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 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!