Is it possible to know an iconic and beloved story of the Torah so well and realize that for generations, despite everything that we’ve been taught and thought we understood, we’ve been completely and utterly missing the point? The narrative of the Akeida, the near sacrifice of Isaac is one such story. Supposedly a text which paints Abraham as an obedient servant of God, this story instead serves as a disturbing and powerful polemic on religious fundamentalism and the damage that it causes.
Read the familiar story–the words in bold represent the original text as taken from Genesis Chapter 22, with the other passages describing the behind-the-scenes action:
One day, God asked His angels whether they thought that a good and moral man would actually commit murder just because he was told to. They weren’t sure, so some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to Abraham, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.”
God thought to Himself, “This is Abraham, the man who argued with me over and over again, looking for a way to spare the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah in case there were just a few good people living there.”
And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” God fully expected Abraham to protest, or at the very least to bargain about the intended victim. Perhaps Abraham would agree to sacrifice his less favored son, Ishmael.
But to God’s surprise, early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants, and his son Isaac. Abraham even snuck out of the house quietly so as not to disturb his wife Sarah or to let her find out what he intended. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. God was fairly certain that Abraham would abandon this ridiculous demonstration of devotion when he saw the outrageous distance that he would have to travel. Even putting aside what he intended to do once he arrived there, it would be cruel to force the innocent servants and the poor animal to travel so far by foot. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.”
God couldn’t believe what He was seeing. “He cares more for his servants than for his own flesh and blood. What have I started?”
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. Isaac had no concept of what his father intended for him. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering? Are we to sacrifice another animal instead?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” Isaac wondered whether they would be able to find a proper sheep for sacrifice in the place where they were going. And the two of them walked on together.
They finally arrived at the place which God had told them. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he surreptitiously crept up behind Isaac, and overpowered him before Isaac knew what was happening, for surely Isaac would have resisted his father’s intentions. He bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
“Father! What in God’s name are you doing? Let me go!”
And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Isaac shouted, “Help me! For the love of God, help! Madman!” God heard the cries of Isaac, called an end to this horrible “test” and at that moment, God vowed that He would never again speak to Abraham. He turned to His angel and said, “Get him to stop this already. I can’t even bring Myself to look at his face.”
Therefore an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” Abraham wondered who the voice was that was calling him, and he answered “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.” When Abraham came out of his trance and looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. Meanwhile, Isaac finally managed to free himself from the ropes binding him to the altar. He spoke quietly to his father and said, “Father, why have you done this to me?”
Abraham didn’t answer Isaac, as he was intent on dealing with the ram that he had sacrificed.
Isaac again pleaded, “Father…”
Finally, Isaac turned and began to walk away by himself. He knew then that he too would never speak to his father again.
Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together. It never occurred to him that Isaac was nowhere to be found.
For the rest of Abraham’s life, neither God nor Isaac ever spoke another word to Abraham again.