Binding of Isaac

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The Binding of Isaac is the common name for a story from 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 to Elohim. Abraham unquestioningly accepts the order and prepares to murder his son, but, at the very last minute, an angel tells him to stop because he was merely being tested. Abraham butchers a ram instead, and is told that he will be rewarded for his blind obedience with a large number of offspring who will successfully conquer enemy cities.


The story appears in the Book of Genesis, chapter 22, verses 1 to 19. The following is the New International Version translation:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."
Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."
Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.


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.


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

The oldest commentary by Jewish authors states that Abraham knew he was merely being tested, and 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 Christians I've spoken to about this topic (mostly American Evangelicals) 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, but now predominately agree that it was Ishmael, not Isaac.

Historical Evidence

Other than the account in Genesis, there is no evidence that this story ever actually happened. There is no reasonable evidence that Abraham or Isaac existed, and the Quran is not a secondary source, but rather a modification of the original written at least 1,000 years later.


My biggest criticism is the immorality of this story. Taking the story from the most literal interpretation, Abraham really believes that he is going to have to murder his son, and he prepares to do so without question.

Also, three times throughout the story, Isaac is referred to as Abraham's "only" son, which is incorrect. In the chronology of Genesis, Abraham rapes his wife's slave woman and she gives birth to Ishmael, Abraham's first son. The story could be repaired if it said that Isaac was Abraham's only "legitimate" son, but it does not say this. The statements could also be correct if Ishmael were dead

Another criticism I have is Yahweh's reward to Abraham. He explains that the whole earth will be blessed because Abraham will have many children who 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 barbaric bloody genocide. Yahweh could have given Abraham's children the gift of persuasion and they could have used arguments to convert these so-called "enemies" to the truth, or simply shown everyone on earth the truth, but, instead, he chooses violent wars.


The majority of paintings of the Binding of Isaac take artistic liberties with the story. Most of them show an angel physically stopping Abraham from murdering his son just as he's under the knife which is incorrect since the story states that the angel spoke from heaven. Also, 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 painting is guilty of both of these inconsistencies.

In season 3, episode 6 of That Mitchell and Webb Look the comedic duo depict Abraham and Isaac as all-too eager to fulfill Yahweh's sacrifice, to the point of shocking him, pointing out the flaw in so many religious doctrines: if humans are incapable of figuring out morality on their own, a god's commands must be assumed to be correct no matter what.