Written 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 II: Where Should Isaac be Sacrificed?
Whatever else it may convey, the shocking story of the Akedah, or “Binding/Sacrifice" of Isaac, reveals Abraham’s deep and abiding trust in his God. The text of Genesis identifies this particular God as YHWH, though the book of Exodus (6.2-3) will imply that Abraham may not have known this Name. Regardless, what is very clear is that he lived in and traveled through an ancient Near Eastern world that was suffused with the perceived presence of many different gods and goddesses, each of whom placed various demands on his or her adherents.
Abraham’s God had already made various promises about his son Isaac and his “seed” or descendants (Gen 13.16, 17.7, 21.12). Abraham evidently trusted that these promises would be fulfilled even as he set out on his journey to “sacrifice” his own son. The first-century Letter to the Hebrews (11.17-19) interprets this to mean that Abraham believed his God would even resurrect Isaac, if necessary! In fact, in the Middle Ages various Jewish literature and folklore claimed that Isaac had actually been slain and subsequently resurrected.
But why would Abraham ever trust a Voice that gave him such a terrible command? Or did he simply accept, in his cultural and historical context, that this was the way of the gods, and that for a deity to demand the sacrifice of one’s favored child was “normal” or at least acceptable? But what then would differentiate YHWH from all the other gods of the surrounding environment? And why did Abraham have to travel so far for this event? He was instructed to go to Mount Moriah, which Jewish tradition holds is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (see 2 Chronicles 3:1). To get there he and Isaac traveled for three days from where they were living (evidently Beersheba).
We really must understand the basic geography of the place to which they were headed if we are not to miss the essential overtones of this striking story. Mt. Moriah overlooks Gehinnom (in Greek, Gehenna), a valley where ancient Canaanites habitually sacrificed their children to a god or gods by fire. The Hebrew Bible mentions this horrific practice in a surprisingly large number of texts (Deut 12.31, 18.10; 2 Kgs 16.3, 17.17, 17.31, 21.6, 23.10; 2 Chron 28.3, 33.6; Jer 7.31, 19.5, 32.35; Ezek 16.21, 20.26, 20.31, 23:37).
Ancient readers and hearers of the Akedah story would certainly have recognized this aspect of the local geography. Even today in Jerusalem, it is a common joke to say that one walks through “Hell” (the Valley of Gehinnom, now a nice park) before ascending to the area of the Temple Mount. The Hebrew Bible implies that this Canaanite practice of sacrificing children had been going on for a long time before the entrance of the people of Israel into the Land. Although we cannot say for sure that the Valley of Gehinnom was being used for this purpose in the days of Abraham, that is a strong possibility which should not be disregarded.
On the surface of it, then, Abraham’s God demands the sacrifice of his son – and to accomplish the grisly deed, he sends him on a considerable journey away from his home to a site that is precisely situated right next to the hellish Valley of Gehinnom infamous for child sacrifice! Why would the God YHWH do such a thing? And why would Abraham obey?
In Part III we will begin to approach some more satisfying answers to these key questions than are usually given in the customary Jewish and Christian interpretations. Stay tuned!