In a world in which so much violence and pain are caused in the name of religion, how can we read the story of “the Binding of Isaac” as anything but what Phyllis Trible would call a “text of terror”?
The cruelty of the text evokes painful questions:
What type of God would test a father by means of a request to perpetrate violence against his son?
What kind of people would not immediately challenge such a demand, even if they believed God would never have them carry this out?
Moreover, what type of religious communities continue to read this narrative and accept this story as the ultimate model of religious faith—true submission before the will of God?
Yet, where many of us want to indict Abraham’s behavior, others see his greatness. Maimonides elevates Abraham’s love of God depicted in our narrative as a model to emulate. He argues for the theological importance of Abraham’s three-day journey; Abraham had to walk three days from the moment he was commanded by God to the moment he was asked to raise the knife. If he had chosen to act immediately, we could have explained Abraham’s behavior as an act committed in a moment of religious passion. Abraham had three days to rationally consider the truth of God’s command and his love for God before acting. Maimonides suggests only in this context may the greatness of Abraham’s act be fully appreciated (The Guide for the Perplexed III:24).
I would like to offer a more complicated reading of chapter twenty-two of the Book of Genesis. On the one hand, Abraham does “pass” the test, yet the text subtly undermines the greatness of Abraham’s behavior. There is an aspect of the story that subverts our unambiguous acceptance of Abraham as a “knight of faith.”
In the second verse of our chapter God tells Abraham: “Take your son, your favored one, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Once Abraham grabs hold of the knife and raises it above his son’s head, the exact locution of this sentence is repeated, not once, but twice! The angel calls out from the heavens: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me" (Genesis 22:12).
The angel calls out to Abraham a second time: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven an the sands of the seashore (Genesis 22:16-17). In both instances, the wording is exactly the same, yet “the one you love, Isaac” is provocatively absent. Through the repetition of this sentence and the absence of the last clause of the sentence, God communicates to Abraham the following: “I now know you love me and I also now know you do not love Isaac. No father who loves his son would ever raise his hand in violence against his son.”
The rabbis of the Talmud give further consideration to religious conflicts that may arise, which pit love of God against love of human beings. One of the most poignant treatments of this dilemma is a text in the Tractate of Yoma (23a). There the rabbis tell a story of two priests who were eager to serve God by removing the ashes from the altar in the temple. They were so passionate in their desire to serve God, even in this seemingly small act that they would race up the ramp of the altar in order to win this honor. One day one of the priests, in his passion to win the honor to serve God, took out his ritual slaughtering knife and thrust it into the chest of his fellow priest.
Love of God became a force for horrible violence in the world.
And yet the tragedy of this story does not end there.
The father of the stabbed priest comes over to his dying son and cradles him. Can we even begin to imagine this father’s pain? His son lies bleeding before him, dying, stabbed by a man who acted in order to serve God!
Yet the tragedy of the story intensifies.
The father tells those around him that they should pull out the ritual slaughtering knife from his son’s chest before he dies so that the knife would not be rendered impure by a dead body.
The father concerns himself with the purity of the knife while his son dies!
The Talmud concludes: “This story comes to teach us that the purity of their vessels was more important to them than the spilling of human blood!”
The rabbis declare that this story offers a picture of love transformed into pathology. The rabbis offer a scathing indictment of a religious society where the love of God privileges the love of human beings.
Whenever I read the story of the binding of Isaac I am reminded of this Talmudic passage. I now read chapter twenty-two of Genesis through the lens of the rabbis.
When read through this lens, our world needs the story of Abraham and Isaac like never before. This narrative must serve as a corrective to a certain read of religion. This story cries out to those who listen with the following message: “If your understanding of the love of God privileges your love of other human beings—stop. You are tragically mishearing the will of God.”
Rabbi David Hoffman
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.