The Akedah or Binding of Isaac is one of many memorable moments in Genesis, and one of the most upsetting. It is also seen as foundational by all three of the "Abrahamic Religions" that share this tradition—Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In antiquity, its religious significance for the Jews was quite specific. Mount Moriah, where the action takes place, was identified with Mount Zion and the Temple Mount, the great center of worship for the one God. Since worship took the form of a constant performance of ritual sacrifice, the connection was clear: in this place, God instructed Abraham on the manner in which his worship was to be conducted and on the location of its performance.
For Christians, the meaning of filicide was different. Abraham becomes a great symbol of faith, a loving father who nonetheless puts God before the life of his own son. The pathos of this act is tellingly conveyed in this rather Disney-fied Christian animated version:
The Christian view is that God himself later sacrifices His Son, doing the very thing for us which he did not require ultimately of Abraham. This verse from the Gospel of John is usually put in juxtaposition with the Akedah: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16, King James Version).
In Islam, Abraham (known as Ibrahim) is similarly seen as having shown great obedience in being willing to sacrifice his son, though this version of the story involves Ishmael, progenitor of the Arabs, not Isaac. Ibrahim and Ishmael are credited with establishing the first house of worship at the Kaaba in Mecca, so again we see how the story links to specific ritual practices. Every year during the festival of Eid al-Adha, Muslims ritually slaughter a sheep or goat in remembrance of Ibrahim's obedience to God.
And yet anyone reading this text with fresh eyes cannot help but ask: Why on earth would God ask such a sadistic thing of Abraham, especially knowing how long he has waited for this promised child? One way to view this is, as we have been suggesting, to see Genesis as a deliberately polemical text, one that subtly and not-so-subtly provides a critique of religious cults and practices from other peoples.
In Hebrew and other Classical sources, the practice of child sacrifice is alleged of the Phoenicians and their colonial descendants, the Carthaginians (more on them later this term). Archaeological evidence seems to corroborate this: there are sanctuaries where the burnt remains of children have been found. A debate rages to this day as to whether child sacrifice was a reality in these religions; some want to see the bodies as the result of an epidemic or other childhood fatality. Some Pro-Life proponents want to see the fetal remains as the result of abortions, in order to draw from the Biblical condemnation of such practices a clear stance against abortion itself.
Clearly the idea that a religion required regular child sacrifice is appalling to this day. In fact, even among polytheists in antiquity, it was a common smear to claim your enemies engaged in human sacrifice, so it is difficult to know the facts.
We do not have to settle that historical question, however, to see why this helps us to shore up a polemical reading of the Akedah. Perhaps child sacrifice was a reality among the Canaanites and other polytheists surrounding the people of Israel; but even if it was not, it certainly was effective to claim that it was. It is a way to declare the religion of another people fanatical and pernicious.
But if child sacrifice is imagined as the ultimate act of fanatical devotion (one frankly, I confess, I could not perform!), then it is a hard act to top. So in my reading, the Akedah shows this Hebrew God establishing an important point. His follower Abraham is—to our surprise and dismay—perfectly willing to perform this fanatical act when commanded. But this Hebrew God then, having made His point, simply declares: I am not that kind of God! An important ritual distinction is made—to our relief—and the outline of correct worship is then made: kill animals, not people, in My honor, and this will set you apart from others.
It is very telling that later in the Hebrew Bible, we find the prophets reporting God's anger that His chosen people should be practicing these abhorrent rituals (Jeremiah 7:30-32), "which I commanded not, neither came it into My mind." The Akedah gives God plausible deniability on the matter of human sacrifice.
If you are a fan of early cinema, you might enjoy this lugubrious depiction of child sacrifice from Giovanni Pastrone's classic film Cabiria (1914).