The Binding of Isaac – Who’s Testing Whom?
1. We read the story of the binding of Isaac yesterday as we do every year at New Year.
2. For years this story bothered me: what sort of a person is prepared to sacrifice his or her son to God, and what kind of God demands that sacrifice?
3. The Torah singles out the idolatry of Molech as particularly objectionable on precisely the grounds of child sacrifice.
4. So this may have been the tenth test of Abraham by God: but what was the point? To find out if Abraham was prepared to be barbaric?
5. I finally realised this year that the anxiety underpinning my issues with this story was simply “What if it had gone wrong?”
6. Of course, the Medrash says that Isaac’s neck was turned to marble so that when Abraham tried to show his real determination to do whatever God demanded of him, he couldn’t harm his son.
7. So Abraham was prepared to be barbaric and God had to stop him? Again, what kind of a person does that make Abraham?
8. I have finally found an answer that sort of satisfies me, at least for the moment.
9. If Isaac had died, Abraham would have stopped believing in God.
10. This was about Abraham testing God. As he said at Sodom – “cholilo lecho …” – it is unthinkable for the God I know to punish the innocent for the sins of the wicked. Here he is saying to God, if you make me kill my son to show my love for you, I will know that you are not worth loving.
11. Many rabbis have said over the years that Abraham did not expect to be asked to kill Isaac in the end. It would have contradicted Abraham’s entire conception of God as a God of justice and mercy. But until he put the knife to Isaac’s throat in response to the Divine command, Abraham may have believed that Isaac would not have been allowed to die: but he could not have known it with certainty.
12. The end of the test showed Abraham with absolute certainty that his earlier assessment of God’s ideals was correct, and that the values of justice, compassion and peace are indeed the foundations of our belief in and commitment to God.
13. So, as someone asked me at the table yesterday: why is this presented as a test of Abraham, not a test of God.
14. The answer is: the final test of Abraham was whether he was prepared to test God: was he prepared to set limits to his commitment to God, parameters to his belief, which he could not cross while remaining devoted to God’s service?
15. We read this story on Rosh Hashanah as we set out to forge a new relationship with God at the start of the new year: to remind us that our relationship must be based on underpinning values, which bound and explain our conception of God.
16. A person who will obey any command that comes from a religious book, a religious leader or even a religious vision, and never question or challenge it, is not a believer: he or she is an obsessive fanatic with no ideals or values underneath blind faith.
17. As Jews, our faith is not in God, but in the characteristics that He has taught us as Divine: the thirteen attributes of God are in the fact the parameters of our belief. When our religion tallies with the human instincts that are part of the Divine image in which we are created, we know we are on the right track.
18. Hopefully this will be a year in which religious people around the world will listen increasingly to the promptings of our sound human instincts, so that religion can become a force that unites us in getting the best out of our common humanity.