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The riddle of Isaac

Genesis 22 has a pro-life subtext, and missing it has led to a multitude of religious errors

The riddle of Isaac

(Krieg Barrie)

Oronoz/Newscom

The 1586 painting <em>Sacrifice of Isaac</em> by Paolo Veronese

WORLD’s writers have done so well that it’s been 15 months since my last magazine article about God moving me from Judaism and atheism to faith in Christ—and continuing to teach me. But two articles planned for this issue are delayed, and one crucial part of my background relates to questions about child sacrifice relevant to abortion, so I’ll now take you back to 1963.

At my synagogue bar mitzvah ceremony that year, I chanted in Hebrew a chunk of Chapter 11 of Judges, which tells of mighty warrior Jephthah. He offered God an exchange: You give me victory, I’ll sacrifice as a burnt offering whoever or whatever first runs out of my house to greet me. Jephthah won but lost, because his only child, a daughter, came dancing out, waving a tambourine. She and her friends wept for two months. Then Jephthah “did with her according to his vow that he had made.”

That’s a lesson about one danger of exchange religion, which is the most popular faith in the world. A dozen years ago I watched a Hindu slit the throat of a goat just outside an Indian temple, happy to be trading the goat for the child he was sure would come. In 1963 the Jephthah passage led me to ponder Chapter 22 of Genesis, which I had read in Hebrew school. You know the story: God, who repeatedly condemns child sacrifice such as our contemporary abortion practice (see “A time for plain speaking” in this issue), commands Abraham to sacrifice his and Sarah’s only child, Isaac.

That passage, along with reading atheist books, led me to view the Bible as self-contradictory and fundamentally nutty. For the next 10 years I was an atheist. I never took the time to read how rabbis before the time of Jesus, in their oral tradition, explained the passage. (That oral tradition, eventually written down, turned into the Talmud.) Now, at age 65, I finally have.

One thing my reading quickly clarified: Rabbis 2,000 years ago did not see Genesis 22 as teaching the wrongness of child sacrifice. That frequent interpretation today dodges the obvious: God praised Abraham for his willingness to kill his son. Besides, if God’s teaching style was to command and then countermand, He would also have ordered patriarchs to commit adultery, steal, and bear false witness. So, ancient scholars offered 10 other reasons for God’s strange demand.

Some said Abraham had to prove his faithfulness. After all, Abraham out of fear had offered Sarah to the Philistine king Abimelech and later made a covenant with him. Perhaps Abraham had not offered thanks and sacrifices at the birth or weaning of Isaac, so when Satan asked God to test Abraham, God said yes. Or maybe Abraham had not proved he would submit to God even when it hurt deeply.

Others said God knew Abraham was wonderful and wanted all the nations of the world to see Abraham’s obedience. That way they wouldn’t be jealous because God chose Abraham to carry His message and made Jews His chosen people: The nations would recognize superiority. Alternatively, maybe angels were jealous because God loved Abraham, so God had to show them why Abraham was so great.

Some rabbis said Abraham had misunderstood God: That seems unlikely since God’s command was clear. Others suggested the problem developed because Isaac had one-upped his half-brother Ishmael: Yes, you’re the firstborn, but you’re only the son of a servant. Yes, you obediently underwent circumcision at age 13 when you could have resisted, while I was circumcised at eight days and so could not consciously submit, but I’m ready to offer God not only my foreskin but my whole body. OK, let’s test that.

A fourth group contended that Jews facing extreme persecution down the road would contemplate Abraham’s behavior and be ready to kill their own children rather than see them seized and trained by pagans. Others came close to exchange religion: Since the sacrifice of Isaac was the last of Abraham’s 10 tests and he aced all of them, God was right to send 10 plagues on Egypt. Or, since Abraham cleaved wood to make the fire that would turn Isaac into a burnt offering, God cleaved the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape the Egyptian army.

For centuries Israel’s religious leaders discussed these variants, but around the time of Christ, something changed: The episode became known as “The Binding of Isaac”—in Hebrew, akedah—rather than “The Testing of Abraham.” The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that when Abraham told Isaac he would be the burnt offering, “Isaac received these words with joy.” The leading Jewish scholar of Alexandria, Philo, wrote that Isaac was “born good by nature” and thus—unlike his father and his son, Jacob—did not have to receive a name change. Philo even wrote that “God may with perfect truth be said to be Isaac’s father. … Isaac is not a product of created beings, but a work of the Uncreated One.”

The writer of one targum (an Aramaic translation/commentary) imagined Isaac telling Abraham, “Bind my hands properly that I may not struggle.” Then “the eyes of Isaac were turned to the angels of heaven. Isaac saw them but Abraham did not see them.” Isaac became the star, and his willingness to die stored up merit that others could tap into. One rabbi said Isaac’s willingness later saved the firstborn sons of Israel in Egypt. Others said it saved the Israelites when they entered the Red Sea, saved Jerusalem after King David sinfully ordered a census, and saved Persian Jews from Haman’s planned massacre.

Temple sacrifices purportedly reminded God of Isaac’s merit, which—one rabbi suggested—might even be able to raise the dead. When Romans in A.D. 70 destroyed the temple and sacrifices could no longer be made there, a memorial prayer replaced the sacrifice: “Let us be looked upon by the Lord through the merit of the sacrifice of Isaac.” Some offered these prayers: “Remember today the Binding of Isaac with mercy unto his seed” and “When the children of Isaac commit sin, and do evil, remember on their behalf the Akedah.”

Why the change in focus from Abraham to Isaac? From where came the idea that Isaac was offering a substitutionary atonement? Abraham Geiger, one of Germany’s leading 19th-century Jewish scholars, concluded in an 1872 article that the concept entered Judaism from Christianity. Others, like German scholar E. Lohse in 1955, also said Christian teachings influenced rabbis. B.D. Chilton and P.R. Davies wrote in 1978 that there was “no trace of Akedah doctrine” in pre-Christian literature.

Chilton and Davies also pointed to rabbinical speculation that Abraham did shed a few drops of Isaac’s blood before he almost drove the knife home, so temple sacrifices were “perpetual reminders of Isaac’s blood loss.” Today many American Jews, competing with Christmas, elevate Hanukkah to a holiday status way beyond its minor role in Jewish history. Chilton and Davies argued that the emphasis on Isaac’s blood was a Jewish response to Christianity.

Bishop Melito of Sardis in the second century A.D. portrayed Isaac as a forerunner of Jesus, who “carried the wood on his shoulders as he was led up to be slain like Isaac by his father.” Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria wrote similarly. Some rabbis acknowledged the comparison, judging from one fifth-century A.D. text that included these two sentences: “Abraham placed the wood of the burnt offering on Isaac his son. Like a man who carries his cross on his shoulder.”

Few Jews went that far, and few Christian theologians took their eyes off Abraham to focus on Isaac: Honoring Christ, they did not need a competitor in sacrifice. Christians typically continued to marvel at the fortitude of Abraham. Bishop Basil of Seleucia in the fifth century A.D. wrote, “How did his soul not contract? … O! The strength of his soul! He did not groan. He did not weep. … Nor did he let out a paternal cry, refusing the slaughter of his child.” It’s a riddle—and Abraham’s equanimity is particularly remarkable in comparison with his willingness to argue with God about Sodom in Chapter 18 of Genesis.

The solution to the riddle lies in one of the greatest New Testament chapters. Hebrews 11:17-19 declares, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Abraham was not justified by his work—holding his knife above his only son, ready to plunge it in. Abraham was justified by his faith.

That’s the explanation I was looking for at age 13. Abraham did not think he would lose his son. He expected God to raise Isaac from the dead. Abraham was not justified by his work—holding his knife above his only son, ready to plunge it in. Abraham was justified by his faith. He’s a model for us: We will fear death unless we have faith in our resurrection, and we’ll only have that faith if we have faith in Christ’s.

Apart from that faith, both Jews and Muslims emphasize Abrahamic stoicism. Philo of Alexandria applauded Abraham’s rock-hard commitment: “He devoted his whole soul to holiness and disregarded the claims of their common blood. [He] showed no change of color nor weakening of soul but remained as steadfast as ever with a judgment that never bent or wavered.”

Later, many Hasidic rabbis made Abraham almost Buddhist-like, totally indifferent to Isaac. Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866): “In Abraham’s trial there was no pain.” Simcha Bunem of Przysucha (1765-1827): “It made no difference to Abraham whether he was being commanded to sacrifice Isaac or the ram.” Jacob Isaac of Lublin (1745-1815): Abraham “was happy to slay him for God. … The matter of his son did not exist in his heart at all. … He had no joy from taking him back … except for the sake of God who commanded him, and not for the sake of his only son.”

Muslims take that understanding further. The Quran’s Sura 37 has Ibrahim asking his son about becoming a sacrifice: The son responds, “My father, do as you are told. You will find me steadfast.” The holiest day of the year for Muslims is now the Feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha. Radical Muslims believe faithful fathers should be willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters: Send them off to holy wars or wrap bombs around them. The children must obey and should even be joyful as they head toward homicide and suicide.

A misreading of Isaac-sacrifice leads to stoicism and terrorism and brings us back to exchange religion. A quarter-century ago scholar Nahum Sarna’s commentary on Genesis, put out by the Jewish Publication Society, noted that the “willingness of the founding father to sacrifice his son as proof of his devotion to God created an inexhaustible store of spiritual credit upon which future generations may draw.” That sounds like the worship of saints who were so virtuous that they have a surplus of merit on which ordinary people can raft.

Let’s recognize the courage of Abraham and Isaac, but if their steadfastness is why God should be merciful to their physical or spiritual descendants, we are back to “I do for God, He does for me.” The exchange temptation lurks whenever we believe that what man gives God is the key to salvation. If Jesus were not God, His willingness to suffer and die would merely be high-level exchange religion. But since Jesus is God, we depend not on a payoff for our work, but grace. It’s all God.

That’s something I certainly did not understand at age 13. I didn’t really understand that at age 26 when publicly professing faith in Christ. But now it’s my greatest comfort in life and in death, which is now far closer to me than birth. It’s also the only real comfort for millions of women who have aborted their children. They can donate their time and money to crisis pregnancy centers, but they cannot buy back their dead babies. The faith of Abraham and Isaac shows that they can throw themselves into God’s arms and depend on His grace.

19th in a series; for previous episodes, go to wng.org/olaskyseries

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.