It is the hardest passage of all, one that seems to defy understanding. Abraham and Sarah have waited years for a child. G-d has promised them repeatedly that they would have many descendants, as many as the stars of the sky, the dust of the earth, the grains of sand on the seashore. They wait. No child comes.
Sarah, in despair, suggests that Abraham should have a child by her handmaid Hagar. He does. Ishmael is born. Yet G-d tells Abraham that this is not the descendant He meant. By now Sarah is old, post-menopausal, unable by natural means to have a child. Angels come and again promise a child. Sarah laughs. But a year later Isaac is born. Sarah’s joy is almost heartbreaking.
Sarah said, “G-d has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:6-7).
Then come the fateful words: “Then G-d said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about’ ” (Genesis 22:2).
The rest of the story is familiar. Abraham takes Isaac. Together they journey for three days to the mountain. Abraham builds an altar, gathers wood, binds his son and lifts the knife. At that moment:
The angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear G-d, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:11-12).
The trial is over. It is the climax of Abraham’s life, the supreme test of faith, a key moment in Jewish memory and self-definition.
But it is deeply troubling. Why did G-d so nearly take away what He had given? Why did He put these two aged parents – Abraham and Sarah – through so appalling a test? Why did Abraham, who had earlier challenged G-d on the fate of Sodom, saying, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” not protest against this cruel act against an innocent child?
The standard interpretation, given by all the classical and modern commentators, is that Abraham demonstrates his total love of G-d by being willing to sacrifice the most precious thing in his life, the son for whom he has been waiting for so many years.
The Christian theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a powerful book about it, Fear and Trembling, in which he coined such ideas as the “teleological suspension of the ethical” – the love of G-d may lead us to do things that would otherwise be considered morally wrong – and “faith in the absurd” – Abraham trusted G-d to make the impossible possible. He believed he would lose Isaac but still keep him. For Kierkegaard, faith transcends reason.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik saw the binding as demonstrating that we must not expect always to be victorious. Sometimes we must experience defeat. “G-d tells man to withdraw from whatever man desires the most.”
All these interpretations are surely correct. They are part of our tradition. I want, however, to offer a quite different reading, for one reason. Throughout Tanach, the gravest sin is child sacrifice. The Torah and the prophets consistently regard it with horror. It is what pagans do.
This is Jeremiah on the subject: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal – something I did not command or mention; nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5).