Purpose of Akeidat Yitzchak


(Click for Akeidat Yitzchak in Art)

A Test for Whom?

The story of Akeidat Yitzchak, in Bereshit 22, is one of the most famous narratives in Torah, and also one of the most troubling. The chapter opens with Hashem's command to sacrifice Yitzchak, proceeds to detail Avraham's dutiful compliance, and then climaxes with the angel preventing Avraham from carrying out the act.  What, though, was the ultimate purpose of the entire experience?

From the outset, the text appears to define the episode as a "test" ("וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם").  Furthermore, the declaration at the end of the trial, "Now I know that you are God-fearing" ("עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה"), would seem to support such a reading.  Yet, if we grant that God is omniscient and was well aware of how committed Avraham was to Him, was there really any need for the traumatic experience of the Akeidah to ascertain the depth of Avraham's allegiance?  Moreover, had Avraham not already demonstrated his dedication and loyalty to Hashem on multiple previous occasions?  What prompted the need for an additional proof at this particular juncture, toward the end of Avraham's career?  And if Hashem had no need for this test, for whom then was it intended?  What lessons was it supposed to teach Avraham, Yitzchak, their society, or subsequent generations?

Can Hashem Go Back on His Word?

Many medieval commentators were troubled by an additional theological question:  Is it possible that Hashem would retract a command?  How can Hashem direct Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, only to subsequently instruct him to refrain from fulfilling this very order?1  Might this not pave the way for people to dismiss all Divine directives as being subject to change, or to suggest that the Torah is not eternally binding and that Hashem might replace it with a new one?  This issue was particularly vexing for medieval Jewish exegetes living under Islam, as their Moslem interlocutors were wont to point to the Akeidah as an example of how God might revoke His commands or even abrogate the whole Torah.

Is Child Sacrifice not an Abomination?

While the above questions occupy the attention of earlier commentators, it is undoubtedly a third concern regarding the morality of the Divine command which most troubles modern sensibilities.  While traces of this issue may be found already in Midrashic literature,2 it rarely engages most medieval exegetes, and it was only with the dawn of the modern era that it began to take center stage in most analyses of the story.3

Simply formulated, the question is: How can a just and ethical God, who later in the Torah denounces murder and the revolting practice of child sacrifice,4 demand of Avraham to kill his child?  Furthermore, why did Avraham comply without even questioning the directive?  Did it not behoove Avraham to, at the very least, protest as much as he did when Hashem revealed His plan to destroy the wicked inhabitants of Sedom?5  Or, in more general terms, the story of the Akeidah makes one wonder: What is the proper course of action when human conceptions of morality, or even the Torah's own ethical system, conflict with a Divine command?

Additional Questions

In the Approaches section, we will examine how commentators throughout history struggled with and attempted to address these various issues.