Drama and pathos both figure when Biblical commentators seek to understand the story, but much more important in Jewish tradition is the symbolism of the events.
How often the destiny of the Jewish people, like that of Abraham’s family, has been in jeopardy! How often Jews, like their ancestor Abraham, have been called upon to make impossible sacrifices for God!
No wonder the Akedah has made an indelible impression on the Jewish mind and, like Un’tanneh Tokef and Kol Nidrei, brings us to the verge of tears.
Yet a rational analysis raises a whole series of perplexing questions. For instance, how could Abraham comply so obediently when God told him to sacrifice his son, when he had previously cried to God, “Does the Judge of all the earth not behave justly?” (Gen. 18:25).
Why didn’t he try to negotiate with God, as he had on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah?
One view is that God was not demanding Isaac’s murder but merely asking if Abraham would be prepared to do this if necessary: it is not a peremptory command but a request – God even says “please”!
Further, He does not specifically say “kill your son” but “take him up upon the mountain”. And doesn’t the story end happily?
But this is not yet clear when God first speaks to Abraham.
What can we then say? The same answer that Jews have been called upon to give throughout history, that faithfulness to God comes at a price.
The Israeli scientist-philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, tells of a previously religious person who said that after Auschwitz he had lost his faith.
Leibowitz writes, “My reaction to this is: You never believed in God, but in God’s help, and that faith was proved an illusion – God did not help. One who truly believes in God does not relate this to belief in God’s help; nor does he believe that God ought to or will help him.
“He believes in God as Godhead, not in terms of functions that he attributes to Him concerning His dealings with man.
“And this is the significance of the Akedah, in which God appears to Abraham, not as He who protects him and not as He who rewards him, but as He who makes the most difficult and exacting of demands, a demand that Abraham can fulfill only by nullifying all human needs, interests and values, nullifying them in order to serve God.”
But this is still difficult; it ignores the constant reference in our prayers to a helping, saving God.
A second problem involves Isaac’s place in the story. Granted that Abraham is being tested, does Isaac have no say?
True, father and son walked together even after the father clearly hinted that the sacrifice would be the son himself: Isaac thus knew he was also being tested – as if God had asked him directly, “Are you prepared to give Me, not your possessions, not your child, but your own life?”
Rashi adds a comment on the opening phrase, “After these words…” Which words?
If the words of Satan, who complained to God that Abraham never seemed to bring Him any offerings, it is a test of Abraham’s faith; if the words of Ishmael, who taunted Isaac and boasted that he had submitted to circumcision as a teenager and Isaac said, “Not just a small part of my body but my whole being would I willingly give for God”, it is a test of Isaac’s faith.
In the end there was no sacrifice of Isaac. What did happen was the Binding of Isaac, and Isaac returned safely to his mother – though the text does not explicitly say this, and there is a rabbinic suggestion that he had in fact suffered from Abraham’s knife and later had to be revived.
(Other rabbinic views say that the event changed both Abraham and Isaac, and before coming home Isaac went off to study Torah for three years.)
Abraham Joshua Heschel focusses on the intervention of the angel who, in telling Abraham not to harm Isaac, demonstrated that God’s intention was a test of faith and not child murder.
Heschel tells the story of a class which was studying the Akedah. When they came to the arrival of the angel, one child burst out crying. “What are you crying for?” asked the teacher. “Didn’t the angel come, and wasn’t Isaac saved?” “Yes,” sobbed the child, “but what if the angel had been late?” The teacher said, “Human beings can be late, but an angel is never late”.
A sweet story, but difficult for the post-Holocaust generation. The Jewish people, like Isaac, were bound on the sacrificial altar during those years. The people as a whole survived, because the angel did come… but many failed to survive, and we cannot help feeling that the angel could have come earlier.
This is the Psalmist’s problem too; he does not doubt that God will come, possibly through an angel, but he is puzzled by the Divine timetable, and constantly asks God, “When?” and “How long?”.