Bible Review 5:6, December 1989

The Binding of Isaac

Rembrandt’s contrasting portraits

By Jack Riemer

It is hard to believe that there are only 19 verses in chapter 22 of Genesis, the chapter that tells the story of the Binding of Isaac, or Akedah in Hebrew. More commentaries have been written on this chapter—by medievals and by moderns, by Jews and by Christians, by poets and by playwrights, by historians and by philosophers—than there are letters in its words. It is a chapter that has continued to appeal to and appall generations of readers, for it raises some of the central questions of human life, such as: what does it mean to be a son and what does it mean to be a father, and what does it mean to serve God and what does it mean to say no to God?

In this profoundly disturbing story, God, for unstated reasons, decides to test Abraham’s faith, and orders Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering on an as-yet unspecified mountain in the land of Moriah. The biblical text hammers home the emotional devastation this would surely cause Abraham: “Take your son,” God says, “your only son Isaac, whom you love….” God’s promise of a mighty nation arising from Abraham and Sarah through Isaac will never be realized and Abraham’s great journey, begun so many years before, will come to a cruel and seemingly pointless end in some unknown place.

And Abraham obeys.

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