I have written about the binding of Isaac many times in these studies, each time proposing an interpretation somewhat different from the ones given by the classic commentators. I do so for a simple reason.
The Torah, and Tanach generally, regard child sacrifice as one of the worst of evils. Child sacrifice was widely practiced in the ancient world. In 2 Melachim 3:26-27, we read of how the Moabite king Mesha, in the course of war against Israel, Judah and Edom, sacrificed his eldest son to the god Chemosh. Had the point of the trial been Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, then in terms of the value system of Tanach itself he would have proven himself no better than a pagan king.
Besides this, the name Avram means “mighty father.” The change of name to Avraham was meant to signify “father of many nations.” G-d said that He chose Avram “so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to go in the way of the L-rd,” meaning that Avraham was chosen to be a role model of fatherhood. A model father does not sacrifice his child.
The classic interpretation given by most of the commentators is beautiful and moving. Avraham showed that he loved G-d more than he loved his own son. But for the reasons above, I prefer to continue to search for different interpretations. Unquestionably, there was a trial. It involved Isaac. It tested Avraham’s faith to the limit. But it was about something else.
One of the most perplexing features of the Avraham story is the disconnect between G-d’s promises and the reality. Seven times, G-d promised Avraham the land. Yet when Sarah died, he owned not even a burial plot and had to buy one at an exorbitant price.
At the very opening of the story (see parshat Lech Lecha), G-d called on him to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, and promised him, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” Without demur or hesitation, Avraham left, began the journey, and arrived in the land of Canaan. He came to Shechem and built an altar there. He moved on to Bet-El and built an altar there as well. Then almost immediately we read that “There was a famine in the land.”
Avraham and his household were forced to go to Egypt. There, he found that his life was at risk. He asked Sarah to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife, thus putting her in a false position, (conduct which Ramban intensely criticized). Where, at that moment, was the Divine blessing? How was it that, leaving his land and following G-d’s call, Avraham found himself in a morally dangerous situation where he was forced to choose between asking his wife to live a lie, and exposing himself to the probability, perhaps certainty, of his own death?
A pattern is beginning to emerge. Avraham was learning that there is a long and winding road between promise and fulfillment. Not because G-d does not keep His word, but because Avraham and his descendants were charged with bringing something new into the world. A sacred society. A nation formed by covenant. An abandonment of idolatry. An austere code of conduct. A more intimate relationship with G-d than any people has ever known. It would become a nation of pioneers. And G-d was teaching Avraham from the very beginning that this demands extraordinary strength of character, because nothing great and transformative happens overnight in the human world. You have to keep going, even if you are tired and lost, exhausted and despondent.
G-d will bring about everything He promised. But not immediately. And not directly. G-d seeks change in the real world of everyday lives. And He seeks those who have the tenacity of faith to keep going despite all the setbacks. That is what the life of Avraham was about.
Nowhere was this clearer than in relation to G-d’s promise of children. Four times, G-d spoke about this to Avraham:
1) “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” (Bereishis 12:2)
2) “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” (Bereishis 13:16)
3) “Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Bereishis 15:5)
4) “No longer will you be called Avram; your name will be Avraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.” (Bereishis 17:5-6)
Four ascending promises: a great nation, as many as the dust of the earth, as the stars of the sky; not one nation but many nations. Avraham heard these promises and had faith in them: “Avram believed the L-rd, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Bereishis 15:6)
Then G-d gave Avraham some painful news. His son by Hagar, Ishmael, would not be his spiritual heir. G-d would bless him and make him a great nation, “But my covenant I will establish with Yitzchak, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” (Bereishis 17:21)
It is against this background of four promises of countless children, and a further promise that Avraham’s covenant would be continued by Yitzchak, that we must set the chilling words that open the trial: “Take your son, your only son, the son that you love – Yitzchak – and offer him up.”
The trial was not to see whether Avraham had the courage to sacrifice his son. As we saw above, even pagans like Mesha king of Moav had that courage. It was widespread in the ancient world, and completely abhorrent to Judaism.
The trial was not to see whether Avraham had the strength to give up something he loved. He had shown this time and time again. At the very beginning of his story he gave up his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, everything that was familiar to him, everything that spoke of home. In the previous chapter, he gave up his firstborn son Yishmael whom, it is clear, he also loved. Was there even the slightest doubt that he would give up Isaac, who was so clearly G-d’s miraculous gift, arriving when Sarah was already postmenopausal?
The trial was to see whether Avraham could live with what seemed to be a clear contradiction between G-d’s word now, and G-d’s word on five previous occasions, promising him children and a covenant that would be continued by Yitzchak.
The Rabbis knew that there were instances where two verses contradicted one another until a third verse came to resolve the contradiction. That was Avraham’s situation. He was faced with a contradiction, and there was as yet no further verse to resolve it. That was the test. Could Avraham live with uncertainty?
He did just that. He prepared himself for the sacrifice. But he told no one else. When he and Isaac set off on the third day on their own, he told the two servants who had accompanied them, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” When Yitzchak asked, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Avraham replied, “G-d Himself will provide the lamb.”
These statements are usually taken as diplomatic evasions. I believe, however, that Avraham meant exactly what he said. He was living the contradiction. He knew G-d had told him to sacrifice his son, but he also knew that G-d had told him that He would establish an everlasting covenant with his son.
The trial of the binding of Yitzchak was not about sacrifice but about uncertainty. Until it was over, Avraham did not know what to believe, or how it would end. He believed that the G-d who promised him a son would not allow him to sacrifice that son. But he did not know how the contradiction between G-d’s promise and His command would resolve itself.
The poet John Keats, in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas in 1817, sought to define what made Shakespeare so great compared to other writers. He possessed, he said, “Negative Capability – that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Shakespeare, in other words, was open to life in all its multiplicity and complexity, its conflicts and contradictions, while other, lesser writers sought to reduce it to a single philosophical frame. What Shakespeare was to literature, Avraham was to faith.
I believe that Avraham taught us that faith is not certainty; it is the courage to live with uncertainty. He had negative capability. He knew the promises would come true; he could live with the uncertainty of not knowing how or when.