Abraham and Isaac: "The Test"


Two Essays by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

What Did Abraham Hear?

The binding of Isaac is arguably the most perplexing passage in all of Hebrew Scripture. It has transfixed the best minds of history, from the ancient rabbinic commentators to Kierkegaard and beyond. In a religion devoted to ethics, people don't kill. With a G-d devoted to humanity, people are not commanded to kill. Yet both are contemplated in Genesis 22, when G-d commands Abraham to sacrifice his spiritual heir, the only son of his partner in monotheism, Sarah.

What did Abraham hear? Could he be certain it was G-d talking to him? Worse, if he was certain, how was to make sense of the command of G-d that contradicted all previous commands of G-d? On a human level, how could he proceed, and how (italic) did he proceed?

The answers are many and varied, even within the authoritative Jewish tradition stretching back thousands of years. Nonetheless, at the risk of oversimplifying and overselecting, here is a thematic summary of some of the major issues in the incredibly compact yet protean story -- but one chapter long.

What did Abraham hear? He heard the voice of G-d. But if someone today were standing on the street corner, claiming that G-d told him to kill, would we not rightly regard such a person as deranged? We would. Why, then, should it be any different regarding Abraham? For two reasons:

First, when G-d really wants to communicate with a human being, G-d has a way of doing so that gives His communicant absolute certainty that he is not halucinating. Of course, one may reject the idea of Divine revelation -- there really is no philosophically airtight proof for it. Essentially, it comes down to a matter of faith, but if the idea of Divine revelation is accepted, a necessary corollary thereof is that G-d's chosen recipients of His message are not toyed with. By definition, if G-d is all powerful, He has the power to convey not only His message, but the fact that it is He Who is conveying it. This necessary corollary is a major manifestation of G-d's love for humanity. He not only speaks to us, but he does so in a way that we -- or at least His spiritually prepared, chosen, prophets -- know that it is He Who speaks.

Second, though it was Abraham and no one else who was given the certainty that it was G-d Who was telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham's "track record" gives proof to the truth of his statements and their claims for Divine authorship. Abraham claimed to found monotheism. From the perspective of thousands of years, countless pietists (men and women) attributed their own unadulterated belief in one G-d to Abraham. The truth of a master can be judged by the truth of his disciples. If Abraham were spiritually warped, no genuine disciple of his could escape the defect -- otherwise, he wouldn't genuinely be a disciple of Abraham. For the message of Abraham to have yielded generations and, indeed, millennia of monotheists, Abraham himself had to have been the genuine article: a believer in one G-d, and an accurate reporter of the messages that the one G-d gave him.

In other words, the tension that Abraham suffered upon hearing the Divine to sacrifice his son was due not to any uncertainty as to the source of the command. Just the opposite. Precisely because Abraham knew that it was G-d who was speaking to him, phenomenal -- but different -- questions arose in his breast. Why? Haven't I been told not to murder? Haven't I been given a son miraculously in my (and my wife's) old age? Do I know have but one spiritual heir to all that G-d has taught me? If this spiritual heir is to be killed, who will carry on the monotheistic tradition and witness the fulfillment of G-d's promise that my seed shall be as the stars of the heavens? From all these perspectives, G-d's command made no sense. That was the first tension of Abraham. We may call it the philosophical-logical tension.

The second tension was psychological. How is a person to sacrifice his son? How is a person to kill the person he loves? How is he to betray his wife, to ruin his marriage? How is he to explain this to his followers, whom he has taught ethics in the name of G-d? Psychologically, Abraham was unimaginably burdened by the command of G-d to kill Isaac.

And yet, Abraham proceeded. No resistance. No protest. No complaint. Thus the story -- the example of Abraham -- teaches the radical newness of monotheism. There is one, and only one, source of moral authority -- no matter what. There is absolutely no human criterion that can stand against the Divine authority. The Divine authority, while it may teach many things that square with human reason and common sense, must be absolutely, qualitatively, different from human reason. Otherwise, it is not Divine. It is but a quality of the human mind -- a sublime one, perhaps -- but human nonetheless. Precisely because it runs against the grain of all that Abraham had been taught by G-d, the story of the binding of Isaac conveys the absolute otherness of the Divine authority. No human, spiritual authority could demand, as an absolute, the sanctity of human life, and then contradict that very absolute. Only the one, transcendant, absolutely powerful G-d could do that. Abraham's unwavering obedience to precisely this command of G-d established His authority for all time to come.

The witness thereof? The Jewish people who, too, are now and have always been willing to be tested with their own lives for His name. One does not, en masse, century after century, voluntarily die for anything but the one true G-d and collectively live to tell the tale. This is why the story of the binding of Isaac has always been the Jewish clarion call of faith. Abraham's faith was absolute -- so is that of his descendants.


Freedom and Submission

Thou shalt kill?

Abraham is commanded to kill his son.

Bad enough if he had thought of this by himself. But G-d commanded him. The theme of the most salient passage in Scripture - the binding of Isaac on the altar- is blatant: What I G-d say, you do. Obey Me.

No matter what.

This is the test that G-d put to Abraham.

G-d says: "Abraham!" "Take your son," "Go to Moriah." Offer him up for a sacrifice."

Abraham gets with the program. No hesitation. No argument. He follows all of G-d's commands to the t. Only when Abraham takes the knife and is a moment from slaughtering his son does the angel of G-d intervene. In Abraham, G-d has a true servant, and G-d is very pleased with Abraham. After the angel of G-d stops Abraham, the angel tells him: "...now I know that you are a G-d fearing man..."

But suddenly, something very different happens. The moment G-d calls off the human sacrifice, Abraham proceeds to sacrifice a ram caught in a nearby bush. Abraham makes the offering "instead of his son."

Note: Nowhere in the text is Abraham commanded to sacrifice the ram. He does this entirely on his own.

Is this not a a pivotal problem - actually, a direct contradiction to everything the story of the binding of Isaac has tried to convey? Isn't the whole point of the story that Abraham is to do exactly as G-d commands him, no more, no less, no matter what?

But here, G-d does not command Abraham to sacrifice a ram. Abraham does it on his own, which is the opposite of the theme of the binding fo Isaac.

Note further: Immediately after Abraham sacrifices the ram, the angel of G-d speaks to Abraham a second time. Here is a chance to learn whether, in G-d's eyes Abraham did anything wrong in offering the ram on his own. If he did, the angel of G-d will say so.

The angel utters no criticism of Abraham. Quite the contrary. The angel, in G-d's name praises Abraham to the skies. Because you have not withheld your son, I shall surely bless you and greatly increase your seed like the stars of the heaven and like the sand on the seashore.

Clearly, Abraham's decision to offer a sacrifice on his own was not criticized by G-d. Abraham did the right thing.

How do we square these two opposite messages of the story? The first message is that Abraham is to do only what G-d tells him. The second message is that Abraham's personal decision to sacrifice a ram is correct.

The resolution of these opposite messages is, I believe, to be found in G-d's statement to Abraham immediately after His angel stopped Abraham from killing Isaac: now I know that you are a G-d fearing man.

Once Abraham is declared (by G-d's angel, no less) to be G-d fearing, Abraham knows what to do on his own. On the rarified spiritual level of genuine fear of G-d, a person knows G-d's will without being commanded. A G-d fearing man's spiritual instincts are so thoroughly honed and disciplined that his will and G-d's become one and the same.

Yes, Abraham the G-d fearer know what to do on his own.

This is not a contradiction to the first message of the story, it is the result of it. Because Abraham demonstrated against all human instinct, that he was totally willing to obey G-d, he earned G-d's sanction of whatever he would proceed to do. It is as if G-d said to Abraham: "Since I know that you are a G-d fearing man, I know that what you now choose to do, I choose."

This is an absolute reversal of the standard Knowledge-Freedom antinomy. This quandary is a standard philosophical puzzle. If G-d knows in advance what I choose to do, in what sense can I be said to freely choose anything?

This is the way that the antinomy between man's freedom and G-d's foreknowledge is usually formulated. But here, in our analysis of the story of the binding of Isaac we have reached a reversal of the standard puzzle. Our puzzle is this: If man (Abraham) knows in advance which of his choice G-d will approve (sacrificing a ram), in what sense can G-d be said to have determined anything?

The answer is illuminate through another polarity in Jewish philosophy: autonomy vs. theonomy.

Autonomy means: I decide. I, man, am the sole legitimate determiner of my own decision. If I act upon my own decision, this is right. If I act because of some force outside of me - G-d, for example - this is wrong.

Theonomy means: G-d decides. He is the sole legitimate determiner of man's decisions. If man acts upon G-d's command, this is right. If man acts because of some force inside him- his conscience, for example- this is wrong.

The first part of the story of the binding of Isaac is a textbook case - perhaps the textbook case - of theonomy. G-d commands, man obeys. G-d says to Abraham: Sacrifice Isaac and Abraham obeys.

But the second part of the story is not quite an illustration of autonomy. Here Abraham sacrifices a ram, but, strictly speaking, it is not Abraham acting entirely on his own. In the exalted state of being, a G-d fearer, Abraham intuits G-d's will and obeys that will. Yes, Abraham obeys a command of G-d that has not been uttered, but the command is still there. As a G-d fearer, Abraham knows what G-d wants - knows the will of G-d - and acts to fulfill that will, not his conscience. Abraham embodies theonomy.

But if Abraham embodies theonomy, he also embodies autonomy. He is still the one who offers the ram. He was not coerced. An unuttered command is not the same as an uttered one. An element of human decision remained in Abraham.

He does not fully embody theonomy or autonomy; he embodies both.

In the same sense, the antimony between Knowledge and Freedom falls away. If Abraham knows in advance that G-d will approve his choice to sacrifice a ram instead of Isaac, G-d's determinative will is not entirely removed. This is because Abraham acts only out of a sense of G-d's command. Abraham acts freely but it is a free submission to G-d's command.

Again, Abraham embodies both sides of an antimony, this time knowledge and freedom. As a G-d fearer, Abraham knows in advance which of this choices G-d will approve, but this is only because G-d commands a G-d fearing person, even if silently. In its reversed form at least, the age-old standard Knowledge-Freedom antinomy is resolved.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, PhD is the Executive Editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, Denver, CO.

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