Our desires sometimes lead us astray from what we feel is right. But sometimes even what we feel is right proves wrong.
This becomes clear when we read Genesis 22 on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Abraham the patriarch -- one of the great prophets of the Torah -- readies himself to kill Isaac, his most beloved son, as a sacrifice to the Divine. He does so, no less, in the name of God.
Most perplexing about Abraham's actions is that the right desire motivates them: the urge to show reverence for God. But Abraham's goals are unspeakably wrong. To kill an innocent person -- much less one's own beloved son -- is an atrocity. Reading about it turns the stomach. But the process of reading this gut-wrenching Torah portion is profoundly illustrative of more common foibles. It shows us, as readers thousands of years later, the extent to which our own misapprehensions lead us astray.
In Abraham's case, it appears that his upbringing may be at least in part to blame. As the first Jew, and arguably the first monotheist of any kind, Abraham may well have been immersed in ancient cultures that hailed the practice of child sacrifice. It was seen as the ultimate show of faith to certain deities, of which the ancient Near East abounded.
Yet Abraham's feeling of need to show faith in this way was fundamentally misguided. God had already established a covenant with him in Genesis 17; his decision to sacrifice Isaac went well beyond the scope of their pact. It would seem, in fact, that Abraham was being led astray by his own zealotry, itself channeled by the understanding of total devotion he had garnered from encounters with ancient polytheists and their idols.
Evidence for this theory lies in the carefully selected terms for "God" and "god" used in Genesis 20. Elohim is an unspecific term, which can refer either to the God of Israel or a local Near Eastern deity; the tetragrammaton, whose pronunciation is now unknown and filled in for with the Hebrew word Adonai, specifies the universal and singular God of Abraham.
The unspecific term Elohim is used throughout the first part of Genesis 22. The Elohim "put Abraham to the test" (22:1, JPS translation for all quotes); when Isaac asks about the animal to be sacrificed at the altar -- not realizing it was in fact to be him -- Abraham replied that "[Elohim] will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, My son" (22:8).
Abraham's motivations to sacrifice his son Isaac are inspired by a deity which is likely not the universal and singular God with whom he entered into covenant. I would suggest, in fact, that The Elohim does not refer literally to a particular Near Eastern idol or its adherents, but to the powerful, unspoken theological assumptions that Abraham carried with him into his pact with God. The Elohim in Genesis 22 is his preexisting set of notions about faith and obedience. Ancient Near Eastern deities spoke to Abraham solely from within his psyche. His zealotry is the product of an emotional residue, accumulated from observing child sacrifice earlier in his life.
The general term for deity stops abruptly in verses 11 and 12 of Genesis 22. Adonai -- the God of Abraham -- returns as the focus of Abraham's faith and desire to live by it, transforming the unfolding tragedy into an ethical drama. Adonai intervenes to put an end to his prophet's zealotry, just moments before Abraham would have caused irreparable harm.
Here in verses 11 and 12 we see the shift take place between Elohim and Adonai within Abraham's consciousness: "The angel of [Adonai] called to him [Abraham] from heaven: 'Abraham! Abraham!' And he answered, 'Here I am.' And he said, 'Do not raise your hand against the boy ... For now I know that you fear [Elohim], since you have not withheld your son.'" The remainder of the chapter exclusively uses the term Adonai.
God's intervention enables Abraham to rid himself of theological norms established in his earlier life. The prophet had tried to show his reverence for Adonai in a way defined by The Elohim (as suggested by the fear of Elohim referenced in verse 12); he carried over norms set by adherents to other deities. But Adonai, the singular and universal God, sent a heavenly messenger to stop Abraham from acting on his misplaced zealotry. Verses 11 and 12 of Genesis 22 represent a sacred call to end zealotry wrongfully carried out in the Divine name.
Genesis 22 is particularly clear in its demand to end religious extremism. Yet even extremism has moderate forms, namely misplaced goals based on false assumptions. We can do harm in good faith, both to our relationship with God and in our relationships with other people. Genesis 22 is a call to be humble in our assumptions and cautious in our actions, particularly when we perform them in God's name.