By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Abraham’s story is central to three faiths; and, in all three, the Akedah—the near sacrifice of Isaac—is the one that both binds them all together and also torments each one of them individually, precisely because of the many confusing dimensions of this story. But it is in Abraham’s behavior both before this and after that we can find a glimmer of meaning.
Abraham’s Covenant with God
Let’s begin with Abraham and the Covenant. The Covenant is made between God and Abram. Abram, as a condition of this Covenant—one of its formulations, anyway—changes his name to Abraham, which means the ‘father of many nations’. Abraham’s identity, his very name, is given to him in accepting the Covenant.
A covenant is not a contract. The meaning of the covenant, the meaning of what it binds together, emerges only over and through the history of the relationship itself. A covenant is an act of faith and hope.
In Abraham’s covenant with God, the covenant he affirms gives him his life. Insofar as it is a good covenant, it means he accepts and affirms the life it gives him, which he seems to do. But that life is not without its darkness, either. Abraham exemplifies a certain faithfulness precisely because he seems to live into that covenant in ways that are unpredictable, and he responds to God’s surprises in that covenant in ways that are unpredictable as well.
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Sodom and Gomorrah
Abraham’s story has multiple moments. First, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a story about judgment and justice.
God wants to destroy these towns because they are full of sinners, and he tells Abraham this. Abraham begs God to let the innocent be spared, and he asks God again and again, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” Indeed, God allows the innocent, Lot and his family, to be spared.
This is a really crucial moment: God and Abraham are revealed to be not just in a covenant of power, but an importantly ethical covenant; God has revealed in this behavior that He can be appealed to as a force for justice. This is important, as Abraham now understands this God not just to be a good God for him but also a good God for the cosmos.
But then God goes and does something new: He asks Abraham to kill his son. This is the famous Akedah, “binding”,—the sacrifice of Isaac. So what does that mean?
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Consider some of the details of this story: God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; and not just Isaac, he says, “Isaac, your son, your only son, whom you love.” Those are formulaic statements on God’s part, but they are also packing into what Abraham is being asked to do a certain density of drama that suggests that God knows what he’s asking Abraham to do.
To sacrifice Isaac means effectively to leave his family behind, just as God had first asked Abraham to leave behind his family in Chaldea, and just as God asked Abram to leave behind his name and his identity and become Abraham.
The Akedah’s Implications
Indeed, because God had established the covenant with Abraham through Isaac, and not through Ishmael (Abraham’s other son), the call to sacrifice Isaac meant that Abraham was being asked to sacrifice not just his name, but in some important way to sacrifice his own identity; to sacrifice Isaac is to sacrifice himself. Abraham seemed willing to obey this, but of course God’s messenger stopped him before the sacrifice was made.
The lesson seems to be: This God is far more foreign to our notions of right and wrong than we at first took this God to be. Sometimes this God will act in ways that may seem intended to destroy us, and we can have no complaint about this, it seems, because everything we are—our name, our identity, our children, our family, everything—is from this God; God possesses us all, in some ways before we possess ourselves.
Our response to these moments, when God does a terrible thing, will reveal how we understand the covenant. Indeed, recall that just before the Akedah what happens is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; so it’s precisely this ethical covenant that’s been established that is challenged in the event of the request to sacrifice Isaac.
In fact, it is right after the threat of Sodom and Gomorrah, that Abraham learns that God will grant him a son, whom he will name Isaac. This is a very dense moment here.
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The Silence of Abraham
After the events of the Akedah, Abraham did not return to his first wife, Isaac’s mother, Sarah, at Hebron. He went, instead, to his second wife, Keturah, at Beersheba. Abraham and Sarah are not reported to speak again, nor are Abraham and Isaac. After this, Abraham’s life rapidly moved toward its end.
First, he secured a wife for Isaac, thus securing the future of his family. Then Sarah dies, and he secured a burial place for her in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre. Then Abraham himself dies.
The division that had happened between his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, is apparently resolved, at least provisionally, when they bury Abraham in the same cave where Abraham buried Sarah, thus, in a way, bringing the two brothers together and returning husband and wife together.
People wonder about the silence of Abraham in the face of the Akedah; in the face of God’s command. There’s no reported argument between him and Isaac, nor between him and Sarah, nor really between Abraham and God;
Abraham doesn’t suggest any resentment of God’s command. There’s something enormously profound that is present in Abraham, but that Abraham seems to know he cannot communicate. That is, he has some wisdom about this life and God’s expectations for us in this life that, precisely because he can’t share it, the rest of us can perceive in that silence.
Common Questions about Abraham and the Abekah
Abraham was originally called Abram. As one of the conditions of his Covenant with God, Abram changed his name to Abraham.
God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because they were full of sinners. But, Abraham begged God to let the innocent be spared.
The Akedah, or “binding”, was the near-sacrifice, by Abraham, of his son, Isaac, on God’s orders.