“Take your son, your only son, the one you love – Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” This is one of the most famous events in Torah and also one of the most enigmatic.
At first glance it seems like a horrific ‘test’ and how could God ask such a thing of Abraham? Did He not miraculously give him this beloved son?
And why did God need to ‘test’ Abraham at all? Doesn’t God know the human heart better than we know ourselves?
Traditional interpretations and commentaries on this passage abound. Let’s take a bit of a different look at it.
Historically we know that child sacrifice was not rare in the ancient world. It was sadly commonplace among the pagan societies. It is looked upon with horror throughout the Bible. How, then, could Abraham be commanded to do what his descendants were commanded NOT to do?
Abraham was chosen to be a father. “For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.”
To understand the binding of Isaac we have to understand something about the world of that time. Before cities and civilizations, the fundamental unit was the family. Each family had its own gods which usually included the spirits of dead ancestors. The authority of the father was absolute over his wife and children. As long as the father lived, the children were ‘property’ rather than persons in their own right. When the father died, the authority went to the firstborn son – whether he was righteous or not.
The Torah directly opposes this worldview. It includes no sacrifices to dead ancestors and communicating with the dead is explicitly forbidden. And succession does not automatically pass to the firstborn as it did with the pagans; not to Ishmael but to Isaac; not to Esau but to Jacob; not to Reuben but to Levi for the priesthood.
The entire story of Isaac is a direct contradiction to the prevailing thought of the time that children are ‘property’. Consider: Isaac’s birth is a miracle, as was Samuel’s some centuries later. When her son is born Hannah says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” This passage is parallel to the message from an angel telling Abraham to refrain from killing his son: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son” (the statement appears twice, in Gen. 22:12 and 16).
The test was not whether Abraham would literally sacrifice his son but whether he would surrender Isaac completely to God, whether Abraham would relinquish ‘ownership’ over the son he had longed for and recognize that Isaac is an individual with his own life to lead, his own calling and relationship with God to pursue.
What God was doing when he asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice. He wanted to change the worldview and establish a non-negotiable law that children are not the ‘property’ of their parents but a blessing from Hashem to be nurtured, taught and led to fulfill their unique calling and destiny according to the will of God.
Is this not why three of the four matriarchs were able to have children only by divine intervention? God wanted us to know that children are a gift from Him, not simply a biological accident or event.
It’s very interesting to note that at the birth of the very first human being, Cain, Eve says, “With the help of the Lord, I have acquired a man.” It’s clearer in the Hebrew than in the English translation. What she was really saying was ‘I have purchased with my effort and pain a child for myself.’ That child became the first murderer. Not a very good ending to that story!
The Torah presents the birth of the individual as the central figure in the moral life. Because children – all children – belong to God, parenthood is not ownership but guardianship. Abraham, called to be not only a parent to his son, but to become the ‘Father of many nations’, had to learn by means of an event he would never forget that as much as he loved Isaac, he did not own him. He was to teach his son the ways of God but also give him space to develop a personal relationship with God and fulfill his calling and destiny without any ‘micromanagement’ from Abraham.
The Torah underscores the truth that the integrity of each of us as an individual moral agent in our own right with the capacity and opportunity to develop a personal relationship with God Himself is paramount.
In Tune with Torah this week = if you are a parent, how are you handling the choices and decisions your children make which may not be what you would desire for them? Are you allowing them the space to be individuals? Even at the cost of watching them struggle through circumstances you think you could have prevented? That child of yours has a path of his or her own; it’s not yours, it’s different. Abraham teaches us to celebrate the differences, always keep in mind that your child is God’s first, and you are God’s
‘nanny’ for a few years. The binding of Isaac was in fact a test of UN-binding. Would Abraham let Isaac go – to pursue his own calling?