Rosh Hashana: Would God command human sacrifice?

“And an angel of the Lord called out to him from the heavens and said… Do not stretch out your hand against the lad….” (Genesis 22:12)

Sacrifice 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sacrifice 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Every Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), we ponder the story of the Akeda. How can the God of love and compassion tell Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac?
Moreover, God Himself commands the sacrifice; it is only an “angel of the Lord” who tells Abraham to stay his hand. Even accepting the explanation that Abraham misunderstood the true intent of His initial words, why is it not God Himself who rescinds His demand? And by what right does Abraham listen to the “Angel of the Lord” and reject the original command of God Himself? And why does the text stipulate that the angel’s later retraction came to Abraham “from the heavens” – a phrase missing from God’s first command?
In this context, it is interesting to note that in Rembrandt’s famous painting of the akeda the angel not only speaks to Abraham, but actually stays his hand. Apparently, the artist did not think the angel’s words alone would have stopped Abraham from obeying the command he had received directly from God.
Let us review the awe-some story. The God of Power and Might who is recognized by the nations commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Father and son set out on a three-day journey; not a word passes between them until they come within sight of the designated place of Divine Service. At that point, Abraham places the sacrificial wood on Isaac’s back, takes the knife and the fire, and father and son walk “together” to the appointed destination.
What must have gone through Isaac's mind? We can only imagine how fearful his thoughts were from the question he finally manages to ask: “Here are the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for the whole burnt-offering?” Abraham provides a non-committal response which can be understood in a variety of ways: “God will provide for Himself the whole burnt offering – my son; and the two of them walked together” (Genesis 22:7, 8).
And what may have gone through Abraham’s mind? Rabbi Joseph Ibn Kaspi suggests that perhaps Abraham was expecting God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. After all, Abraham lived in the idolatrous period of Moloch, when the crowning proof of fealty to one’s idol was to offer it one’s most beloved child.
At the same time however, Abraham was told by YHVH (the special name for the God of Israel), that he was chosen for a covenantal relationship precisely because of his “compassionate righteousness and moral justice” (Gen. 18:17-19), and that it was this unique teaching that would bring blessing to “all the families of the earth.” Moreover, Abraham certainly knew the pillar of the Noahide laws: “If a human sheds the blood of another, his blood shall be shed, for humans were made in the image of God” (Gen. 9:5). It was these fundamental teachings that caused Abraham to remonstrate with God on behalf of any innocent people in Sodom, and these basic principles must have raised agonizing doubts in Abraham’s mind during the journey: Perhaps he hadn’t understood God correctly. Perhaps he had given the divine command a Molochian interpretation, perhaps YHVH did not want him to slaughter Isaac after all…
At the critical moment, Abraham decides to reject his interpretation of God’s command and listen to the “angel of YHVH” – to the divine words of “humanity created in God’s image” and “compassionate righteousness and moral justice” which he understands to be his covenantal message and mission. These concepts came from heaven, no less (and perhaps more) than the command which he may have misunderstood.
And so it is that after the akeda the same “angel of YHVH comes a second time from heaven” to bless Abraham as well as the entire world through Abraham’s seed. This blessing is normally attributed to the fact that Abraham did not withhold (hasach) his son. But the word hasach can also mean “to remove,” so I understand that the blessing came because Abraham did not slaughter his only son, and because “he listened to the voice of the angel.” The angel is confirming that Abraham did right in abiding by fundamental biblical morality.
Today, many rabbis and judges are listening to stringent interpretations rather than remembering that God defines Himself as a “Lord of love and compassion” and urges us to love the proselyte and every human being – Jew and Gentile – as we love ourselves, because every human comes from the womb of the One God.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.