The Meaning of Mount Moriah
When the God YHWH told Abraham to go to Moriah and sacrifice his son, no ancient hearer could have failed to recognize this cultural and historical context of child sacrifice. The fiery Valley of Gehinnom was a place where countless children had been murdered over the centuries. Various gods of the region demanded such sacrifices, including still in their own time (long after Abraham).
The text of Genesis does not tell us of the silent questions burning in Abraham’s mind through that three-day-long trek! But we are supposed to recognize them. Early hearers of the story would have sensed this tension as the patriarch of their nation made his way on a “pilgrimage” to that very spot where his descendants would present themselves to YHWH three times every year.
Abraham is winding his way northward to sacrifice his promised heir on a bluff overlooking that bloody valley where Canaanite tribes are accustomed to do the same for their gods. Does he think that YHWH is just the same – just as bloodthirsty and cruel, just as demanding of child sacrifice? Is that why he goes along with this horror and does not “withhold his son”? Or is he participating in this act for some other reason?
Who Is the Supreme God?
As so often in the Hebrew Bible, the stage is now set for some kind of “competition” or showdown between the God YHWH and some other “gods.” Earlier stories in Genesis have already taken this approach, with the Creation, Flood, and Babel accounts in order to prove the superiority of YHWH over other gods.
Similarly, the Exodus story is fashioned to reveal how YHWH brought judgment on “all the gods of Egypt” . 1 Kings 18 tells the dramatic tale of the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal. So too, the text of the Akedah sets up a contrast between the God YHWH and the other gods of the region. Who will be seen as better, stronger, mightier? Who will emerge as the supreme God?
God of Love and Compassion
And now comes the shocking part of the story. The greatness and superiority of Israel’s God is shown in the voice from heaven commanding Abraham not to slay his son after all. The gods in the valley down below clamor for the blood of children; the God of heaven, it seems, is not like them after all. This is the most surprising part of the Akedah in its original historical and cultural context – not that a god demanded the sacrifice of a child, which may have seemed all too “normal” in that setting, but rather that the God turned out not to desire the sacrifice of a child when it was offered! The gods of the valley delighted in suffering and cruelty and death; the God of Abraham desired instead love and compassion and life.
We don’t know how well Abraham understood YHWH at this point in his life, but he had some experience with this God. The merciful one who had spoken to him and made promises to him was also using his life to show a different way to all humanity – what we call “morality,” i.e., what is just and right.