Genesis establishes many of the basic themes for understanding the rest of the Bible. Therefore, the harrowing story of how Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac on Mount Moriah is more important and more troubling than if it appeared later in the Bible or if its chief human protagonist were anyone other than the prototypical ancestor Abraham. The key term for understanding the story appears in verse 12: “Now I know that you are one-who-fears-God, since you did not withhold your son, your one-and-only, from me” (author’s translation). Many biblical passages identify “fear of God” as the core religious virtue, “the best part of wisdom” (
Did you know…?
Gen 22:1-19is popularly known by Christians as “the Sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jews as “the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac.” The latter term is more accurate, since Isaac was released before the sacrifice was accomplished.
- Abraham is the first person in the Bible to be identified as a “prophet” (
Gen 20:7)—and it is God who so identifies him.
- There is no biblical Hebrew word that is equivalent to the modern term “religion”; “fear of the Lord/of God” is the equivalent biblical term.
- Abraham is the first person in the Bible to be identified as “one-who-fears God”—that is, as a “religious” person.
- The Qur’an gives a similar account of the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son (Qur’an 37:100-107), although it does not specifically name which son is involved—a matter that was much debated by early Islamic scholars. Later tradition has widely identified the son in question as Ishmael.
- This story has been the basis for much Christian reflection on the crucifixion of Jesus and also for Jewish theological reflection on martyrdom, especially in the period of the Crusades and, more recently, following the Shoah/Holocaust.
- Rembrandt is one of the greatest interpreters of
Gen 22, in the media of painting and copper engraving. He returned to the story multiple times through his lifetime and through it reflected on his own love for his children and his suffering over their early deaths.
How could a virtuous person be willing to kill a child?
The story is often said to be about total obedience, but we know that there is no virtue in unquestioning obedience to a tyrannical demand. However, the opening words of the story suggest a different understanding: “After these things, God tested Abraham” (
How could a good God demand that Abraham kill his son?
There are two grounds only on which God can be exonerated from the charge of sadism or tyranny here. First, this is a real test; God does not know in advance how Abraham will respond. Only by demanding everything from Abraham can God learn whether he indeed places his commitment to God before everything else. The book of Genesis as a whole does not support the common theological notion that God knows everything before it happens, every human response before it is offered. Thus, when Abraham passes the test, God’s own relief is palpable: “Now I know …” (
Second, God demands everything from Abraham because Abraham must recognize that he is not in control of the covenant relationship. This story provides a necessary balance for the very different picture in