“Akedah” is the generic Hebrew word for “binding.” In Jewish Tradition, it came to be used as a proper noun to refer to Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac (Genesis chapter 22).
[God] said, “Take now your son, your only son,
whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah,
and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the
mountains ….” (Gen 22:2ff)
The “Sacrifice of Isaac”
by Caravaggio (1603)
Most people today understand the Akedah in terms of an existential dilemma for Abraham– and there’s a good reason for that.
One of the major conceits of modern thought, in its opposition to moral absolutism, has been that the problems of ethics are largely about “knowing the good” rather than “choosing” it.
All of ethics thus tends to be preoccupied, not with normative principles of right action/being, but with “hard cases” (a.k.a. “dilemma ethics”).
The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac fits the dilemma template so well, it’s hard for most people to get beyond it.
But other explanations are possible:
One is that the story is designed to portray Abraham as more righteous than Job.
Another is to put child sacrifice in opposition to “the promise to Abraham.”
A third expands on the previous two to see the Akedah as a source story (etiology) for why Israelites ought not practice child sacrifice over against the Canaanites who did.
Along that line, it’s easy to imagine a polemic developing between the Israelites and the Canaanites over whether the latter were more pious than the former because the Canaanites sacrificed their children to their gods while the Israelites did not.
Of course “the Akedah” presented a dilemma to Abraham, but to see it entirely in that light is to be naive about the nature of historical accounts.
History not only “informs”– it also “performs”– if in no other way than to simply say one thing is worthy of recording while other things are not.
The author of Genesis had a purpose in recollecting the Akedah. That purpose could easily have simply been to say “no,” in the Israelite dialog with the Canaanites, both to the question of the Canaanites’ greater piety and to their practice of child sacrifice.
The Tophet of Salammbo Stele from the territory of ancient Carthage,
a memorial to a deity commonly associated with child sacrifice.
The Carthaginians were closely
related to the Canaanites of the Bible.
The Carthaginians were descendents of the Canaanites and settled in North Africa.
Although controversial, there is much written and archaeological evidence that suggests the Carthaginians engaged in child sacrifice.
There is also much biblical evidence that the Canaanites sacrificed children as well.