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With the Binding of Isaac, Did Abraham Fail His Big Test?

Where was the patriarch’s pushback? And where’s ours?

David Sable
October 17, 2017
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The Sacrifice of Isaac, by CaravaggioWikiemedia commons
Wikiemedia commons
The Sacrifice of Isaac, by CaravaggioWikiemedia commons

Core to the Rosh Hashanah synagogue service and soon to be recited again in the traditional, annual cycle of the reading the Five Books of Moses, from the Torah Scroll, every Shabbat, is the portion known as The Binding or Sacrifice of Isaac.

It is a most dramatic scene. A Father, Abraham, being tested by God and told to bring his only son for a sacrifice. Abraham, according to the script, says nothing but takes the boy to the appointed hilltop and just as he lifts the knife, cue the dramatic music, an angelic voice rings out Abraham, Abraham and orders him to stop.

The rest is history as they say with the three major Western religions each claiming a version of the story: Christians relating it to the latter Jesus narrative and martyrdom for God; Muslims believing it was Abraham’s son Ishmael whom he took to the mountain; and Jews developing an entire tradition around the selflessness and willingness of Abraham to kill his own for God’s test that many allowed themselves to be martyred for their faith, over the centuries, in emulation of this divinely inspired act.

Here is my problem. I’ve always believed that, in truth, Abraham failed the test and that we, followers of the Big Three, have suffered needlessly for Millennia because we followed the wrong story line.

First of all, if you read the Biblical text carefully, chapter by chapter, you will discover that this was the second-time Abraham was ready to sacrifice a son and both times, seemingly, God told him to.

The first was when he banished his first-born son Ishmael together with the boy’s mother Hagar who was his concubine, given to him by Sarah, his wife, as she could not conceive and wanted Abraham to have sons.

Sarah didn’t want Ishmael “corrupting” her son, now that she had given birth, and demanded that Abraham banish them both, not to mention there is a pre-read on a jealous streak as it related to Hagar. To his credit, Abraham wasn’t comfortable but God told him to listen to Sarah so he threw them out into the hot desert but not before God told him “ I will make a great nation of him too, for he is your son.”
As the boy lay near death in the sand, God appeared, saved them both and said “I will greatly increase your offspring and they shall be too numerous to count.”

Seems when Abraham was called the second time he didn’t argue at all just took the boy raised the knife and it took two calls of his name to break his spell of blind acceptance.

And again, God ends by saying “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand on the seashore.”

Three religions, thousands of years of persecution later Jews are the smallest group in the lot and the only way to possibly see the fulfillment of God’s promise is to understand that Abraham, as the Father of Monotheism, begat–as it were–the multitudes of the three and not just the Jewish faith.

And that is where I see the failure of Abraham.

Imagine if he had stood up to his wife and, yes, God and not banished Ishmael. Imagine if he had stood up to God and refused to “bind” Isaac. Where would the narrative had led? To one religion? One faith? One unified story?

Perhaps the test was to see if one story was strong enough, broad enough to carry the world. If one man’s faith was really that powerful to be more than a common ancestor inspiring many but in many different ways engendering not a little hate along the way.

Think about this. We all, Jew Christian and Muslim consider ourselves Children of Abraham.

But only Jews are the children of Israel, once known as Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel “Because he fought with God and man and prevailed.” And maybe there is the answer to the test.

Could it be that God was looking for pushback? Someone who wouldn’t just accept his voice or the voice of anyone who asked him to betray his better instincts?

Didn’t Abraham know that his one God was against human sacrifice so prevalent at the time? Where was his pushback? His horror? His rebellion?

David Sable is Global CEO of Y&R. He is a leader in the marketing industry and philanthropic endeavors, a digital pioneer, a prolific writer, and a deep believer in the power of people working together to bring change.