The Binding of the Covenant
Asher E. Smith
It does not seem sacrilegious or especially controversial to refer to Isaac as the “forgotten Patriarch” or, more to the point, as the least theologically interesting of the forefathers of the Jewish religion. Indeed, an apt comparison may be with Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve — without whom a whole 30 verses of “begats” leading up to Noah would have been ablated, yet whom Genesis only devotes two verses of mention. Isaac’s adulthood receives similarly short shrift. The most important decisions of his life — the selection of his bride and the decision of which son to bless — are made for him, by his father and his wife respectively. He doesn’t act independently on his own behalf until Genesis 25:21, when he asks God to help Rebekah conceive; in the verses immediately following this, God seems to prefer communicating with Rebekah directly, instead of through her husband. In Genesis 26, Isaac safely navigates a difficult situation with Abimelech; however, he hardly acquits himself admirably throughout, repeating his father’s subterfuge of pretending his wife was his sister because of “fear.” After Genesis 26, Isaac fades permanently into the background as his wife and sons become the primary actors. In comparison, Abraham remains the critical actor from Genesis 12 through his death in Genesis 25, while Jacob is, roughly speaking, the central character from Genesis 27 through Genesis 37, and re-appears in the final chapter of Genesis.
Considering this, it seem inaccurate to refer to the actions of Genesis 22 primarily as The Sacrifice of Isaac, a figure who functions primarily as a cipher who, by being acted upon by others — particularly Abraham and Rebekah — allows those others to strengthen the Covenant (which is definitely true with regard to the Akedah, and can be interpreted as being the case with regard to Rebekah’s decision to push Jacob as the next progenitor of the Jewish people). Significantly, and not at all surprisingly, all divine communication during Genesis 22 is between Abraham and the Lord or his angel; if one is to interpret the Akedah as a test of Isaac, it would necessarily be based on the reader’s interpretation of how much Isaac was able to intuit from his father’s cryptic words and actions, not the strongest of foundations. Furthermore, Isaac’s conduct during the sacrifice, even in those Midrashic accounts that portray him favorably, can barely be described as more than passive. Certainly, this is the case in Rabbi Levi’s suggestion that Abraham hid Isaac during the construction of the altar, “lest he who thought to seduce him throw a stone at him and disqualify him from serving as a sacrifice.” It would also seem to be the case in Rabbi Isaac’s commentary that Isaac asked to be bound by his father, against the expectation that his “body may tremble through fear of the knife and I will grieve thee, whereby the slaughter may be rendered unfit and this will not count as a real sacrifice.” The fact that after the sacrifice is complete and God has re-affirmed his covenant with Abraham (and with Isaac, as Abraham’s “seed”) Isaac’s location and exact circumstances are not seen as important enough to transmit to the readers provides added support for the view that emphasizing Isaac’s role would obscure the focus of the story.
However, describing Genesis 22 as The Binding of Isaac is an improvement and does seem, initially, apt; it is, in many ways, the most accurate way to describe the physical event there’s no reason why it can’t be an acceptable shorthand description of the story (assuming that one wishes to describe the tale without providing commentary). However, it does fail the crucial test of describing in a nutshell why this simple story has resonated so forcefully down the centuries. The description The Binding of Isaac obscures the true tension of the story, which is Abraham’s willingness to not only bind his son but follow through with the sacrifice of not only his son, “whom he lovest most,” but also negating the covenant with God that through Isaac he will be the father of a great people. This truth would seem to be attested by centuries worth of art on the subject; it is no mystery why Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Brunneleschi and Ghiberti (among many other masters) all chose to portray the moment of greatest tension, (some multiple times) when Abraham is closest to killing his son and is being halted by the angel, with the ram emerging from the thicket.
The Testing of Abraham is, like the previous description, largely accurate. However, it also fails to do the story proper justice in answering the critical question of why the story resonates down through the ages. After all, the command to sacrifice Isaac represents only the last of many tests God laid for Abraham. The first among these was God’s command in Genesis 12 to leave his homeland of Ur for an undefined land that God was to show to Abraham, with the loose promise that eventually God would “make of thee a great nation.” (Indeed, Abraham no sooner arrives in Canaan, the land God has chosen for him, than a famine breaks out and forces him to continue traveling down to Egypt.) Abraham’s time in Egypt is difficult; as has been alluded to, he is forced to claim his wife as his sister in order to feel secure. When he returns to Canaan (in Genesis 14) a war breaks out and Lot is captured; that this is a divine test, or that Abraham sees it as a test of his worthiness, is made clear in Abraham’s statement to the king of Sodom that “I have lifted up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth. That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.” Subsequently, Abraham is faced with God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (why else would God reveal his plans to Abraham, if he wasn’t testing Abraham’s response?), his wife’s barrenness, and the milder task of demonstrating appropriate hospitality to the Lord’s disguised representatives. The Akedah, while perhaps the most heart wrenching, is definitely not unique in showing Abraham answering a test of the Lord. A proper description, one would assume, should answer for why the Akedah rises so far above these other, numerous tests.
Thus the Sacrifice of Abraham seems left as the most appropriate option; it is the description that would seem to best convey the idea that Abraham is threatened with losing something holy at the request of the Lord — both his son and the covenant. That this should be the focus of any description is suggested by how the story concludes, with Abraham naming the place in the name of the Lord and God re-affirming the covenant (descendants, land, and God’s blessing) in two verses. Significantly, Abraham then returns. It also accomplishes the vital task of speaking to Genesis 22’s resonance, in that it refers directly to Abraham’s potential losses.
However, one can and should go further. The meaning of the Akedah for, for example, someone like David bar Meshullam of Speyer, was not that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice all but that Abraham’s act could be relied on “to safeguard us and bring salvation age after age.” Men such as David bar Meshullam saw their sufferings as evidence that God had, in a very real sense, broken his contract with them — and that contract was verses 17 and 18 of Genesis 22, which Abraham “signed” through his preparations for and near-execution of the sacrifice of Isaac. With this in consideration, the most apt description for the events in Genesis 22 would incorporate the Akedah’s meaning for all generation’s of Jews — and, presuming that English can do such an idea justice, something along the lines of The Test of the Covenant or The Binding of the Covenant would be most suitable, with the latter having the art of double entendre working in its favor.
Accordingly, any alteration to the events of the Akedah that would keep its relevance and resonance would have to reinforce the idea that Abraham’s sacrifice was both the greatest threat the Covenant with God has ever seen and that it was through the Akedah that the Covenant was re-affirmed and extended through the ages. Toward this end, transposing the early events of Genesis 23 — in which Sarah dies, according to commentators, over shock induced by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac — into the Akedah would not be a very large departure from the events of Genesis, as the Bereshit Rabba notes, according to many commentators, Sarah’s actual death in the verses immediately following the Akedah “was occasioned by the false report that Isaac had actually been sacrificed.”
However, if news of Sarah’s death were to be revealed to the reader either before verse 11, when the sacrifice is halted, it would force the reader to further consider not only what is at stake for Abraham but also what is at stake for the Jewish people — oblivion. Granted, this would already seem to be the case given God’s guarantee in Genesis 17:19 and Genesis 17:21 that Isaac will bear children and will continue God’s covenant; however, God’s request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac is already an alteration of this promise, and if God was willing (as appears the case before verse 12) to break his promise to Abraham in such a way, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for him to alter the agreement so that Sarah will conceive and give birth again so that the covenant may continue with that child. Sarah’s death in between verses 3 and 11 of the Akedah, then, would reinforce and clarify the danger. Alternatively, news of her death coming while Abraham is still on Mount Moriah in the latter verses of chapter 22 would both reinforce what had been at stake and could further be interpreted as a testament of God’s good faith in the covenant, as any possibility for a rival to Isaac’s position would be wholly eliminated while the Akedah is still in direct focus.