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.

Unlike many of the stories in Genesis, the Binding of Isaac appears to be an original Hebrew story.


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.


Elohim/Yahweh Is Evil

My biggest criticism is the immorality of this story. Religious interpretations force content into the story to try to make it seem less barbaric than it actually is, but when you remove their spin and use a literal appraisal, the story is horrific.

In the story, Elohim commands Abraham to murder his son, and Abraham carries out his order without any mention of argument, hesitation, or remorse. If I heard a voice telling me to murder my children, I would seek mental help. If I believed the voice were a god, I would tell the god that demanding murder is something only an evil god would do, and I wouldn't obey.

The Jewish Interpretation Makes the Test Pointless

In the Jewish interpretation, Abraham is fully aware that Elohim is testing him the moment he demands a human sacrifice. This is nowhere to be found in the text, but the Jewish belief is that Abraham would know it to be true based on his existing understanding of Elohim. This interpretation has two problems. The first is that, it requires that people trust their own understanding over a direct commandment from their god, which most religious people are quick to point out should never be done. The second problem is, if Abraham knew it was all a test, then his obedience is unimpressive. Obedience only matters when you have to do something difficult or confusing. If someone orders you, with a wink and a nod, to do someone extremely difficult, and you're confident they won't actually let you do it, then it is no effort to go through the motions, secure in the knowledge you won't actually have to do the task they commanded.

The Christian Interpretation Makes the Test Pointless

In the Christian interpretation, Abraham believes he will have to murder his son, but he believes Elohim will raise Isaac from the dead after he has been sacrificed. Much like the second problem with the Jewish interpretation, this makes the test pointless. Abraham is convinced that there are no real consequences to his actions, so obedience doesn't require any effort on his behalf.

Isaac Would Be Traumatized For Life

What is left out of the story and the religious interpretations is 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. 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 vague 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 knife up to your throat. At this point, you're freaking out at your clearly insane father, but, as luck would have it, your father hears a voice from the sky telling him it was all a ruse. He unties you and kills an animal instead. Then you walk back home with him. Should you ask him, "what the hell man?" Should you tell your mother or alert the authorities? Will you be prepared for the next time he tries to murder you?

Yahweh's Reward Is Immoral

Yahweh rewards Abraham's obedience with the gift of many offspring which are to be 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 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 barbaric wars.

Contradictions With the Rest of Genesis

There are a couple parts of this story that contradict earlier parts of Genesis.

Three times throughout the story Isaac is referred to as Abraham's "only" son. However, in the chronology of Genesis, after Abraham rapes his wife's slave woman Hagar, 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, but his death age is accounted for in Genesis, showing that he would still be alive at this point in the narrative.

Yahweh rewards Abraham's obedience with countless offspring. However, he already did this back in Genesis 13:16. And then again in Genesis 15:5. And again in Genesis 17:6. Each time it's the same reward, but for different reasons. The authors just couldn't seem to make up their minds.

Evidence For the Documentary Hypothesis

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.


Caravaggio's inaccurate Sacrifice of Isaac.

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 inaccuracies.

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 command for sacrifice, even to the point where they shock Yahweh. The skit is meant to satirize the flaw in so many religious doctrines: if humans are incapable of figuring out morality on their own, a god's commands must be presumed to be perfectly correct without even considering it might be evil.

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, so Isaac hides from her in the basement.