Of all the incidents that might justify the complaints of Dawkins and Hitchens against religion, the Binding of Isaac is at first sight the greatest.
What would you think of a father who deliberately murdered his son as some sort of religious ritual? Yet Judaism, Islam and Christianity make Abraham's aborted sacrifice of his son a major incident in the individual faiths (though Islam has made it about Ishmael rather than Isaac).
If you met a father behaving like that today, who could blame you for calling child protective agencies? Is this faith or fanaticism? In the past few years we’ve seen more than enough people who measure their devotion by their willingness to kill defenseless people. In New York, London, Madrid and Bali we can point the finger at fanatical Islamists, but what about Jonesville and Waco? What about Orissa? Moreover, Muslims, Jews and Christians can find examples in their scriptures to justify that kind of ruthlessness.
In the Jewish view, God was testing Abraham, establishing the depth of the commitment upon which the nation of Israel would be founded. No sooner had Abraham arranged the firewood on the altar, taken the knife and stretched out his hand to slaughter his son, than "an angel of God called out to him from the heavens... 'Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, as you have not withheld your only child from Me... Thus I shall bless you, and multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand that is at the shore of the sea...' "
Maimonides, the preeminent Jewish expositor of the twelfth century, explains that the "binding of Isaac" served to establish two key axioms of the Jewish faith: a) the extent of man's capacity to love, fear and serve God; b) the principle of "prophecy" - the fact that God communicates His will to man.
By binding Isaac upon the altar, Abraham demonstrated that man is capable of a love and awe of God that surpasses his every other feeling or commitment. For what greater love is there than the love of a parent for his child? What greater fear is there than a parent's fear for the life of his child? With the binding, Abraham set his commitment to God above these most basic truths of human nature, establishing it as the all-surpassing consideration in the life of man.
The second truth established by the incident is the principle of prophecy.
There are many levels and degrees of human communion with the divine, from the scientist's contemplation of God's creation, to the preacher whose interpretation and exposition of Scripture is guided and molded by divine inspiration. Prophecy, however, is the ultimate divine communication - a revelation that completely transcends the equivocation and subjectivity of its human receiver, so that its truth is absolute, incontestable and immutable. A fundamental principle of the Jewish (and indeed Christian) faith is that God communicates to man in this manner.
When Abraham was told to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God, this was contrary to everything Abraham was and stood for, contrary to everything he knew and believed about God, and contrary to what God, Himself, had said to him.
Abraham knew and related to God as "the merciful and benevolent One, slow to anger, great in kindness."
According to Jewish tradition, the prohibition of taking a human life is one of the seven basic laws of civilization communicated by God to Adam and Noah (the "Seven Noachide Laws") which Abraham had been laboring for many decades to instill in a world where murder and promiscuity were the staples of religious worship. (For we know that the Canaanites indulged in child sacrifices and the many fertility cults had religious prostitutes as part of their devotions). And God had promised Abraham that Isaac (unmarried and childless at the time of the binding) would father a great nation who would carry on Abraham's work of conveying the truth of the One God to the world.
Certainly, we read in Genesis 9:6 that God tells Noah, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Furthermore in Genesis 15:4-5 God tells Abraham "a son coming from your own body will be your heir. " He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." and in Genesis 21:12 God tells him that "it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned."
So when Abraham heard the words "Take your son... and raise him as an offering," he had many reasons to doubt their divinity, to surmise that not God but some malevolent voice had uttered them in his soul's ears. Had his certainty that God had spoken them been an iota less than absolute, he would not - indeed, could not - have acted on them.
Thus, concludes Maimonides, the binding of Isaac is the ultimate exemplar of the principle of prophecy - that God communicates His will to man in a manner that leaves no doubt as to its origin, meaning, or manner of implementation.
Of course, skeptics will cavil at this. How can a man distinguish the voice of God from the voice of a demon? Or from some weird schizophrenic 'voice'? Is it not a common defence for the murderer to say, "God told me to do it? How can one answer such an objection except to say that from what we read, Abraham was a man who knew the voice of God, who had upped sticks from Ur at God's command, who had believed God when told that he would father a child on a 90-year-old woman and whose belief had been credited to him as righteousness.
Abraham was a man who believed that God worked miracles. For the Christian we have to believe that Abraham believed a greater miracle than an old woman becoming a mother. For we read in Hebrews 11:17-19 - By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death
But more important, for the Christian, this whole episode prefigures the sacrifice of Christ - the doctrine known as substitutionary atonement. God provided a substitute, the ram caught in a thicket. Whereas Abraham is spared from sacrificing his son; God has to sacrifice His son to expunge the sin of His people. Abraham was told to build the alter in the vicinity of Moriah, the very place where Christ was crucified. Abraham figuratively received his son from the grave; Jesus actually rose from the dead.
The aborted sacrifice of Isaac should not act as an example for those who obey God; indeed child sacrifice is roundly condemned in Scripture for example Jeremiah 32:35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech (an Ammonite god), though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.
The important point of the story is that Abraham did not kill his son. God stopped him. Abraham obeyed God. The War Poet Wilfred Owen grieving over so many comrades sent to their deaths needlessly had his own take on the story:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
But this was not what happened. Instead, because the taint remained on mankind God took it on himself to slay his own son. Isaac was a bemused and unwilling sacrifice who needed binding to the alter; Christ knew exactly what he was doing: I lay down my life, he said, no-one takes it from me.
O teach me what it meaneth,
That cross uplifted high,
With One - the Man of Sorrows-
Condemned to bleed and die.
O teach me what it cost Thee
To make a sinner whole;
And teach me, Savior, teach me
The value of a soul!
This was not an atrocity of God; this was an atrocity of mankind against God.