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The Akedah in Jewish Tradition

Rabbinic and even prerabbinic texts like the book of Jubilees suggest that Abraham successfully navigated a number of trials or tests, including the Akedah, the binding of Isaac recounted in Gen 22. However, many contemporary scholars and rabbis have argued that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is proof that Abraham failed the test God had set for him or that Abraham passed the test only when he stopped short of slaughtering his son Isaac. Frequently, Abraham’s failure to question God’s command in Gen 22 is contrasted negatively with his strong challenge to God about the suffering of potential innocents in Sodom in Gen 18. The difficulty with this contemporary reading, which takes a negative view of Abraham’s actions in Gen 22, is that it does so at the expense of the logic and coherence of both the biblical text, which clearly speaks of God rewarding Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and of the larger Jewish and Christian traditions that grew from it. The Jewish liturgy, drawing upon earlier midrashic sources, makes a close connection between the Akedah and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It links the ram’s horn (shofar) blown on Rosh Hashanah to the ram that Abraham offered in place of Isaac and sees the sounding of the shofar as a way to remind God of Abraham’s total obedience and to pardon Abraham’s descendants on the basis of his great merit. In fact, once the holiday became a two-day festival in the Diaspora, Gen 22 became the Torah reading in synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God decides whether to grant each person another year of life and determines the kind of year each individual and the larger community of Israel will experience; these destinies are sealed ten days later, on Yom Kippur. Like Abraham and Isaac in the story of the Akedah (Isaac is often depicted as a consenting adult in postbiblical Jewish tradition), during this time the community stands before God and openly acknowledges that God has an ultimate claim on our lives and that God can choose to exercise that claim at any time. Jewish tradition also recognizes that God is known to extend mercy mysteriously, as when God spared Abraham from sacrificing his beloved son Isaac. And if we, too, are spared the judgment we may in fact deserve for our misdeeds and granted another year of life, we resemble Isaac after his near sacrifice. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy suggests that we are obligated to live the life we are given in the coming year in service to God, who in an act of unwarranted mercy grants us an analogous heavenly reprieve, as he did to Abraham and Isaac. Although we may be uncomfortable with the notion of human sacrifice, the biblical text uses this motif to animate what would become a central conviction of both the Jewish and Christian traditions—that God has an absolute claim on our lives and that we should live a life oriented and dedicated to God.

  • Joel S. Kaminsky

    Joel S. Kaminsky is a professor in the Religion Department at Smith College. He has published Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Abingdon, 2007) and more recently coauthored The Torah: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, 2011).