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 (Gen 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 I of this article considered “What’s Missing in the Akedah?”

Part II addressed “Where Should Isaac Be Sacrificed?”

Part III: What Kind of God is YHWH?

As discussed in Part II, the mere mention of Mount Moriah would have raised many associations in the minds of the original audience of Genesis. At the very least, ancient readers would have thought of the Temple Mount and its immediate surroundings, including the fiery Valley of Gehinnom where countless children had been murdered over the centuries. They would have recognized the background that is often missing for modern readers of the text.

When the God YHWH told Abraham to go to Moriah and sacrifice his son (Genesis 22), no ancient hearer could have failed to recognize this cultural and historical context of child sacrifice. Various gods of the region demanded such sacrifices, including still in their own time (long after Abraham). And in the story of the Akedah (the “Binding” of Isaac), they would not even hear Abraham try to talk his God out of this bloody plan, or ask for some changes as when he pled for Ishmael to be his heir (Genesis 17), or bargain him down as he had done in the case of Sodom (Genesis 18). Instead of humbly protesting, Abraham simply accedes to God’s wishes.

The text of Genesis does not tell us of the silent questions burning in Abraham’s mind through that three-day-long trek! But we are supposed to recognize them. Early hearers of the story would have sensed this tension as the patriarch of their nation made his way on a “pilgrimage” to that very spot where his descendants would present themselves to YHWH three times every year (Exod 23:14-17, 34:23; Deut 16:16). Abraham is winding his way northward to sacrifice his promised heir on a bluff overlooking that bloody valley where Canaanite tribes are accustomed to do the same for their gods. Does he think that YHWH is just the same – just as bloodthirsty and cruel, just as demanding of child sacrifice? Is that why he goes along with this horror and does not “withhold his son” (Gen 22:12, 16)? Or is he participating in this act for some other reason?

Once we understand the unspoken background of the tale, we can at least grasp what issues are at stake. As so often in the Hebrew Bible, the stage is now set for some kind of “competition” or showdown between the God YHWH and some other “gods.” Earlier stories in Genesis have already taken this approach, with the Creation, Flood, and Babel accounts responding to well-known Sumerian and Babylonian myths in order to prove the superiority of YHWH over other gods.

Similarly, the Exodus story is fashioned to reveal how YHWH brought judgment on “all the gods of Egypt” (כל־אלהי מצרים; kol elohe mitsrayim; 12:12). 1 Kings 18 tells the dramatic tale of the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, another local deity, to prove which divinity was greater, more powerful, and more deserving of worship. And the list could go on. So too, the text of the Akedah sets up a contrast between the God YHWH, who will soon choose Israel as his people, and the other gods of the region. Who will be seen as better, stronger, mightier? Who will emerge as the supreme God?

And now comes the shocking part of the story. The greatness and superiority of Israel’s God is shown in the sudden reversal, the voice from heaven commanding Abraham not to slay his son after all. The gods in the valley down below clamor for the blood of children; the God of heaven, it seems, is not like them after all. This is the most surprising part of the Akedah in its original historical and cultural context – not that a god demanded the sacrifice of a child, which may have seemed all too “normal” in that setting, but rather that the God turned out not to desire the sacrifice of a child when it was offered! The gods of the valley delighted in suffering and cruelty and death; the God of Abraham desired instead love and compassion and life.

The text does not tell us explicitly, but perhaps Abraham was learning or coming to appreciate this lesson at the same time. We don’t know how well he understood YHWH at this point in his life, but he had some experience with this God. The merciful one who had spoken to him and made promises to him was also using his life to show a different way to all humanity – what we call “morality,” i.e., what is just and right. Did Isaac’s father already have an inkling of this? Did Abraham know that this is what the Akedah story was all about? We will take up this theme in Part IV. Thank you for reading, and please stay tuned for the conclusion!

BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

12 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Dr. Gruber. Can one assume that this was the place where God Himself provided a sacrifice so that man should not provide one?
    • I believe you are referring to Gen 22.8, which is indeed part of this story! However, I'd be careful about the second part of your statement. Subsequent to this the same God does indeed desire sacrifice from humans, which is specified in great detail (see esp. Leviticus).
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
  2. It is wonderful to hear an explanation like this from an academic source. I first had this aha moment after reading The Source by James Michener years ago, when he described the culture of child sacrifice in those days. It was a fictional account of an archaeological dig with stories from each layer of the dig. Although the story is not about the Akedah, I thought, of course! The Isaac story is God saying, No! I have another way! It was the confrontation with how normal child sacrifice was in the culture that gave me a new way to think about it.
  3. Jumping ahead to part IV, Dr. Gruber, I wanted to ask you to please be sure to address Gen 22:8 (Abraham's reply to his son: "God will provide [for himself] a lamb/goat") .
  4. Verse 5 makes it clear that while Abraham was obedient to Gods command he trusted God for the outcome. There was no hesitation that maybe God would let him down. His only son born in old age. If God could do that, He would fulfil His promise of the great nation that would come from Abraham’s loins. His instruction to the servants was to wait until both Abraham and Issac returned following worship. Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
  5. Wow this is the first time I realised or read about the practise which was a custom back then and how YHWY wants us to read the story
  6. This was really most difficult trial for Abraham faith to sacrifice his only beloved son to please the Lord and I belive he could stand only leaning on unchanging perfect character of the holy God His mercy, faithfulness,wisdom etc. And although Lord seems to so far away from going to place of sacrifice Abraham and Isaac, as revealed by providing Lamb Yahweh was so near.The song "God will provide a Lamb" help me understand that God shared His very heart with his friend Abraham what must do with His Own Son Yeshua the Messah to provide redemption from sins of His people.As ended song What Abraham was asked He's done He offered His only Son!He has provided the Lamb!
  7. It is nice getting here, I have read but I would love if we put the name of our Heavenly Father and be calling in this name without fear since We know it is the name of which everyone will be save.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your name here
Words left: 50
Please enter your comment!