Binding of Isaac

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A mural at the Dura-Europos Synagogue in Syria, c.245 CE. One of the earliest surviving depictions of the story.

The Binding of Isaac is the common name for a Jewish story found in the Book of Genesis where the patriarch Abraham is commanded by Elohim to murder his son Isaac and burn his corpse as a human sacrifice. Abraham unquestioningly accepts the order and prepares to murder his son, but, at the last minute, an angel of Yahweh tells Abraham to stop because he was merely being tested. Abraham then sacrifices a ram and is told that he will be rewarded for his obedience with a large number of offspring who will conquer their enemies.

Source

The story appears in Genesis 22:1-19. The following is the New Revised Standard Version translation:

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

And he said, "Here I am."

He said, "Take your son, your only 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 that I shall show you."

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!"

And he said, "Here I am, my son."

He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"

Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."

So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!"

And he said, "Here I am."

He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice."

So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Dating

Although the Book of Genesis, as we receive it today, was finalized around 400 BCE, portions of this story are probably much older. According to the documentary hypothesis, the bulk of Genesis was formed when the Elohist and Yahwist sources were merged together around 650 BCE, but the Elohist and Yahwist sources themselves are estimated to have been first formulated around 900 BCE and 750 BCE respectfully. Since the final story contains elements from both sources, and both sources describe a similar narrative, the story must predate unification making it at least as old at 700 BCE.

Interpretations

The interpretation of this story is different in each major Abrahamic religion, but the primary moral seems to be: unquestioning obedience to the god of Abraham yields reward.

The oldest commentary by Jewish authors states that Abraham knew he was merely being tested, He was simply carrying out the actions with a wink and a nod, confident that he would never be expected to murder his son.

Early Christians accepted the Jewish interpretation, but later Christians adopted an interpretation where Abraham believed Isaac would be raised from the dead after he was murdered. The American Evangelical Christians I've spoken to about this topic have a more literal approach where Abraham had no idea it was a test, and believed he was about to murder his son.

The Quran has a significantly modified version of the story, where Abraham has a vision that he is to sacrifice his son, and his son willingly agrees to be sacrificed, but they are stopped at the last minute. Early Muslims couldn't agree which son Abraham was going to kill (the Quran doesn't explicitly say, but alludes to Isaac), but now they predominately agree that it was Ishmael, who is far more important to their religion.

Historical Evidence

Other than the brief account in Genesis which is horribly convoluted and redacted, there is no evidence that this story ever actually happened. There is no credible evidence that Abraham or Isaac existed and no credible evidence that Jehovah-jireh, the site mentioned in the story, ever existed. The Quran is not a secondary source, but rather a modification of the original which was written at least 1,000 years later.

Criticisms

The Jewish interpretation makes the test pointless

In the Jewish interpretation Abraham is immediately aware that Elohim is testing him. based on the fact that Abraham would recognize the demand for human sacrifice to be disingenuous due to his existing understanding of Elohim. This interpretation has three main problems.

The first is that it has no scriptural basis. There is no mention in any book written around the same time that Abraham thought Elohim's command was a test. In fact, quite the opposite, human sacrifice for Yahweh is mentioned multiple times in the early Hebrew books, so it wouldn't be out of the question.

The second problem is that it requires people trust their own understanding over a direct commandment from their god. A common theme in the Abrahamic faiths is that human reasoning is limited and cannot be trusted and people should instead defer to their god to know what is right or wrong. However, this interpretation means a human not only relied on his fallible mortal reasoning to know what's right, but placed it above the express demands of his god.

The third problem is, if Abraham knew this was merely a test, then his obedience is pointless. Obedience only matters when you have to do something difficult. If you ordered a child to eat candy, you wouldn't praise their obedience, they wanted to eat the candy anyway. However, you might praise them for obediently brushing their teeth even when they didn't want to. Likewise, if an employee agrees to do a difficult task, but their boss gives them a wink and a nod assuring them they won't actually have to do it, then the employee doesn't deserve to be rewarded for their obedience; it was all pretend.

The Christian interpretation makes the test pointless

In the traditional Christian interpretation Abraham believes he will have to go through with murdering his son, but he believes Elohim will raise Isaac from the dead after he has been murdered. Much like the Jewish interpretation, there is no scriptural evidence for this, and it also renders the test pointless. If Abraham is convinced that there are no real consequences to his actions — Isaac will be alive and well at the end of this — then his obedience requires no sacrifice on his behalf.

An alternate reason for both this and the Jewish interpretation is found with an earlier citation. In Genesis 17:19, Elohim tells Abraham that Isaac will have descendants. But, if Abraham were to sacrifice Isaac before he could have children, he couldn't have any descendants, and that would mean Elohim broke his word, which he would never do. Thus, Abraham would know that something would ensure Isaac's survival. I see a couple problems with this as well. First, the god of the Torah frequently changes his mind about his promises, so failing to keep his word is not so unexpected. Second, from a literary stance, its easy to see how the binding of Isaac narrative was not written by the same author as earlier passages, so, it makes more sense that this is simply a plot hole introduced by bad story writing than a logic puzzle for Abraham.

The literal interpretation is immoral

Most Evangelical Christians I've met interpret the story as it is written; Elohim plainly commands Abraham to murder the son whom he loves without giving him any justification, and Abraham blindly carries out the order without any mention of argument or hesitation. This interpretation doesn't add anything to the story which isn't there.

By not forcing anything extra into the story, it is a proper test of obedience since Abraham will have to do something he doesn't want to do, however, it's also quite horrific. The adherents of Abrahamic religions view their god as all-good and all-powerful. It is conceivable that an all-good god who was limited in power would require a small amount of evil in order to construct an even greater good, but, if the god were also all-powerful, then it would be unnecessary, so this story falls prey to the problem of evil. If Abraham were aware that his god were both all-good and all-powerful, he would know that his god would never ask him to do anything immoral. Abraham should have instantly rebuked the order presuming it was coming from Satan. In fact, pretending to be Yahweh in order to convince a human to do something evil is precisely the sort of thing you would expect Satan would do. If Abraham truly believe in an all-good god, then he failed the test.

Consider similarly manipulative, but far less barbaric, "tests" people have been known to pull on each other: a girlfriend "tests" her boyfriend's reaction by pretending she's pregnant, a boyfriend "tests" his girlfriend's reaction by pretending to have an STD, a boss "tests" an employee's reaction by pretending to fire them, a parent "tests" their children's reaction by pretending to be dying, and so forth. Those people who have been subjected to such "tests" understand just how cruel they are.

I find this interpretation to be very useful in modern discussions about morality. When religious people taut the importance of obedience to their god and the inability of humans to make moral judgments, this story helps to explain why their beliefs are internally inconsistent. If they truly practiced what they preached, they should always cheerfully accept any despicable command that their god makes (murder, rape, genocide, etc.), confident it is the perfectly moral thing to do.

The secular interpretation depicts mental disturbance

These days, when people claim to hear a voice in their heads telling them to murder their children, even deeply religious people don't entertain the idea. They agree they're mentally ill and need to be institutionalized. Sadly, this story has been cited as justification for countless mentally ill parents who have committed infanticide, and will certainly be used as inspiration for countless more.

Isaac would be traumatized for life

Interpretations of this story never seem to mention how Isaac feels about all this. Put yourself in his shoes: you're taking a long journey with your father carrying a heavy bundle of firewood on your back (implying that you're old enough to understand what's going on). Your father explains that the two of you are going to perform a sacrifice to your god, which you understand to mean an animal sacrifice. You ask your father, where is the animal? And he gives a less-than-forthright answer about your god providing it. When you get to the site of the sacrifice, your father ties you down on the very same wood you trudged all this way, and raises a blade to your throat. At this point, you're freaking out at your clearly-insane father, but, as luck would have it, your father hears another voice from the sky telling him it was all a ruse. He unties you, kills an animal instead, and then gives a fun name to the site of your would-be murder. Then, you walk back home with him. Should you ask him, "what the hell, man?" Should you alert the authorities? How well will you sleep knowing that at any moment, he might try to murder you again?

Yahweh's reward is immoral

Yahweh rewards Abraham's obedience with the gift of many offspring which are described as a blessing to the whole earth because they will "take possession of the cities of their enemies." And, we see later in the Torah precisely how Abraham's offspring "possess" these cities: through violent bloody genocide. Yahweh could have given Abraham's children the gift of persuasion that they might use cogent argument to convert their so-called "enemies" to the truth, or simply used his omnipotence to show everyone on earth the truth, but, he instead chooses bloody wars.

Yahweh's reward is a repeat

At the story's end, Yahweh rewards Abraham's obedience with countless offspring. However, Yahweh already gave Abraham this same reward back in Genesis 13:16. And again in Genesis 15:5. And then again once more in Genesis 17:6. All four times Abraham is blessed with obscene proliferation, but the authors of Genesis just couldn't seem to make up their minds for which reason.

Isaac is not Abraham's only son

Three times throughout the story Isaac is referred to as Abraham's "only" son, which is wrong. In the chronology of Genesis, before this story Abraham rapes his wife's slave, Hagar, and she gives birth to Ishmael who is Abraham's first son. Later in the narrative Abraham's wife Sarah gives birth to Isaac, his second son. If Ishmael were dead, this statement could be true, but Genesis gives a time line for all the characters' lives, and Ishmael is still alive when Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac. The story could be rectified if it said that Isaac was Abraham's only "legitimate" son, or the only son "he actually cared about," but, as Genesis is written, it is in error.

Abraham wouldn't understand the concept of a sacrifice

All of the explanations for how to conduct a sacrifice and why sacrifices are necessary in the first place are not mentioned anywhere in the Torah until after the Hebrews leave Egypt with Moses in the Book of Exodus, which, in the chronology of the Torah, doesn't occur until several generations after Abraham is dead. This means Abraham, and all the other patriarchs prior to Moses, should have no idea what a "sacrifice" entails, unless they're using the definition of many of the earlier, non-Jewish, religions which had animal sacrifice.

The story has been altered

The minor inconsistencies internal to the story add weight to the documentary hypothesis. The first half of the story uses the term God ("Elohim"), while the second half uses Lord ("Yahweh"). Also, in the Elohist portion, Elohim speaks directly to Abraham, while, in the Yahwist portion, an intermediary angel is used. Literary scholars also describe how each section uses a different writing style consistent with their other contributions. This indicates the story is not a single narrative, but two or more stories that have been combined. This makes you wonder what the various stories were like originally.

The position of the story, like most of those in Genesis, is disjointed. There is no segue into or out of the tale, it's shoved between Abraham's dispute with Abimelech and the lineage of Rebecca. This is less of a critique of story itself, and more a critique of the Torah's friable structure.

Obedience is incompatible with free will

This story also creates a theological inconsistency with many modern branches of Christianity who taut the importance of free will. To them, their god imbued all people with the freedom to make their own decisions. However, in this story, reward comes, not from exercising free will, but from blindly obeying commands. Yahweh rewards the automaton, not the free thinker.

Subjective morality

It's typical for tyrants to create one law for the ruled and a different law for the ruler, but this is subjective morality. In an objective moral system, if it's wrong to do something to anyone, it's wrong to do it to everyone.

A common theme in both Jewish and Christian scripture is that it's wrong to test the god of the bible (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7, among many others). If Yahweh uses an objective moral system, and it's immoral to test him, it must therefore be immoral for him to test others, and yet, Yahweh tests Abraham, showing either that he is immoral, or he uses a subjective moral system.

Animal sacrifice is immoral

As it is described in the Torah, the purpose of animal sacrifice is to serve as a proxy for human sins, and, by killing the animal, you've absolved your own sins. This is not how justice works. Furthermore, the way animal sacrifice is described in the Torah is needleasly brutal and tortuous to the animal. No all-good being would ever request it. Also, even after Yahweh reveals it was all a test, Abraham still sacrifices the ram to Yahweh.

Adaptions

Art

Caravaggio's inaccurate Sacrifice of Isaac.

In nearly every piece of art I've seen depicting the Binding of Isaac, the artist has taken artistic liberties with the story. Probably the most popular liberty can be seen in the depiction of an angel physically intervening in the murder of Isaac as he's under the knife, even though the actual story states the angel spoke to Abraham from heaven. Also, many art pieces show Isaac on a hewn altar, either from cut stone or similar in design to the one described in the Book of Leviticus, which is anachronistic. The story places the sacrifice in a mountain wilderness with firewood as the altar. Some depictions show the angel pointing toward the ram indicating Abraham should sacrifice it instead, but, in the story, Abraham sacrifices the ram without any prompting. Caravaggio's famous painting, though my personal favorite because of how utterly barbaric it is, is guilty of all three of these inaccuracies.

Comics

In 2010, the Blasphemer's Bible depicted the story from Genesis and added commentary in comics 255-263.

Film

In season 3, episode 6 of That Mitchell and Webb Look, which aired on 2009-07-16, the comedic duo depict Abraham and Isaac as all-too-eager to fulfill Yahweh's command for sacrifice, to the point where Yahweh is so shocked he tells them to stop. The skit satirizes the flaw in so many religious doctrines: if humans are incapable of figuring out morality on their own, a god's commands must be seen as the most perfectly moral thing to do, no matter how evil they may seem to an outside observer.

Video Games

The video game The Binding of Isaac uses this story as inspiration. In the game, Isaac's mother has a mental illness where she believes she hears the voice of her god telling her to murder her son. As she prepares to do so, Isaac attempts to hide from her in the basement.

Links

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