“How could G-d have asked Abraham to sacrifice his son? What kind of father could Abraham be to go along with such a request?” These are the questions we hear after services on Rosh Hashanah. People are incredulous that a loving G-d would ask any father, much less one he has singled out as the leader of his chosen people, to take the life of his adored child.
During services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read Genesis 21, which establishes the innate value of a child as a precious gift. Even at the ages of 90 and 100, respectively, Sarah and Abraham still long to have a child together, and G-d blesses them with Isaac. This is a recurring theme in Genesis: All three generations of the most beloved wives of the patriarchs yearn for progeny, but each is barren until she cries and she or her spouse prays to G-d.
This is followed, usually on the second day, by the narrative in Genesis 22 known as the Akedah, which means “Binding”; hence, the “Binding of Isaac.” Both of these readings occur in the parsha (Torah portion) Vayeira, which in normal rotation occurs about a month and a half after the High Holidays.
In Biblical times, child sacrifice was common among pagan people. In trying to understand the pagan mind, we must remember the world they lived in. These people had heard the account of Cain and Abel, where Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by G-d because he gave the best of what he had, but Cain’s sacrifice was rejected because he gave second-best, “the fruit of the ground.”
The pagan extrapolated from this that the best one had to give would be a beloved child. Therefore, they put into practice that which they assumed would please their gods.
When G-d asked Abraham to sacrifice his favorite son, Abraham was not surprised, as human sacrifice was going on all around him. He also understood that Isaac was a special blessing given to him. Certainly, if G-d bestowed such a gift, He would have a good reason for making such a request.
Interestingly, G-d never wanted child sacrifice. In fact, in Jeremiah 19:5, G-d is outraged by the practice and states that not only did He never ask for such a thing, but it would not even have crossed His mind.
If G-d had just said don’t sacrifice your children, it would have had very little impact or have only affected the Hebrew people. However, the telling and retelling of stories was the entertainment of Biblical times. Therefore, G-d knew this story would eventually be heard around the world. This episode was G-d’s experiential lesson in what not to do and what to substitute instead (i.e., a ram for Isaac).
G-d asked Abraham to sacrifice his son not as a directive for child sacrifice, but as a polemic against it for all time and for all people. While it took many generations to wipe out this abhorrent practice, the stratagem of telling this story all over the world was successful; and it is so important that we are reminded of it every year. G-d had no intention of having Isaac sacrificed, but instead used him to illustrate to all people that children are precious and should be cherished.
By Harriet Einziger
Harriet Einziger is a Jewish professional, educator, and writer who holds a Master of Science degree in Judaic studies from Spertus Institute. She has worked with synagogues of all the major Jewish denominations is completing a book of interactive religious school lessons.