God’s Justice: How was Killing Isaac Justified?


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: Dear Rabbi Ben Chaim:

This is the first time I write regarding an article of the magazine, which I enjoy very much.

I read your comments about Akedat Yitzhak in response to some of the readers’ questions. While they were interesting, I have not found anywhere, an explanation to the following:


Children sacrifices were common on the time of Avraham. He left Ur Kasdim to really start a new religion and not perpetuate the old and wrong ways. In addition, and this is the most puzzling, God had already given the 7 laws for the Bnei Noach that forbid killing another human being. Nowhere, in the whole Torah, we have God asking someone to do something against a law that had already been given. We even say that the patriarchs/prophets fulfilled the 613 mitzvot! (Even if they didn’t, such as Yaakov marrying 2 sisters and Moshe being the son of a Torah-forbidden marriage – but for these we say that the Torah had not been given yet!)


In addition, we see the shocking contrast between Abraham’s attitude on the destruction of Sodom and the Akedah. In the first, Abraham pleads vehemently with God, to spare the cities. On the second request, (having in mind that it was against a law set forth by God) he does not say anything?! How could he be sure that it was God ordering him to sacrifice his son and not Satan? Didn’t he think that receiving such a request at least warranted some checking on his part? Wasn’t he a little suspicious that God had given him an order explicitly against a mitzvah that He had imposed for the whole humanity?


I would appreciate an answer if you have one.



Deborah Srour-Politis


Mesora: You asked how God could give a law not to kill, and then instruct Abraham to kill Isaac. You suggest this is a contradiction. However, it is not. God’s given laws are “for mankind”, not obliging God to adhere: God is not governed by His laws. These social laws are for our perfection. God knows what man requires to reach the best, societal state, and individual perfection. However, this is on a societal level. But do these laws demand that an aberration would be unjust?


Even in the Torah’s framework, in which God is not subject, there is an institution of “Ais laasos”, “a time for action”. This institution enabled Elijah on Mount Carmel to offer sacrifices when they were prohibited. Through this institution, we learn that the Torah recognizes and condones the need for temporal suspension of laws, provided, that such suspensions conform to the ‘entire’ injunction: “A time to do for God, His Torah may be profaned.” This means that when the goal of such suspensions of laws is targeted at the overall support for God’s Torah, “A time to do for God”, only then may a law be temporarily suspended, “His Torah may be profaned.”  This was Elijah’s goal: to expose the Baal worshippers as liars, and display God as the One, true God. Therefore, Elijah was perfectly in line with this Torah institution, and with the most central of all Torah ideas: God’s existence and exclusive reign over all. Similarly, when the Rabbis committed the Oral Law to writing, for fear that it would be lost, their suspension of the prohibition to write the Oral Law was again, for God’s system, and a praiseworthy act.


But this institution, of course, cannot apply to God. So was God just in demanding Abraham to kill, when killing was already prohibited? The answer is of course, “yes”. God suspended the law not to kill, and Abraham was now bound to follow God’s new directive to slaughter Isaac, given to Abraham alone. God was not uprooting the prohibition for mankind, but for Abraham alone. We learn this: the Torah institution of “Ais laasos”- a principle that God commands man - is employed in character by God as well.


The philosophy behind this principle is that the Torah makes requirements that can only address most cases, but not all cases. There is also the need to address individual circumstances with the temporary suspension of fixed laws. In Abraham’s case too, God demanded that circumstances be treated differently, for an eternally important Torah concern: mankind must learn just how far an individual can and must go in his devotion to his Creator.


Regarding Jacob marrying two sisters, and Moses’ father marrying his aunt, Ramban (Gen 26:5) explains how these were not Torah violations, as he holds that Abraham knew the Torah through prophecy, and thus, his descendants would not violate its laws.


Finally, you asked why Abraham inquired of the destruction of Sodom, but did not question the command to kill Isaac. A Rabbi once explained that Abraham knew he could learn God’s justice regarding Sodom, so he inquired. “Justice” is an area that, by definition, must comply with man’s understanding. Man must be just, and to do so, he must understand the theories behind true justice. God’s very words admit of this need for man to understand justice: “For I know, in order that he (Abraham) commands his sons and his household after him, and he will guard the path of God, to do charity and justice…” (Gen. 18:19) With this verse, God teaches that justice is something, which must be made available to the human mind, for the purposes of “doing”, and “commanding others”. Abraham also knew this, and therefore inquired.


Regarding how the death of Isaac would be a good, Abraham admitted through his silence that he couldn’t approach the methods of God’s perfection, although they carry many benefits. This area is the matter of “perfection”, not justice. “How” God’s commands perfect us, and the fact that we must obey Him, are not areas in which the human mind may contend. As creatures, we must follow our Creator’s commands. Questioning is not applicable. And, as commands designed by God’s wisdom, we cannot say, “I will follow them, only once I understand them.” Our understanding will not affect the benefit and obligation of these laws. Regarding Abraham’s circumcision, Ibn Ezra commented on God’s words, “Walk before Me and be perfect” (Gen. 17:1): “That you should not ask, ‘why do circumcision’.”  What does Ibn Ezra mean that “being perfect” requires Abraham not to ask, “why circumcise?” I believe Ibn Ezra teaches this very idea, that man may not make his understanding the determining factor for Torah adherence. Man must adhere to what his Maker commands, even though he may lack understanding. This was Abraham’s situation as well. He may not have known how slaughtering Isaac was a perfecting act, but he knew that God is just, and that somehow, this act was proper. He soon learned how his devotion was a necessary teaching for future generations, instructing all others in the Love of God.