Bible Commentator

Messengers of God: A Theological And Psychological Perspective

Moshe Reiss


The Sacrifice of Isaac

Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Isaac


Abraham our father is the Patriarch of the three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  His role as father is partly symbolized by his initial entry into history at the age 75. Very little is none about his childhood, not even his mother’s name. This stands in stark contrast to the other patriarchs and most of the other significant personalities discussed in the Torah – the Pentateuch. Abraham was also the father of two sons - Ishmael and Isaac. Both received a blessing from God, as a result of their father’s deep faith and perhaps due to their father’s love of them both. The Torah unfolds through Isaac as Jewish descendants trace their origins from Abraham through Isaac. The Qur’anic tradition, of course, continues with Ishmael since Islamic descendants trace their origins from Abraham through Ishmael.

Isaac is the father of twin sons - Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger son steals the blessing intended for his older brother Esau from their blind father. Isaac is predisposed to Esau whereas  Rebekah, his wife prefers Jacob. Jewish history continues through Jacob and the events fashioning his life. Jacob is the father of twelve sons and one daughter. He confers a special blessing on two of them - Judah and Joseph. These two sons emerge as the two Messianic figures. Jacob berates three of his sons - Reuben, Simeon and Levi. The latter sons of his wife Leah - Issachar and Zebullun we know little about as is also true of the four sons of Jacob’s two concubines (Gad, Naphtali, Asher and Dan).

There are four wives (known as the Matriarchs) of the Abrahamic family. Sarah, the wife of Abraham is, according to Jewish tradition, his half sister or his niece.1 Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, is Abraham’s grandniece. Jacob marries Leah and then Rachel, the daughters of Laban, the brother of Rebekah.  In fact there are three additional wives/concubines /mothers of the extended family; Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah, Bilah, the handmaiden of Rachel and Zilpah, the handmaiden  of Leah. These three are not considered matriarchs despite Hagar being the only wife who speaks twice to God.


Terah, took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (whose father Haran had died) and Sarai, his daughter-in-law and left Ur Khasdim to go to the Land of Canaan. Did Terah have an inkling that Abram was destined to go the land of Canaan? Sarai is introduced as Abram’s wife and we are told she was barren. We have no information pertaining to Haran’s wife, why they leave Ur for Canaan or why Nahor, his wife and children were left behind?  We do not when Haran died nor when Abraham was born relative to Haran’s death. Was Abraham a replacement child for Haran? 2Were there family problems with Nahor or Milcah (Nahor’s wife) who had children, or Haran’s wife or economic problems or others we do not know?  Unable to withstand the arduous journey to Canaan, Terah settled in a town named Kharan, a name that bears a remarkable similarity to his dead son, Haran. We are told that Terah lived for another sixty years. 3 Did Abraham who lost one brother, left another in Ur then leave his father? The Samaritan Pentateuch says Terah died and then Abram left for Canaan. 4  One has no reason (despite some Jewish midrashim 5) to believe that Abram had a problem with his father. We are also told that Abraham will join his ancestors in peace, suggesting that Terah was an acceptable father for Our Father Abraham and not necessarily an evil idolater as he is traditionally portrayed.

Chapter 12 of Genesis continues the life of Abram and Sarai. Abram is told by God not simply to go to Canaan but ‘go to yourself - ‘lech le’cha’. God emphasizes this by stating ‘from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house’ (12:1). Abram is to leave his nationality (land), his community (birthplace) and his individuality (father’s home). 6  Abram, by obeying this request (and others in the future) accepts the challenge of changing his total identity and becomes the first ‘Man of Faith’. He is to go to a place God will show him. This term ‘go to yourself’ and ‘go to a place I will show you’ is repeated when God tells him to sacrifice his son (22:2). What does ‘go to yourself’ mean? Escape from the world, from your nationality, your community and your individuality and become God’s servant. Only by becoming alienated from this world can he become God’s servant - His ‘Man of Faith’. By being ‘of God’ he can leave everything behind him and go to a place God will show him.  Only by being ‘of God’ can he obey God’s commands regardless of their severity - even sacrificing his own son. Abram follows God wherever God will lead him. Abram comes to the land of Canaan as stranger and sojourner and remains so all his life (23:4). He worshipped his own God, the God of Abraham known to him as El Shaddai (Ex. 6:3). He understood that other peoples worshipped other gods (12:6).

In the second verse of chapter 12, Abram receives his first blessing – the first covenant - to be ‘a great nation’ and ‘to be a blessing’. In the third verse he is told that his nation shall become a blessing for the entire world. He is to be a blessing for himself and for the entire world. The great nation is the Jewish people who by parenting the Christian and the Muslim worlds have become a blessing for a large part of the world. Jews, Christians and Muslims are all descendants of Abraham - biologically and/or spiritually, and comprising nearly one half of the world.

Abram departed from Kharon accompanied by his nephew Lot and wife Sarai. God had promised Abram to be a’ great nation’, and yet he had no biological children, Lot  may have been a surrogate son to him. After a famine in Canaan, Abram goes down to Egypt. He has just been told by God to go to the land of Canaan, his promised land and that he will be blessed. On the road Abram tells Sarai that because of her beauty ‘they will kill me’ and take you, but if we tell them you are my sister ‘then they will show themselves friendly towards me hoping to get you through my good offices ’ (12:12-13). 7 Rabbi Burton Visotzky translates this as’ so I’ll turn a profit on it’ 8 Abram is saved but Sarai is taken into the harem of the Pharaoh. Abram’s fear led him into endangering his wife. 9 Pharaoh gives Abram many gifts in exchange for his ‘sister’. She is saved by God who plagues Pharaoh and his house. 10 Pharaoh says ‘I took her to be my wife’ (12:18). Was she saved? According to one Jewish Midrash the plague was impotence. 11 According to Qur'anic tradition Pharaoh’s hand froze when he attempted to touch Sarah. 12

Did Abram consider Sarai part of the promise of many descendants or expendable in view of her barrenness? Did Abram ever share with Sarai God’s promise? Abram leaves (with his gifts) and Sarai is given the daughter of Pharaoh, Hagar, as a gift. 13 We are not told of Sarai’s reaction to her husband’s request, although she did obey him, 14  nor are we informed of her reaction to her rescue by God.  This tale is repeated again when Abraham moves to Gerar,  when unbeknownst to Sarah Abraham informs the King Abimelech that Sarah is his sister.  The king dreams that night that Sarah is Abraham’s wife and thereby is forbidden to him. Abraham is given sheep, cattle, men and women slaves and a thousand pieces of silver (20:14) and heals Abimelech’s household. Both Pharaoh and the King of Gerar had chosen not to lie with a married woman. Isaac will later follow his father’s incident in Gerar; he too presents his wife Rebekah as his sister. Isaac is also is blessed ‘a hundredfold’ (26:12).

Shortly thereafter a conflict arises between Abram and Lot’s herdsmen. Abram says to Lot, I do not want a conflict with you, for we are kinsmen. Abram graciously says let us separate, if you go left and I will go right or if you go right, I will go left. Abram is more focused on conciliating conflict than prospering on the land. It seems odd that Abram would allow a conflict between his servants and Lot’s servants to intervene in their quasi-father son relationship. We do not know for certain what was the problem. Sarai had long been barren, had no child and perhaps felt frustrated and incomplete. Lot was apparently married and had children. We will discover later that Sarai may take out her frustrations on others and perhaps Lot as an adoptive son was a problem for her. Perhaps  Mrs. Lot and their children represented a problem for Sarai. Later Lot was captured and Uncle Abram recruited an army and freed him (14:12-16).  Uncle Abram still felt a responsibility for his nephew and adoptive son. Still later as will be seen,  Lot is rescued once again and spared from the destruction of Sodom by virtue  of being Abraham’s nephew.

Abram felt deeply frustrated by the family’s infertility and when he encountered God in a vision he approached God with his concern of being childless. Abram says to God that he is childless and ‘a member of my household will be my heir’ (15:3). According to Jewish Tradition and a Qumram text Abram is referring to his servant Eliezer’s son. 15 It would appear that by now Abram recognized that Lot cannot be his descendant. God reassures Abram that he will have a biological child owing to his righteousness(15:4). It is then that Abram receives the second part of the covenant ‘to your descendants I give this country, from the River of Egypt to the great River’ the River Euphrates (15:18).  This covenant is known as the ‘Covenant Between the Pieces’. In between the two promises God defined a ritual for Abram to perform. Abram sacrifices nine animals (three cows, three goats and three rams) and two birds, dividing them in half. He then enters into a deep trance. He dreams in two parts. The first  part entailed ‘Know this, for certain, that your descendants will be exiles in a land not their own and be enslaved and oppressed’ (Gen. 15:13).

This blessing encompasses a prophetic glimpse of the history of his descendants. They will be exiled and alienated as he was by ‘lech la’cha’, by being exiled, but will eventually enter the promised land. This is the blessing of Abraham that Isaac gives to Jacob as he is about to enter his own personal exile (Gen. 28:4). But all of Abraham’s direct biological descendants will be so ‘blessed’.

This covenant is to Abram’s direct descendants. His descendants will numbering as the stars in the sky. This blessing as defined in chapter 15 is an unconditional promise given by God, nothing is required of him.

Sarai, eventually assumes personal responsibility for the family’s infertility; concludes she must take action to rectify the situation.  She develops a plan and instructs Abram, her husband ‘go take my servant [Hagar] marry her and her child shall be mine’ (16:2).  A servant’s child belonged to the Mistress and thus the child would have been tantamount to Sarai’s. Just as Abram had given Sarai to Pharaoh, so Sarai gave Hagar to Abram. 16  Abram agreed to his wife’s plan. 17 Sarai appears to develop this plan for her benefit ‘her child shall be mine’.

‘And Sarai, Abram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid . . . and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife’ (Gen. 16:3). Not a concubine, but a wife. 18 Abram had previously complained to God about not having an heir and God promised him from his own seed who would be counted as the stars in the sky. (Gen. 15:4-5). And Abram believed and a covenant was formed between God and himself (Gen. 15:9-12).  Hagar conceived through Abram.  Abram assumed that Ishmael was the ‘promised’ son.

Hagar’s pregnancy resolved any doubts and conclusively proved  Sarai to be the infertile partner. 19 Under ancient and jewish law this would allow Abram to divorce Sarai – did he ever consider that? Sarai earlier feelings of frustration and lack of self worth were understandably exacerbated by the result.  She then blamed both Abram and Hagar for the problem and said to Abram, ‘this outrage done to me is your fault’ (16:5). In fact, of course, the relationship between Hagar and Abram had been entirely contrived by Sarai. Abram had never asked  Sarai or God for another wife to fulfill the promise.  Hagar may indeed have felt more worthy than Sarai, after all she was fertile - a major value of women during the age - and Sarai was not. Sarai, the rich wife of Abram takes her poor servant as a surrogate mother. The servant becomes a wife to the Master of the House, the wealthy Abram and shortly will become the mother of his child. Not only is there a class difference between Sarah, the rich wife and Hagar the slave, but Hagar is Egyptian, from a different nation and likely a darker colour. 20 What precisely where Sarai’s expectations? Had she miscalculated the emotional impact of the sexual liaison on herself, Hagar and Abram, not to mention the impact of a child? Abram then instructed Sarai to take Hagar back as your slave. Does this mean that she is no longer his wife - was the sexual union a one night stand? Did Abram continue to have sexual relations with both women - Hagar was his wife? (16:6)  Sarai abused her slave so badly during her pregnancy that she fled. 21 God encountered her and told her to return and that He would guarantee protection for her and her child. Is this problem created by Sarai through Hagar punishment for Abram’s giving Sarai to the Pharaoh? In her jealousy or helplessness Sarai blames Abram.  One Jewish commentator stated that for this ill treatment Ishmael’s children afflicted Sarai’s children. 22  

God first tells Hagar she must submit to Sarai, but He provided consolation to Hagar, telling her that her descendants will be ‘too numerous to be counted’ (Gen. 16:10), confirming the blessing  previously given to Abram for his descendants (Gen. 13:16). She is given a ‘matriarchal’ blessing 23 one not yet given to Sarai. She is a ‘chosen’ women.  Her son, whom God names  Ishmael will be a free man but live his life in conflict. Your son will be free, different from you who are a slave. Hagar who survives Sarai will also eventually be free to marry. She gave birth and the child was named Ishmael, the first child named by God in the Torah. And we are told that Abram named his son Ishmael. Did God independently tell him to name the child Ishmael or did Hagar tell Abram of God’s intervention? Does Sarai ever get to be the surrogate mother for which she planned the whole ‘Hagar affair’? 24  That seems unlikely; Hagar is the only mother in the Biblical text to choose a wife for her son. Not unlike Abraham who chooses a wife for his son Isaac, she chooses a wife for Ishmael from her own people - the Egyptians.

Thirteen years later Abram is told by God ‘walk before Me and be blameless’ (17:1). The distinction between ‘Noah who walked with God’ (6:9),  and Abram is that the latter could walk alone before God. Finally God has someone who can walk alone (and later with his son Isaac) because God already knows he is ‘tam’ the Hebrew for ‘perfect’. 25 Abraham will prove his ‘perfection when he demands justice from God on behalf of the people of Sodom and when he then acts in ‘perfect’ obedience in the sacrifice of Isaac.

Abram whose name is now changed to Abraham (by adding the ‘h’) now his a new identity.  For most commentators the name Abram meant father of a nation whereas  Abraham means father of nations as the text itself notes. 26 The national covenant of chapter 15 has become an international covenant. ‘And your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations’ (17:5). This is repeated three times in the three verses (17:4-6). In this section the ‘seed’ of Abraham is not longer mentioned as it was in the previous covenant. This section is stated in the future tense. It no longer relates to his biological descendants, Ishmael or Esau but other nations.  It refers to a way of life based on God, the creator of the world. As noted by Williamson the two uses of  ‘av’ (meaning father in Hebrew) have a different vowel than anywhere else in the Bible. Other than these two uses ‘av’ the vowels are a ‘shva' and 'patah’, only here is it only a ‘patah’. This use of ‘av’ father, is metaphorical. 27

Then God refers back to the earlier covenant of his own biological descendants (17:7-8). Thus this covenant has two distinct parts, one to expand the covenant internationally and the second to maintain the original national covenant. But God adds to the original covenant conditions. In this instance it is the rite of circumcision, a sign between you and  Me for all generations. Later on when the covenant with Moses is given additional conditions will be added. This issue of an unconditional  promise versus a contractual covenant will come up again with the Davidic covenant.

God then renames Sarai as Sarah, making her a critical part of the covenant The couple has become significant, not just Abraham. Both are transformed by this change. God then reveals to Abraham that his aged wife - the newly renamed Sarah - will give birth to a son, despite her being post-menopausal. The original covenant (Chapter 15) made no reference, even indirectly to Sarah. Thus Abraham believed for thirteen years that Ishmael was his heir for the covenant. Suddenly Sarah is part of the covenant. Abraham reacts to this news in two ways. First with laughter (Gen. 17:17), can his old wife have a child after decades of barrenness? Second his superbly humane reaction is to beseech God to guarantee and protect his son Ishmael. (17:18) Abraham is not unaware of the problems between Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael. God response that Ishmael will be part of the universal blessing, but not part of this national covenant.

Abraham goes on to the rite of circumcision.  Who are the first persons to be circumcised under this covenant? - Abraham and his thirteen year old son Ishmael (Gen. 17:23). 28 As we shall see this new national covenant is not yet ratified, not until after the ‘akeda’ (the Hebrew word for the ‘binding of Isaac). The Qur’an does not state which of Abraham’s children is the ‘intended sacrifice’; Islamic tradition states that it is Ishmael.

Does Abraham suspect that his wife Sarah will react poorly to sharing their home and their new son with Hagar’s son? What was the status of conjugal relations with Hagar, was she still a wife/concubine or simply Sarah’s slave?  We have no knowledge of Sarah’s behavior in her capacity as Ishmael’s adoptive mother. Did she mother him? Given the conflict with Hagar, perhaps she treats him as the maid’s son. How does Ishmael perceive of himself? As Sarah’s adoptive son, as  the maid’s son or the master’s son. Did Abraham not dote on the precious son of his very old age? For thirteen years Abraham has no expectation of an additional son and assumes Ishmael would be the heir to his blessing. How does he continue to relate to Sarah, his barren wife after Hagar has granted him a son - the son of the promise?  No doubt Ishmael sensed that he was the son of the promise. What does Ishmael know or sense of the relationship between Sarah, Hagar and Abraham? He has grown up for thirteen years in this household fraught with complexities. 29

Gunn and Fewell suggest that Abraham’s statement about Ishmael meant he did not need Sarah, he already had a son. 30 God’s plans, however include Sarah. God responds to Abraham question ‘I will establish my covenant with [Isaac] . . .And for Ishmael I have blessed him . . . I will make him a great nation’ (17:19-20). Just a few moments earlier, God had said to Abraham ‘This is my covenant . . .every male child of yours shall be circumcised’ (17:9-10). The covenant of the circumcision is mentioned five times in the following four verses. And then Abraham and Ishmael are circumcised. In Arabic the term for circumcision is ‘chatana’ which also conveys a faith relationship with  God. In Hebrew the same word ‘chatana’ means wedding. In Islamic culture one can not get marry until one is circumcised.  

How are we as readers expected to interpret this event - are there two covenants, one with Isaac and one with Ishmael? Do both sons receive the covenant? God said to Abraham ‘I bless him [Ishmael]’, he is a ‘chosen’ one. (17:20).  Perhaps the promise of land shall flow through the younger son, Isaac (Gen. 17:21) and the promise of ‘ a great nation’ of descendants as great as the sands on the sea and stars in heaven will go through Ishmael. God promises that Ishmael will have twelve princes as materializes as well with Esau and Jacob. Are Ishmael, Esau and Jacob all blessed with the blessing of twelve sons and a covenant? 31

Immediately following  this covenant,  three men (traditionally seen as angels) appear to Abraham. And Abraham bows to them and graciously offered them food, drink and his hospitality. After the meal prepared by Sarah they bless her to have a child. They have come to inform Sarah the news because Abraham had not yet told her  what he had been told by God. He may still not have believed that she could become pregnant. 32 Sarah back in the tent laughed inwardly, saying ‘after being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, my husband being old’ (18:12) It seems that Abraham and Sarah may no longer engaged in physical intimacy.  Sarah’s may be implying that Abraham is too old to have sexual relations. That he is still virile we know since after Sarah’s death he remarries and father’s more children. God said to Abraham why did Sarah laugh saying ‘shall I really give birth, I being old’. (The comment by God, interestingly ignored the issue of Abraham being too old.) Sarah said I did not laugh (18:14). 33 This response by God to Abraham about Sarah’s laughter was the only time God spoke to Sarah but only through Abraham.

Some time after the birth of Isaac, and during his ‘weaning’ party, Sarah sees Ishmael and Isaac ‘m’tzahak’, playing together. The Hebrew word ‘m’tzahak’ has the same root as the name of Isaac (Yitzchak), laughing or playing.  Did she see that they were growing up enjoying each others company? Was she concerned about sharing Abraham’s inheritance with Ishmael? ‘Cast out this bondswoman and her son; for the son of this bondswoman shall not be heir with my son’ (21:10). She demands of Abraham the expulsion of his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar. 34  Hagar was not just ‘her bondswoman’ but specifically denoted as Abraham’s wife. ‘[H]er son’ was also Abraham’s son and she could not doubt that Abraham loved his son. Sarah anger is such that she cannot even use Hagar or Ishmael’s name. Her anxiety about ‘Abraham’s son’ caused her to depersonalize Hagar and Ishmael. ‘This greatly distressed Abraham because it was his son’ (21:11). It was his son for thirteen years whom he circumcised for God’s sake.  Sarah refers to Isaac as her son. He turns to God for advice, God replies ‘Listen to her voice’ (21:12). I will take care of Ishmael. 35 Nevertheless one can imagine Abraham being inconsolable at the loss and separation of the son who had been for thirteen years his only heir, the son named by God with His own name, the son who was circumcised on the day of the announcement of Isaac’s birth. Did it remind him of his leaving his home, his earlier losses, his brother, Nahor in Ur , his father in kharon and his surrogate son Lot? 36 How did Sarah’s inability to tolerate his love for his son affect their relationship? Had Abraham allowed Sarah to abuse his son and his second wife for the approximate sixteen years of their relationship? How did Ishmael react to his father’s allowing him to be exiled by his step-mother?

Abraham sends off Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. When Ishmael is on the verge of death, God saves him and blesses Ishmael to become a ‘great nation’. 37 God has assured Abraham ‘for he too is your child’ (Gen. 21:13). The God of Abraham is equally the God of Hagar and Ishmael. Ishmael will remain, as we will see, an integral part of Abraham’s  family. Why does  Abraham not supply sufficient water and food to ensure their survival?  38


The most dramatic and traumatic event in Abraham’s life is God’s commandment to sacrifice the son of his old age. The event is clearly critical to the Abrahamic family. For Judaism the covenantal son is scheduled to die at the order of the God.  Christianity portrays this event as a prelude to the crucifixion of Jesus ‘by faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that received the promises offered up his only begotten son’ (Heb. 11:17). In the Qur’an the event is described with only slight variations to the text in Genesis. 39

God decided to test Abraham (Gen. 22:1). 40  “Take, I beg you, your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to yourself ‘lech la’cha’, to the land of Moriah and offer him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (22:1-2). Jewish commentators tell us that Abraham responded to ‘your son’ that he has two sons, ‘your only son’ that he has two ‘only sons’ from different mothers, ‘whom who love’ that he loved both his sons, and then God said ‘Isaac’. This is first time the word love ‘ahava’ appears in the Hebrew Bible. And Abraham loved both his sons. This ‘perfect’ man, a ‘walking blessing’ (12:2), the man who insisted on confirming God’s justice, is now being asked for the perfect act of obedience, the most incomprehensible commandment God ever demanded of a human being, to sacrifice his child who is the promise of his immortality. The phrase ‘go to yourself’ has appeared in the Bible once before when God told Abraham to leave his land, his family and his father’s house - to abandon his land, his family, his father. In the second ‘lech lecha’ he is to abandon his fatherhood, his only remaining family and the basis of his covenant. This mission of sacrificing his son is the second time Abraham is commanded to escape from this world. It is also the second time he is asked to exile a son. 41

This is also the second time God commanded him is to go a place undefined by God. When he leaves his ‘land’ he is to go to a land ‘I will show you’ (12:1). Why does God not specify the destination of the land  - it is the land of Canaan. And why does God specify  the mountain ‘I will tell you’ (22:2) - it is Mount Moriah. Perhaps an inherent change will ensue by virtue of the commandment and its accomplishment. When Abraham, the first ‘Man of Faith’ goes to the land ‘I will show you’ and to ‘a mountain I will tell you’ he will transform them. Cultivation by Abraham will make for a transformation. It will no longer be  the same land nor the same mountain.

Who accompanies  Abraham to the akeda (the Hebrew name for the binding) 42 of Isaac - two young men. Jewish tradition holds he was accompanied by his servant Eliezer and his other son Ishmael.  It would seem that Abraham dispatched Eliezer to request Ishmael to meet them on the road, since Sarah would not understand or accept Abraham’s need to ask for his other son to meet with him. The tradition thereby upholds the idea that Abraham had a continued relationship with his eldest son, Ishmael, despite Sarah’s demand for his expulsion. Ishmael left his father’s home after being  approximately sixteen years of age when Isaac was an infant. His father did not suddenly remember Ishmael, but must have had a ongoing clandestine  relationship with him. The exact age of Isaac and therefore Isaac  was an adult (one Midrash places him as thirty seven years of age 43).  Isaac was old enough to sense two extraordinary events, the sudden reappearance of his older brother  and the sacrifice itself.

Abraham journeyed in silence for three days the land of Moriah, then he lifted up his eyes (22:4). He is questioned by Isaac, who after three days of silence mustered  the courage to ask “Father here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? The knife is conspicuously not mentioned. Perhaps Abraham was hiding this weapon of death. Abraham replied, ‘God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son’. God and Isaac - are noted at the polarities of the sentence. Then according to a Midrash ‘and if not, you will be the lamb and Isaac wept’. The two - the one being offered and the one doing the offering - understood the task - before the task, during the task and after the task.  And the two of them went on together’. (22:7-8) This is the only instance of dialogue between the two; Abraham is called ‘my father’ and Isaac ‘my son’. They both implicitly understood the enormity of the moment  and ‘went on together’.  44

Why did Abraham require Ishmael’s  presence?  Did he feel that if Isaac were going to die he wanted his other son, his only remaining son with him? Did he consider that Ishmael would become the son of the promise as he had been once before?

What were Abraham’s thoughts after God’s request and during the three days he traveled to ‘the mountain I will tell you’ (22:2)? How will God continue the blessing He had promised through Abraham’s descendants and more specifically through Isaac. The first blessings were before and after the birth of Ishmael 45 but Ishmael was sent away. And then God promised the blessing through Isaac that he Isaac ‘will become nations’ (17:16). How is this to take place when Abraham is about to slaughter Isaac at God’s command? It is superfluous to stress the agony and dilemma for Abraham. The Bible disregards the question of Abraham’s agony. He simply obeys God’s command as he had earlier the need to forfeit his older son, Ishmael. Abraham subsumes all of his individuality when he obeys God’s command to ‘go to himself’. He has become an extension of God. The son who God said to Abraham will ‘maintain my covenant with [you], a covenant in perpetuity, to be his God and the God of his descendants after him’ (Gen. 17:19). What of God’s promise for Abraham to have numerous descendants; will they come from Ishmael? But Isaac is the covenantal promise! God effectively orders Abraham to relinquish His – God’s - promise.  Abraham, a man of justice, who disputed with God over the death of the evil men and women of Sodom, to murder his son defies our comprehension. Why does Abraham not reiterate his plea which attempted to forestall the destruction of Sodom? 46 ‘Is the judge of the world not to act justly? (18:25) Abraham intuitively understood that while he could pray for strangers, but this was a personal test. Nothing short of ‘the leap of faith’ was required of him. Isaac’s birth itself was an experience in an act of faith, can Abraham’s obedience to slaughter his son also be viewed  as a creditable act of reason? But reason contradicts itself: Abraham must believe that while Isaac will be lost to him he will get him back. This is what psychologists call a ‘double bind’. It creates madness. Kiergegaard calls this the separation of faith and reason. But what kind a world survives with that separation? Can an ethical human being not assume as Kant did that ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’. 47

Abraham and Isaac ‘walked together’ - this phrase repeated three times, en route to Mt. Moriah (Gen.22:6) upon ascending the mountain (Gen. 22:8) and post  the akeda (Gen. 22:19).

The Bible clearly states God’s reaction. The angel of God  intervenes at the critical moment preventing Abraham from slaughtering his son. ‘Do not cast your hand upon the boy . . . for now I know that you are a fearer of God’ (22:12). Just as when Hagar cried out God ‘heard the voice of the boy’ (21:16-17) God heard the silenced voice of Isaac. In both cases God is concerned with the life of young. The angel returns a second time and states:  “By myself have I sworn, says God, because you have done this thing and have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (22:16). Abraham fulfilled God’s condition and God will ‘shower his blessings on him’. Abraham’s act of submission guarantees the blessings. Abraham’s willingness to give up his covenantal son guarantees his victory. The blessing is defined as numerous descendants, victory over your enemies and you as a blessing for the world (22:17-18). The covenant  has become an oath and appears unconditional to Abraham’s children.

What is the meaning of the oath?  To swear is to take an oath, usually by God as a witness.  What does it mean for God to have sworn by himself as a witness?  Did Abraham surprise  God with his unswerving faith? Apparently so! God learnt from Abraham. And He therefore  blesses Abraham that his descendant(s) 48   ‘will be like the stars in the sky and the sands on the sea’ (22:17). This blessing has been fulfilled. Abraham can be considered the father of almost half of humanity encompassing Jews, Christians and Muslims.

According to Jewish tradition the akeda took place on the tenth of Tishra, Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. After the event Abraham senses a burning drive to communicate with God. According to a Midrash Abraham re-negotiated the terms of the covenantal contract. His willingness to slaughter Isaac gives him the courage to request of God.  Since I agreed to your request for Isaac to be a burnt offering I have a request - when my descendants trespass forgive them. God responses. ‘You have said what you have said, and I will now say what I have to say. If they blow the ram’s horn (shofar) .. I mindful of the ram that was substituted for Isaac as a sacrifice, will forgive them their sins’. 49 The horns of the ram   - the shofar - blown at the end of Yom Kippur became the symbol of atonement.

Levinas sees the angels as a metaphor. God appears in the face of Isaac. The face of Isaac proclaims ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Thus instead of a suspension of the ethical the event is the beginning of the ethical. The face of Isaac can overcome the voice of God. Abraham encounters God in the face of his child. 50 This is consistent with Levinas’ view that protecting the ‘outsider’ the widow, orphan and the poor are the basis of Judaism.

In a twentieth century Midrash George Steiner suggests that Abraham had a paralyzing rage after the akeda. Abraham was seized with anger towards God en route traveling back home - for two opposing reasons. The first states Abraham’s anger ‘because the Almighty had not kept faith in him. Because  God had not been absolutely certain that Abraham would fulfill His commandment and strike the knife into the boy. ... during the unendurable march to the mountain, Abraham had died many deaths. . . His steps were like those of a bullock when it was stunned, when the blood is already out of its throat. Those who looked upon Abraham saw death walking. The faith in him had grown so mighty, the sinews of obedience so stretched, that there was no room for life. . . Abraham,  the father of our fathers, had been made for faith . . . harder than steel. [He feared] the blade might snap. But God did not know this. He did not choose to know it. His trust in Abraham, His servant, fell short. Now the Almighty would never have proof of Abraham’s faith. He would never have proof of Abraham’s infinite faith. He would never know how tight was the knot of Abraham’s obedience. As life came back into the old man, as pain came home to him, so did a towering anger.’

The second  ‘that Abraham’s anger was the very opposite. He could not at first, and may he be forgiven, find it his heart to praise, to thank God for the saving of Isaac. The terror had been too sharp. The temptation too severe for a man to hear. Unendurable because twofold. The temptation to obey was murderous and beyond human understanding. How could God ask such a thing of Abraham, his most faithful servant? But is there any thing worse than to deny God’s voice, to close one’s ears against His calling? That the Almighty had saved the child did not take away even an atom, an atom’s breath of terror from His commandment and the three days thereafter. And what if God had taken Isaac? What if Abraham’s knife had struck? What then? How could the boy’s resurrection make up for the sacrifice, for the Abraham’s act of slaughter? On the way back to Beersheba, Abraham could not speak to God. The hurt, the doubts gagged his soul. .. How could Abraham live after that moment on the mountain, how could Abraham draw breath after he had carried inside him the slaying of his son?  .. hence the total silence.’ 51

An ancient Midrash describes the event as follows:

“Again the day had come on which the hosts of heaven gathered before God. Among them there was also Satan. God asked him: ’When you visited earth, did you see Abraham also? Did you notice how God-fearing he is?’ Satan answered: ‘No wonder! He serves you only because You have given him a son In his old age. Just try to demand of him to offer this son to You as a burnt offering. You will see that he will refuse to obey your command’.52

Then the word of God came to Abraham: . . When Abraham and Isaac were on the road, Satan made every effort to divert both of them from their undertaking. At first he changed into the form of an old man and said to Abraham: ‘I see you are leading your son to sacrifice. Are you crazy? How can a father be so cruel?’ But Abraham recognized right away that this was Satan. He scolded him, shouted at him, and Satan disappeared.  The Satan changed into the from of a beautiful young man and addressed Isaac: ‘Don’t you know that this dumb senile man who calls himself your father is leading you to slaughter? Why should you die in the bloom of your years? You still have the whole beautiful world before you. Flee from here?

But Isaac replied: ’God’s command and my father’s will are a guiding star for me’. When Abraham had arrived at the top of  Mount  Moriah in Jerusalem and wanted to sacrifice his son, Abraham stretched out his knife to slaughter his son, Isaac replied and said to his father: ‘bind my hands and feet firmly, so I will not instinctively react to the blade’. In the Qur’an Abraham says to his son ‘My son I see in a dream that I shall sacrifice you; consider what you think’? The son replied ‘My father do as you are bidden; you will find me, God willing, steadfast’. 53

‘My father, tie my hands securely so that I do not disturb you, and your sacrifice might be found unsuitable.’ The eyes of Abraham turned toward the eyes of Isaac, and the eyes of Isaac looked into he eyes of his father. In this hour the angels high in heaven came out and said to each other: ’Come and see the only two righteous ones in the midst of the world. The one sacrifices and does not hesitate - and he is being sacrificed willingly puts forth his neck.’ 54

Kierkegaard called the event ‘an enormous paradox’ and pronounced Abraham the ‘prince of faith’ for his obedience to God and his willingness to sacrifice his ‘son of the promise’. Jewish commentators had long before agreed that the akeda was a test of Abraham’s faith. Abraham had already established the principle of human justice before God in the incident at Sodom. But that came through a dialogue between God and Abraham.  Here Abraham surrendered to God and obeyed His command. Was it a command? The Hebrew text has God say ‘kakh na’ (22:2). ‘Kakh is a command, the ‘na’ makes it a request. Abraham certainly could have made this the beginning of a dialogue.

Did Abraham pass the test? God offered no explanation. And implicitly said to Abraham, forget my past promises. Could God realistically have expected Abraham to argue with him as he did at Sodom? Gunn And Fewell suggest  that just as God  said no to his promises, Abraham should have said no. 55

Is possible to conceive that Abraham failed the test? After the angel stays Abraham’s hand God never again contacts Abraham. Immanuel Kant suggests that Abraham may have righteously rejected God request. How could God demand such a thing and therefore could Abraham be certain  it was God? Could such a task emanate from God? ‘In some cases man can be sure the voice he hears is not God’s; if the voice commands him to do something contrary to moral law’. 56 How can God ask Abraham to sacrifice the promised child- the promise would remain unfulfilled? In the first ‘go to yourself’ God asked Abraham to break with his past. In this the second ‘go to yourself’ he is asked to break with his promised future. Can the God Abraham believed in ask Abraham to be involved in contradicting Himself? Can Abraham believe in the theological suspension of the ethical? 57  Can one also suggest that Abraham was testing God? Would God subvert his promise to Abraham? L. Bodoff suggests that Abraham never, in fact,  intended to sacrifice his son, but rather expected God to intervene. 58  After all God saved Sarah twice, saved Hagar and Ishmael and Lot and his family. That assumption also involved a deep level of faith. If God had not intervened what code of ethics and morality would come from a religion based on child sacrifice? 59 Judaism, Christianity and Islam could not exist.  60 As only Franz Kafka could suggest ‘[Abraham[ would make the sacrifice in the right spirit if only he could believe he was the one meant. He is afraid that after starting out as Abraham with his son he would change on the way to Don Quixote’. 61

God’s desire to publicize Abraham is the basis of another Midrash. ‘When God commanded the father to desist from sacrificing Isaac, Abraham said: ‘One man tempts another, because he knoweth not what is in the heart of his neighbor. But Thou surely didst know that I was ready to sacrifice my son!’ God: ‘It was manifest to Me, and I foreknew it, that thou wouldst withhold not even thy soul from Me.’ Abraham: ‘And why, then, didst Thou afflict me thus?’ God: ‘It was My wish that the world should become acquainted with thee, and should know that it is not without good reason that I have chosen thee from all the nations. Now it hath been witnessed unto men that thou fearest God’.’ 62 Abraham is to become the perfect exemplar for the world. This Midrash also will make God’s name known.

Isaac’s reaction are a fascinating focus of another Midrash. How did Isaac react (especially if he is an adult) to being tied by his father to an alter piling up wood, holding a fire and taking a knife and placing it on his neck?

‘My father seized me and brought me to the heap of wood. He bound my hands and feet tightly. My eyes stared wide, desperately wide: ‘Adonai.’ I tried to whisper ‘Adonai.’ Adonai?’ I asked. And my father unsheathed the knife, and it drew closer and closer and closer. “Adonai!!’ I cried out inaudibly, ‘Adonai, Lord of the universe, where are you?’ And my father placed the blade to my throat ...’What are you doing? Are you crazy? I do not want to die   Why are you doing this? ... Let me go! ... Let me go, I tell you!’ 63

Is it conceivable that Isaac could not be massively traumatized? Can he ever overcome the post traumatic stress of being ‘near sacrificed’ by his father? Can he ever be expected to function normally? Can he ever not be preoccupied and obsessed with fear? He was exposed to the ultimate in family violence. Can he be likened to a holocaust survivor?  Elie Wiesel has concluded ‘Since then Isaac has never forgotten the terror of the scene which destroyed his youth. He will always remember the Holocaust and remained marked to the end of time.’ 64

Can Isaac ever reconcile his feelings for his father whom he previously seen as loving father? What impulses will impound upon him - rage, revenge, hate - or complete passivity? Is any relationship with his father possibly after this? Can Isaac ever have forgiven his father? In fact, in the text they never speak again! Did Isaac hear the voice of the angel, twice and recognize God’s role in this affair?

Did Abraham reveal to Isaac that the akeda, his sacrifice was a direct commandment from God?  Did he reveal the agony he went though? Did the entire affair become a family secret? 65 Did Abraham ever try to reconcile himself with his son Isaac? Did his father ever ask him if he wished to be sacrificed for God? He feels like a ‘kurban’. The Hebrew word means both victim and holy sacrifice and its root is ‘karov’ meaning to be close or make one close. Does Isaac feel closer to his father or to God as a result of the akeda? Isaac is a victim of his father’s attempt to make him a holy sacrifice. Jewish commentators tell us that the sacrifice was in opposition to human sacrifice as a holy deed  which was prevalent at the time. But what happens to Isaac, the holy victim?

What did Isaac think of Ishmael coming at his father’s request to his slaughtering? What was his relationship with his brother Ishmael, considered illegitimate, unwanted and dangerous by his mother? Why had his father invited him to his sacrifice? What does he feel towards his brother who did nothing to protect him? Did it occur to him  that Ishmael would replace him, in fact was brought to replace him? Or did he equate Ishmael’s expulsion to his slaughter? And what he think of his father’s servant Eliezer, who came to his slaughter  - who would later bring him a wife?

Abraham parts from Ishmael  after the akeda since there is no place for him in Sarah’s house hold. But did Isaac return with his father? ‘The young men walked together’, Isaac is not mentioned (22:19). Did Abraham come home alone and thus did Sarah suspect something was amiss? The Bible implies that Abraham did not share God’s command with his wife Sarah.  Why? Undisputedly she would have attempting to prevent Abraham from fulfilling his mission.  We have seen her attempts to control events in two incidents regarding her husband’s son Ishmael. Ironically she is more like Ishmael who is the subduer of nature, the one who seeks control of events. She would not agonize or obsess about the meaning of this sacrifice, she would simply prevent it, at all costs. Abraham is the ‘Man of Faith’, Sarah is not. Might she have suggested that Abraham was deceived by the voice of Satan? Would the God who had granted her a child in her old age, torture Abraham and Sarah by telling Abraham to slaughter the child? A Midrash confirms this view. “Shall I tell Sarah? Women tend to think lightly of God’s commandments. If I do not tell her and simply take off with him - afterward, when she does not see him, she would strangle herself. 66

On the other hand does Abraham have the right to withhold this information from Sarah? Does Isaac belong to him alone? What did he, in fact, do? he said to Sarah ‘prepare food and drink for us, and we will rejoice today.’ ... During the meal, Abraham said to Sarah, “You know, when I was only three years old, I become aware of my Maker, but this lad, growing up, has not yet been taught [about his Creator]. Now, there is a place far away where youngsters are taught [about Him]. Let me take him there.’ Sarah said ‘Take him in peace’.” 67

But did Sarah see Abraham leaving in the morning with the wood, the rope and the knife, but with no lamb for the burnt offering? 68 Could she divine her husband’s intentions? Did she live in a state of unbearable anxiety and panic. Did she have to wait six days to discover the truth.  After the akeda Abraham settled in Beersheba (22:19), but Sarah lived in Hebron (23:2). Did Sarah separate from Abraham when she understood what he had agreed to do? Did she expel Abraham after learning what he had attempted?

Sarah dies immediately after the akeda, her lack of control over events seemed to have killed her. Jewish commentators recognize that her death immediately following the Akeda, comes from her the knowledge of the attempted sacrifice. Many Midrashim claim Satan came and told her what Abraham was doing. Did Isaac know that the mother who overprotected him all his life died in fact  in reaction to the events of the akeda?

After mourning, crying 69 and burying Sarah Abraham, according to a Midrash,  goes to visit Ishmael, but he is out hunting. His Egyptian wife does not recognize her aged father-in-law, whom she apparently had never met and sends him away. Abraham experiences incredible existential loneliness.  His wife Sarah is dead, Isaac is traumatized, Ishmael is not home and Ishmael’s wife sends him away. When Ishmael returns home his wife tells him of the old man, he realizes it is Abraham his father and sends the Egyptian wife away. Ishmael remarries a Canaanite woman and sends a message to his father begging him for forgiveness telling him he has sent the Egyptian wife away. 70

Abraham, we are next told in the text then marries Keturah and has six children. Why does Abraham, an old man marry again? Perhaps he finally wants and has a normal uneventful life, to be the archetypal family man as opposed to ‘Our father Abraham’. Can Abraham only become ‘normal’ after his relationship with God is over? Does Abraham find it difficult to live with his powerful daughter-in-law Rebekah and his weak son? He then goes to live with Ishmael. Despite the great enormous burden Abraham allowed to take place by expelling he and his mother, Ishmael divorced a wife who was inhospitable to his father and took his old father in the last years of his life. In another Jewish version Ishmael takes his family to Canaan to live with his father Abraham. 71  Who is Abraham’s new wife Keturah? She is Hagar! 72  Rashi suggests that Isaac went to Hagar to have her marry his father, an attempt to compensate for what his mother did to Hagar and his brother (24:62). In the Book of Jubilees (2nd century BCE) Ishmael and Isaac celebrate the festival of Pentecost together with their father. 73  

‘At Abraham’s death we are told ‘Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him’. (25:9)  Did Isaac visit with his father when he remarried Hagar and lived with Ishmael? One Midrash explains the precedence of Isaac  mentioned before Ishmael is due to Ishmael’s respecting Sarah’s honor over his mother Hagar. 74 All of this suggests a reconciliation between Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac.

Abraham is the ‘Prince of Faith’ according to Soren Kierkegaard and the ‘Lonely Man of Faith’ according to Rabbi Soloveitchik. He had faith that God would make his descendants as numerous as the sands on the sea and stars in the heavens, despite being 90 years old and having no children. After his impossible dream was actualized he has two sons. His first son is exiled and his second son, Isaac to be sacrificed.  Abraham agrees to end his dream. Abraham is indeed ‘[God’s] legacy to the people’s of the world’. 75  He walked before God and was blameless (17:1), he did righteousness and believed in Justice (18:19,23) and he joined in a covenant with God by circumcised himself and his two children Ishmael and Isaac. Abraham became God’s friend (18:18). 76 His first people, Israel, become the universal blessing of humankind.  

We have previously asked the question about the paradox of  Abraham sacrificing his promised future. Another question arises; assuming that Abraham believed God would go through with the sacrifice, does a father have the right to sacrifice his son?  Does the son belong to the father - what of the mother? Does Isaac not equally belong to Sarah? During the expulsion of Ishmael, Sarah referred to Isaac as her son and Ishmael as the bondswoman’s son. It is possible to consider that Isaac is Sarah’s son 77 and Ishmael Abraham’s. Thus some Rabbis have claimed that Abraham’s forced expulsion of Ishmael was the most difficult moment in his life, even more difficult that the akeda become of his love of Ishmael. The expulsion’ greatly distressed Abraham’ (21:11) And even if Sarah had agreed (which seems extremely unlikely 78) do parents have the right to sacrifice their child?  ‘No said Sarah to the voice I will not be chosen nor shall my son - if I can help it. You have promised Abraham, through this boy, a great nation. so either this sacrifice is a sham or it is a sin . . . she spoke to Isaac ‘you can be chosen or you can choose. not both’ 79 Sarah died - should this as Phyllis Trible suggests be called the sacrifice of Sarah? 80 Could she have said as Norman Cohen suggests ‘If this God of Abraham is a God that requires the death of [my] son, I want out’. 81

Kierkegaard asks the question what if a man says he wishes to offer his very ‘best’ to God, to sacrifice his son. A man knows that his sacred duty is to protect his son, but if God tempts him is not his higher sacred obligation to God? ‘If faith does not make it a holy act to be willing to murder one’s son, then let the same condemnation be pronounced upon Abraham as upon every other man’. 82 It is Abraham’s faith that allows him to suspend the ethical for a higher ethic.

In January 6,1990, the day of Epiphany, in California, a man named Crests Valiant (The Valiant Christ), a long time reader of the Bible  sacrificed his son, he said God told him to do it. 83 His defense attorney claimed that the ‘trial is a struggle between two directors over who controls the script’.  84 Abraham claimed to be God centered; so did Crests Valiant. Most of us consider Crests Valiant a murderer and a  probably a madman. How does he differ from Abraham? Does Abraham attempt to ‘sacrifice’ his son or murder him? As Kierkegaard stated Abraham’s ‘faith is a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well pleasing to God. 85

The story of the  akeda is a ‘foundation story’ for Judaism, Christianity  and  Islam. It is the self sacrifice par excellence, 86  the symbol of Jewish martyrdom. When Hannah refused to allow her seven sons to become Hellenized, the narrator tells us ‘not even her affections for her young caused the mother, whose soul was like Abraham’s, to waver. 87

Abraham was God’s friend; why did he not ask God for justice for an innocent lad as he did for the unknown people of Sodom, why not suggest himself as the sacrifice  - he is an old man - and save the promised one? Freud, interestingly  concentrates on the son in the Oedipus story and ignores the father and the mother. 88 This is particularly odd given that Freud  believes that  Judaism is  a ‘Father religion’. 89 Abraham, about whom we know nothing as a son - we meet him when he is 75 years old - is ‘our father’, yet he allows his two sons to go their death; they are saved only by God.




God committed to Abraham ‘I shall maintain my covenant with him [Isaac], a covenant forever, and to his descendants after him (17:19).  Some time later Abraham is ordered by God ‘Take your son, your favored son, Isaac whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you’ (Gen. 22:2). At the critical moment when Abraham is about to execute Isaac, peering and looking into his eyes how does he  consider these contradictory messages?

God commanded Abraham to execute his son Isaac (22:2) or did He? Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator basing himself on a Midrash (Genesis Rabba 56:8) notes that the word “l’oleh” usually translated as a ‘burnt offering’ can also means “to go up”. Thus he proposes that God may have requested Abraham to simply take Isaac ‘up’ to Mt. Moriah. And then God intended to tell Abraham ‘take him down’. The profound implication of such a thought (not concluded by Rashi or the Midrash) is that perhaps Abraham misunderstood God; Perhaps God never intended to have Abraham sacrifice Isaac. This would be consistent with Immanuel Kant who stated that he did not believe that God told Abraham to murder his son.  ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’. 90 God requested Abraham to bring Isaac up the mountain so that He, God perhaps could bless him Himself. Or perhaps God instructed Abraham with the ambiguous “l’oleh” to test how Abraham would react.  Did God expect Abraham to argue with him as he did over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:23-32)?  God never speaks to Abraham after the test.  Did Abraham fail the test?


Abraham and Isaac are silent during the three days on the road to Mt. Moriah. On the third day Isaac musters the courage to ask his father ‘where is the lamb for the burnt offering’? Abraham responded ‘God will see to the lamb for a burnt offering, my son’ (Gen. 22:7-8). The words ‘my son’ is the object of the clause. Abraham could have said ‘My son, God will see to the Lamb for a burnt offering’. By placing the words ‘my son’ at the end of the phrase was it Abraham intention to subtly imply to his son that he was to be the lamb? Did Isaac understand this? Upon arrival at the mountain, Abraham did not wait for God to specify the mountain in question as God had declared; nor did God volunteer the information (22:2). Abraham built an altar, laid on the wood and bound his son Isaac, laid him upon the wood on the altar’ (22:9).

Rembrandt in his famous painting of the ‘akeda’  entitled ‘The Sacrifice of Abraham froze the moment in time when the angel appeared. (To view the painting go to the beginning of this chapter’.) In Rembrandt’s painting the three personalities (the angel representing God, Abraham and Isaac) are almost equally depicted, the angel on top of the painting, Abraham in the middle and Isaac at the bottom. In the painting Abraham’s  left hand covers Isaac’s face and with his right hand he was holding the knife over Isaac’s neck.  Rembrandt understanding the power of Abraham looking into his son’s eyes covers Isaac’s eyes. As a father Abraham, in Rembrandt’s view, simply cannot look into his son’s eyes and cut his throat. Abraham is a loving father, this makes the commandment an ‘impossible’ one for Abraham. By covering Isaac’s face can Abraham de-personalizes the child as ‘the other’? An angel suddenly appears; with his left hand he grabs Abraham’s left wrist and wrenches the knife from him. In the painting the knife is suspended in mid air. With his right hand upright the angel appears to be admonishing Abraham, perhaps ready to strike him. Abraham appears aghast – is he relieved? Light emanates from the angel appearing to represent God. Isaac lying on his back seems an adolescent, his hands are tied behind and his legs appear bent as if he wished he could escape.


Abraham knew that God had promised him that Isaac would inherit his blessing and the covenant; he was also fully aware when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. A blatant contradiction exists between the commandments. One is a promise of everlasting life, the second a sentence of death annihilating Abraham’s future. Given these contradictory commands is Abraham not forced to rethink whether he properly understood the latter commandment.  Or alternatively is the test that he must choose between the two?

What other thoughts may have rushed through Abraham’s his mind at this critical juncture?

Did Abraham think “my God is a God of mercy and justice”; can it be that Satan was talking to me”?

Since in the past God told me to “listen to the voice of Sarah” should I have consulted her on this matter (21:12)?

Should I have awaited further instructions?

Since God promised me that Isaac will be my descendant am I to believe that God will certainly resurrect him after I slaughter him?  

Can Abraham see into the defenseless face and eyes of Isaac, hold the knife over his throat, slice the throat and see his son’s blood flow over the altar?

Did Isaac scream upon seeing his father holding the knife at his neck?  

Looking at Isaac’s face Abraham may have realized that it was not possible that God intended for him to execute his God-given inheritance, the blessed progeny of his and Sarah’s old age.


Immanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher writes that Abraham looked in the face of Isaac upon the altar and he saw God. God proclaimed through Isaac’s eyes ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Thus instead of a suspension of the ethical the event in fact becomes the beginning of the ethical. ‘The epiphany of the face is ethical’ writes Levinas. 91 The face of Isaac can overcome the voice of God. Abraham encountered God in the face of his child. 92

According to Levinas, having seen God in Isaac’s face the second voice (of the angel) overcame the first (of God) and summoned Abraham back to the ethical. How did Abraham choose between God’s voice commanding the sacrifice of Isaac, and an angel, a mere messenger of God, countering God’s own command? “Abraham’s attentiveness to the voice that led him back to the ethical order, in forbidding him to perform a human sacrifice, is the highest point in the drama. That he obeyed the first voice is astonishing: that he had sufficient distance with respect to that obedience to hear the second voice – that is the essential.”93 It is the human ‘face to face’ encounter between Abraham and his son lying defenselessly on his back helpless that allowed him or perhaps even forced him to listen to the lesser power (voice of the angel) and overcome God’s own voice. The greatness of Abraham is not his obedience but his recognizing the ethical even in the face of what may have been a command from God.

James Mensch writes “in my reading Levinas’ assertion that ‘in the access to the face there is certainly also an access to God’ implies that we need not distinguish between the ethical and God”. 94  

Claire Elise Katz suggests this as well; in claiming that Abraham was changed when he looked into Isaac’s face tied on the altar. ‘The staying of the hand was the continuation, or affirmation, of an action that was already set into motion; Abraham had already begun to abort the sacrifice. He has turned from sheer obedience to the ethical.’  For Katz, ‘the test Abraham had to pass was an ethical test, not a test of obedience to God. The test Abraham passed was to see the face of Isaac and abort the sacrifice. Abraham had to have seen the face of Isaac before the angel commanded him to stop’. 95 Two Midrashim attest to this interpretation.  One Midrash states that the knife had been dissolved by the tears of the angels in Heaven before the angel stated ‘lay not your hand upon the lad (22:12).96 Thus Abraham no longer had the knife to slaughter Isaac before the angel appeared and spoke. Does the disappearance of the knife suggest that Abraham could not have slaughtered his son? The second Midrash states that as Abraham held the knife ‘tears streamed from his eyes, and these tears, prompted by a father’s compassion, dropped into Isaac’s eyes’. 97 Abraham’s focus changed from God to Isaac.

Casting Out Hagar

Rembrandt, Casting Out Hagar


1 Abraham twice calls Sarah his sister. Jewish tradition suggests she may have been the daughter of Haran  and thus Abraham's niece. In Genesis where Abraham's family is introduced, his brother Nahor has, we are told, married Milcah, Abraham's other brother Haran's daughter. Haran had another daughter called Iscah, never again mentioned. Jewish tradition says Iscah is Sarai.

2 Abramovitch, H.H., The First Father, (Lanham, N.Y., 1995) pg. 45.

3 Terah was seventy years when Abraham was born (Gen. 11:26) and Abram was seventy five when he left Kharan (Gen. 12:4). Thus Terah was one hundred and forty five when Abram left and Terah lived until the age of two hundred and five. It seems very odd that Abram would leave his old father alone in Kharan (noted by Rashi, an important medieval Jewish commentator).

4 Numbers of the ages of people in the Torah are considered by many to be allegorical.

5 The Bible (Josh. 24:2) and most Jewish Midrashim suggest Terah was an idol-maker. Another suggests that he in fact aligned himself as a believer with his son Abram. ‘ It’s clear that Abraham learned this [setting their sites on the future] from his father, Terah’. Quoted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Jerusalem Post, November, 10, 2000, pg. B9.

6 Abram had already left his land and birthplace Ur and goes with his father.

7 As translated by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Genesis (Judaica Press, N.Y., 1971) pg. 238.

8 Visotzky, B.L., The Genesis of Ethics, (Crown Publishers, N.Y., 1996) pg. 25

9 The Ramban ( a great medieval commentator) claimed it is because of this sin that his children were later exiled in the land of Egypt. Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Genesis, (Shilo Publishing Co, N.Y., 1971 pg. 173.

10 A prefiguring of Moses and the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt. God says to Abram ‘I am God you brought you out’ of Ur’ (15:7). These are almost the exact words God will use about the exodus from Egypt as the opening phrase of the Ten Commandments’ (Num. 20:2).

11 Rabbi Burton Visotzky in Moyers, Bill, Genesis: A Living Conversation, (Doubleday, N.Y., 1996) pg. 158.

12 Azizah Y. al-Hibri in Moyers, pg. 158.

13 According to Rashi.

14 The difficulty in explaining Abraham’s action made ancient Jewish commentators to suggest that Sarah was ‘taken by force’ rather than what the text clearly stated. Jubilees 13:11-13, and Dead Sea Scrolls iQ20, Genesis Apocrypha col. 20:10-16, quoted in Kugel, James, Tradition Of The Bible, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998), pgs. 254-255.

15 Qumram Scroll, The Genesis Apocrypha.

16 Phyllis Trible, in Rosenblatt,J.P., and Sitterson, J.C., eds. Not In Heaven, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991) pg. 184.

17 This system of taking a servant to have a child can be seen as an ancient form of adoption. In ancient days the rich infertile wife could have her servant impregnated to have a child for herself.  In much of the twentieth century rich couples could in fact buy and adopt children from poor women. In the latter part of the twentieth century an infertile wife could contract to a surrogate mother to impregnate from her husband. That is exactly what Sarah did with Hagar, Leah with Zilpah and Rachel with Bilah.

18 Just what ‘wife’ meant is unclear. Hagar was Sarai’s servant, this ‘marriage’ would certainly change her relationship to Sarai and Abraham. The concept of concubines was known, but Hagar is not called a concubine.

19 The Hebrew describing Sarah’s states that ‘she was barren and had no children’ (11:30). Abramovitch suggests that the meaning was her inability to conceive. Abramvitch, The First Father, pg. 41. This makes her giving birth to Isaac a miracle.  We do not know what people assumed about infertility 3,000-4000 years ago. Is it  possible that Sarai thought Abram was infertile and was angry at him for not providing her with a child? Did she therefore set him up to prove it was Abram’s fault - to prove to him and herself that she was not the reason they had no children?

20 The importance of levels of acceptance and differences in nations are known in the Bible. The acceptance or lack of it with people of colour is an issue between Moses and his sister Miriam in Numbers 12:2.

21 The term abuse or afflicted in Hebrew (ta’ane’) is the same term used for the Hebrew slaves in Exodus 1:11.

22 Ramban, Genesis,  pg. 213. One wonders how history would have differed had Ishmael and Isaac lived with brotherly love. But brotherly love is a rare event in the Genesis.

23 The Qur’anic tradition considers that Hagar is the Matriarch. In the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca  one half of the rites performed are based on the life of Abraham and one half on the life of Hagar.

24 When Rachel offers Bilah as a surrogate mother and when Leah offers Zilpah as a surrogate mother, both Rachel and Leah name the children and in fact become the ‘mothers’ of the children. Sarah was not able to accomplish that task.

25 The only other person called ‘perfect’ in the Bible is the non-Jew Job.

26 The ‘h’ also has a meaning in Hebrew as the name of God.

27 Williamson, P.R., Abraham, Israel and the Nations, (JSOT, 315, Sheffield, 2000) pgs. 58-60.

28 Is that the basis of the Jewish tradition of  the ritual of Bar Mitzvah, the entering into the covenant, at the age of thirteen? It is why the Islamic circumcision is done no later than at thirteen years of age.

29 We will later see a different relationship that developed between Jacob’s two wives, their two servant concubines who indeed act as surrogate mothers.

30 Gunn, D.M. and Fewell, D.N., Narrative In The Hebrew Bible, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993) pg. 94.

31 Just as Ishmael was circumcised, no doubt Esau and Jacob as descendants of Abraham were also circumcised and presumably their descendants.

32 The next incident after Sodom involving Abraham is a repeat of the Pharaoh story. Abraham tells king Abimelech of Gerar the Sarah is his sister. This suggests on the one hand that Abraham did not believe that she could become the mother of his son. On the other hand it suggests that her beauty would still intrigue men sexually, see Gunn and Fewell pg. 96.

33 When Abraham was told this in the previous chapter he also laughed  inwardly (17:17), God ignored his thought.

34 Ha’gar can mean in the Hebrew, the sojourner.

35 As we have noted before and will note again the Bible includes the God factor and the Human factor. Whatever the reason for God’s choices He has to accept the personalities as they are. Sarah simply cannot accept Abraham’s elder son as legitimate, as an heir and as competition to her own son.

36 Cohen, N.J. Self Struggle & Change, (Jewish Lights Publishing, Vermont, 1995),  pg. 64.

37 According to Qur'anic tradition, the wild man Ishmael kicked in anger and he struck a spring of water. Al-Hibri, in Moyers, pg. 198.

38 A Midrash explains that sin of Sarah and Abraham (not leaving sufficient water and bread for Hagar and Ishmael) is the reason for the binding or sacrifice of Isaac.

39 The Qu’ran, Sura 37. While Islamic legends refer to Abraham sacrificing Ishmael the text of the Qu’ran does not name the child to be sacrificed.

40 Abraham and Job are the only people, in the Bible God tested. In the Book of Job, God is convinced to test Job by Satan. While the reason for Abraham’s testing is not explained in the text, in Jubilees an angel (traditionally named Satan) tells God  that if Abraham agrees then ‘you will know if he is truthful in every affliction which he had told him’ (17:17). Quoted by Kugel, Tradition pg. 59.

41 Exile becomes a major motif in Jewish history - the exile of Jacob from his home, the exile of Joseph, the exile of the Hebrews to Egypt (at Joseph’s suggestion), the exile to Assyria, the exile to Babylon and again by the Romans. All this is prefigured in the Covenant  of the Pieces (Gen. 15:9-11) after the promise (Gen. 15:5) and before the Covenant of the Circumcision.

42 Binding rather than sacrifice because Isaac is not sacrificed.

43 Sarah died immediately after the akeda at the age of 127 (23:1). Isaac was born when she was 90 years old.

44 In the Book of Judith it is Isaac who is tested (8:26).

45 Genesis 12:3;15:18 and 17:4.

46 Perhaps he learnt, given the destruction of Sodom, God’s will is done.

47 Quoted by James Mensch, Abraham and Isaac: A Question of Theodicy, (Saint Fancis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada) pg. 6.  Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals, translated by H.J.Paton, (Harper and Rowm N.Y., 1964) pg.70.

48 The term in Hebrew can be singular or plural.

49 Ginsberg, L., Legends of The Bible, (JPS, Philadelphia, 1975) pg.134-135.

50 Developed by James Mensch, pg. 11 from The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Levinas, ‘T. Wright, P. Hughes, A. Ainsley (interviewers), trans.A. Benjamin and T. Wright, in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, ed. R. Bernasconi and D. Wood (Routledge, London, 1988).

51 Steiner, George, A Conversation Piece, Granta, 15, (Granta Publications, Cambridge, 1985) Pg. 167-168. In the essay Steiner has one voice suggesting that the God of the Christians could order this act, but not the God of Israel. The other voice then suggests that the God of Israel slew the first born of Egypt and Job's children.

52 Note how close to Satan’s comments in Job these are. In both cases God abuses His friends for the sake of His servant Satan.

53 Sura 37:102

54 Lapide, P., The Resurrection of Jesus, (SPCK, London, 1983) pg. 106-108.

55 Gunn and Fewell, pg. 99.

56 Immanuel Kant in The Conflict of the Faculties, quoted in an article Delaney, C., in Brenner, A., Genesis, Second Series, (Sheffield University Press, Sheffield, 1998) pg. 143.

57 Maimonides tells us that a prophet who obeys a command of God that is against Jewish law is a false prophet. Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah, 9:3. Thus Maimonides rejects the idea of a theological suspension of the ethical. The Talmud tells us ‘better observance without God than God without observance’ JT Hagigah 1:7.

58 Bodoff, L., Bible Review, Vol. 9 #5, Oct. 1993, and also in an expanded version in Judaism, Vol. 42, #1, 1993

59 Phyllis Trible and Norman Cohen have suggested that Abraham’s love of the promise had become Abraham’s idol and this was sacrificed on the Mountain of Moriah. Moyers, pg. 227.

60 Some have asked what kind of religion abuses a child and asks that he be sacrificed.

61 Kafka, Franz, Parables and Paradoxes, (Fontana, London, 1975) pg. 43.

62 Ginzberg, Legends, pg. 134.

63 Cohen, Self Struggle, pg. 87

64 Quoting in Kuschel, Karl-Joseph, Abraham: A Symbol of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims, (SCM London, 1995) pg. 29.

65 We will not later on find a similar and devastating family secret, when Jacob’s sons kidnap Joseph, their father’s favorite and send him off to Egypt. They tell their father he was killed. That family secret lasted twenty years.

66 Bialik, H.N., Ravnitsky, Y.H. eds., The Book of Legends, Translated by William Braude, (Schocken Books, NY, 1992) Pg. 40.

67 Bialik, Book of Legends, Pg. 40.

68 Steiner, Pg. 175.

69 In the Hebrew scroll the letter in the midst of the word crying is written in miniature, perhaps to recognize that finally Abraham shows emotion and realized what he had lost with the death of Sarah.

70 Ginsberg,  pg. 123-125. Almost exactly the same story is told by Muslim commentators see Ayoub, M, The Qur’an and its Interpretors, Vol 1, (SUNY, Albany, 1984) pg. 163

71 Sefer ha’Yashav, chapter 21:1, pg. 41a-b, quoted in Cohen, Self Struggle, pg. 74.

72 Genesis Rabbah 61:4, pg. 542-543.

73 The Book of Jubilees, chapter 22.

74 Genesis Rabbah, 62:3, pg. 552.

75 Kuschel, pg. XXVIII. Kuschel calls him Israel’s legacy, equally accurate.

76 In Islam the most important title of Abraham is God’s friend (‘halil’ in Arabic). Islamic tradition explains that at the akeda Abraham could not say no to his friend. In Arabic ‘halil’ – friend – is the name of Hebron where Abraham is buried.

77 When Isaac meets Rebekah he will state that his marriage comforted him for the death of his mother.

78 Despite the unlikeness to the author some ancient Rabbis held she went with Abraham to the sacrifice. ‘I’m going to be an equal partner. I’ll dig up the dirt and make the altar. Let my hair be binding to tie up Isaac’. Visotzky, Moyers, pg. 238.

79 Eleanor Wilner, Sarah’s Choice, quoted in Delaney Carol, Abraham On Trial, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998) pg. 133.

80 Bach, Alice, Women in the Hebrew Bible, (Routledge, N.Y., 1999)  pg. 280.

81 Cohen in Moyers, pg. 238.

82 Keirkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling and the Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie, (Doubleday and Co., Garden City, 1954) pgs. 39-41, quoted in James Mensch, Abraham and Isaac: A Question of Theodicy, Saint Francis University

83 Delaney, Abraham pg. 5.

84 Delaney, pg. 53.

85 Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and  Trembling, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1941) pg. 1:64.

86 One of the many reasons this story horrifies us is that we all know people, God centered or human centered, who ‘sacrifice’ their children for their own reasons and whose children remain traumatized. Because this story and the story of Job, both tests of faith, are  told as God centered and we by definition are human centered God cannot look good.

87 4 Macc. 14:20

88 Delaney, pg. 197. Delaney also notes that Jesus at his death cried out ‘Father, Father, why have you forsaken me? P. 229.

89 Freud, Sigmund, Moses and Monotheism, (Vintage Books, N.Y., 1939) pg. 211.

90  Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by H.J.Paton, (Harper and Row, N.Y., 1964) pg.70.

91 Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, Trans. A. Lingis (Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh Pa, 1969) pg. 199.

92 Father James Mensch, ‘Abraham and Isaac: A Question of Theodicy’ pg. 11 from The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Levinas, ‘T. Wright, P. Hughes, A. Ainsley (interviewers), translated by A. Benjamin and T. Wright, in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, ed. R. Bernasconi and D. Wood (Routledge, London, 1988).

93 Emmanuel Levinas, “A Propos of “Kierkegaard vivant,” Proper Names, translated. Michael B. Smith  (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1996) pg. 77.

94 Mensch, pg. 27.

95 Claire Elise Katz, “The Voice of God and the Face of the Other:  Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Abraham,””   .

96 Genesis Rabba 56:7

97 Genesis Rabba 56:8