Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when the story of the Binding of Isaac is read in Temples throughout the world. Here is an interpretation of this troubling story that may provide some food for thought. L’ Shana Tova!
THE BINDING OF ISAAC
The most important story about Isaac in Genesis, and one of the most important (and troubling) stories in the Bible, is this terrifying story of sacrifice. God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” So the next morning, Abraham and Isaac headed off to Moriah.
Abraham gathered and split wood for the sacrificial fire, and placed the wood on Isaac’s back – not unlike the Roman practice of crucifixion, in which the victim carried his own wooden cross on his back. Abraham took the fire and the knife, and the two walked off together. “Father”, asked Isaac, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham said that God would provide the sheep. When they arrived at the place God had appointed, Abraham built an altar, laid out the wood, and bound Isaac. He lifted his knife, and then a voice called to him from heaven: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.” Abraham then saw a ram stuck in a thicket. He got the ram, and offered it to the Lord in the place of his son.
If Abraham, as the Kabbalah states, is the essence of Mercy and Kindness, how could he do this? The usual interpretation is that it demonstrated Abraham’s absolute devotion to God, it showed that he was prepared to put God’s wishes above everything else, even the welfare of his own child, and God appreciated this and rewarded him.
But there is something utterly horrific in this interpretation of a God who would torment his loyal followers in this way, and even pretend to demand that they sacrifice their children for His pleasure. And Abraham himself comes off as an inhuman monster.
There has to be more, and there is.
The usual image of Isaac is that he was a helpless little boy. But the information in Genesis suggests, and the Talmud and the Kabbalah confirm, that Isaac was a fully grown man of thirty-seven, old enough to make his own decisions. Sarah’s death is recorded immediately after the binding of Isaac. She was 90 when he was born, and died at the age of 127 (when Isaac was 37), presumably a result of the stress and shock. As additional evidence, we note that a boy of five or seven could not carry the amount of wood needed for a sacrifice on his back up a mountain. But nowhere is there any indication that he tried to stop the sacrifice: Abraham built the altar, placed the wood, bound Isaac, and lifted the knife, all without a single word of objection.
Isaac, in a supreme act of inner strength and unselfishness, offered himself to be sacrificed.
If Isaac had objected, Abraham could not have continued. Mercy and kindness could not pull this off alone. But Isaac’s role in the story (and this is the necessary human quality that he represents symbolically within our individual souls) is to rein in any extravagant excess of kindness with a strength and severity that is able to make difficult decisions and judgments. Isaac is a counter-balance to Abraham, and it is not quite correct to say that Abraham did this thing: they both did this thing, two consenting adults who needed each other. In other words, both of these qualities – Abraham’s ‘Mercy’ and Isaac’s ‘Severity’ – must be present for our soul to flourish.
Just as Mercy can ‘go too far’, the quality of Severity, which opposes and balances the giving-nature of Mercy, can also ‘go too far’, becoming fierce and selfish. Isaac, the beloved child who had been longed for for a hundred years, had naturally been rather spoiled by his doting parents. It was his nature to receive, to take, always for himself. He had to give that up to follow this command of God. That day in Moriah, with each others’ help, both men sacrificed their weaknesses.
All of this, of course, is a level of psychological interpretation. There is also a spiritual meaning in the story. In its most esoteric sense, the sacrifice of Isaac actually is completed! Isaac dies! That is, the inner ‘Son’ [here, Isaac] of the ‘Father’ [here, Abraham], precisely by not returning to God, makes the supreme sacrifice of ‘dying’ to the heavenly life of eternal Being, and descends into the material life of Becoming in order to experience mortality.
It is interesting to note that in the Islamic tradition it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who went up the mountain with Abraham to submit to the sacrifice. We can argue to the end of our days about the historical veracity of these two competing claims, but this is beside the point. Both stories are symbolic representations of the same profound psychological and spiritual processes that occur deep within the human soul, and in this sense both stories are equally true.
Immediately after this, Sarah passed away. When the time of mourning was over, Abraham, still the doting father, sent his servant to the land of his birth in order to find a wife for Isaac. The servant brought ten camels laden with gifts, and when he arrived outside the city he stopped beside a well and prayed for a sign. Instantly the beautiful Rebecca appeared, who turned out to be the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, and who possessed a generous and loving nature much like Abraham himself. Rebecca agreed to return with Abraham’s servant and marry Isaac.
Just as Rebecca reached the home of Abraham, “Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi”, which means ‘the well of the Living One who sees me’, and was so named many years earlier by Hagar, Ishmael’s mother and Abraham’s banished concubine. He ‘looked up’ and saw Rebecca approaching on a camel. She also ‘looked up’ and saw Isaac. “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”
In the very next sentence the Bible tells us that Abraham also now remarried, this time to a woman named Keturah, and they had several children. Before he died, he gave these children many gifts, and sent them “to the land of the East.” Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five years old, and then “breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented, and he was gathered to his kin.” Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah beside Sarah. After this, we are told, “Isaac settled near Beer-lahai-roi.” The episode then ends with a summary of the posterity of Ishmael, all of whom “camped alongside all their kinsmen.”
This perplexing medley of information begins to make sense when we learn from the oral tradition that ‘Keturah’ was another name for Hagar. ‘Keturah’ means perfumed, and it is said in Jewish lore that Hagar was ‘perfumed with good deeds’. Now consider all the implications. Before Rebecca arrived, Isaac had been in Beer-lahai-roi — which strongly suggests that he had been living with Hagar and his brother Ishmael. Isaac and Ishmael evidently brought Hagar and Abraham back together again after the death of Sarah. Abraham lived another thirty-seven years and had many more children, as did Ishmael, and this formerly divided family lived all together once again, everyone “alongside their kinsmen”. When Abraham passed away, Isaac and Ishmael brought him home and buried him with Sarah, and then Isaac returned to the family and “settled near Beer-lahai-roi.”
Spiritually, the story reminds us that the various inner forces within the soul, no matter how divergent, can still reunite and work together in a state of harmony. On a psychological and family level, it suggests that it is never too late for broken families to come back to each other and heal their wounds. On a social and political level, given the immense importance of this particular family for all of western history, it clearly tells us that since Isaac and Ishmael could reunite as brothers, there is no reason why their children, Jews and Muslims, cannot do the same.
For many more stories and interpretations from the Bible and Qur’an, see my book,
SYMBOLS, MEANING, AND THE SACRED QUEST:SPIRITUAL AWAKENING IN JEWISH, CHRISTIAN AND ISLAMIC STORIES