The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son is certainly one of the most debated stories of human history.
In this story from the 22nd chapter of Genesis, God tells Abraham that because of his willingness to sacrifice his own son, Abraham’s descendants shall be as countless as the stars in the sky and the sands of the seashore, and that all the nations of the earth shall find blessing from them. And God’s promise has come true. Abraham’s descendants, the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have brought the truth of the One God to every corner of the world. Today, half the world’s population sees Abraham as its spiritual father.
And the interpretations of the Binding of Isaac, in Hebrew the Akedah, are as varied as the three religions who claim Abraham as their father.
Once in an interfaith gathering as an exercise we attempted to condense the viewpoint of each of the Abrahamic faiths to one word. Islam was easy: literally it means “submission,” so the essence of Islam is submission to the Will of God. Judaism also gives a clue in the name of the patriarch Israel: it means “he who struggles with God,” so the Jewish viewpoint is one of struggle to understand God. Christianity, centered on the life and ministry of Jesus, is about the challenges represented by the idea of God living among humanity; it is about various interpretations of what Incarnation means in our own life.
So we have struggle, incarnation and submission. And each tradition has interpreted the Akedah from its own viewpoint. The Apostle Paul tells us that the story of the Akedah is about faith on the part of Abraham (and parenthetically about Isaac not resisting, as Jesus did not resist death). The Qur’an sees the Akedah as the primordial story of submission to the will of God (with the featured son being Ishmael rather than Isaac). And Judaism is conflicted, with many rabbinical interpretations of the Akedah that reflect millennia of struggle to deal with the implications of this story.
Among the many interpretations Jews have proposed for the meaning of the Akedah are: the most obvious one, that of a test of faith; that Abraham was tested, but the test was actually whether he would argue with God about the morality of killing his son; that the Akedah is an ancient story that explains how the Israelites came to reject the human sacrifice practiced by their neighbors.
To view the story from the viewpoint of Abraham is to become entangled in thousands of years of exegesis. So how are we to understand this story for our own lives? Perhaps we can gain something by shifting our focus from Abraham to Isaac. What was Isaac thinking?
For Isaac, this experience must have been dreadful. His own father tied him up and laid him on a stone altar, wielding a knife above his chest. To Isaac, the issue of faith was distant. To him, the experience was about trust. Bound and powerless, he could only trust his father and God.
We rarely have to demonstrate our faith to the extent that Abraham does in the story of the Binding. But we can all identify with Isaac. Seemingly powerless and unable to influence events that affect us, such as the current economic crisis, we can only trust that God will provide. We don’t have the answers, we may not really understand what is going on. But trust we do. We trust that no matter how bleak things may seem, God will find a way to bring something good out of it for us. And if we are not always the masters of our own fate, then it is good to rely on God to solve problems that seem unsolvable.