One of the most well known Biblical stories is perhaps also one of the most puzzling.
Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, is told by God to take his son Isaac, travel three days to the land of Moriah, build an altar and sacrifice him.
It is a story which has captured the imagination of many artists including, most famously, Caravaggio and Rembrandt as well as forming the plot for Miracle plays in the fifteenth century. More recently it was the subject of Leonard Cohen’s 1970 song, The Story of Isaac while the video game, The Binding Of Isaac, was released in 2011.
Understandably, the story has attracted many words of protest in attempts to come to terms with this strange instruction which Abraham received and which he unquestioningly obeyed even though his hand is stayed at the last minute. Although we know that child sacrifice was not uncommon in the era in which this story took place it seems puzzling - at best - to include it in a narrative designed to exemplify the moral life.
Islam changes the identity of the child who is to be sacrificed from Isaac to Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, the maidservant who became a substitute wife when Sarah was unable to conceive.
Ishmael was later sent away into the wilderness to become the primary ancestor of Islam but the underlying idea is the same in both religions - that which you love most must be sacrificed. Another video game, The Binding Of Ishmael, caters for this variation in the story.
In the Book of Genesis God’s instruction to Abraham refers to “your only son whom you love” which begs the question of whether Abraham only has one son or whether he has two sons but only loves one of them.
Where is Isaac in all of this? His age varies, according to different sources, between being a lad in his early teens and a man in his thirties. Did he knowingly consent to this journey and was he aware what lay in store at the end of the three day trek?
And where is Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who was 90 when she gave birth to Isaac? She is not mentioned throughout the story which is told in Chapter 22 of Genesis.
Other commentaries and stories raise the possibilities that Isaac was sacrificed, that he was a willing character in the affair and that the story served as a model for the story of the Sacrificial Death of Jesus.
One of the applications of what has become known as Modern Midrash is the retelling of Biblical stories from perspectives other than those which are used in the Bible. For example, the story of the Binding of Isaac might be rewritten from the point of view of any of the characters in the story such as the knife intended to sacrifice Isaac, one of the servants who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on the first part of the journey or the angel who speaks to Abraham. It is a practice intended to deepen our understanding of the story.
The first stage in this process is to list all the characters and decide from whose perspective to tell the story. When I made a list of all the participants in the story of the Binding of Isaac it became clear that each of the participants in this story was symbolic of a particular aspect of the Tree of Life.
The story exerts a strong pull on the reader because of the powerful emotional content of the narrative. It is equally powerful because, like all good stories, it invokes every archetype enshrined in the diagram of the Tree of Life – of the universe itself.
But first, the story in Genesis Chapter 22:
1. And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham: and he said, “Behold, here I am.”
2. And he said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of.”
3. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and cleaved1 the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him.
4. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
5. And Abraham said to his young men, “wait here with the ass; and I and the lad will go further and worship, and return to you.”
6. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son2 and he took in his hand, the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.
7. And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “My father:” and he said,” Here am I, my son.” And he said, “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
8. And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering:” so they went both of them together.
9. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
10. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
11. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham:” and he said, “Here am I.”
12. And he said, Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do any thing unto him: for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.
13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
14. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.
15. And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,
16. And said, “By myself have I sworn,” says the LORD, “for because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son:
17. That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
18. And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed my voice.”
19. So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
The human and non-human participants in the story make their first appearance as shown below.
Land of Moriah 2
Two young men (servants) 3
Wood (for sacrifice) 3
Stars of Heaven 17
Sands of Seashore 17
Figure 1 (below) shows the various aspects of the facets of the human psyche which is described more fully elsewhere.
In Figure 2 we can see the various aspects of “will” when attributed to different triads of the Tree of Life. Our regular existence is a manifestation of different characteristics of our will.
Perhaps our best route into the story is to consider it as an example of “Thy Will, not my will” and to realise that the central character is Abraham rather than Isaac. This story is not just a physical and emotional journey for Abraham but also a spiritual journey in which he is transformed through the surrender of his soul to God.
On some occasions we will act without thinking, blundering into a situation with no regard for the consequences. This may be placed on the Tree as the triad Netzach-Yesod-Malkut. The sole intention here is to get something “done” - this is the action triad and this state is known as wilfulness.
Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (1602). The angel appears on the left instructing Abraham not to kill Isaac while the ram on the right appears as a substitute sacrifice.
Figure 1: The human psyche set on the Tree of Life
Figure 2: Different aspects of Will
The opposite state to wilfulness is willesness where nothing is done at all. Here there is absolute passivity and a complete lack of will to act which is attributed to the triad of Hod-Yesod-Malkut.
Harmonising these two states is the attribute of willingness which is assigned to the triad Netzach- Hod-Yesod. Although nothing may actually be achieved by being in a state of willingness since this triad does not make any contact with Malkut there is a preparedness to act which is absent from the state of Willesness.
The area where these states combine and evolve into something constructive is in the triad Tiferet-Netzach-Hod. This is known as the state of My Will. It is not as extreme as wilfulness (which wants to get something done at all costs) but achieves its goal by harnessing the subsidiary states of wilfulness (actions), willesness (thought) and willingness (feeling).
My will acts as an agent of Tiferet, the central Sefirah, which directs and accomplishes our long term goals. My will recognises and encompasses the need for analysis, the need to be willing to act and the act itself.
Much may be achieved by acting according to My Will but, once this has been acknowledged, the person may then ask to what purpose an act has been performed. Is it for the achievement itself, personal gratification or the greater good of the world and God’s desire to behold His own image?
When a person understands that the last of these options is the higher aim then that person who has achieved much may offer his skills and abilities for Service. Thy Will is higher than My Will on the Tree of Life and is represented by the Soul Triad which consists of Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet. This is the point of surrender where our whole being is turned over to the Divine and service of the Divine.
Our soul represent the unique part of us and is the most treasured expression of our psyche and spirit. It is what make us who we are. The key to understanding the story of Abraham and Isaac is that Abraham is asked to take his son - “the one whom he loves” on a journey.
The Hebrew word which is used here for “the one whom you love” is ye’chi’de’cha” whose root is “echad” meaning one. “Ya’chid” is also one of the five words used to express different levels of the soul and implies union with God – again through its root meaning of “one.”
We can now see that Abraham is being asked to sacrifice his soul – that which is dearest to him – to God. When we place the characters of the story on the Tree of Life, Isaac – as the one whom Abraham loves - occupies the soul triad of Abraham who represents Tiferet and who is the central character of the story. This act of sacrifice is also the last of the “Ten Trials of Abraham” which will be the subject of a separate article.
When we read the story at this level the lack of Sarah’s voice is understandable – it is Abraham’s story, not hers. If we read the story at a psychological level then the lack of Sarah’s voice is an omission which would be difficult to fathom.
The various participants in the story can now take up positions which resonate with the basic symbolism of the Tree of Life. This Tree in totality describes the Land of Moriah where the story takes place and the characters who acted out the story – see Figure 3 below.
The wood for the fire on which the sacrifice will be made represents Malkut, the physical level. This is connected by the paths to Netzach and Hod where we find other purely physical elements in the story.
Netzach corresponds to the mountain which symbolises the active principle as it is formed by upward pressure from the earth while the altar, made of stones, fits at Hod which corresponds with the priestly rites of that include sacrifice. The mountain is also a part of the landscape which is aesthetically pleasing – another attribute of Netzach.
With its feet on the ground through the path from Yesod to Malkut, the ass represents Yesod, the ego, which is connected directly to Malkut, the earth or kingdom.
The ego (Yesod) is an aspect of the psyche which is intended to be brought under the control of the Self (Tiferet) just as the ass is a working animal which can be brought under the control of its master.
The two servants, whom Abraham leaves at the foot of the mountain with the ass, represent the triads of action and thought. While these are important components of everyday life their limitations must be recognised.
Figure 3: The Tree of the Land of Moriah
Abraham and Isaac, “ascend the mountain to pray” and therefore have to leave these servants with the ass where they will return in due course. According to the twelfth century commentator, Rashi, these two servants were Abraham’s elder son, Ishmael, and Eleazar, Abraham’s servant who was subsequently sent to find a wife for Isaac.
The word used for “pray” is ve’nish’ta’ha’veh – “and we will bow down” - which seems somehow more marked than the simple act of praying. It might also imply that Abraham knows the mountain must be climbed before God’s Presence can be acknowledged.
“Going up” the mountain is metaphor for ascending the Tree just as the three pilgrim festivals of the Jewish calendar (page 7), when seen symbolically, represent three occasions in the year when a higher consciousness is deliberately sought.
The third component of everyday life – feeling – is represented by the lamb which is a small animal that frequently provokes feelings of tenderness in those who see it.
In the text, Isaac asks Abraham the whereabouts of the lamb for the sacrifice. Later, when it appears, the lamb has transformed into a ram which is caught in a thicket or hedge - different Hebrew words are used from “lamb” and “ram” indicating two distinct aspects of the psyche.
While the lamb is a baby animal, the ram is a wild animal which was once a lamb. The description of it being caught in the thicket shows the psychological struggle encountered when moving up the Tree from the vegetable level to the animal level. Becoming an individual requires one to leave the everyday comfort of one’s surroundings – all spiritual journeys speak of this in one form or another.
The Soul triad on the Tree of Life – Isaac, in this case - is formed of the three Sefirot Tiferet, Hesed and Gevurah; Abraham, as the central of the story, belongs at Tiferet.
Hesed, the quality of lovingkindness contains a natural warmth which, if unchecked, can get out of control and become overpowering. Similarly the physical fire of the story which would be used for the sacrifice signifies the uncontrolled aspect of Hesed if it were to flare up and become destructive.
By way of contrast, Gevurah is associated with discipline and particularly with anything that has military or martial connections. The planetary association with Mars derives from Gevurah when the planets are set on the Tree and Mars is the natural planetary ruler of all blades. We can see the axe is a natural representative of Gevurah.
Abraham (Tiferet), taking the fire (Hesed) and the axe (Gevurah) signifies the three components of the soul triad (Isaac) which is to be given to God.
But God does not require Abraham’s soul (Isaac) – only his willingness to give it – and in its stead the ram is sacrificed. The ram, Abraham’s animal nature, is given up in lieu of his soul and as a reward God promises to make Abraham and his seed as great as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore. By losing the part of himself which would have striven for his own worldly wealth and advancement Abraham ensures wealth in perpetuity for his descendants.
It is not uncommon in spiritual work to find people who, having accomplished much in worldly terms, choose to utilise their talents for the spiritual advancement of humanity rather than continue their pursuit of wealth and prestige.
If Hesed represents the fire used for the sacrifice on earth, Hokhmah (pure energy), at the head of the active pillar, signifies heavenly fire (stars) which is many times greater. We can only see the stars as pinpricks in the sky with no true comprehension of their vast heat and distance from earth or their detailed form which remains undifferentiated. In contrast, the sand found on the seashore is a mass of material divided into an infinite number of discrete units (grains) which can be observed at close quarters – this is Binah (pure form).
“While Wisdom [Hokhmah] is pure undifferentiated Mind, Understanding [Binah] is the level where division exists, and where things are delineated and defined as separated objects.
“On the level of Wisdom, all men are included in a single world soul. Understanding is….where the soul of each individual assumes a distinct identity, and each one is seen as a separate entity.”3
Above all this drama is God’s presence, at Keter, which filters into every corner of the story.
As a final note, there are three places in the story where Abraham is called – first directly by God (verse 1), secondly by Isaac (verse 7) and thirdly by the Angel of the Lord (verse 11).
On each occasion he answers “Hineini” – “here am I.” We can see that these three expressions of acknowledgement correspond to three levels of consciousness.
On the first occasion the God speaks to Abraham before he starts the journey – he is still in his ordinary life at the path between Netzach and Hod on the threshold between vegetable and animal consciousness
Abraham is called on the second occasion by his son, Isaac. In this reading we can see this is Abraham being called at the soul level where we have placed Isaac – this is the horizontal path between Hesed and Gevurah which is part of the soul triad and signifies emotional consciousness. In the external (traditional) story, this shows the emotional trauma of sacrificing one’s son - in the internal story it signifies the agreement to sacrifice one’s soul.
On the third occasion Abraham is called by the Angel of the Lord and he again answers “Hineini” – this is a combination of the spiritual level of Da’at from where the angel appears and the Divine level between Hokhmah and Binah.
The Angel instructs Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham lifts his eyes and sees the ram which is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead.
The angel then returns and speaks a second time without calling Abraham who therefore has no need to make a response but simply receives his reward for being willing to sacrifice every part of his being in God’s service.
We can see this fourth calling as the world of Azilut (Emanation) where everything is in potential and which is of a different order from the other three worlds. In the three previous instances where Abraham responds to the call he does so as a representative of the three lower worlds of Beriah (Creation), Yetzirah (Formation) and Assiyah (Action or Physical).
The story of Isaac can be read on many different levels each producing a different response according to the way in which it is read. All levels have a validity and something to teach. Viewing the story from a Kabbalistic perspective shows how the use of archetypes which demonstrate the universal principles of the Tree of Life allow the reader to absorb those principles in a way which rises above the physical and emotional questions posed by traditional readings.
© Jonathon Clark 2020
1. “Cleaved” is used here in the sense to splitting the wood in order to carry it.
2. Rather “gave to him to carry” but the Hebrew word is the same that is used later (in verse 9) when Isaac is laid upon the altar.
3. P. 12, Sefer Yezirah, The Book of Creation, Aryeh Kaplan, Jason Aronson Inc. 1995.