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The Interrupted Sacrifice of Isaac or the Sacrifice of the All-powerful

Nina Libermann
Translation Louise Thunin
Abraham,the father of all believers…and even the worst ! And what if a rereading of Abraham’s story allowed us to take a step aside ? What if one little letter could change everything and take us from sacrifice to life ? Let’s rediscover one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible.
In Genesis, questions of paternity and marriage offer us unbelievable scenes that end strangely in the sacrifice of Isaac.
Named at the beginning of Genesis, Abram means « eminent father » or « exalted father. » He is called to leave his clan to go towards an unknown land. God blesses him and promises to make of him a great nation. He marries Saraï, whose name means « my princess ». They have no children. It is Hagar, the servant-girl, who gives Abram a son, Ismaël. Abram is ninety-nine when God comes to him to tell him he will be fertile with Saraï. To seal this convenant, he changes their name : Saraï becomes Sarah, the princess, and Abram becomes Abraham « father of a multitude. » This little play on a letter (hei in Hebrew) changes both the meaning and the destiny of of these two people, as if they were new creatures. From this new union, which frees Sarah from being Abraham’s possession, Isaac will be born ; his name means « laugh. »
But in this recomposed family, nothing works. Hagar is sent away by order of God. There remain only Isaac, Sarah and Abraham. God, who had promised Abraham an unlimited descendance, now asks him to go sacrifice his son, his only one, the remaining one. This story is illogical, even horrible !
To explain it, commentators have exalted Abraham’s and Isaac’s obedience. Others have claimed that Abraham couldn’t have understood properly. He must have wrongly imagined that God had asked him to sacrifice his son. Some have said that actually Abraham was testing God’s faithfulness. That is a bit far-fetched, but what can we say when God contradicts himself so shockingly ! The promises of blessings and the request for infanticide are not in the same register.
The way which, to me, seems the wisest to understand this text is the one historians propose on infanticide, practiced in ancient religions, even in ancient Rome. Tacitus speaks of the « eccentric custom of the Jews to refuse to rid themselves of an infant. » And it may be thanks to the interrupted sacrifice of Isaac, which did not associate God’s blessings with human sacrifices, that this practice was abandoned.
Finally, another possibility : when the angel of Adonaï retains the hand of Abraham, he says, « Abraham ; Abraham, do not lay your hand on the lad, nor do anything to him…for now I know that you fear God seeing that you have not withheld (literally) your son your only son. » Did God fear that Abraham would withhold his son ? That he had forgotten the
« hei » in his name and become an exalted father, a little too eminent ? There is a question of rivalry here. Who is the Father ? Who has authority and power ? Does God suspect Abraham of wanting to be the God of his son ?
But Abraham did not withhold his son. He showed God he was able to withhold something else, his desire for possession. For his part, God did not take Abraham’s son from him. He saved him from omnipotency, and the story could continue, the blessing take place and multiply. Neither one withheld the son, and they found each other in a covenant of life, with a future.
Our society, alas, often sees too many innocent victims sacrificed on the altar of faith.
In this text, however, the only sacrifice which seems valid is that of our own desire for possession and power. It shows that it is only by leaving life and liberty to others that our own meeting with God is possible, that the letter « hei », like a breath, can be written within our own name and change our destiny. This text also shows the importance of the balance of forces between mankind and God : each sacrifices his own desires, proves humility and trust, so that the laughter of Isaac and of many others can still ring out on the road to salvation.


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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