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 to Elohim. 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 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.

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, 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 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, not Isaac.

Historical Evidence

Other than the account in Genesis, 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 based on 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 is mentioned several times in the early Hebrew scriptures.

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 suggests that humans should not only use their fallible mortal reasoning to know what's right, but they should place it above the express demands of their 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. Abraham is convinced that there are no real consequences to his actions — Isaac will be alive and well at the end of this — so obedience requires no effort on his behalf.

The literal interpretation is immoral

This is how 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 and makes it a proper test of obedience. Since Abraham loves his son, he wouldn't want to murder him, and there is no mention that Abraham thinks the request is anything but genuine.

By not forcing anything extra into the story, it is a proper test of obedience, but 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 could 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.

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

However, I do find that this story has an interesting use 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 religious people agree they're mentally ill, and they certainly don't entertain the idea that those parents might actually be doing the bidding of their god. 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. 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 a 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 violent wars.

Yahweh's reward is repeated

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, Genesis is in error as it is written.

Sacrifice would mean nothing to Abraham

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 earlier even more barbaric religions.

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 stories were like originally. Perhaps in the purely Elohist version Abraham succeeded in murdering Isaac?

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. With objective morality, if it's wrong to do something to one person, it's wrong to to is to everyone.

Throughout the scripture of Jews and Christians, a common theme is that it is wrong to test the god of the bible (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7, among many others). However, in this story, Yahweh tests Abraham. If it's wrong for humans to test Yahweh, it should be wrong for Yahweh to test humans, otherwise, this is subjective morality.

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 especially brutal and torture on the animal. No all-good being would ever request it.

Adaptions

Art

Caravaggio's inaccurate Sacrifice of Isaac.

The vast majority of artists who have painted the Binding of Isaac have taken artistic liberties with the story. Probably the most popular is that most show an angel physically intervening in the murder of Isaac as he's under the knife, but 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, but 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 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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