The key narratives of the Torah are there to teach us that G-d is the ultimate owner of all.
* * * In the ancient world, up to and including the Roman Empire, children were considered the legal property of their parents. They had no rights. They were not legal personalities in themselves. Under the Roman principle of patria potestas, a father could do whatever he wished with his child, including putting him to death. Infanticide was well known in antiquity. (It has even been defended in our time by the Harvard philosopher Peter Singer, in the case of severely handicapped children.) That, for example, is how the story of Oedipus begins, with his father Laius leaving him to die.
It is this principle that underlies the entire practice of child sacrifice, which was widespread throughout the pagan world. The Torah is horrified by child sacrifice, which it sees as the worst of all sins. It therefore seeks to establish, in the case of children, what it establishes in the case of the universe as a whole, the land of Israel, and the people of Israel. We do not own our children. G-d does. We are merely their guardians on G-d’s behalf.
Only the most dramatic event could establish an idea so revolutionary and unprecedented – even unintelligible – in the ancient world. That is what the story of the binding of Isaac is about. Isaac belongs to neither Abraham nor Sarah. Isaac belongs to G-d. All children belong to G-d. Parents do not own their children. The relationship of parent to child is one of guardianship only. G-d does not want Abraham to sacrifice his child. G-d wants him to renounce ownership of his child. That is what the angel means when it calls to Abraham, telling him to stop: “You have not withheld from Me your son, your only son.”
The binding of Isaac is a polemic against, and a rejection of, the principle of patria potestas, the idea universal to all pagan cultures that children are the property of their parents.
* * * Seen in this light, the binding of Isaac is now consistent with the other foundational narratives of the Torah, namely the creation of the universe and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The rest of the narrative also makes sense. G-d had to show Abraham and Sarah that their child was not naturally theirs, because his birth was not natural at all. It took place after Sarah could no longer conceive. The story of the first Jewish child establishes a principle that applies to all Jewish children. G-d creates legal space between parent and child, because only when that space exists do children have the room to grow as independent individuals.
The Torah ultimately seeks to abolish all relationships of dominance and submission. That is why it dislikes slavery and makes it, within Israel, a temporary condition rather than a permanent fate. That is why it seeks to protect children from parents who are overbearing or worse.
Abraham was chosen to be the role model for all time of what it is to be a parent. We now see that the binding of Isaac is the consummation of that story. A parent is one who knows he or she does not own their child.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).