We’re all familiar with the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac under God’s command, what is called in Hebrew the Aqedah (the ‘Binding’ of Isaac). We nowadays often read it as a sort of etiological repudiation of human sacrifice (hey, after all, Abraham sacrificed a substitute animal!); we often (anachronistically) inject our modern preconceptions of human sacrifice being this repulsive barbaric ritual to the story. But what you really get from the actual account isn’t about so much a dilemma revolving around the ethics of child sacrifice (as Kierkegaard once claimed); child sacrifice, after all, was an ordinary part of Abraham’s culture. That kind of reading is anachronistic.
(In fact, if this story is supposed to be an etiological one that legitimizes the substitution of animals for human lives, as many people (including scholars) think, you would expect God or the sacred authors to allude to this story when the commandment about the firstborn is given. But there is none. Instead, it’s always the tenth plague of Egypt and the passover lamb that fills that role.)
The crisis in the story instead revolves around the fact that Yhwh’s promise to Abraham (to make him a father of many nations, to give him a son) is jeopardized by His command to give up Isaac to Him. Child sacrifice itself or the logic behind it is never repudiated (expressly) in the narrative. On the contrary, Abraham is held up as an archetype of faithfulness because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac in spite of the earlier promises made to him. It’s not so much about the ram; Abraham after all was commanded to sacrifice Isaac; there was no command about the ram. Abraham receives the fruits of the promise not because he sacrificed the ram in place of Isaac, but because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac to Yhwh. His obedience to the original command was rewarded.
As an author named Jon Levenson (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son) comments:
Genesis 22:1-19 is frighteningly unequivocal about YHWH’s ordering of a father to offer up his son as a sacrifice …] As an etiology of the redemption of the first-born son through the death of the sheep, however, the aqedah is, it seems to me, most ineffective. For although Abraham does indeed spot and then sacrifice a ram just after hearing the gruesome command rescinded (Gen 22:13), he is never actually commanded to offer the animal, as he was commanded to sacrifice his only beloved son, Isaac. And, in fact, so far as we know, Israelite tradition never explained the substitution of the sheep for the first-born son by reference to the aqedah; it was the tenth plague upon Egypt that served that role, with the paschal lamb spelling the difference between life and death for the Israelite first-born males (Exodus 12-13). The sacrifice of that sheep is commanded emphatically and repeatedly. But more importantly, it is passing strange to condemn child sacrifice through a narrative in which a father is richly rewarded for his willingness to carry out that very practice. If the point of the aqedah is ‘abolish human sacrifice, substitute animals instead’, then Abraham cannot be regarded as having passed the test to which Gen 22:1 tells us God is here subjecting him. For Abraham obeys the command to sacrifice Isaac without cavil and desists—knife in hand, Isaac bound on the altar over the firewood—only when the angel calls to him from heaven. And the burden of the angelic address is not that the slaughter of Isaac is offensive or that the ram is a preferable victim, but that it is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son that verifies his fear of God. A second angelic address then specifies the reward for having passed the test with flying colors:
[INDENT]16 By myself I swear, the LORD declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, 17 I will bestow my blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. 18 All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command. (Gen 22:16-18)
No interpretation of the aqedah can be adequate if it fails to reckon with the point made explicit here: Abraham will have his multitude of descendants only because he was willing to sacrifice the son who is destined to beget them. Any construal of the text that minimizes that willingness misses the point.
The announcement that “God put Abraham to the test” cannot, however, be interpreted as von Rad taks it, as a signal to the reader (though not to Abraham) that the aqedah is only a test. Nothing in the verb used (nissâ) implies that the act commanded will not be carried to completion, that Isaac will be only bound and not sacrificed on the altar. … This being the case, Abraham’s willingness to heed the frightful command may or may not demonstrate faith in the promise that is invested in Isaac, but it surely and abundantly demonstrates his putting obedience to God ahead of every possible competitor.[/INDENT]