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The Binding of Isaac: Piety and Protest


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







The Binding of Isaac: Piety and Protest

Some time ago at the beginning of Jewish history an inscrutable God, without explanation, orders his favorite founder, Abraham, to sacrifice his beloved son. Without questioning, the old man hastens to the task. Aware or unaware, the son participates in the preparations. In the end God changes his mind, but the father and son do not return home together.
You can`t be neutral. Either you marvel at the man`s faith and courage or you revile his madness. In fact, many critical issues in Judaism inform this foundation tale, even prefiguring the character of its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam:
The bewilderment/awe at being challenged by God: Is it God? Why me? How do I respond?
Sacred geography: the internal/spiritual and external/physical journey

Is human aggression hard-wired?
Love and tension in the family

The silencing of the woman
Is there a conflict between faith and morality?

Both piety and protest emerge from these issues: the acceptance of the biblical account as normative and right, and the critique of foundational sancta.
The biblical account already contains the seeds of its own deconstruction. Isaac`s question “where is the lamb?” expresses either total naivete or covert suspicion. Already in the earliest Midrashim, Isaac cries out, torn between faith and fear, imploring Abraham to bind him well lest his instinctive resistance blemish the sacrifice. As we shall see, by the Renaissance these reservations grow to outright confrontation and in modern times to rejection. We will hear both voices, read both texts, scrutinize the conflicting images, and then…


Article Sources:

Genesis Chapter 22

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” 2 And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, 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.” 3 So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. 7 Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” 8 And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11 Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12 And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13 When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the Lord there is vision.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By Myself I swear, the Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, 17 I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. 18 All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” 19 Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 22
AND IT WAS AFTER THESE THINGS when Isaac and Ishmael argued, that Ishmael said, It is right that I should inherit Father since I am his first born. But Isaac said, It is right for me to inherit Father because I am the son of Sarah his wife and you are the son of Hagar my mother's maid. Ishmael answered saying, I am more worthy than you because I was circumcised at age 13; if it had been my will to hold back I would not have risked my life to be circumcised. But you were circumcised when you were 8 days old; had you known what it was all about you would not have risked your life. Isaac replied, Today I am 36 years old. If the Holy One, blessed be He, were to ask for all my limbs I would not hold back. Immediately these words were heard before the Lord of the universe and immediately the word of THE LORD TESTED ABRAHAM AND SAID TO HIM, ABRAHAM!

2. AND HE SAID, HERE I AM. AND HE SAID, TAKE YOUR SON, THE ONLY ONE THAT YOU LOVE, ISAAC, AND GO TO THE LAND OF worship, AND OFFER HIM THERE AS A BURNT OFFERING ON ONE OF THE MOUNTAINS THAT I WILL TELL YOU.

3. AND ABRAHAM AROSE EARLY IN THE MORNING, SADDLED HIS ASS, TOOK TWO OF HIS YOUNG MEN, Eliezer and Ishmael, WITH HIM, AND ISAAC HIS SON, AND HE SPLIT chips and young shoots and fig and palm WOOD which are fit FOR THE BURNT OFFERING: AND HE ROSE AND WENT TO THE PLACE WHICH THE LORD HAD TOLD HIM.

4. ON THE THIRD DAY ABRAHAM LIFTED HIS EYES AND SAW the cloud of glory smoking on the mountain and he recognized it FROM AFAR.

5. AND ABRAHAM SAID TO THE YOUNG MEN, STAY HERE WITH THE ASS; I AND THE LAD WILL GO THAT FAR to test whether the joyful thing I was promised... "so shall your seed be” will be established; WE WILL WORSHIP the Lord of the universe AND WILL RETURN TO YOU.

6. AND ABRAHAM TOOK THE -WOOD OF THE BURNT OFFERING AND LAID IT UPON ISAAC HIS SON: AND HE TOOK IN HIS HAND THE FIRE AND THE KNIFE AND THE TWO OF THEM WENT TOGETHER (as one).

7. AND ISAAC SAID TO ABRAHAM HIS FATHER, Abba, AND HE SAID, HERE I AM, MY SON; AND HE SAID, HERE IS THE FIRE AND THE WOOD; WHERE IS THE LAMB FOR THE OFFERING?

8. AND ABRAHAM SAID, THE LORD will choose FOR HIMSELF THE LAMB FOR THE OFFERING, MY SON. AND THE TWO OF THEM WENT with a whole heart TOGETHER (as one).

9. AND THEY CAME TO THE PLACE THAT GOD HAD TOLD HIM; AND ABRAHAM BUILT THERE THE ALTAR which Adam had built, which had been destroyed by the flood, which Noah had again built and which had been destroyed by the generation of the division; HE ARRANGED THE WOOD ON IT, AND BOUND ISAAC HIS SON, AND LAID HIM ON THE ALTAR ON TOP OF THE WOOD.

10. AND ABRAHAM STRETCHED FORTH HIS HAND AND TOOK THE KNIFE TO SLAY HIS SON. Isaac answered and said to his father, Bind me well, lest I struggle in mortal agony, and be thrown into the pit of destruction, and there be found a blemish in your sacrifice. (Now) the eyes of Abraham looked at the eyes of Isaac; but the eyes of Isaac looked at the angels on high. Isaac saw them but Abraham did not. And the angels on high answered, Come, see these unique people in the world, one slaying and other being slain; the one who slays does not withhold and the one to be slain stretches out his neck.

11. AND AN ANGEL OF THE LORD CALLED TO HIM FROM THE HEAVENS AND SAID TO HIM, ABHAHAM! ABRAHAM! AND HE SAID, HERE I AM.

12. AND HE SAID TO HIM, DO NOT SEND OUT YOUR HAND TO THE LAD AND DON'T DO ANYTHING evil TO HIM BECAUSE NOW it is clear to me THAT YOU FEAR THE LORD AND YOU HAVE NOT WITHHELD YOUR SON, YOUR ONLY ONE, FROM ME.

13. AND ABRAHAM LIFTED HIS EYES AND SAW, BEHOLD a certain RAM that was created in the twilight of the completion of the world, CAUGHT IN THE THICKET of a tree BY ITS HORNS; AND ABRAHAM WENT AND TOOK him AND OFFERED HIM UP INSTEAD OF HIS SON.

14. AND ABRAHAM gave thanks and prayed there, IN THAT PLACE and said, When I prayed for your mercy O Lord, it was clear to you that there was no guile in my heart, and I turned to perform your decree with joy, so that when the children of Isaac my son come to a time of suffering, let this be a remembrance for them, and answer them and save them, that all the generations to come may say, ON THIS MOUNTAIN Abraham bound Isaac his son, and there the Shekina of THE LORD WAS REVEALED to him.

15. AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD CALLED TO ABRAHAM A SECOND TIME FROM THE HEAVENS.

16. AND SAID by my word HAVE I SWORN, SAID THE LORD, BECAUSE YOU HAVE DONE THIS THING AND HAVE NOT WITHHELD YOUR SON, YOUR ONLY ONE.

17. THAT IN BLESSING I WILL BLESS YOU AND IN MULTIPLYING, I WILL MULTIPLY YOUR children LIKE THE STARS OF THE HEAVENS AND THE SAND ON THE SEASHORE, and your children WILL INHERIT cities in the presence of THEIR ENEMIES

18. AND ALL THE NATIONS OF THE EARTH WILL BE BLESSED BECAUSE of the merit of your son; because you accepted my words.

19. And the angels on high took Isaac and brought him to the school of Shem the Great and he was there for three years. The same day ABRAHAM RETURNED TO THE YOUNG MEN AND THEY AROSE AND WENT TOGETHER TO BEER SHEBA; AND ABRAHAM LIVED IN BEER SHEBA.

20. AND IT WAS AFTER THESE THINGS, after Abraham had bound Isaac, that Satan came and told Sarah that Abraham had killed Isaac. Sarah rose up and cried out and choked and died because of the anguish…

Quran, Sura 37
.
Abraham prayed: My Lord, grant me righteous children.
101. We gave him good news of a good child.
102. When he grew enough to work with him, he (Abraham) said, "My son, I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you. What do you think?" He said, "O my father, do what you are commanded to do. You will find me, God willing, patient."
103. They both submitted, and he put his forehead down (to sacrifice him).
104. We called him: "O Abraham.
105. "Have you believed the vision?" We thus reward the righteous.
106. That was an exacting test indeed.
107. We made a concession for a great slaughter.
108. And we preserved his history for subsequent generations.
109. Peace be upon Abraham.
110. We thus reward the righteous.
111. He is one of our believing servants.

From I Evoke the Memory of my Fathers – R. Ephraim of Bonn
Begged Isaac: bind for me my hands and my feet
.Lest I be found wanting and profane the sacrifice
.I am afraid of panic, I am concerned to honor you
.My will is to honor you greatly

,When he heard this, [Abraham]
whose soul was linked to the boy's like a bracelet
bound him hand and foot as if he were a whole offering
He put fire on the altar, wood on the fire
And on it offered the burnt offering

Then did the father and the son embrace
Mercy and Truth met and kissed each other
Oh, my father, fill your mouth with praise
.For He doth bless the sacrifice

He made haste, he pinned him down with his knees
.He made his two arms strong
With steady hands he slaughtered him according to the rite
.Full right was the slaughter

Down upon him fell the resurrecting dew, and he revived
[The father] seized him to slaughter him once more
:Scripture bear witness! Well-grounded is the fact
And the Lord called Abraham, even a second time from heaven

From Now is the time for the gates of favor to open  - R.Yehuda ben Shemuel Abbas

Now is the time for the gates of favor to open

A day on which I spread my palms to G-d in prayer

Please G-d, remember in my favor on this day of admonition

The binder, the bound and the altar

As the last test of the ten given to him by G-d, he was asked

The son that was born to you by Sarah

Although your soul is intensely attached to him

Rise, offer him as a pure sacrifice

On a mountain from which in you will see glory shining

The binder, the bound and the altar

Abraham said to Sarah: Your beloved Isaac

Has grown up but has not studied how to serve G-d

Let me take him and teach him the laws that G-d wishes him to follow

She responded: Go, my master but do not travel too far

Abraham answered: allow your heart to trust  in G-d

The binder, the bound and the altar.