binding isaac

Noahide Seven Commandments Torah classes

© 2016 by Rabbi Zvi Aviner
Torah Class THEFT-11/The Binding of Isaac
“And offer him to me”

We have said that Abraham was very particular about rightful OWNERSHIP; that THEFT is a violation not only of the law but the OWNERSHIP OF THE CREATOR Who Owns the Heavens and the Earth.
His idea of ownership was the opposite of what Sodom believed.
The Sodomites said: “MINE IS MINE, YOURS IS YOURS”
Wicked people say “MINNE IS MINE, YOURS IS MINE”
That philosophy brought Abraham to be charitable. The Sodomite’s extreme notion of privacy and individuality brought them to be indifferent to other people’s suffering and to rebel against the Merciful YHVH. Thus they were the opposite of Abraham and therefore were deemed to be overturned.
Now what about Abraham himself? Was he also under scrutiny?
For that the Torah goes on to focus on Isaac. As you know, after the overturn of Sodom, Sarah conceived against all natural odds and gave birth to Isaac. YHVH’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled. Both Abraham and Sara were extremely happy.
But the Torah then says: (verse copied from the English Bible)

And it came to pass after these words and G-d tested Abraham and he said to him: Abraham!
And he said here I am.
And He said: Please take your son your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the Land of Moriah and offer him up there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains of which I’ll tell you.

You know the story. G-d tested Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Abraham complied in full. No mention of his own fatherly mercy or compassion. After binding Isaac on the altar, Abraham lifted his knife ready to sacrifice his son. Then, at the last moment, the Angel of the Lord intervened and told Abraham not to harm the lad. The Angel of the Lord also told Abraham that he was found to be G-d fearer. A ram showed up and Abraham offered it instead of Isaac. Then Abraham and Isaac returned home.

The story arose so many questions among Jews and non Jews alike. Here are some of them:

2: Questioning the binding of Isaac

1. How could the ‘Good G-d’ ask Abraham to do such an awful thing, to sacrifice his beloved son?
2. Why did G-d test Abraham? Doesn’t He always know the outcome in advance?
3. Why does G-d seem to be so confused here, changing his mind and contradicting himself? First He tells Abraham to do something, and then He reverses His own order!
These and other similar questions fill the literature. But what do the rabbis say here?

Several answers
Several answers have been offered over the centuries:
1. The entire episode took place only in Abraham’s dream (RaMBaM.)But if so, what’s the heck?
2. Others have plunged into philosophical discussions about God and Man that are clearly beyond the Torah’s intention.
3. The Church has seen the story as a prelude to the Crucifixion, which is not.
4. Islam, about 600 years later, has replaced Isaac with Ishmael. They can’t tell why Allah the Merciful would place Abraham in such a trial.
Thus all the major religions have ‘adapted’ the story for their own purpose, yet they can’t explain it.

Pay attention to the speaker’s names!
The Jewish interpretation is best presented by Rabbi Bachye (14th century Spain) who advised the reader: ‘Pay attention to the Speakers’ names!’
Indeed, we in our classes have always paid attention to the Speaker’s Name, to the Attribute’s Name. Here too, when we replace the general terms ‘G-d’ and ‘Lord’ by the proper specific Hebrew terms namely ELoKiM (the Judge) and YHVH (the Merciful) the story suddenly comes to life.
So let’s read the story with the proper Names of the Speakers:

2: Satan’s words

The Hebrew text says:

“And it came to pass after these words and ELKM tested Abraham”

After whose words? The Midrash says: the words of Satan. Now don’t’ panic. The Hebrew Satan is not to be confused with the European Devil. Satan in Hebrew means “an adversary,” an angel appointed by the Heavenly Court as Man’s prosecutor. The Hebrew Satan may have a childish, beautiful face and white wings no different than all other angles. Only that its task is to search the truth about us and bring it to the Court. Thus it speaks only the truth, and the Heavenly Court listens carefully to its words.

“After these words…” what did Satan say about Abraham? The rabbis explain: it charged Abraham as follows:
Has not Abraham just declared “MINE IS YOURS AND YOURS IS YOURS?” Is he sincere? Has he given anything to you?
Has he not called you AaDoNai, My Lard, My master, My Owner? Would he abide by your order, as harsh as it might be?

ELKM listened and as the verse says: “:ELKM tested Abraham.”
Indeed, if you ignore the Name ELKM and say that G-d tested Abraham, it sounds illogic. Why should G-d test anyone? Doesn’t he know the outcome?
But when you say that ELKM, the Attribute of Judgment placed Abraham on trial, well, that is what the JUDGE does. The World was created by the harsh JUDGE ELKM for a trial.
Moreover, since ELKM represents the Absolute Justice with no MERCY, it is conceivable that He would place Abraham on an harsh, merciless trial. In fact, He placed Abraham on a trial based on Abraham owns words. Since Abraham declared that he surrendered his will to the will of his Master, well, let him prove his own words.
Indeed, the test would be harsh:

“And ELKM said: Abraham, Abraham, and he said here I am.
And He said: Please take your son your only son whom you love, Isaac,
and go for yourself to the Land of Moriah and offer him up there as a burnt-offering
on one of the mountains of which I’ll tell you.”


But there is another meaning for the Hebrew word ‘tested’ and that is: He placed Abraham on a banner. ELKM wanted to make Abraham famous, an example, a model to be copied.
What exactly would make Abraham famous here? Other people offered their children to their gods. What would make Abraham different?

So let’s read the text, paying attention to the speaker:

2: The text, emphasizing the Speakers’ Names

Here is the text, counting the number the names YHVH, ELoKiM and Abraham appear in the story.

And it came to pass after these words and the ELoKiM tested (1) Abraham and he Said to him (2) Abraham! And he said here I am.
And He said “Please take your son your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the Land Of Moriah
and offer him up there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains of which I’ll tell you.
And (3) Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his Donkey and took his own young men with him and Isaac his son. Then he split wood for the offering rose up and went toward The place that ELoKiMhas shown him.
On the Third day (4) Abraham lifted his eyes and he saw the place from afar, and then (5) Abraham said to his young men you stay here with the donkey and I and the lad will go yonder and we will bow down there and then return to you.
And (6) Abraham took the wood for the Offering and placed it upon his son Isaac, and took into his hands the fire and he took \the knife, and so they went both, together. And Isaac spoke to (7) Abraham his father and said: “My father and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said here is the fire, and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?”
And (8) Abraham said, “ELoKIM will see for Himself the lamb for the offering on.” And so they went both together. They came to the Place which the ELoKiM had spoken to him and then (9) Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood, and bound \Isaac his son on the altar upon the wood.

And [1] Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. And the Angel of YHVHcalled him from the Heavens saying, [2] “Abraham! [3] Abraham! \And he said, “Here I am!” and He said, “Do not stretch your hand towards the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him. For now I know that you fear /ELoKiM and did not withhold your son, your only son from me. And [4] Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, there was a ram. And it was caught in the hedge by its horns.
And [5] Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And [6]Abraham named this place YHVH will see yireh which today says the follows: in the MountainYHVH is seen.” And the Angel of YHVH called to [7] Abraham the second time out of the Heavens and said, by myself have I sworn says YHVH because you have done this thing and have not withheld from Me your son your only son that I’ll bless you without fail, and multiply your descendants as the stars of the Heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore your seed shall inherit the gate of your enemies, and the nations of the earth shall bless themselves through your seed as consequence of your having harkening to my vVoice and [8] Abraham returned to his young men, they rose up and went together to Beer Sheva and [9] Abraham dwelled in Beer Shaeva”


3: Two symmetrical Wings: YHVH and ELHM

Two Symmetrical Wings
Now that we’ve paid attention to the Heavenly Speakers, the story acquires a form and meaning.
Replacing ’G-d’ and ‘Lord’ ‘by the proper Hebrew titles we get two symmetric Wings, quite similar to Noah’s revelation before the Flood.
ELoKiM’s Wing (in red) where ELoHiM, the Attribute of JUDGMENT (rather than ‘G-d’) orders Abraham to offer his son on the altar, flowed by
YHVH’s Wing (in blue) where the Attribute of MERCY (rather than ‘Lord’) tells Abraham NOT to harm the lad.
Hence there is a clash between the Attributes.
Seeing the Attributes in the text gives it a clear, deep meaning. Abraham faces two symmetric wings of the Heavenly Court, each Wing carrying its Attribute’s Name 5 times:
ELHM’s Wing carrying ELHM’s Name 5 times, followed by
YHVH’s Wing carrying YHVH’s Name 5 times
Note also that each Wing carries Abraham’s name 9 times in perfect symmetry.

The Wings interlock
Unlike the Heavenly Court seen before Noah’s Flood, here the Heavenly ‘Court appears in a reversed ‘protocol’: ELoKiM speaks first, then YHVH. The reason is that Abraham stands mainly before ELoKiM.

Paying attention to the Speakers, the Wings look like this:

Thus ELHM appears 5 times, followed by YHVH 5 times.
And as you clearly see, the Wings overlap in the middle; where ‘YHVH ‘(in blue) ‘crosses over’ into the wing of ELHM (in red). (You may say the opposite; that ELHM crossed over to YHVH wing.)
Thus ‘YHVH first appears to the ‘left’ of ELHM’s 5th, as if the Wing of YHVH has ‘penetrated’ the Wing of ELHM (or vice versa: the Wing of ELKM has penetrated YHVH’s Wing.)

Let’s depict this ‘Wing crossing’ or ‘interlocking’ more clearly:
……….. ELHM………………………………….YHVH
……………………. ELHM…YHVH
………………………YHVH ELHM

Here you see the Wings crossing at the ‘bottom.’ Remember that each Wing carries Abraham’s name 9 times, in a perfect symmetry.

What does this mean? Let’s focus on the intersection:

And [1] Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. And the Angel of YHVH called him from the Heavens saying, [2] “Abraham! [3] Abraham!
And he said, “Here I am!” and He said “Do not stretch your hand towards the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him. For now I know that you fear ELoKiM </font color> and did not withhold your son, your only son from me.”

Hence the Wing’s crossing occurs at the crux of the story, where Abraham was about to slaughter Isaac. Exactly at that moment, the “Angel of YHVH” (in blue) orders Abraham NOT to fulfill ELoHM’s order!
Note that ELoKiM did not recant or retract from His harsh order to offer Isaac. That harsh order was still in effect, testing Abraham! Indeed, as a rule of thumb, ELoKiM never recants his words or His Covenant!
Hence YHVH’s order to Abraham, to hold off offering Isaac, stood in a direct confrontation with ELoKiM’s order that was still in effect!
To whom would Abraham listen? Would he listen to ELoKiM, or to YHVH?

Had Enosh faced the same dilemma, he would have opted with YHVH, disregarding ELoKiM altogether.
Had Tubal Cain faced that dilemma, he would have opted with ELoKiM, disregarding YHVH altogether.
But to whom would Abraham listen? Note that in no other site in the Torah there is such a direct, open clash between the Attributes!

4: How unique is Abraham’s prophecy!

Abraham’s dilemma can be better appreciated when compared to Noah’s revelation before the Flood. There the Attributes forming the Heavenly Court are seen as in a dialogue, anagreement, rather than direct confrontation with each other: (see also our previous classes):

YHVH…………………………………………………………. ELHM
………YHVH………………………………………… ELHM
……………..YHVH………………………… ELHM

As you see, in Noah’s case the Wings do not interlock. Each Wing supports Noah from its side in agreement. They lift Noah and his family over the mighty waters below. In contrast, in the Binding of Isaac the Wings cross each other, each negating the words of the other.

Abraham’s decision
The rabbis said that Abraham would have fully complied with ELoKiM’ order to offer Isaac; as his Fear of ELKM overcame his own fatherly mercy. This is why the Angel of YHVH said|: “Now I have seen that you fear ELoKiM.”
It was only YHVH cry that stopped him at the last moment.
In the past, in his Vision, Abraham’s eyes saw YHVH but his lips uttered ELKM. He saw the Attributes standing one behind the other, ready to issue a common verdict. And he surrendered himself to any possible verdict.
But he did not know which attribute would prevail, YHVH or ELKM.
And now by Isaac’s altar he faced the first time YHVH opposing ELKM in a direct fashion, never seen before.
How would he proceed? Which attribute should he listen to?


5: The Ram solution

Facing his dilemma, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw a ram caught in the trees. Feeling that this ram had been sent from Heavens as a solution, Abraham offered the ram instead of Isaac.
By this he established Judaism.
Nnot only he abolished human sacrifices to YHVH forever, but also paved a new way for his seed, Israel: to combine YHVH with ELKM in Oneness, reconcile the Absolute Justice with Mercy.

For instance: “An eye for an eye”
The so called Ram Solution has become the core of Judaism. How? For example: At Sinai, ELoHiM gave Moses the Ten Commandments written on the Tablets by “the fingers of ELoKiM” (Exodus 32: 16). The letters were miraculously inscribed in the Tablets. But it also means that the Ten Commandments were given in a harsh tone expressing ELoKiM’s Absolute justice.
Thus ELHM said, in the written Torah, “a tooth for a tooth, and eye for an eye” (Exodus 21: 23.) These harsh words represent ELoKiM’s Absolute Justice: the eye of the perpetrator SHOULD have been gouged in order that he or she would feel the agony he has inflicted on his victim. Yet, the Oral Words of the Merciful YHVH say that we should settle on monetary compensation. MERCY overrides JUSTICE. YHVH overrides ELKM.

The written and the Oral Torah
Thus tradition holds that there are two Torah’s given at Sinai:
The “Written Torah,” expressing the harsh ‘Finger of ELoKiM” (Deut 9: 10)
The oral Torah given orally by YHVH (Deut. 10: 4)

The impact on the service at the Holy Temple
When the High Priest of Israel entered the Holy of Holies of the Temple he prayed by the following words:

“ For the sake of Abraham who overrode his Mercy, let your Mercy override your Judgment ”

6: The living, changing Attributes

The Torah text shows an ‘evolution’ in the stance of the Attributes to each other:

  • In Genesis Chapter One YHVH and ELHM are seen in a dialogue to create Adam. Each appears by itself. ELoKiM in the open during the Six Days, YHVH as a hidden acronym at the junction between the Sixth and the Seventh Day (see our classes)
  • In Eden YHVHappears in the open but ‘Side by Side’ with ELoKim, as YHVH ELoKiM, like ‘two Cherubs in Love.‘ They would never appear so close to each other in the rest of the Torah.
  • Before Noah’s Flood YHVH and ELHM appear as two Wings of the Heavenly Court, each supporting Noah from its side (see our class.)
  • In Abraham’s VISION Y HVH appears ‘behind’ ELHM, as YHVH/ELHM (written YHVH, uttered ELoKiM) expressing One common verdict
  • In the Biding of Isaac Abraham faced YHVH and ELKM, each contradicting the other.

    Flow of history
    Take a look again at the story:

    We see here the following:
    1. First ELHM speaks to Abraham, by Himself
    2. Then YHVH interlocks with ELHM’s wing
    3. Then YHVH appears alone.

    I This fits the story of CREATION in Genesis:
    1. First ELHM created the Six Days ‘awesomely alone’
    2. Then, at the end of the Sixth Day, YHVH entered ELHM’s world to create Adam with ELHM (“Let Us Make an Adam in Our Form and Our Image”.) In fact, YHVH penetrates ELoKiM’s Sixth Day. We live under YHVH ELKM Kingship.
    3. In the Eternal Sabbath YHVH would rule ‘alone’ while ELKM would cease His work
    Thus the story of the Binding of Isaac follows the story of CREATION.