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Jews often are horrified by Genesis 22, the near knifing sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. How many times did people accost me about the cruelty of God's command, and how horribly painful the prospects for Abraham and Sarah? Indeed, even Jewish tradition records midrashically (in lore) that upon hearing the story of what Abraham had done, Sarah's soul immediately departed her body!

But that's because few people understand the biblical intention of the chapter.

Some have claimed it's the refutation of biblical child sacrifice. It's not.

Some have claimed Isaac died, and was resurrected!

People project all kinds of symbolic ideas into stories. But what was the Bible's actual intent?

To understand, we must go back to earlier in the Torah to the destruction of the world at the opening of the story of Noah. The Torah calls Noah "a righteous man in his generation (tsadik), and pure (tamim). The same verse says, "Noah walked with God."

By contrast, the wicked people about to drown in the flood are said to perform hamas. They have "corrupted the way of the earth." In other words, they are precisely the opposite of Noah.

When God makes a covenant with Abram in Genesis 17, the chapter opens with the command to Abram, "... Walk in my ways and be blameless..." repeating two of the descriptors of Noah. With that, God makes an agreement that Abram will be the father of many nations and changes his name to Abraham.

As the story progresses in the next chapter, and Abraham is visited by angels promising the couple a son, the angels proceed on to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. God feels such intimacy with Abraham, since they are now partners, that he reveals to Abraham the impending destruction. Abraham responds by bargaining with God over saving the righteous in the cities. Abraham demands (vs. 25), "Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly!" That missing third quality, justice, Abraham demands of God! Just as God demands justice in the world, Abraham demands that God commit God's self the very same divinely ordained standard. God is self-limiting to act justly.

So now we know that: God will destroy the world if people don’t act justly; Noah, who saved the world, was just. Abraham, God's partner in covenant, is pure and "walks with God," just as Noah did after describing Noah as righteous and pure.

With this information as background, now let’s turn to Genesis 22, and the binding of Isaac. Remember, Abraham knows that God will only act with justice. So he understands that however unjust this appears, God will only act justly. With the question of God’s justice off the table, Abraham must focus on his potential loss of his beloved son.

The opening of the story states, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love … “ Abraham waited to the age of 100 for a son. In Genesis 15 he bemoans with God that he has no heir (vs. 4), and God promises him a son, “his own issue.” Binding Isaac presents Abraham’s greatest challenge because God proposes taking Abraham’s greatest love from him. Now Abraham must choose: with the justice question off the table, will Abraham choose his love for his only son or his love of God? That is the reason God only stops Abraham when his hand begins to descend with the knife (vss. 10, 12), because in that decisive moment God witnesses Abraham’s choice.

Abraham chooses love of God over all else.

Would we make the same choice today? Of course not. That would be immoral! We lack the guarantees Abraham secured from God in their personal encounter at Sodom and Gemorrah. Without that assurance of the justice of the outcome, we could not possibly follow Abraham’s lead.

Yet, the question lives within us. What would we sacrifice for love of God? God does not ask of us that we give up our children. But would we sacrifice lifestyle, prestige, power, money, status, or anything else dear to us if we felt God demanded it? What is our sacrifice, and where do we cut corners or truly give ourselves to God.

In the Shema we recited, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your strength and all your being.” We say it, but what do the words mean to us really? That is the question of the binding of Isaac. God demands justice, that we know. But what might we sacrifice in God’s name that will leave us richer in the love of God, even if poorer by worldly standards?

Shabbat shalom.



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