Reinterpreting the Akedah

Author’s Note: I first posted this at the first iteration of my Facebook page on 28 September 2011. A Hebrew teacher from Israel that I once worked with named Uri Harel – may his memory be for a blessing – first mentioned his perspective of the Akedah in one of his televised Hebrew lessons; you can watch his extant lessons online at YouTube. The philosophical expansions at the end are my own meager meanderings on Harel’s thoughts.

Uri Harel once brought up an interesting point during one of his lessons on the Akedah — the “Binding of Isaac“, as seen in Genesis 22:1-19:

1. And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, “Abraham”: and he said, “Behold, here I am.”

2. And He said, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

And Abraham said unto his young men, “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, “My father”: and he said, “Here am I, my son.” And he said, “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering”: so they went both of them together.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, “Abraham”: and he said, “Here am I.”

And he said, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from Me.”

And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.”

And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,

And said, “By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

“That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

“And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed My voice.”

So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

When Adonai tells Abraham that He is going to rain fire and death upon Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham tries to prevent Adonai from doing so. A decade later, Adonai tells Abraham to slaughter his only son and Abraham agrees without complaint.1

At first, this sounds like Adonai taught Abraham, “Obey Me without complaint.” Is this so?

Let’s look at the example Moses gives us later during the Israelites’ flight from Egypt: Adonai tells Moses that the Israelites have erred one too many times and that He will destroy them all and make Moses’ children into a great nation instead. Moses tells Adonai, “Not so! Let them live, but kill me instead!”

Adonai heeds Moses and not only doesn’t kill the Israelites, He doesn’t kill Moses, either.

Perhaps Adonai was testing Abraham, hoping that Abraham — the same coward who instructed his wife to lie to the Pharaoh and pretend to be his sister in order to save his own life in Egypt in Genesis 12:9-20 — would finally stand up and challenge the Lord, as he had before the decimation of Sodom and Gomorrah, rather than meekly accepting the heavy burdens life heaped upon him?

If such is the case, then perhaps Abraham did not succeed at the Akedah.

Perhaps Abraham failed.

Read that sentence again: Abraham — a wealthy heir to the fortune of a Sumerian idol-maker, owner of vast flocks and herds of animals, countless servants, and his own private army, the father of monotheism, progenitor of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and all of their spin-off cults and religious groups — failed to take a stand when he should have.

This is one of the possible interpretations — indeed, one of the more disturbing implications — made in the story of the Akedah.

He failed, as a father, to protect his son Isaac, as he had failed before, as a husband, to protect his wife by asking her to pretend she was his sister, twice.2 He failed, as a leader, to stand up instead of cowing down, to fight or haggle with faith instead of blindly obeying.3 He failed, as one of the Bene haElohim (Sons of God), to accurately divine the test Adonai had placed before him.

We have been taught by Jewish rabbis and Christian ministers alike that the Akedah was a test of faith, and scripture indeed bears this out. In that, Abraham succeeded: he had the faith to sacrifice everything that was dear to him at the command of the Almighty. Perhaps, though, there was another test — a hidden test — beneath this story… and Abraham failed that hidden test.

Perhaps one event can be both a tremendous success and a dramatic failure simultaneously, depending on your point of view.

  1. I would like to point out, before I go any further, that I emphatically do not believe Sodom & Gomorrah were destroyed by Adonai because their inhabitants were homosexual. Ezekiel 16:49 (ISV) clearly reveals that “pride, too much food, undisturbed peace, and failure to help the poor and needy” were the primary factors in the destruction of the Cities of the Plain. The prison rape-like conditions described in the Book of Genesis were merely the icky, disgusting icing on an already thoroughly corrupt cake.[]
  2. Abraham lied about Sarah being just his sister a second time with Abimelech the Philistine monarch in Genesis 20:1-16.[]
  3. Remember how his grandson Jacob would later be rewarded for fighting with Adonai (or Adonai’s angelic representative)? Perhaps Jacob learned from his grandfather’s mistakes.[]

About Dunebat

Sole specimen: Desmodus desertus. Judeo-Christian anchorite/scribe/scribbler. Lover of nerds, Goths, creatives, & outcasts.

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