A Defense of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac

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By Sam Agra, St. Louis University. The following is a college essay that earned the grade of an A- or higher. Clarifying Catholicism enjoys publishing essays, and we invite you to submit yours through our Contact page.

The binding of Isaac, or Aekedah, in Genesis 22 is a theological and psychological narrative of immense depth, as commentators and writers have noted throughout the millennia. Relationships, trust, and the duty to the divine are thrust into the mind of the reader, forcing him or her to come to face to face with the striking notion of the Abrahamic God commanding the sacrifice of Isaac. Unsurprisingly, this text is as controversial as it is famous. While many believers laud the devotion and obedience of Abraham, others rightly question what sort of father would willingly attempt to kill his son at the behest of another, even God Himself. Perhaps, they say, this Abraham is a moral monster who did not care for others. Others worry about what readers will take from the story: if Abraham was just in sacrificing his son to God, should not I do the same? This paper will attempt to find the elusive middle ground between the two, holding that Abraham acted rightly in attempting to offer up his son while also positing that his act was of a very special, and likely not to be repeated, circumstance. 

I will show this thesis by examining a host of interpretations, from modern commentaries to both Christian and Jewish thought. Further, this paper is itself a work of theological commentary upon the text. While I may use the fruits of historical-critical scholarship, my focus is not on the original authorial intent or discerning between the different sources or redactors. As such, questions of Ancient Near East methods of child sacrifice will not be touched upon, though the text clearly presents a motif of substitution for human sacrifice.

First, I would like to clarify something about the nature of this narrative, and perhaps religion as a whole. Any thought system used by flawed humans will result in a use of said system for evil, regardless of the system’s inherent goodness or badness. This observation is more prominent in the realm of religion which often constitutes the most deeply held beliefs. As Moberly writes on the Binding, “The higher the stakes, the more the ancient principle applies, that abuse does not remove right use…it is of primary importance to promote the conditions for that right use and not let exceptional abuses trump it.” It is with this principle in mind that we turn to the famous objection to the Binding of one Immanuel Kant. He writes that

if the voice commands him to do something contrary to the moral law… he must consider it an illusion… [Abraham ought to respond] “That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from visible heaven

Can one, for any reason, go against the moral law, especially on a case so heinous as murder? In other words, “Isn’t the certainty of the ethical always greater than the conviction that it is God who demands the violation of the ethical?” Kant, although addressing a more epistemological claim rather than a theological one, still raises the crux of the moral question to us. What is Abraham to do when the divine command seems to conflict with the most basic of the tenets of moral law? And how ought we to react to his choice?

As we dive into the moral questions posed by Kant, we must first define the central term: faith. Faith must be thought of not as a blind trust in a divine, but in a more relational sense, akin to its derivative term “faithful”. One who has faith is faithful to God as a spouse or friend is to the other, and vice versa. Faith in this sense is closely tied to trust. With God, however, it may be more apt to think of this faith in relation to a child and father, as the father has more power and knows much that his child does not. A father may take his child to be vaccinated, a painful and frightening process. The child, if she has a strong faith in her father, will trust and love him through the pain that comes. She does not know what is occurring or the significance of the needles, only that her father is faithful and that she is in pain. With this concept of faith, we can better understand Abraham’s faith as greater than mere obedience. The girl does not know how her pain and her father’s goodwill for her can co-exist, but she trusts anyway – so acts Abraham in his dilemma. “Abraham’s will to fulfill his ethical duty now relies on an objectively uncertain possibility in which he can only have faith.” Contrary to Kant’s idea, there need be no actual conflict between the ethical and the divine in Abraham’s faith. Rather, there is a lack in understanding or knowledge on the part of the person who requires faith. Davenport continues, “faith cannot consist in our being willing to violate our duties to love other persons… what it adds is a reason to trust, against all odds or apparent evidence, that our ethical wish can come true.” Perhaps, an objector may grant, this sort of faith is real. Yet does it follow that it is warranted? A needle is nothing compared to the sacrifice of one’s son, so Abraham must have an incredible faith. To understand the strong grounding of Abraham’s faith, we must look at the context of the Binding narrative.

First, God is well known to Abraham by this point; there have been ten chapters of relation and trust between them by this point. God’s command here is not ex nihil but one command in a series of commands dating back to Abraham’s call. Each previous command has borne goodness for Abraham, even when Abraham had disobeyed or attempted to fulfill God’s promises on his own. God was merciful to him when he lied about Sarah, not trusting in God’s protection, and when he began his own lineage through Hagar. God, unknown to Abraham, sustained Hagar and Ishmael in the desert after He commanded them to be cast out. God has a great history of commanding difficult things and fulfilling His promises, especially the miraculous conception of Isaac which we will touch on in more detail later. Finally, God and His voice are well known to Abraham by this point. While Kant questions how one can ever know the voice of God from a dream or vision, he seems to neglect of the strength of the relationship that is already in place. After decades of close contact, one would expect a strong connection between God and Abraham. Just as one can know the words of a best friend from voice, cadence, or even diction, so we must expect Abraham to be identify the voice of God accurately. In verse one of chapter 22, Abraham immediately responds to God’s inquiry with an affirmation of his presence and listening, not a question or with hesitancy. I think it is not a stretch to say that this immediacy in response implies that Abraham easily recognizes the voice of the one who has been his friend and guide for many years.

In further understanding the basis of Abraham’s faithful trust, note that this chapter 22 is the culmination and climax of the relationship between Abraham and God which has been built over the previous decades. This is the highpoint of their relationship; after this moment, the biblical narrative begins to focus upon Isaac. The chapter begins with God’s call to Abraham and then His dreaded command. Abraham is called to offer up as sacrifice “your son, your only son, Isaac whom you love” (Gen 22:2). Rouiller notes the close connection between the threefold command here and that of Abraham’s initial call in chapter 12. “In both cases we have a detailed description of what Abraham must leave: land, home, father’s house (12:1), only son, the one whom you love, Isaac (22:2) In both cases there is a similarly undefined goal to attain: ‘Go… to the land that I will show you’ (12:1); ‘go to the land of which I shall tell you’ (22:2).” Through this call at the outset of the Binding narrative, God reminds Abraham of their history. He reminds Abraham of the radical trust which began their relationship and of the many blessings which have occurred since. The intent is clear; God implies, “Remember how you have trusted before and the great things which came from it as I ask you to trust once again.” The opening of the Binding narrative itself is a call to trust and the fruit it brings. One can think here of the father taking his daughter to be vaccinated while reminding her how the painful tests of last month resulted in her returning to health. God, like the father, reminds Abraham of past trust and the good which came only through hardships, as healing sometimes comes only through painful medicine.

In addition to the strong, past relationship of trust and covenants between Abraham and God, we must also consider the miracle of Isaac. Before the conception and birth of Isaac, God has already promised great descendants and land to Abraham, then called Abram. In chapter 17, God again makes a covenant with Abram, now renaming him and his wife, and promises an everlasting covenant to him and his descendants, not through his slave-son Ishmael, but through a son to be given to him through Sarah named Isaac. In verse 17, Abraham understandably remarks, “Can Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?” to which God responds in 19 that Sarah will bear a son “name[d] Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” If we take the biblical narrative seriously here, we must note that it should be completely impossible for Sarah, double the age at which conception should have become impossible, to bear a son, let alone bring him to term healthily. And yet this is exactly what she does through the power of God in chapter 21. God has worked the impossible. He asked the trust of Abraham in a situation in which there was no conceivable way for the promise of God to be fulfilled, and yet it was fulfilled.  As Dr. Stump writes, Abraham has learned that “lots of things that look impossible turn out to be not too difficult for God.” Abraham has learned that God can accomplish the impossible to remain faithful to his promises.

Now we can more fully understand the test that Abraham is under in the Binding narrative. The common conception, that Abraham is caught in a dilemma between the ethical norms and the demands of faith (often thought of as obedience) in a divine command, turns out to be off the mark. Rather, Abraham’s crisis of faith regards whether he can continue to trust in the miraculous, faithful character of God. Does he have faith, where faith is considered “as the means to remain devoted to the absolute while trusting that in spite of the weakness of reason, the end result will be harmonious,”? By continuing with the definition of faith as faithful trust, the obedience of Abraham does not, “[require] eschewal of ethics but trusting for an ethically sound resolution through miraculous being.” We know that Abraham already has good evidence that God can work beyond the bounds of the natural without harming it to accomplish his promises. The question here is the same, only it regards the ethical rather than the natural.

Key to the Binding narrative, in addition to a correct understanding of faith, is recalling the promises given to Abraham regarding Isaac in earlier chapters. Recall 17:19 where God promises that “I will establish my covenant with [Isaac] as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” As before, Abraham cannot see how God will reconcile his promise with reality. It is through Isaac that Abraham will be blest with descendants, and to Isaac and his children that God will grant an everlasting covenant, yet God also demands that Isaac be offered up as sacrifice. Origen notes the paradox of doubt in which Abraham must find himself, “Are you thinking, are you turning over in your heart that , if the promise has be given to me in Isaac , but I offer him for an holocaust, it remains that that promise holds no hope? Or rather do you think of those well­known words, and say that it is impossible for him who promised to lie; be that as it may, the promise shall remain?” This latter question emulates the faith that Abraham must have. As before with the promise of Isaac’s birth and the impossibility of it, Abraham must, and shows that he does, believe in the possibility of the seemingly impossible: that he can obey the command to sacrifice his son without harming him and violating the ethical.

But surely, one will claim, he must only believe that Isaac will be raised from the dead after sacrifice as Hebrews 11:19 states, “He considered the fact that God is even able to raise someone from the dead – and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” This is the strategy adopted by Early Church commentators such as Caesuarius and even the belief of some Jewish interpretations. This explanation, one would argue, does not save Abraham from moral evil. For reversing an effect of an evil does not render said evil undone or even take away all of the effects. I cannot stab a person in the arm and expect to be pardoned when I stitch his wound afterward. Being able to undo an evil does not mean that I possess moral goodness. To do an evil act, even under divine command and with good hope that the evil will be in many ways fix, is still to do an evil act. If Abraham wills to cause great harm to his son, even if he thinks the effects of that harm will be reversed, he still wishes death upon an innocent child. For Abraham to be cleared of wrongdoing, Stump notes, it must be the case that he believes that the sacrifice will cause Isaac no harm. While it may be the case that Abraham has enough miraculous trust in God to believe in a resurrection, can it really be possible for him to believe that he could sacrifice Isaac and still receive the promise through him without him being harmed?

For the answer to be“yes”, we can again look to the arguments of Dr. Stump. She notes the important relational aspect of the testing of Abraham. So far, Abraham has fulfilled his tests by trusting in the inherent goodness of a God who fulfills his promises. God has shown Himself to both be faithful to His word and to will the good of Abraham and his family. While a resurrection of a sacrificed Isaac would allow God’s promise to remain in place, it destroys His goodness. Abraham, and Isaac after him, cannot have a trusting relationship based on the goodness of God if they learn that God is not good. Thus, it must be the case that Abraham in some manner believes, if he is to carry out God’s will, that the divine command will not result in the unjust harming of his son. The options for Abraham in this test are as follows: refuse to participate due to a lack of trust in God, participate in the sacrifice thinking that he will kill or harm his son and lose trust in God, or to obey while believing that he will not be bringing about death or harm to his son. Only the last option, Stump rightly points out, will not destroy the relationship of trust and faithfulness that has been thus established. One may here object, asking how a sacrifice, the stabbing of a victim with a knife, could ever not harm or kill. To this person, I bring up the example of a surgeon; he willfully mutilates a human body, and yet due to medicine and a relationship of trust, does not harm his patient in body or mind.

To reiterate, because this is the crux of and most difficult part of the argument, the Binding test of Abraham relies upon the trust God has built up in him over decades. It is meant to be a capstone of the relationship between them, which i to be carried on in Isaac and his many descendants. The biblical narrative itself supports this. A break in the trust between Abraham and God, or Isaac and God, would be inimical to the ends of the test and cannot be required of the test. A break of trust is exactly what must be avoided by the test. Not to trust God, then, would be to fail the test. Refusing to offer up his son would be a failure of trust. Carrying out a moral atrocity while believing that God has commanded it is a failure of the basis of the trust between God and Abraham: the notion that God is a God of goodness. The only remaining option, the one which retains the trust between them, is to carry out the test while believing that the command will not harm and kill and innocent Isaac. Abraham is defensible, and acted rightly, because he neither committed an evil act nor thought that he was committing an evil act. His intent and action were both upright.

This reading requires some qualification, and that comes by a brief examination of the nature of Abraham’s test. The Binding narrative opens by giving the reader knowledge that Abraham is being tested by God (Gen 22:1). Testing, in the Old Testament context is best understood as a trial from which the tested person will benefit. Now one could easily state that Abraham’s benefit here is the renewal and strengthening of God’s promise in Gen 22:16-18, and that is certainly part of the case. But this promise, and all of the former promises regarding Abraham and Isaac, rely on a continuing relationship of trust and faithfulness which would not be possible if Abraham or Isaac thought God to be a moral monster. There may certainly may have been obedience or servitude, perhaps frequent offerings and following of commands, but there would be no real trust; these actions would be from fear alone. If the trust is to be retained, and the test to be truly beneficial for Abraham and his progeny, it must be the case that said test does not entail thinking that God is commanding an atrocity. Thus, there must be some way in which the sacrifice of Isaac would not be an evil, that it would not harm or kill him. 

A deeper examination of the text supports this claim. First, note Abraham’s words to his servants in verse 5, “the boy and I will go over there; we will worship and then we will come back to you.” It may be the case that Abraham is merely lying, but the text itself does not directly support that interpretation. Rather, I think his words here are better interpreted as a prayer of hope and trust, a pleading with God that He will truly work another miracle here. This reading is supported by his later comment to Isaac that “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” (Gen 22:8), which The Word Biblical Commentary notes is likely a prayer of trust, as a reading of it supports a positive interpretation. Abraham, in his desire to trust, prays and pleads that the Lord’s miracles will be done, that somehow Isaac will come back and survive, while already acting as if his safety is guaranteed. There is good evidence to support that Abraham believes in some miracle to come, hoping in the goodness and promises of God that Isaac will remain unharmed.

Finally, as we have addressed the intent and object of Abraham, we must also briefly inquire as to his son. Even if Abraham didn’t intend or do anything evil, surely the ordeal would have been harrowing and traumatizing for Isaac. This is the case only if Isaac himself was not willing and obedient in the plan itself. Too often are do we quickly presume Isaac as a small and weak victim, as portrayed in Caravaggio’s famous painting Sacrifice of Isaac. What we know directly from the biblical text regarding Abraham and Isaac’s ages at the time, however, is uncertain. We know that Abraham was one hundred years old when Isaac was born, as God promised Isaac to him in one year at age ninety-nine (Gen 17:1, 21). We know that Abraham “resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines,” (Gen 21:34) after Isaac was born. The Binding narrative begins in the next chapter and verse with the phrase “after these things” signaling an indeterminate amount of time. We know that Abraham is well over one hundred by this time. Further, we know that Isaac is old and strong enough to carry the entire amount of wood needed for the burnt offering, enough wood to fully consume a body in fire. This fact combined with the great age of Abraham points to a great difference in physical ability between the two. 

Then Abraham binds Isaac, a task which would be all but impossible for an elderly man to do to his young, strong son. That is, unless the son willed and consented to his father’s will. Spitzer notes that Midrashic glosses on the text have Isaac asking to be bound, that he might not accidentally struggle and resist the will of God. Further, Jewish customs linked later martyrdoms to that of Isaac, seeing his act as the ultimate surrender to the will of God. The Word commentary on the chapter states, “that an elderly man was able to bind the hands and feet of a lively teenager strongly suggests Isaac’s consent… ready to obey his father whatever the cost, just as his father had showed his willingness to obey God,” and “[Isaac] was tied, indicating his own willing submission to God’s command revealed to his father.” There is good evidence, then, to support the idea that Isaac was not an unwilling child but a faithful young man. He trusted in his faithful father just as his father trusted in the divine. 

Simply put, one can read the account of the Binding and hold that Abraham acted rightly without also endorsing the right of people to sacrifice others on the whim of visions that they may have had. Abraham had a long relationship of trust-building with God in which miraculous events beyond the limits of human understanding had occurred. He knew that God was good, faithful to His promises, and able to work things beyond Abraham’s understanding. He had journeyed and spoken with God for decades, knowing well His voice and was able to discern it from others. As past events had proved God to be faithful Abraham had good grounds to believe that He would fulfill His promise to bring about nations through Isaac, that is, that Isaac would not remain dead even if sacrificed. As Abraham knew God was good, he had good evidence to believe that Isaac’s sacrifice would not result in his harm. Thus, Abraham proceeded with God’s plan neither intending to nor actually harming his son. Isaac himself was a willing participant of trust, and not traumatized. 

Works Cited

Caesarius of Arles, “Sermon 84.” In Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture Genesis 12-50, edited by Mark Sheridan. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Davenport, John J. “Faith as Eschatological Trust in Fear and Trembling.” in Ethics, Love and Faith in Kierkegaard, edited by Edward F. Mooney. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Gellman, Jerome I. Abraham! Abraham! Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003.

Kant, Immanuel. The Conflict of the Faculties. Translated by Mray J. Gregor. New York: Abaris, 1979.

Moberly, R. W. L. The Theology on the Book of Genesis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Origen, “Homilies on Genesis 8.” In Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture Genesis 12-50, edited by Mark Sheridan. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, Jerome Biblical Commentary 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Rouiller, Gregorie, “The Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).” In Exegesis Problems of Method and Exercise in Reading Genesis 22 and Luke 15, edited by Francois Bovon and Gregorie Rouiller. Translated by Donald G. Miller. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978.

Spitzer, Rabbi John H. “Jewish Uses of the Akedah – Genesis 22:1-19.” In Interpreting Abraham Journeys to Moriah, edited by Bradley Breach and Matthew Powell. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2014.

Stump, Eleonore. Wandering in Darkness Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Tebutt, Andrew, “Resignation and the ‘Humble Courage of Faith.’” In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling” in Interpreting Abraham Journeys to Moriah, edited by Bradley Breach and Matthew Powell. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2014.

Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 2 Genesis 16-50. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.

One Response

  1. Roman 5:13 says: “For until the [Mosaic] law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.”
    This may be a clue that we are evaluating Abraham by standards that didn’t exist in his day. There was no religious law that Abraham was disobeying at the time that he was about to sacrifice Isaac.

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