The Sacrifice on Mount Moriah
Anh Duy Nguyen
Sacrifice, in a religious understanding, is an act of giving. Through the act of sacrifice, an individual seeks to appease a given deity. Often time, sacrifice is a symbol of friendship between the people and the deity. As the people give the deity a portion of their possession, the deity in return is expected to provide the people with rewards or blessings. In other instances, sacrifice can also be understood as a way to appease the deity’s anger, and in return the deity will protect the people from his anger.
For Judaism, sacrifice lives at the core of its existence. During the Mosaic and the Temple era, the Jews were called to offer many sacrifices throughout the year. Some sacrifices, like the holocaust or the purification offerings were offered at important junctions of one’s life, like childbirth (Leviticus 12). Others were offered simply out of personal gratitude or sense of guilt (Leviticus 22:29, 5). These sacrifices exist within a covenant system, covenants that were established between God and the patriarchs of Israel. Within the system, the sacrifices function as a sign of radical allegiance and obedience to God. Sacrifices to other deities, therefore, is seen by God and by the Israelites as a treasonous act (Exodus 20:3). In return for their loyalty, the covenant binds God to the nation of Israel, and requires Him to protect and bless the nation as long as it continues to offer sacrifices and remains steadfast to his rules. This understanding of sacrifice and covenant creates a stronger emphasis on obedience to God. The act becomes depersonalized as it becomes intricately linked to the well-being of the tribes, and later on the nation.
Because sacrifice is an act of giving, it is important to understand Biblical sacrifice as extending beyond the formal act of temple sacrifice. In a way, any acts of faith that require an individual to give away a part of himself/herself could be understood as an act of sacrifice. In this context, the trials of Abraham, which found its climax in the Akeda, can be read as a narrative of sacrifice, for each trial requires Abraham to give away a part of himself for God. But what do these trials require Abraham to give up? While some trials requires Abraham to give up the physical (the first trial which requires Abraham to leave behind his homeland, the fourth trial which requires him to raise an army against the five kings to rescue Lot, the sixth trial requires Abraham to sacrifice his own foreskin), others require him to sacrifice his relationship (the abandonment of Ishmael and Hagar, the handing over of his wife to the Pharaoh, the Akeda in which his relationship with Isaac is never restored). Each trial functions as a test of both Abraham’s willingness to act as well as his willingness to believe in God’s arbitrary instructions. For each sacrifice Abraham makes, God rewards him with the promise that he will bless Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12, 22). Abraham’s compliance therefore moves away from just a personal desire to please God to the desire to preserve the well-being of his descendants and their future nation.
By viewing Abraham’s trials as a series of personal sacrifices, a clearer understanding of the Akeda can slowly emerge. The Akeda is not just a binding, or a test. It is a sacrifice where Abraham is forced to sacrifice his relationship to Isaac, his son’s filial love, for the promise of God’s blessing. Through his sacrifice, Abraham’s sacrifice, the nation of Israel and the Jewish people secures the promise of land, blessing, and protection. While one may argue that it was Isaac’s sacrifice, not Abraham, it is undeniable that the story concludes with God’s declaring his promise to Abraham, not Isaac. Isaac did not lose anything, but Abraham lost his son’s trust and affections.
But what is it that makes the Akeda so profoundly powerful in the Jewish consciousness? While it is true that it is a story that seals God’s promise to Abraham, and establishes God’s favoritism of the Jewish people over all other nations and races, there is another dimension to this story that makes it impactful. The Akeda, at its core, is story of the struggle between the nature of man and the will of God. For it is natural that a parent wants to protect their children’s lives. Therefore, what God commanded in the Akeda is a violation of natural law. Furthermore, God’s expectation that Abraham should sacrifice something physical, his son, for something immaterial, God’s promise, is unrealistic if not ludicrous. The Akeda is not the only story of this struggle. The Genesis account of the creation portrays the same struggle of nature and divinity which manifests itself in the struggle between divine prohibition and human natural curiosity. The migration of the Jews out of Egypt provides another example of man’s struggle between his sedentary natures against God’s demand that they should move forward. Again and again, the struggle between nature and divinity is dramatized in the history of the Jewish people, and remains within the consciousness of the Jewish faith.
The reimagined ending of the Akeda must capture this struggle in order to create a lasting impact in Jewish consciousness. The original Akeda ends with an angelic intervention as Abraham about to carry out the act. Both acts, Abraham’s sacrifice and the angel’s intervention, represent man’s surrender in the face of the divine. Abraham is reduced to a character who lacks wit and audaciousness. He becomes a character whose existence is to carry out God’s will. While a sense of struggle could be gleaned off of the story in the process of interpretation, it is not clear in the text itself. In the alternate ending of the Akeda, Abraham must defy God by his refusal to commit the murder of his own son. This refusal will represent the struggle between human nature and divine will more clearly. But the story must not stop there. This cannot be another Eden story of disobedience. No, it must transform into something else. This must move beyond man’s defiance of divine will. This could be a story of man’s subjugation of divine will. A sacrifice must be made in order for the covenant to be established, but the sacrifice will be the angel himself. Whether or not the angel is actually killed is not important. What is important is the imagery of God giving in to man’s ethical resistance against his tyrannical demand. The ending, while provocative, solidifies the concept of ethical protest, emphasizing morality above blind obedience.