The Akedah in Jewish Tradition by Joel S. Kaminsky

Rabbinic and even prerabbinic texts like the book of Jubilees suggest that Abraham successfully navigated a number of trials or tests, including the Akedah, the binding of Isaac recounted in Gen 22. However, many contemporary scholars and rabbis have argued that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is proof that Abraham failed the test God had set for him or that Abraham passed the test only when he stopped short of slaughtering his son Isaac. Frequently, Abraham’s failure to question God’s command in Gen 22 is contrasted negatively with his strong challenge to God about the suffering of potential innocents in Sodom in Gen 18. The difficulty with this contemporary reading, which takes a negative view of Abraham’s actions in Gen 22, is that it does so at the expense of the logic and coherence of both the biblical text, which clearly speaks of God rewarding Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and of the larger Jewish and Christian traditions that grew from it.

The Jewish liturgy, drawing upon earlier midrashic sources, makes a close connection between the Akedah and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It links the ram’s horn (shofar) blown on Rosh Hashanah to the ram that Abraham offered in place of Isaac and sees the sounding of the shofar as a way to remind God of Abraham’s total obedience and to pardon Abraham’s descendants on the basis of his great merit. In fact, once the holiday became a two-day festival in the Diaspora, Gen 22 became the Torah reading in synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God decides whether to grant each person another year of life and determines the kind of year each individual and the larger community of Israel will experience; these destinies are sealed ten days later, on Yom Kippur. Like Abraham and Isaac in the story of the Akedah (Isaac is often depicted as a consenting adult in postbiblical Jewish tradition), during this time the community stands before God and openly acknowledges that God has an ultimate claim on our lives and that God can choose to exercise that claim at any time.

Jewish tradition also recognizes that God is known to extend mercy mysteriously, as when God spared Abraham from sacrificing his beloved son Isaac. And if we, too, are spared the judgment we may in fact deserve for our misdeeds and granted another year of life, we resemble Isaac after his near sacrifice. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy suggests that we are obligated to live the life we are given in the coming year in service to God, who in an act of unwarranted mercy grants us an analogous heavenly reprieve, as he did to Abraham and Isaac.

Although we may be uncomfortable with the notion of human sacrifice, the biblical text uses this motif to animate what would become a central conviction of both the Jewish and Christian traditions—that God has an absolute claim on our lives and that we should live a life oriented and dedicated to God.

Joel S. Kaminsky, "Akedah in Jewish Tradition", n.p. [cited 23 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/akedah-in-jewish-tradition

Contributors

Joel S. Kaminsky

Joel S. Kaminsky
Professor, Smith College

Joel S. Kaminsky is a professor in the Religion Department at Smith College. He has published Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Abingdon, 2007) and more recently coauthored The Torah: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, 2011).

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

An ancient Jewish book that retells the stories of Genesis with added references to angels, fallen angels, and prophecy. It was highly regarded by early Christians and the Jews from Qumran, and is still considered canonical to Ethiopian Jews and Christians.

The standardized collection of practices—ceremonies, readings, rituals, songs, and so forth—related to worship in a religious tradition.

Of or related to history after the writing of the canonical Bible; can also mean transcending a culture that focuses on the Bible.

Judaism from the period before the development of the rabbinic tradition in the early centuries of the Common Era.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Gen 22

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

Gen 22

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

Gen 18

A Son Promised to Abraham and Sarah
1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.2He looked ... View more

Gen 22

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

Gen 22

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more

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