A difficult story to be sure. Most early writers see it as Abraham’s undistracted commitment to God’s will. Others offer a different interpretation. Human sacrifice and in particular, child sacrifice were practiced in many ancient societies, even in early Israelite society. Some early rabbinic sources suggest this story symbolizes Judaism’s emergence from the cruel pagan practice of human sacrifice. Jeremiah 32:35 rejects sacrificing children to Molech as abhorrent.

Christians have most often interpreted the story as a prefiguring of the crucifixion. According to atonement theory, Christ would be the ram that is sacrificed in place of humanity (Isaac). Some have even suggested that the Abraham and Isaac event took place on the same mount as the crucifixion. Others point out the story symbolizes first God’s judgment but second, God’s overriding mercy.