The Sacrifice of Isaac

A Parent, A Child, A Knife—and a Command from God. What Would You Do?

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio ca. 1601-02, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio ca. 1601-02, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

A few years ago during Yom Kippur, the holiest holiday on the Jewish calendar, I was in a little wooden synagogue on the Lower East Side of New York City. The rabbi, a venerable man whose voice carried throughout the temple, was extremely charismatic. For the first time in my temple-going life, I found myself listening intently to the sermon.

The rabbi was talking about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, to slit his throat without questioning God’s judgment or asking him to reconsider, and what he said was that he could never do it—never kill one of his children, even if God commanded him to.

The passage in Genesis is stunning in its directness and simplicity. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, the only one you love—Isaac—and go away to the Moriah area. Bring him as an all-burned offering on one of the mountains that I will designate to you.”

Abraham does just that:

When they finally came to the place designated by God, Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood. He then bound his son Isaac, and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham reached out and took the slaughter knife to slit his son’s throat.

Of course, God steps in at the very last moment and tells Abraham to stop, but the story has nevertheless always upset me. How could a father even think of killing his own child? It seems to me, as a parent of four children, that it would be easier to kill oneself.

Furthermore, how could Abraham, with his keen sense of justice, not question such an edict? When God told him years earlier that He intended to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham had argued for restraint. Abraham believed it would be wrong to punish the innocent with the guilty.

Never in his long life had Abraham been afraid to go toe-to-toe with God. So why did he now obey in silence?

Questions Without Answers
Genesis doesn’t mention whether Sarah, Isaac’s mother, knew anything about Abraham’s intention, but if she did know, would she have agreed? Would she have tried to stop him?

If she didn’t know, what would she have thought of him later, when father and son returned from the mountain and Isaac told her what had happened? Does the fact that she and her husband lived apart for the rest of their lives have anything to do with what happened in Moriah?

What about Isaac, for that matter? Was he traumatized by the sight of his father reaching for the knife, ready to cut his throat? Did he have a lifetime of nightmares?

How could Abraham, with his keen sense of justice, not question such an edict?

And imagine Abraham. What toll did the three-day hike to Moriah take from him, walking next to the son he intended to kill? How could he ever look Isaac in the eye again?

Arguing With God
One of the interesting things about the rabbi’s sermon that night was the reaction of the friend I had come with.

She was incensed at the rabbi for what she considered his hubris in questioning the wisdom of the Torah—for bringing a parental sensibility and a modern psychology into the discussion of an ancient tale. She said the rabbi was an egotist for putting his own judgment before God’s will.

Was she right? As a counter-example I think of all the great patriarchs who felt fully licensed to argue with God—figures like Moses, Jonah, as well as Abraham himself.

When Abraham argued that the innocent should be spared, God said, in effect, OK, I see your point. He allowed Abraham to search the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for anyone who could be saved. He welcomed the ethical dialogue these men initiated, responded to what they had to say. In the process, the grand, overarching moral argument contained in the pages of the Torah took shape.

That is why Abraham’s silence is so puzzling in this instance, and so infuriating. Though the tale is traditionally interpreted as a demonstration of his absolute faith and obedience, I often wonder if God wasn’t secretly sorry that Abraham didn’t throw down the knife and refuse.