“The Sacrifice of Isaac”
An Alternate Interpretation of the Akeda
“The offering [desirable] to God is a contrite spirit; a contrite and broken heart, God, You do not disdain.”
(Siddur – Prayer Before Retiring At Night)
The best description of the Akeda event is “The Sacrifice of Isaac” as Isaac was the one being sacrificed to God as it was he who experienced the binding and the internal sacrifice. However, God’s release of Isaac’s bonds eternally bound him and his descendants to God. Abraham enacted the sacrifice at the command of God but it was Isaac who was willingly bound, prepared for slaughter, and experienced the extreme trauma of facing death. Isaac survived the sacrifice but his psyche could not have escaped unscathed. This paper proposes that as a reward for Isaac’s trauma and persistent faith, God bestowed blessings upon his descendants and the Temple Mount was delineated as His abode in the world.
Isaac’s Spiritual Suffering
Isaac experienced the paradigmatic religious experience, as frequently displayed in Psalms, in which one confronts horror and death but experiences God’s renewal of life which, in turn, results in an exalted spiritual connection. Pain and despair often draw one closer to Presence and Isaac’s descent into suffering and his visceral realization of mortality can be seen as having propelled his awakening in a higher spiritual state. Isaac’s encounter with death may have achieved spiritual immortality or continual Presence by escaping future sins, as wrongdoing and spiritual failure often result from a fear of death. Therefore, during the Akeda, Isaac was initiated into the covenant with God by transcending the emotional planes that separate life from death.
Death as Proof of Spiritual Succession
Isaac’s yearning for his father’s connection to God and his desire to comply with God’s request surpassed his fear of death. Therefore, the sacrifice revolved around Isaac’s willingness to prove himself worthy of spiritual inheritance. Thus Abraham was more of a stage manager for the harmonious wills of God and Isaac. The sacrifice came at the expense of both God and Isaac but was engaged in response to both of their desires: Isaac’s desire for his father’s spiritual connection and God’s desire for a worthy successor to Abraham.
God tested Isaac’s worth as Abraham’s spiritual successor by overriding His abhorrence of human sacrifice and directly requesting “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Isaac’s inheritance of God’s covenant was legitimized with unrelenting devotion that proved greater than life itself. God’s intervention in “The Sacrifice of Isaac” can be juxtaposed with the sacrifice of the King of Moab’s son whose actions lacked spiritual worth and only deserved political intervention and not the prevention of his death.
Forcing God’s Hand
The test God imposed upon Isaac required his death but Isaac’s success required God’s intervention. Once the test had reached the moment of proof and consequently the point of no return, God was forced to intervene to prevent the death of His chosen successor to Abraham. God would protect the spiritual successor of Abraham, as He had shielded Abraham and would shelter the descendants of the covenant, even if God was defending the successor from Abraham and His own command. The sacrifice was God’s ultimate gamble as both sides understood that either Isaac would be killed because he was not worthy of God’s covenant or God would be forced to intervene because He could not unjustly nullify the covenant which Isaac was needed to fulfill. Also, God would be required to endow a hefty reward in order to restore justice in light of unjust demands.
Once Isaac proved his worth with Presence and inner strength in the face of death, his direct connection to God began and Abraham’s ended. “The Sacrifice of Isaac” marked the culmination of Abraham’s spiritual journey, as he would no longer speak with God, and the beginning of Isaac’s journey as he inherited his father’s covenant. The experience of confronting death and the inherent spiritual results delineated the significance of the ongoing inheritance of Abraham’s connection to God. Therefore, the original text’s reference to descendants and blessings pertained to both Isaac and Abraham. Isaac’s extreme faith and surrender of life overshadowed all of Abraham’s tests which demanded the sacrifice of happiness, pleasure and safety but not earthly existence itself.
An Alternate Ending
Then an angel of the Lord thrust forth from heaven, in glory. Abraham lowered the knife. The angel uttered a melodious roaring sound which resounded, “Isaac.” Isaac shouted in fear and awe, “Here am I.” The angel proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord your God and God of your father, the One who brought your father out from the Land of Ur, ‘I know that you fear the Lord your God, since you have not withheld yourself; so strong is your faith. So shall you be unto me as was your father.’”
Out of compassion for Isaac’s suffering, the Presence of God permanently descended upon the mount and a heavenly voice proclaimed, “This ground will forever remain hallowed for here Isaac; your heritage has been proven righteous with My test. I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands upon the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command.”
When Isaac looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. Isaac and Abraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of Isaac. Isaac proclaimed, “This site shall always be remembered as Zion for it is true that here the Lord will always dwell with His people.”
The Ram and the Temple
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” urges man’s interaction with God and promises rewards for fulfilling God’s will. The ram was a nonlinguistic communication between man and God and was used by God to appease man’s religious sentiments while in turn man used the sacrifice to appease God as would be continued upon the Temple Mount.
Isaac’s offering the ram did not merit a response from God but suggests the need to let off the pressure and anguish after a psychologically painful event by externalizing the internal death of the ego to God. Thus, spiritual vulnerability is shown as a prelude to physical power. The ram was provided by God as He understood that the offering created a Divine language which Isaac needed to express his thanksgiving. Yet, the response and context shows that animal sacrifice was needed more by the human as a way to express thanks to God. However, as many prophets explained, God is really concerned with what occurs within the individual and the sociopolitical implications. Isaac’s sacrifice of the ram led to his proclamation of the future Temple as a way for his descendants to give thanks to God which suggests the continuation of a similar human-to-God interaction pattern.
To legitimize the First and Second Temples, Mt. Zion needed to be included as the original text lacked an explicit connection between “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and the Temple Mount. God needed to bestow eternal blessings upon Isaac’s descendents in order to restore His mercy, justice and benevolence which He had violated by creating inhumane suffering. The merit of Isaac’s sacrifice ultimately provided for the later Temple Mount which reenacted “The Sacrifice of Isaac” through animal sacrifice that expressed thanksgiving for God’s mercy and gift of life. “The Sacrifice of Isaac” legitimized the holiness of the Temple Mount but its focus is directed upon God’s compassion for humankind which would be a cause for rejoicing even in light of physical destruction. Therefore, the Western Wall would not become the Wailing Wall.
Implications and Misinterpretation
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” teaches that, although God bestows His blessings upon the pious, the individual must also strive to receive. Therefore, one may influence the Almighty by seeking challenges while acting in accord with God’s will and retaining faith amid danger and agonizing psychological situations. However, martyrs could easily misinterpret “The Sacrifice of Isaac” as calling for self-imposed martyrdom or God requiring death for His service.
In conclusion, God’s intervention in “The Sacrifice of Isaac” firmly answers the question, “Shall I give the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul” (Micah 6:7-8). The sacrifice of one’s body was such an anathema to G-d that it warranted His intervention. The internal “Sacrifice of Isaac” was rewarded by a spiritual gift that freed Abraham but perpetually bound Isaac and his descendents, the Jewish people, to the hardships and rewards of serving God.
Isaac was the one being sacrificed to God and it was he who experienced the binding and the psychological sacrifice. “Then, when the goose was pressed firmly to the rock, Isaac watched as his father drew pulled back the white throat and drew the blade. He saw how especially white was the neck and how cleanly the blade cut through.” Schwartz, Howard, “The Dream of Isaac,” Gates to the New City: A Treasury of Modern Jewish Tales, ed. Howard Schwartz (New York, Avon: 1983) 149.
Abraham enacted the sacrifice at the command of God but it was Isaac who was willingly bound, prepared for slaughter and experienced the extreme trauma of facing death. “What happened… or almost happened…on top of that mountain was so awful. It still gives me nightmares.” Steigman, Linda, “Letters from Isaac,” Reading between the Lines: New Stories from the Bible, ed. David Katz and Peter Lovenheim (Northvale, N.J, Jason Aronson: 1996) 57.
Isaac survived the sacrifice but his psyche could not have escaped unscathed. “He felt the blade poised to press down when the sun emerging from behind a cloud blinded them both” (Schwartz, 149).
During the Akeda, Isaac was initiated into the covenant by transcending the emotional planes that separate life from death. “The knife descends, I wake up screaming” (Schwartz, 149).
AND THEY WENT BOTH OF THEM TOGETHER (ib.): one to bind and the other to be bound, one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered. Midrash Rabbah, ed. and trans., H. Freedman and Maurice Simon (London: Soncino Press: 1939) Genesis LVI:3.
Isaac’s yearning for his father’s connection to God and his desire to comply with God’s request surpassed his fear of death. “Yet even so, his heart rejoiced to obey the will of his Creator” (Midrash Rabba, Genesis LVI:8). “Either of God’s greatness, or of loyalty to God even at the cost of one’s life” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:11). “A potter does not examine defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he examine? Only the sound vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LV:2).
“If God desired of me that I be slaughtered, I would not refuse” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LV:4).
Abraham, thus, was more of a stage manager for the harmonious wills of God and Isaac. “Forthwith, HE BOUND ISAAC: can one bind a man thirty-seven years old? (another version: twenty-six years old) without his consent?” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:8).
“And don’t say you made a sacrifice, For the one sacrificed was me” (“Dear Father When You Stand Over My Grave,” Profane Scriptures, ed. Ruth Kartun-Blum (Hebrew Union College Press: 1999) 56-57.
Meanwhile, God’s covenant was passed onto Isaac who legitimized his inheritance with unrelenting devotion which proved greater than life itself. “In order to know his heart, whether he would be able to preserve and keep all the commandments of the Torah or not” “The Binding of Isaac Upon the Altar,” Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31, [38 A. i.].
God’s intervention in “The Sacrifice of Isaac” can be juxtaposed with the sacrifice of the King of Moab’s son whose actions lacked spiritual worth and only deserved political intervention and not the prevention of his death. “’Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ Now in the case of Isaac the deed was not actually done, yet He accepted it as though it were completed, whereas in the case of Mesha it was not accepted” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LV:5).
“But actual human sacrifice, such as Mesha’s, is abhorrent to Him” (Midrash Rabba, Genesis LV:5).
Once the test had reached the moment of proof and consequently the point of no return, God was forced to intervene to prevent the death of His chosen successor. “Did I tell thee, Slaughter him? No! but, ‘Take him up.’ Thou hast taken him up. Now take him down” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:8).
Once Isaac proved his worth with Presence and inner strength in the face of death, his direct connection to God began and Abraham’s ended. “The Lord trieth the righteous” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LV:2).
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” marked the culmination of Abraham’s spiritual journey, as he would no longer speak with God and the beginning of Isaac’s journey as he inherited his father’s covenant. “THAT IN BLESSING I WILL BLESS THEE, etc. XXII, 17): a blessing for the father and a blessing for the son; AND IN MULTIPLYING, WILL I MULTIPLY: an increase for the father and an increase for the son. AND THY SEED SHALL POSSESS THE GATE OF HIS ENEMIES (ib.) (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:11).
“Father kept on talking about his relationship with G-d, and how it was up to me to carry on this relationship, this covenant, after he died.” (Steigman, 56).
“Isaac, my son, seest thou what I see?’ ‘Yes,’” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:2).
“‘They saw the glory of the Shekhinah.’ Clement of Alexandria says…on the text ‘Abraham, when he came to the place G-d had told him of on the third day, looking up, saw the place afar off,’ for the first day is that which is constituted by the sight of good things, and the second is the soul’s best desire; on the third the mind sees spiritual things” (Strom. V. 11). Thus the third day was the consummation of a spiritual progression in a physical spiritual journey. (See also, Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer. Chapter 31, [38 A. i.] 223-230).
Subsequently, Isaac’s extreme faith and surrender of life overshadowed all of Abraham’s tests which demanded the sacrifice of happiness, pleasure and safety but not earthly existence itself. “The fact, however, is that this was the last trial, which was as weighty as all the rest together, and had he not submitted to it, all would have been lost” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:11).
God needed to bestow eternal blessings upon Isaac’s descendents in order to restore His mercy, justice and benevolence which He had violated by creating inhumane suffering. “When the Patriarch Abraham stretched forth his hand to take the knife to slay his son, the angels wept, as it says, ‘Behold, their valiant ones [the angels] cry without- huzah’ (Isa. XXXIII, 7). What does ‘ huzah ‘ mean? R. ‘Azariah said: ‘It is unnatural’” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:5).
The merit of Isaac’s sacrifice ultimately provided for the later Temple Mount which reenacted “The Sacrifice of Isaac” through animal sacrifice that expressed thanksgiving for God’s mercy and gift of life. “While the Rabbis said: All eating (akiloth) which Israel enjoy in this world, they enjoy only in the merit of that MA AKELETH (KNIFE)” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:3).
“This verse teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed him the Temple built, destroyed and rebuilt” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:10).
For it is stated, ‘This is My resting-place for ever; here will I dwell for I have desired it’” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:2).
“I have installed My King on Zion, My holy mountain!” (Psalm 2: 6).
Rabbinic interpretations suggest Mt. Moriah was, “the place whence religious awe (yirah) went forth to the world” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LV:7).
Salem also is set His tabernacle, and His dwelling-place in Zion (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LVI:10).
“R. Isaac said: Everything happened as a reward for worshipping…The Temple was built only as a reward for worshipping. ‘Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at His holy place’” (Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31, [38 A. i.] Pg 230).
“The Sacrifice of Isaac” teaches that, although God bestows His blessings upon those He loves, the individual must also strive to receive. “Can you do what Abraham did?” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis LV:1).
Katz, David, and Peter Lovenheim. Reading between the Lines: New Stories from the
Bible. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1996. Linda Kersh Steigman, “Letters from
“The Binding of Isaac Upon the Altar.” Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer. Chapter 31. [38 A. i.]
“Genesis.” Midrash Rabbah. Ed. Trans. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon. London:
Soncino Press. 1939. 10 vols.
Schwartz, Howard. “Biblical Themes.” Gates to the New City: A Treasury of Modern
Jewish Tales. New York: Avon, 1983. “The Dream of Isaac.” 149-150.
Siddur: Tehillat Hashem. Annotated Version: According to the Text of Rabbi Shneur
Zalman of Liadi. Brooklyn: Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch. 2007.
Tanakh. The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation Acording to the Traditional
Hebrew Text. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. 1985.
* To God, the reader, and my conscience: many ideas expressed in this paper are blasphemous and although intended to stimulate thought do not represent spiritual or religious truths.