by Dr. Yeshaya Gruber (IBC faculty) and David Breen (IBC student)
The Akedah, the horrific-sounding story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22), is one of the best-known and least understood stories among Jews and Christians alike. The horror of a loving God demanding such a sacrifice is extremely disturbing and difficult to understand, to say the least. It runs counter to everything we are accustomed to believing about the divine character. So how can this story be understood properly in the context of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near Eastern setting? And could it have been a prophetic performance act?
Part IV: Prophecy as Performance?
Is it possible that the entire drama of the Akedah was a prophetic performance act, a visual and physical demonstration to all those around that YHWH rejects child sacrifice? Abraham and Isaac ascended the mountain with wood, fire, and a slaughtering knife. The implications would have been clear to any observer, as indeed they were to Isaac himself as he contemplated the absence of a sacrificial animal (Gen 22:7). The father and son may even have been physically watched in real time by those literally sacrificing their own children in the valley below. And yet, Abraham went up the mountain to meet his God, but he did not slay his son as an offering. Whether the incident was actually witnessed by child sacrificers or not, this dramatic performance conveyed a revolutionary idea. YHWH is the Supreme God – superior to other gods not only in greatness and power (as the earlier stories of Genesis show), but also superior morally, offering a better path for humanity. Giving life rather than death.
Abraham’s presence in the land of Canaan was not merely that of a single family, but of a sizable company capable of fighting and winning battles against local rulers (see Gen 14:1-17). As they moved around, a company like this would have attracted attention and assessment. Abraham interacted with local chieftans, but also with rulers of Egypt and Philistia (cf. Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18). The story of his trip to Mount Moriah surely would have circulated as well. When we next encounter Abraham in the narrative of Genesis, he will be negotiating a burial place in Hebron for Sarah from the Sons of Heth, who are well disposed towards him and call him “a prince of God among us” (נשיא אלהים אתה בתוכנו; nesi elohim ata be-tokhenu; Gen 23:6). We may thus presume that the strange dramatic act of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah would have struck a chord of challenge – and of hope – among the neighboring peoples. Some of our gods demand child sacrifice! This God of Abraham rejects it! Yet he and his clan still prosper in the Land!
Ezekiel 20:26 records that the local custom was to sacrifice the firstborn son. When the God YHWH later instructed his people Israel to come to Mount Moriah three times every year, he would also claim all the firstborn males of every womb (see Exod 34:19-20). But instead of being slain, the sons of the people were to be “redeemed” for life. Isaac was also the firstborn son of Sarah’s womb (Gen 11:30, 16:1, 21:7). Different gods of the region could therefore lay different claims on his life. This or that Canaanite god would have demanded his death. The God YHWH, as we see from the story, demanded his redemption. Subsequently this God would claim all Israel – the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – as his own “firstborn son” redeemed out of Egypt (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1).
Abraham and Isaac acted out their poignant drama in full view of the Canaanite peoples around them, by whom they were far outnumbered. Like other prophets (e.g., Isa 20; Ezek 4-5; cf. Acts 21:11), they performed the message with their actual lives. Later traditions tell us that Abraham thought he really would have to kill Isaac (see Part II). Yet it seems that he – and Isaac too – had some inkling that they were part of a greater Plan. They somehow “knew” – or trusted – that the drama would make sense in the end.
At the end of the story of the Akedah, we read that the God YHWH repeated his blessings of and promises to Abraham, adding, “All the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you have listened to my voice” (Gen 22:18, trans. Alter). The terrifying and awe-inspiring narrative of the Akedah seems to indicate that this blessing through Abraham’s seed had already begun. By placing his own life on the altar, Isaac lay at the boundary between God and gods, between the fire of annihilation and the fire of cleansing, between worship of death and devotion to life. He and his father tangibly “proved” to all nations the true nature of YHWH – the Creator of the entire universe – by bodily taking the ultimate risk.