THE BLOG
09/28/2011 08:40 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

The Binding of Isaac: A Personal Meditation on Tests of Faith

The Scriptural reading of the binding of Isaac is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in Reform congregations, and on the second day in Conservative and Orthodox congregations. According to the midrash (a commentary that expounds on Scripture), the binding of Isaac took place on Rosh Hashanah.

"And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness." --Genesis 15:6

"The righteous shall Live through His faith." --Habakkuk 2:4

"After These things God tested Abraham." --Genesis 22:1

"After these things." After what things did God test Abraham? The midrash offers an explanation. It states that after Abraham circumcised the 13-year-old Ishmael, that Ishmael, according to his manner, boasted about it since it was a great sacrifice to God on Ishmael's part to allow Abraham to circumcise him at such an age. Isaac responded that he would be willing to sacrifice his life for God.

The midrash indeed says that God took Isaac up on this offer. But this hardly fits in with the text. First of all, it is Abraham and not Isaac who is tested. Secondly, in the text, Isaac asks, "Where is the lamb for the slaughter?" Hardly the question of one about to sacrifice his own life.

No, perhaps, "After these things" refers to the events of another book in the Bible. A book that, in its own way, parallels the horror of this story. This other book is the Book of Job.

Job is the one who is tested in the book that bears his name. He is tested to determine whether or not he serves God. All is taken away from him: first, all of his children and all of his goods. His wife is saved because she is needed for this test. Then, he, himself, is stricken with the most outrageous suffering.

When does this take place? It occurs after a dialogue between God and the accuser. God asks "Have you considered my servant Job? There is none righteous like he who does all things in their proper measure and turns away from excess in every way."

We all know that Job, with his morality, is vindicated. The accuser, discomfited, turns away to continue his perusal of the things below. The accuser does not especially enjoy his work of playing challenger to the Divine. But then again, how will God and all of us know who can stand the test, or who has the mettle of heroism if these conversations do not take place in heaven!

It appears to me, after an interval, there is another assembly in heaven. This time it is the accuser's turn to ask. He asks God whether he has placed too great a burden on Abraham. Is Abraham's faith so pure that God elevated him from the idolatry of Ur to make him the father of the Jewish people?

Indeed the accuser has been keeping an eye on him. But is his faith truly so pure? Purer than anyone else's? Does not God have the peculiar habit of making his servants so prosperous that their purity becomes questioned? God has given Abraham everything. He has lacked only one thing, a son, and now he has him! Why should not his faith be pure?

The accuser challenges God. Take Abraham's son away from him and then see how faithful he will be! Let us recognize that faith is higher than morality and deserves the supreme test. It will not do to treat him like Job and let an external agent take away his son. No, he must, as an act of faith, sacrifice his own son. He must be commanded to offer up his son, the son of his old age, the light of his eyes ad the purpose of his existence as a sacrifice to God. He must be the one to bind his son to the wood and he must be the one to lift up the knife ready for the sacrifice. Only then will we see if he is indeed the one whose faith is the purist.

Of course it is understood that You, God, will spare Abraham and Isaac. It is understood that You, God, will not allow Isaac to be sacrificed. But all the elements must be in place and Abraham must not know! Abraham must have faith! He must have faith enough to be willing to slaughter his own son and paradoxically, also have faith so to recognize that you are a God of Justice and will, therefore, save Isaac as you have saved Lot and his family at Sodom. Let us see! Let the test take place!

The accuser again left the presence of God. In this case God pondered this proposition. He considered what was a stake in this test. If Abraham actually would sacrifice his son then the Divine promise would be null and void. Abraham would not be the father of the Jewish people and then who would bear witness to God in the world? If Abraham could not, at the very end, go through with it, then, all his life he would know that his son came before God and his faith would be crushed.

God pondered over this almost as long as he pondered over the creation of Adam, at which time another, longer assembly took place in heaven. This was different from the test of Job. Then it was just a man's life and righteousness at stake. Here, the whole Jewish enterprise and the whole plan of mankind's redemption was at stake. Was it fair for one man's faith to bear the burden for so much? God withdrew from the heavenly court and pondered the matter deep in his heart.

After these things, God tested Abraham.