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The test is never defined; while God gives Abraham the familiar command, it may be notable that when Abraham goes to do it, God sends an emissary to intervene, spares Isaac, provides a ram as substitute, and never again addresses Abraham directly, perhaps suggesting that the greater test was that of conscience and of courage, a test Abraham perhaps fails.

Here I may borrow from what I’ve often said about pictures: if you look at a photograph and believe that you have seen it, look again.

The same may be said of Torah portions and Genesis 22 should prove no exception.

The definition of the test is not in the text definitively or directly, and while obedience is tested — of that there is no question — the command to murder one’s own boy, and not a boy easily gotten, would seem not only questionable, but so much so as to be and to turn out the true test of Abraham’s character, which some, including Isaac, might think in the instance miserably dumb.

From the Wikipedia entry on the “Binding of Isaac”:

Rather, at the binding the main one tested was Abraham. It was a test of faith to see whether he would doubt God’s words. Abraham had been assured by God that “Your seed will be called through Isaac” (Gen. 21:12), i.e., Isaac (and not Ishmael) would father a great nation—the Jewish people. However, Abraham could apparently have asked a very glaring question: at the time that God commanded him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, Isaac was still single, and if Isaac would die now, how could he possibly father the nation which was to be born from Abraham? Moreover, isn’t God eternal and unchanging, as God declares: “I have not changed” (Malachi 3:6), implying that He does not change His mind?

While the will to commit murder in God’s name may seem so much more elevating, heady to Abraham, perhaps, the facts of the story — God’s promise regarding Isaac, the ambiguity of the language conveying the idea of Abraham being tested, the sending of an emissary (after having spoken to Abraham directly — what a let down), the subsequent intercession by a lesser being, the killing of a ram instead of Isaac, the conversation that God does not resume with Abraham — strongly supports the argument for God having tested Abraham’s conscience more than his unquestioning obedience.


Obedience & Conscience: An Akedah Lesson by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. (PDF)

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