One of the most popular ways of understanding the story of the binding of Isaac through the ages, especially from a religious point of view, is that Abraham’s silence and willingness to sacrifice Isaac are actually praiseworthy in that Abraham is being depicted as a person of profound faith and trust in God. Perhaps, the most famous thinker who understands the story in such a way is the existentialist philosopher, and devout Christian, Soren Kierkegaard, who lived in the 19th century, and has exerted an enormous influence in the modern world of Jewish thought among all the various ideological streams. He viewed the story of the binding of Isaac as constituting the supreme example of the true religious experience; and, although he did not exactly coin the term leap of faith regarding Abraham, the term does describe this religious experience that Abraham exemplifies according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation. Abraham leaps from human conscience and reason to submission and obedience to the will of God expressing his profound faith and trust in God. Abraham’s leap of faith then is characterized by his willingness to be obedient to the command of God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, even though the command on the basis of Abraham’s subjective personal judgment violates Abraham’s conscience or is at least incomprehensible to him (otherwise there would be no leap of faith).
The main problem with Kierkegaard’s interpretation is that the term faith does not appear in the story of the binding of Isaac at all. Abraham is not described explicitly as displaying faith in the story itself. The Bible itself tells us that Abraham in his unquestioning obedience is displaying not profound faith but the fear of God – “for now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22, 12). The crucial question that now arises in the story of the binding of Isaac concerns the meaning of the concept of fear of God. The meaning of the concept in the story is not clear at all.
However, fear of God is a central religious concept of the Hebrew Bible – and, just prior to story of the binding of Isaac, the Bible brings us the story of Abraham and Avimelech, the Philistine. From a literary point of view, the story of Abraham and Avimelech serves to clarify the concept of fear of God just prior to the story of the binding of Isaac (where the concept is unclear and yet so crucial for a proper understanding of the story). In the story of Abraham and Avimelech, Abraham misleads Avimelech in not revealing that Sarah is his wife. When Avimelech questions Abraham as to why Abraham did not reveal such a matter, Abraham responds by saying – “Because I thought surely there is no fear of God in this place” (Genesis 20, 11). Abraham in saying that there is no fear of God among the Philistines is surely aware of their polytheistic theological beliefs, and this is not what frightens him. He tells us exactly what does frighten him (Genesis 20, 11) – the immoral behavior of the Philistines who are willing to kill him in order to steal his wife (“they will slay me for my wife’s sake”).
The Biblical term fear of God then is a moral rather than theological concept – “fear of God is the hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8, 13). Fear of God is the avoidance of immoral behavior on the basis of human reason and conscience, and not (as in Kierkegaard’s conception of faith) obedience and submission to the will of God at the expense of reason and conscience. Thus, we must understand the story of the binding of Isaac to be portraying Abraham not as a person of faith but as a person of moral character and commitment in displaying the fear of God. This raises the crucial question as to how Abraham can be willing to carry out such an apparently immoral command as that of offering Isaac as a human sacrifice! This question, though, assumes that the command is indeed immoral. However, there is no necessary reason from a literary point of view why we must accept this assumption.
What the Hebrew Bible regards as an abomination – child sacrifice – is when such sacrifice is part of a ritual rite or ceremony. In the story of the binding of Isaac it is only on a literal level that Abraham is on the face of it to offer Isaac as a sacrifice as part of a ritual rite or ceremony. Yet, to understand the story of the binding of Isaac only on a literal level as a story of child sacrifice as part of a ritual rite (rather than on a metaphoric level) is to do a grave injustice to one of the most profound stories in all of literature. Even according to Kierkegaard’s interpretation the story is understood primarily on the metaphoric level, in which the true sacrifice of Abraham is not the actual offering of Isaac as a human sacrifice but the figurative sacrifice by Abraham of his own reason and conscience in making the leap of faith.
The story of the binding of Isaac, like many great pieces of literature, can be understood in its plain meaning on different levels. The story may be understood in a literal sense from a historical (as opposed to literary) point of view. From a historical point of view, the story 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. The story of the binding of Isaac is teaching on a historical level that child sacrifice is unacceptable as a form of devotion to God to be replaced by animal sacrifice. However, such a ritual rite of child sacrifice (as well as animal sacrifice) has disappeared in the western culture, and thus if the story is understood only on a literal, historical level, then it has no relevance for a contemporary, western reader. Yet, the story without doubt stands out, beyond its literal, historical meaning and significance, as a truly profound piece of literature, which has exerted an enormous impact not just within the Jewish tradition, but upon the western culture as a whole. Clearly, such a profound and influential piece of literature must have some relevance beyond its literal, historical meaning and significance as an attack upon the ancient institution of child sacrifice as a form of ritual worship that has long ago disappeared in the western world.
There is no necessary reason to assume from a literary point of view that the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice in the story of the binding of Isaac is part of a ritual rite or ceremony, and thus immoral. I want to demonstrate that the actual sacrifice of a child that is not part of a ritual rite is not necessarily immoral by citing a true story that took place in Auschwitz in 1944. The story is told by Rabbi Zvi Meisels, as recorded in the book, The Holocaust and Halacha (Irving Rosenbaum, 1). Rabbi Meisels was himself in Auschwitz at the time and tells of an observant Jew who came to him with a question of Halacha (law). The Nazis had decided to put to death some 1400 boys who were in the meantime imprisoned under the guard of “Kapos”, Jewish guards. The observant Jew who approached Rabbi Meisels explained that he had enough to ransom his son who was among those being held by the Kapos. But, if the Kapos released his son, they would take another boy in his place, as the Nazis would count heads, and demand the exact number that they had designated to die.
The father asked Rabbi Meisels, if, according to Halacha (law), he is permitted or forbidden to release his son under such circumstances. Rabbi Meisels replied that he cannot interpret and determine law in such an environment as Auschwitz. He said that he has no books, no other Rabbi to consult with and that he cannot be expected to think clearly in such conditions. Rabbi Meisels thus refused to answer the question, and asked the father to make his own decision simply on the basis of his own conscience. The father demanded a proper Halachic, legal response, arguing that Rabbi Meisels is obligated to answer him, as there is no other Rabbi who he can ask. Rabbi Meisels, though, continued to refuse to answer. Finally, the father said that the refusal of Rabbi Meisels to answer him is a sign that he is not permitted to release his son – for, if he were permitted, Rabbi Meisels would have surely told him so. The father interpreted the refusal of Rabbi Meisels to answer as tantamount to a formal, Halachic legal decision that he is forbidden to ransom his son. He added that he accepts God’s decree with love and joy, and prayed that his act would be acceptable to God as Abraham’s binding of Isaac!
Although this true story from Auschwitz and the story of the binding of Isaac do not correspond in all their details, nevertheless the father himself in the true story saw the parallel from a spiritual and religious point of view between his own situation and that of Abraham. The details of the story of the binding of Isaac are important only on a literal level, and irrelevant on a metaphoric level – as what is of importance from a metaphoric point of view is the enduring spiritual and religious message of the story. The enduring spiritual and religious message of the story (beyond the literal historical meaning) can be understood only on the metaphoric level, and on the metaphoric level the parallel between this true story of Auschwitz and the story of the binding of Isaac is striking (such that the father himself in the true story understood this).
In the true story of Auschwitz, the father not of his own choosing, against his will, was thrust into a horrible situation that represented a true test of character, as Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac – “And God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22, 1). In the true story, the father was demanded to offer his son as a sacrifice, like Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac – “Take now your son” (Genesis 22, 2). In the true story, the father, like Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac, was displaying what the Bible terms the fear of God in avoiding the committing of a wrong act, and undoubtedly experienced a distance from God as reflected in the Biblical concept of fear of God (rather than a closeness to God as reflected in the concept of love of God) – “for now I know that you are God fearing” (Genesis 22, 12). There is one tragic difference between the two stories, though. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the angel of God stops Abraham from actually sacrificing Isaac – the intention and willingness to sacrifice Isaac being enough to demonstrate that Abraham is a God fearing person. In the true story, an actual sacrifice was required of the father. I have cited this true story from Auschwitz, in spite of the fact that it does not correspond to the story of the binding of Isaac in all its details, because it does serve to demonstrate that there are situations in which it is not necessarily immoral to sacrifice a child.
The story of the binding of Isaac is teaching, in my view, that there are such situations in life in which we may be tragically thrust, like the true story of Auschwitz, that demand the sacrifice of a child not in violation of moral conscience. Thus, in light of the true story of Auschwitz, it is possible to interpret (on a metaphoric level from a literary point of view) the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice in the story of the binding of Isaac as being in accordance with Abraham’s own reason and conscience (rather than as in conflict with his reason and conscience as according to the interpretation of Kierkegaard). In the true story of Auschwitz, the father did not find himself in a situation where what he understood as the decree of God to sacrifice his son was in conflict with his own conscience.
The story of the binding of Isaac is indeed one of obedience to external authority. Abraham is especially singled out for praise because of his obedience to God’s will when the angel of God blesses him saying – “because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22, 18). However, the nature of Abraham’s obedience in the story is unclear. Kierkegaard, in accordance with his authoritarian conception of religion, interprets Abraham’s obedience in an extreme, heteronomous sense of obedience to the authority of God, in violation of Abraham’s own reason and conscience. The text itself, though, tells us only that Abraham is obedient to God’s will, and does not explicitly tell us that the command to sacrifice Isaac violated Abraham’s reason or conscience allowing for a metaphoric understanding of the text beyond the literal level, in which the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice may be understood not as part of a ritual rite, and not as immoral – and not in violation of the reason or conscience of Abraham.
Notice then that there is now no contradiction between the two great stories told of Abraham in the Bible. The story of Sodom and Gomorra depicts Abraham as a person of moral conscience and moral principle, who is willing to argue even with God on the basis of his own reason and conscience, while the story of the binding of Isaac demonstrates the extent of Abraham’s moral commitment in showing how far he is willing to go in serving God, when he perceives God’s decree to be moral – he is, in such a case, even willing to sacrifice his own child. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham questions, and argues with, God because he understands God’s decree to be in violation of his own standards of justice. In the story of the binding of Isaac, he is silent and unquestioningly obedient simply because he understands the command of God, “Take now your son”, to be moral (as in such a case as the true story of Auschwitz), and thus there is no room for questions or argument.