A rabbinic story about Isaac and Ishmael refers to a conversation between the two. According to the story, once Ishmael told Isaac that he had greater love and loyalty to God than Isaac because he submitted himself voluntarily to circumcision at the age of thirteen whereas Isaac did not even know what was happening as he was circumcised on the eighth day of his birth. Isaac retorted saying that if God so wished, he was ready to offer not just a little skin but his entire body to God. When the angels heard this conversation they reported it to God, and God wanted to show His angels the sincerity of the words of Isaac. Hence, God’s command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering (Genesis 22:2).
However, not all who read the story of the binding of Isaac are overwhelmed by just pious and religious feelings. Some scholars do not hesitate to view the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac as an example of atrocious child abuse in the Old Testament. The traditional pictures of the sacrifice of Isaac that portray Abraham as covering the face of Isaac with his one hand is interpreted either as his attempt to silence the child or as the perpetrator reducing his victim as a faceless object. Such an interpretation, probably, goes beyond the intention of the original author and fails his goal behind penning this story.
In fact, Isaac was not silenced by Abraham at any point of time in the story. Isaac is not a silent victim of the machinations of his father. On the way to Mount Moriah Isaac engages his father with a question: Father, …..where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). In fact it is the only interaction with Abraham and Isaac recorded in the bible. Abraham does not ignore the question of his son. He promptly answers the question of his beloved son saying, “God Himself will provide the lamb…” The answer of Abraham was not aimed to fool his child. Abraham’s answer to the query of Isaac reveals the hopes of Abraham and his trust in God. It was his faith that God will provide a lamb for sacrifice; it was his prophecy or it was his prayer…Abraham obeyed God because he trusted Him. Isaac does not ask any questions further. He is satisfied with his Father’s answer. Isaac trusts in his Father’s trust in God.
The story of Abraham begins and ends with his silent obedience to God. When God called Abraham “to go…to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1), Abraham obeyed God without asking for any clarifications. In the same manner when God asked Abraham “go to the land of Moriah, and offer [Isaac] as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Gen. 22:2) Abraham obeyed with the same silence. The first command to leave everything was accompanied by several sweet promises including the promise of land, great progeny and divine blessings. But, the command to sacrifice Isaac was without any such promises. Besides, this command seemed to nullify all the promises God had already given to Abraham. Still Abraham obeyed.
Why was Abraham silent? His silence and his obedience indicate his absolute trust in God. He knew from his experience that his God is a God who makes the impossible possible. The very birth of Isaac was an example and proof of God’s power to make happen what is impossible to humans. Abraham believed that God would find a way to fulfil his promise for a great progeny in spite of his command to sacrifice Isaac, the only means to attain God’s promises. His instruction to the servants to “Stay here… we will worship and then we will come back to you” (Gen 22:5) was not meant to hide the truth but these words of Abraham reveal his hope against all odds of life. He firmly believed that God would graciously return the sacrifice he offers to God.
For the Jews the story of the great ordeal of Abraham and Isaac is not a story of people lived in the distant past. It was their story of exodus, exile and holocaust when the lives of many of their children were sacrificed. The unwavering faith of their patriarch was a source of power and hope in the midst of their innumerable sufferings and sacrifices. The story teaches that our obedience to God corresponds to our trust in Him.