Leader Resource 1: The Binding of Isaac Background Information

This workshop presents what is for religious liberals one of the most mysterious and disturbing stories in the Hebrew scriptures. In the story, God commands Abraham to take his beloved son, bind him, and make of him a burnt offering on one of the mountains in the land of Moriah. Abraham does as he is told, and is about to kill his own son when an angel of God stops him. A ram caught in a nearby thicket serves as the offering rather than Isaac.

The meaning of this story has been debated for many centuries. It has captured the popular religious imagination, serving as the subject of many musical, literary and visual works of art. Rembrandt painted it in 1634. Nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard used the tale to explore fundamental religious, philosophical, and ethical issues in the 1843 work, Fear and Trembling. Classical composers Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky have made it the subject of musical compositions. Contemporary folk singer Joan Baez recorded a haunting piece called "Isaac and Abraham" in 1992.

What is this story of near-sacrifice that so captures our religious imagination? Why was it included in the founding stories of the Hebrew people? Is this a story that describes a test of faith for Abraham, demonstrating Abraham's obedience even to the point of sacrificing his own son? Is this a story that lets us know that God disapproves of child sacrifice, which was practiced by many groups in Abraham's time? Is this a story which depicts God as engaging in a monstrous test, a test which renders such a God unworthy of worship? Is this a story that critiques patriarchal culture, where women and children were possessions of their husbands and fathers? Was the God who demanded such a sacrifice a God of Abraham's imagining?

And there are more questions. Why was such a story preserved in the scriptural tradition? Unlike some other disturbing stories in the Hebrew scriptures, why does this one remain current and well-known in the popular religious culture of three religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? It is central to the Jewish observation of Rosh Hashana, where it is said to show that God is merciful. The story is told at Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice that follows the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to remind Muslims that God requires obedience. [Note: In the Qu'uran, it is Ishmael who is the son Abraham nearly sacrifices, not Isaac.] Some Christian theologians link faith to sacrifice, viewing Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac as one that foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus.

This story reveals that there is a central ambiguity in the Hebrew scriptures: Does God demand sacrifice, or does God promote mercy? Throughout the texts, and in Christian scripture and the Qu'ran, these two themes are expressed.

We Unitarian Universalists can explore the story, consider its wisdom, and raise our voices to question and protest that which we need to in our own time.