Only a few chapters in Genesis before the story of the binding of Isaac, as this story has been called, we find the legend of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Famously, Abraham is portrayed as bargaining with Yahweh: if there are fifty righteous people, will you destroy the city? What about if there are five?
It’s an odd moment for the Torah: a human is the compass. Yahweh is the churlish, ill-tempered, bratty king: he’s dead-set on throwing his weight around. It’s Yahweh as self-righteous enforcer of ancient Middle Eastern social norms.
(Jokingly) OK. Maybe it’s not so unusual that the story makes Yahweh look like a spoiled brat.
Abraham, though, is characterized as the voice of reason. He is portrayed as interposing moral standards where there have been none.
Not so in the binding of Isaac—the narrative chosen by the rabbis for the high holidays. In this story, Abraham proceeds down the path set for him, even as it leads to infanticide. As the Torah tells it, Abraham is a moral compass no more.
In fact, he hasn’t been for quite some time. It is Abraham who, just before nearly sacrificing Isaac, is reported to have sent Hagar and Ishmael to near-certain death in the desert. Why? As some perverse balm for Sarah’s ego.
The character of Abraham is not heroic. It’s an object lesson on what not to do.
There are midrashic traditions that suggest Abraham hesitated, delayed, attempted to distract Yahweh from the set path of murdering a child. Ancient rabbis—the same ones whose teachings appear in the Talmud—suggested that the language of the story of the binding of Isaac was intended to show Abraham once again bargaining.
Other rabbis suggested instead that it was Yahweh’s effort to increase Abraham’s merit in his willingness to hand Isaac over as a sacrifice.
If we were writing the story, what would we have had Abraham do?
Perhaps we would have had Abraham hesitate.