Isaac’s Age at the Binding (Akeidah)

How old was Isaac when Abraham brought him to Mount Moriah and almost sacrificed him? Was he young enough that Abraham could overpower him? Did he understand what was happening?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising the interesting issue. According to virtually all the commentators, Isaac was a grown man at the time of his binding (akeida) – unlike the common image we have of a trusting, innocent child being led by his father for an unknown purpose.

Even from the simple reading of the Torah, it is clear that Isaac knew what was happening to him. When he and Abraham took their leave of the servants for Mount Moriah, Isaac noticed that his father took no animal along, and asked his father about it. Abraham answered cryptically: “God will see for Him the sheep for an offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). According to the Sages, Isaac understood the intent (see Rashi to that verse). Yet he appears to have accompanied his father willingly. The Torah certainly records no struggle between the two – as Abraham set up the altar, bound his son, placed him on the altar, and readied the knife.

Exactly how old was Isaac? Some of the commentators believe he was 37. The basis for this is that the binding seems to have occurred immediately prior to Sarah’s death (the next episode of the Torah, Gen. 23). Since Sarah was 90 when Isaac was born (see Gen. 17:17 and 21:5) and died at 127 (23:1), Isaac was 37 at that time. (Source: Seder Olam (Ch. 1), see Rashi to Genesis 25:20.)

This is consistent with the well-known Midrash that Rebecca was a mere three years old when Eliezer came to Haran to seek a wife for Isaac. Her birth is reported immediately after the story of the binding (Gen. 22:23), implying she was born right then. And Isaac was 40 at the time Abraham sent Eliezer off (see 25:20).

Others believe that Isaac was 26. This also assumes that Rebecca was born right after Isaac’s binding (making her 14 when Eliezer chose her as Isaac’s wife). The figure is based on two other Midrashic statements – one that Rebecca lived as long as Kehat (133; Sifri on Deuteronomy 34:7), and another that she died when Jacob was on his return from Haran, at the age of 99 (Bereishit Rabbah 81:5). If Rebecca was 133 when Jacob was 99, she was 34 when she bore him. And since Rebecca had Jacob and Esau after 20 years of marriage (see Gen. 25:26), she was 14 at the time of her wedding, when Isaac was 40. Subtracting 14 years from Isaac’s age at his marriage, he was 26 at the time of the binding. (See Talmud Yevamot 61b and Tosafot s.v. “v”chain” regarding Rebecca’s age at the time of her marriage.)

Whichever opinion we follow, it is clear that Isaac was a grown man at the time of his binding. He understood full well what was happening to him, and no doubt he could have easily overpowered his elderly father and run off. Yet he did no such thing. He patiently allowed his father to prepare him as a sacrifice – until the final moment when the angel called the trial off.

For this reason, the Sages view Isaac’s binding as not only a meritorious act of Abraham, but one of Isaac as well. The father was willing to sacrifice his son to do God’s bidding, and the son was likewise prepared to give up his own life. (Knowing his father’s righteousness, he trusted Abraham would only do such an act if God commanded him (see Talmud Sanhedrin 89b).) The Sages likewise often make reference to the “ashes of Isaac” which are before God in Heaven and which stand as a special merit for Israel (see e.g. Rashi to Leviticus 26:42). Although Isaac was not literally burned, he (as well as his father) showed his total willingness to go through with the act. And so, on God’s scales, the act had been performed – on every level except the physical. And its merit stands before God for all time.

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