The Akedah

September 15, 2011
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Stuart Forman

We usually look at the story of the Akedah as a Test by G-d of Abraham. However, Tradition tells us that Isaac was 37 years old when the test occurred – far from a young boy. None of the story could have unfolded without Isaac’s cooperation. How could an old man such as Abraham bind a younger man of 37 years old if Isaac had not been an active participant? And what person would submit to being sacrificed willingly by his own father?

The story poses serious concerns which the legend tries to deal with. Throughout the Tanakh text, the tension between fathers and sons unfolds. In this story, the complex relationship is played out in a most dramatic way.

It may well be that Abraham is a co-conspirator with G-d in this test. He tells his two “servants” to remain at the base of the Mountain while he and Isaac ascend, telling them to remain, and “…WE WILL RETURN TO YOU.” The text says “we” and not “I”. Had Abraham foreseen that the sacrifice would actually have taken place he would not have said “we” referring to Isaac and to himself?

So, why test his son in this dramatic way?

Over the millennia, the Jewish People have been equally tested. The numerous massacres, persecutions, and finally the Holocaust have all tested us against the sacrifice of our lives. These are harsh tests. If G-d is viewed as a father (Avinu she’b’shamayim) and we as children then the Akedah is ongoing throughout our history. Yet, “we” (father and children) have returned together from these tests.

Perhaps, the Akedah is the foreshadow of the rest of Jewish history. It is not so much that we have offered ourselves for sacrifice, as that we have returned, firm in our reliance on convictions of our ancestors. Tested, but not broken. Alive and not dead. In the here and now and not ashes.

Isaac had to earn the faith of his father to become an inheritor of that faith. What would become his future was not only based on his father’s convictions, but on his own. Each of us must become a person in our own right to be able to live. If Isaac had not been  so tested, it is Abraham who would not have had an inheritor. After the Akedah, Abraham was convinced that his faith would be upheld against the many tribulations which that faith would expose his descendents to.

Perhaps it really is Isaac who is the hero of this legend and the foreshadower of our own relationships to our own history. We cannot just accept the ideas and resolutions of our parents and ancestors. We must acquire them for ourselves, if they are to sustain us through the difficulties of the realities of our own present.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr. Stuart Forman:

    I am a Christian and I have several questions about the finale of the Akedah story. It is clear from the text of Scripture that the inspired author(s) (Moses and or later redactors if you hold to the so-called “Documentary Hypothesis”) stress(es) that Abraham and Isaac “went on together” to the mountain, leaving their servants behind (cf. Gen. 22: 5, 6, 8). Clearly, HaShem (through a divine messenger, G-d or an angel?) spares Isaac by providing a ram (or lamb?) as a sacrifice instead. Thus, Isaac was spared (Gen 22: 12-14). However, what happened to Isaac immediately after this traumatic event? Although Abraham returned to his men (Gen. 22: 19), Isaac is not mentioned as being with him, despite the promise in Gen 22: 5 that both he and Isaac would come back to meet the servants left behind? Where is Isaac? Did he choose to not come down with his father? If Isaac did accompany his father, why is he not mentioned by name and only Abraham appears as a character at the end of the Akedah? (After all, both are explicitly mentioned as going up the mountain together, why wouldn’t both be explicitly mentioned as coming down together?) What do the rabbis of old and or today have to say about the conclusion of the “Binding of Isaac”?

    Thank you for any rabbinical commentary you’re aware of on this matter.


    Roberto Pacheco
    Florida International University
    Miami, FL

    Posted by
    Roberto Pacheco
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