Why Kill Isaac?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Sanhedrin 89b:

“And it came to pass after these matters that God tried Abraham” (Gen. 22:1). The Gemara asks: “After which matters?”  How does the binding of Isaac relate to the preceding events? 

Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra: “This means after the statement of Satan, as it is written: “And the child grew, and was weaned, and Abraham prepared a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned” (Genesis 21:8). Satan [immediately thereafter] said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: “Master of the Universe, this old man, you favored him with a child, at 100 years of age. But from the entire feast that he prepared, did he not have even one dove or one pigeon to sacrifice before You as a thanks-offering?” God said to Satan: “Did Abraham truly prepare the feast only for his son? If I say to him: “Sacrifice your son before Me” he would immediately slaughter him!”  Immediately, after these matters, the verse states, “And God tried Abraham.”  The Torah continues: “And He said: Take, please your son” (Genesis 22:2). Rabbi Shimon bar Abba says: “Why did God plead—rather than command—that Abraham take his son? The Gemara cites a parable of a king who confronted many wars. And he had one warrior fighting for him, and he overcame his enemies. Over time, there was a fierce war confronting him. The king said to his warrior: “I plead with you, stand firm for me in this war, so that others will not say there is no substance in the first victories, and you are not a true warrior.” Likewise, the Holy One, Blessed be He, also said to Abraham: “I have tried you with several ordeals, and you have withstood them all. Now, stand firm in this ordeal for Me, so that others will not say there is no substance in the first ordeals.  God said to Abraham: “Please take your son, your only, whom you love, Isaac” (Gen. 22:2). 

Here, Satan refers to Abraham's detractors. Once the world saw Abraham had a son at 100 years old, they assumed his previous righteousness was only a means of earning a child. Now that Isaac was born, they felt Abraham would no longer be subservient to God. Therefore the rabbis scripted this allegory to offer us insight into God's purpose in commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Here, the Rabbi's teach us that Isaac’s birth brought about a problem. God wishes all mankind to appreciate that man has the capacity to reach a great level of perfection. And since the world now projected onto Abraham their own weaknesses, and they felt his previous 9 trials were just for a son—not due to his devotion to God—Isaac’s sacrifice was necessary. Through Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the world would not dismiss Abraham's previous trials, feeling they were selfishly performed to gain a son. For the very act of killing that son would remove this wrong assumption. Thus, the meaning of “after these matters God tried Abraham” refers to after Isaac's birth: after this matter of Isaac’s birth, God tried Abraham and told him to sacrifice Isaac.

This first reasoning for the sacrifice of Isaac was to correct the world, to show Abraham's perfection. And God desired his perfection to be on display because it is God's plan for mankind that each member should recognize man’s capacity: to be fully devoted to God. And this full devotion is only for man’s good, because in following God's will, we attain a life where we are awestruck by the brilliance found in Torah and nature. King Solomon told us that there is no greater command than Torah study (Moade Katan 9b, Proverbs 8:11) for this is where man finds the greatest satisfaction and benefit.

Sanhedrin 89b continued:

Rabbi Levi says, “And it came to pass after these matters that God tried Abraham” means after the statement of Ishmael to Isaac.  Ishmael said to Isaac: “I am greater than you in the fulfillment of mitzvot, as you were circumcised at the age of eight days, while I was circumcised at the age of thirteen years.” Isaac said to Ishmael: “And do you provoke me with one organ? If the Holy One, Blessed be He, were to say to me “Sacrifice yourself before Me,” I would sacrifice myself.” Immediately, God tried Abraham and told him to sacrifice Isaac.

Just as the previous talmudic portion is an allegorical script, this too was not a literal conversation. Rabbi Levi’s scripted conversation between Ishmael and Isaac teaches an alternative necessity for Isaac’s sacrifice. Ishmael talking to Issac refers to world opinion. In other words, the world will think that Ishmael is greater than Issac since he underwent circumcision at 13 years old—when he could have protested—unlike Issac who was only eight days old at circumcision. And again, as God wishes the truth to spread, He does not wish a false notion to be accepted. Isaac possessed the perfections he learned from his father Abraham, that being complete devotion to God, even at the loss of his own life. This is the level of dedication to God which God wishes man to appreciate he can attain. “And you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). Had there been no sacrifice of Isaac, people would be left with a lesser impression of man, that being of Ishmael who conceded to circumcision at 13 years old. But this is not man’s true capacity. To demonstrate man's greater capacity, God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to show the world that self-sacrifice far surpasses conceding to circumcision.

 But according to either talmudic portion, with these allegories the Rabbi's teach that the sacrifice of Isaac was a response to man’s incorrect measure of human perfection. The first talmudic portion corrects mankind's opinion of Abraham’s ability to overcome the love of a child and instead, follow love of God, due to his correct concept of God. The second portion teaches how Isaac had the capacity to sacrifice his life when he had the correct ideas of God. Neither portion suggests that killing Isaac was for Abraham’s perfection. As Rabbi Israel Chait said, Abraham already possessed that perfection to sacrifice Isaac. For how else could he have followed God’s command, if that perfection was not already within him. The same applies to Isaac. Therefore we learn that the sacrifice of Isaac was to teach mankind.