Partner or Victim?
Bereshit 22 describes Hashem's ultimate test of Avraham in the story commonly known as "The Binding of Isaac". Despite its name, most discussions of the story revolve not around Yitzchak, but around Hashem and Avraham. What, though, was Yitzchak's role in the story? Was he a willing participant or an unwilling victim? Was he privy to the fact that he was meant to be the sacrifice from early on, or did he find out only at the last minute? Finally, how old was Yitzchak during the episode?1 Was he a youth, too young to appreciate the nature of the test, or a mature adult, fully cognizant of all of its ramifications?2 Would he have been able to resist Avraham had he so desired?
A Conversation Between Father and Son
More often than not, Tanakh does not reveal the emotions of its characters, and our story is no exception. Nowhere are we told explicitly what either Yitzchak or Avraham were thinking and feeling en route to the sacrifice. The chapter, though, does reveal one conversation between the two which might provide some clues:
(ו) וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה וַיָּשֶׂם עַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ אֶת הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו. (ז) וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה. (ח) וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו.
(6) Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. He took in his hand the fire and the knife. They both went together. (7) Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “My father?” He said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (8) Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they both went together.
The brief interchange between father and son makes the reader ponder several points:
- "אַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה" – Is Yitzchak's question one of idle curiosity or does it suggests that he harbored some suspicions that something unusual was going on?
- "אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי" – Is Avraham intentionally being ambiguous so as to conceal the truth from his son?
- Double "וַיֹּאמֶר" – In verse 7, when Yitzchak turns to question his father, the text narrates that "Yitzchak said", but before proceeding with the content of his speech it repeats yet again, "and he said".3 What is the import of this repetition? Is it a sign of hesitancy or emphasis?
- "וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו" – Why is this fact repeated in both verses 6 and 8? Does the doubling suggest that we had reason to think that, due to the exchange in verses 7-8, something might have changed and the two would no longer be walking together?
Several other questions might bear on the above issues:
- "וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם" – The chapter introduces the episode as a trial for Avraham specifically. Considering that Yitzchak was being asked to give up his life, was it not a test of faith and obedience for him just as much as for his father? Why is he not mentioned? Moreover, why, after passing the test, does he not receive a reward for his role?
- "וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם" – When departing from his servants to sacrifice Yitzchak, Avraham says, "and we will return", apparently outright lying. Is the deception meant for the youths or for Yitzchak? How else might Avraham's words be understood?
- Aftermath – After the trial, we read "וַיָּשׇׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו". Where is Yitzchak? Why is he not mentioned as returning with his father? What might this absence suggest regarding Yitzchak's feelings and activities in the aftermath of the trial?