaac and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice” because the decree of God to destroy the cities due to their wickedness violated Abraham’s reason and conscience. In the story of the binding of Isaac, Abraham is utterly silent and does not protest because he does not perceive the harsh command of God to sacrifice Isaac as unjust – he perceives the command as part of an accepted form of ritual worship in his culture.
In the plain meaning of Scripture, Abraham thus passes his test with flying colors as evidenced by his being blessed by the angel of God – and, his displaying fear of God (expressed in his willingness to sacrifice his son) constitutes the passing of the test. That is, the displaying of fear of God is the essence of the test. But, fear of God does not necessarily need to be expressed in child sacrifice as a form of ritual worship. The story of the binding of Isaac, from a historical point of view, is teaching in the plain meaning of Scripture that fear of God, and devotion to God, can be expressed by animal sacrifice in place of child sacrifice – and, from a historical point of view, the story is coming to uproot child sacrifice as an accepted from of ritual worship.
However, in traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature, we do not live by the plain meaning of Scripture. In the Talmudic and medieval periods there were Jewish sects outside of the Jewish rabbinic tradition who did attempt to live according to Scripture – like the Sadducees in the Talmudic period and the Karaites in the medieval period. The terms Pharisees and Sadducees took on a negative connotation due to Christianity, but both the Pharisees and Sadducees were Jewish sects during the Talmudic period.
The Sadducees were a priestly sect, and most of the ancient, hereditary priesthood in Judaism were Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in Scripture (the Written Torah). The Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans – the Temple being the institutional center of the priestly cult. The Karaites were a medieval sect who like the ancient Sadducees rejected the rabbinic tradition and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in Scripture. There were Karaite Jews in large numbers during the medieval period, but they too have largely disappeared.
The Pharisees were a sect that was in the main led by scribes and teachers. The Pharisees did not feel bound by what is written in Scripture but by Scripture as understood according to the rabbinic tradition. The Talmudic rabbis were ideological descendants of the Pharisees. Thus, in traditional Judaism we as Jews live not by what is written in the Bible (the Written Torah) but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) – the foundation of which is the Talmudic literature.
The implications here are enormous – in principle, traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash was one of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, and the method of midrash allowed Judaism to evolve and develop. An important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.
If we return to the story of the Binding of Isaac, in the plain meaning of Scripture Abraham passes his test with flying colors in displaying the fear of God – however, there are midrashic commentaries of the Talmudic rabbis that were very critical of Abraham in contradistinction to Scripture. I will cite two such examples.
The first source is from the Talmud (Ta’anit 4a) which quotes a verse from the Bible (Jeremiah 19, 5) that speaks of Israelites (after Sinai) performing child sacrifice – “they have built also the high places of the Ba’al to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to the Ba’al, which I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind”. The midrashic commentary, among other things, says that the phrase “neither came it into My mind” is referring to “Isaac, the son of Abraham”. Here, in this rabbinic commentary is reflected a philosophic claim that God could not possibly have even considered the idea of commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (“neither came it into My mind”). On the basis of this rabbinic commentary it is fair to infer that Abraham (even in his own culture in which child sacrifice was an accepted ritual practice) should have refused to carry out the command of God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (or at the very least should have asked “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”). Thus, implicit in the philosophic claim that a good and compassionate God could not consider the thought of child sacrifice is a harsh criticism of Abraham in not questioning, or refusing to carry out, the command of God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.
The second midrashic commentary is in the form of a parable from a collection of midrashic commentaries, Yalkut Shimoni (Vayera 22):
To what may the matter be compared? To a King who says to one who loves him: I desire to see a baby on my table. The one who loves the King immediately went and brought his own son and placed him on the table before the King. And he went and brought a sword to slaughter the child. The King screamed at the one who loves him: What are you doing? The one who loves him said: Did you not tell me that you desire to see…The King said: Did I say dead? Thus said God to Abraham, “Take your son…” (Genesis 22, 2), “And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son” (Genesis 22, 10), “And he said, lay not thy hand upon the lad” (Genesis 22, 12). Abraham said to God: Did you not tell me “Take your son”. God said to Abraham: Did I say to slaughter him? As it is written, “My covenant I will not break, nor alter that which has issued from my lips” (Psalms 89, 35).
This midrashic commentary, like the previous one, understands that God could not possibly have commanded Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac. The parable is precise in its reading of the story of the binding of Isaac – Abraham is technically not commanded to actually sacrifice Isaac but only to offer him up as a sacrifice (Genesis 22, 2). It is Abraham who, according to the parable, misunderstands, and mistakenly assumes, that God intended for him to actually sacrifice Isaac. The criticism of Abraham is made clearer in the concluding, proof text from the Book of Psalms.
The midrash understands the verse from Psalms (“My covenant I will not break, nor alter that which has issued from my lips”) as a criticism of Abraham who should have understood that God could not have intended for him to actually sacrifice Isaac. The verse from Psalms is interpreted to mean that God’s covenant to Abraham – in which Abraham was promised that he would have a son, Isaac, who would continue his lineage – cannot be broken because God does not change what God has promised or spoken. The promise to Abraham that Isaac would continue his lineage was made prior to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Therefore, the midrash is suggesting, and very harshly criticizing Abraham, that he should have known on the basis of his own reason that once God had promised him that Isaac would continue his lineage, God could not possibly have intended for him to actually sacrifice Isaac afterwards – for God does not change what God has already promised!
An additional point in regard to the verse from Psalms as a concluding, proof text of the midrash – it is indeed significant that the verse is chosen from a book such as the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms is from that part of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, which are regarded, according to the Jewish tradition, not as the Divinely revealed word of God spoken by God Above to the prophet below. Rather, the Writings, according to Jewish tradition, are considered as works written by human beings inspired by religious feelings and ideas, or by the Divine Spirit. Thus, the midrash in its choice of a verse from the Book of Psalms, from the Writings (representing a source of wisdom and knowledge in the Hebrew Bible independent of Divine revelation) is suggesting that Abraham should have known simply on the basis of his own human reason that God would not have intended for Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac.