The Binding of Isaac as Cautionary Tale

Rembrandt, "Abraham and Isaac," 1634, public domain.
Rembrandt, “Abraham and Isaac,” 1634, public domain.

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Genesis 22:6-10

The Binding of Isaac is one of the most troubling passages in the Bible. Abraham whisks his son Isaac off to a mountain top in Moriah, binds him with rope, and raises a knife to kill him—all as a sacrifice to his God, Yahweh. Only in the last moment is Isaac’s life spared. This passage has bewildered, disturbed, and provoked all sorts of interpretations. Defenses have been given, critiques have been levied—yet the passage remains elusive. Is it the penultimate example of religiously justified child abuse, only eclipsed by Yahweh’s actual sacrifice of his own child Jesus?

Honestly, the passage confounds me. I am not going to suggest I found the true interpretation. But I do want to work through how perhaps most interpretations have missed the point by focusing so much on Abraham, and thus neglecting to consider the point of view of the child. Most interpretations consider whether Abraham was doing the right thing, whether Abraham really meant to kill his son, whether Yahweh really would have let Abraham follow through, whether Abraham is a model of faith. Little attention is given to Isaac—not only the role he played, but more importantly, how he experienced the events in question. The famous Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, for example, argued in Fear and Trembling that Abraham placed religious concerns over ethical concerns, thereby proving his faith in God—but what about Isaac’s religious concerns? Does Isaac’s relationship to God mean nothing simply because he is a child? Interpretations like Kierkegaard’s consider the likely agony Abraham went through during his test, but neglect to center the overwhelming terror Isaac likely experienced.

As I have stated previously, my goal these days is to approach biblical passages with an eye towards child liberation and child protection. So I am interested in looking at this passage from the vantage point of Isaac. And I seek to discover what this passage can tell us today—in our contemporary contexts—about children. How can we consider this passage in a way that better protects children today? How can we think about the ramifications of Isaac’s experience such that we can better liberate children in our faith communities?

The first question we must consider is the age of Isaac. Some scholars consider Isaac to be an adult during this time, around the age of 32. Others place him at the age of a toddler or as a late teenager. I tend to agree with Terence E. Fretheim, who argues Isaac was likely 12 or 13. Fretheim says, “On the one hand, he was old enough to carry wood and ask questions that assume a capacity to analyze a situation and potential problems relating to it (Gen. 22:6-7). On the other hand, God refers to him as a ‘boy’ (22:12), and he calls out ‘Father’ to Abraham (22:27)” (The Child in the Bible, p. 14). Isaac certainly does seem old enough to recognize that Abraham is making a trek to offer a sacrifice without the needed animal. However, Isaac also seems completely trusting in his father, despite the ominous foreboding of the story—so he seems young enough to have a childlike faith in his father’s deceitful words.

I think this childlike faith of Isaac’s—which is met by the betraying deceit of his father—is an entry point into the story. Isaac trusts that his father has his best interests in mind and is telling the truth that God will provide an animal to sacrifice. Isaac does not hesitate when tasked with carrying the firewood. When Isaac asks Abraham where the animal will come from, he accepts his father’s answer without question. What is notable here is that Isaac is vocal at this point—he does not hesitate to speak up with his doubts. This is notable because later, when Abraham binds Isaac to the wood, Isaac’s voice is no longer heard.

I think the disappearance of Isaac’s voice is telling. It signifies that Isaac knows he has been betrayed. Note that Isaac openly asked Abraham where the animal will come from—but Abraham lies to his child. Abraham knew full well what God said, and that God was asking him to sacrifice his son. Whether or not Abraham trusted God would provide an alternative, or whether or not “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:19), is irrelevant at this point. If Abraham thought either of those thoughts, he did not involve Isaac in that process. Instead, he kept Isaac at arm’s distance and was not forthright with him. In his fervent commitment to God, Abraham missed a chance to walk alongside his child as a partner in faith.

The actual binding moment appears brutal in the text. We are not told whether Isaac struggled or fought back against his father, but the blunt force of the narrative comes across. One moment Isaac is a talkative, trusting, and inquisitive child; the next moment he is silent, unmoving, and restrained. One moment Isaac is a subject, a human being pursuing knowledge about God’s ways; the next moment he is reduced to an object, a thing to be sacrificed in order for an adult to better himself with God.

While I wish I could explain away the whole event, what is made clear in the text is that God commends Abraham’s faith. This is why many people make parallels between Abraham sacrificing Isaac and Yahweh sacrificing Jesus. But I think that the Binding of Isaac is a cautionary tale, despite God’s commendation of Abraham’s faith. I think it is a cautionary tale because it actually is the very opposite of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Jesus came willingly to our world. Despite John 3:16 saying God “gave Their only begotten son,” Jesus’ own words indicate that it was his own choice to enter our world and be in relationship with us. Jesus chose his path. He chose to be a Child and walk among us, as Yahweh once walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve. As a human child and later an adult, Jesus was always a subject, always an active agent in his spirituality and how he engaged with the God Parent Yahweh. As God Child, Jesus assumes the power in his relationship to Yahweh, as ultimately it is Jesus the God Child who “return with the sword” and judge humankind.

In contrast, Isaac did not go willingly to the slaughter. Isaac made no choice to be a sacrifice. And Abraham not only gave Isaac no choice in the matter, Abraham also erased his child’s agency. He treated his child as an object, a means to an end, instead of treating his child as a subject with his own thoughts, relationship to God, and rights to determine his own life. So while God commends Abraham’s faithfulness, note that God never commends any other aspect of how Abraham put his faith into practice. In fact, we are later told by the prophet Jeremiah that God considers child sacrifice “a detestable thing” (Jeremiah 32:35).

If God finds child sacrifice detestable, but Abraham’s faith commendable, it seems reasonable to separate Abraham’s faith from how he let his faith make him act. This is not an uncommon event in the Bible. For example, in Judges 11, Jephthah the Gileadite “made a vow to the Lord: ‘If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.’” But “when Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child.” Jephthah’s faith caused him to act in a stupid, rash way.

Applying this idea that faith does not necessarily result in moral acts to Genesis would suggest that the text might condemn how Abraham as a parent valued his own spirituality over and against his child. Note that when Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain, “the two of them went on together” (emphasis added). But when the descent is made, “Abraham returned to his servants” (emphasis added). Isaac does not return alongside his father.

Not only does Isaac not return alongside his father, Isaac also is never again seen in a relationship with his parents. Fretheim notes that, “Abraham and Isaac never again converse in the narrative that follows, not even in connection with the search for a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24). While Isaac attends Abraham’s funeral (25:9), he does not attend Sarah’s or even return to her death bed (Gen. 23). Moreover, why would God, but not Abraham, bless Isaac (23:11)?”

Fretheim then asks, “Might these textual details, even if in subtle ways, recognize that a child has been abused?” I think the answer is yes—though I do not think the details are subtle in that regard. The answer is unequivocally yes, a child has been abused. A child was restrained without his consent, tied to firewood, and then had to watch his own parent lift a knife to kill him. Full stop, that is child abuse. Whereas Jesus chose to sacrifice himself, Isaac was abused. Whereas Jesus was respected as a subject, Isaac was reduced to an object.

This is why I read the Binding of Isaac is a cautionary tale about parents who value their own faiths over and against their children’s lives. Yes, Abraham showed immense faith. But that faith came with a cost: the silence and alienation of his beloved child. God commends Abraham’s faith but God never commends how Abraham lied to his child and gave his child no choice in the matter.

If Abraham’s descent from the mountain and later distance from Isaac indicates anything, it is that faith without love and relationship is dead. It kills people, sometimes quite literally. I cannot help but think of parents who believe fidelity to God mean they must throw their own LGBTQ children out on the streets. Or parents who allow their children to die because of their commitment to faith healing. Or parents who beat their children because of their myopic interpretation of the Proverbs. Surely their fervor is astounding, but they entirely miss the point of the Gospel.

The Gospel is found in relationship, in loving one’s neighbor and seeing one’s neighbor as a fellow subject before God, not as an object to sacrifice in the name of purity. When one sacrifices one’s neighbor in the name of faith, one loses the very heart of the Gospel.

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  • The Q Man

    And here I was foolishly thinking that this article was going to talk about the similarly titled video game “The Binding of Isaac”. To be fair, the blog title, “Unfundamentalist Parenting”, should have been a dead giveaway that this was not going to center around the takeaways from a game filled with gore and fecal matter.

  • Brandon Roberts

    the video game is better. and killing kids because god said so is a bad thing

  • Tom Vanyari

    Lol just clicked on this, because I thought it was about the game The Binding of Isaac. You religious people could learn something from that game.

  • Arbustin

    I thought Pokémon faded into obscurity 20 years ago…so you can imagine how confused I feel seeing all these comments about a video game I really, really had no idea existed.
    More to the author’s point though: this is not the only instance that Isaac is portrayed as being taken advantage of or not being told the whole truth, but going along anyway even though he suspects something is amiss. It’s one of the signs that has led some modern Jewish commentators to suspect Isaac was developmentally disabled. Before the Binding episode, his brother Ishmael torments him and he seemingly can’t fight back. Abraham explicitly orders that his servant leave Isaac behind on the wife-finding journey. As an old man, his wife and son trick him into giving the blessing of the first-born to Jacob instead of Esau. We never seem to hear Isaac speaking other than these instances.
    The traditional rabbinic understanding is that Isaac was 37 at the time of the Binding, because Sarah was 90 when he was born but 127 when she died — the rabbis say she died of shock upon hearing of the event, as the Torah never mentions her alive again. How could a 37-year-old not resist? But as you say, God calls Isaac a “na’ar,” a “youth” of 12 or 13 (better translation than “boy”). Midrashically this can be understood as a statement of Isaac’s state of mind and not his physical age.

  • Phil

    Rene Girard has an interesting take on this narrative. In his theory of human culture, humanity is distinct from animals because we lack a dominance/submission mechanism like that of wolves and most pack animals. When our anger flares up into rivalry, it can and will escalate until murder is the end result. In order to establish society, this issue of unrestrained anger had to be given a different outlet. The idea of sacrifice occupies a central place in the prehistoric establishment of human society, serving as a “release valve” that focuses human violence on a single chosen scapegoat rather than radiating outward in an persistent all-against-all orientation that threatens the bonds of the tribe. Girard identifies the Abraham/Isaac narrative as an allegorical retelling of the moment the Israelite sacrifice system evolved beyond human sacrifice, as practiced by neighboring tribes and in groups throughout the prehistoric world, to become the animal sacrificial system in place at the time of Christ. This was a major accomplishment of the Hebraic religion, and the animal sacrifice system continued to serve society for thousands of years, but the issue with sacrifice, human or animal, is that the peace and unity it brings the tribe is only temporary. In time, rivalries and enmity return and the sacrificial process must be repeated, with diminishing returns over generations. The latter prophets of the Hebrew Bible are notably anti-sacrificial, especially Jeremiah, Micah, and Hosea (whom Jesus quotes twice in Matthew, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” from Hosea 6:6). But it takes Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to reveal the injustice of the sacrificial system and replace it with the ultimate means for humanity to have lasting peace – the practices of extending mercy, offering forgiveness, and denying retribution.

  • John

    What hermeneutic are you using? You seem to approach an ancient story through a 21st century lens. You want the story to speak to child abuse and liberation, but if the story was not originally intended that way, then you are overlaying meaning that isn’t there. Are there other references to this story in scripture that shed light on its meaning in that day and in that context that can point to original intent? If the story had a particular meaning and interpretation to other biblical writers, then is it possible or wise to apply another interpretation to it? Are you looking for a sensus plenoir here? Just my word of caution, that applying a meaning to a text that the original context doesn’t convey is dubious. This is different than trying to find a meaning or point that transcends culture and time and thus applies universally, but I can’t tell if that is your intention or not. Any clarification here?

    • A fish with no hands

      While many want to find value in this tale, it is difficult to justify in any sense. What amazed me, and still does, is that this story to told to children as if it offers reassurance. It is simply grotesque. Abraham was willing to murder his child in order to please a god that would, even in divine jest, command such a sacrifice.

      • John

        At first pass we can all be outraged at the demand of God and we would be justified to judge God as grotesque. But the biblical writers made no such interpretation. You can stand over the biblical story and read it any way you wish and draw your own conclusions, but that is not how the story is intended. It is uncomfortable to be sure, but as a part of God’s grand story it points to something else, which the rest of the biblical story makes clear. I make no excuse for a God who on the one hand seems so harsh and yet on the other can be loving and gracious. I’m not sure we can ever fully reconcile the two, but like it or not, the way it fits into the larger story is evident.