Last week I maintained that the patriarch Abraham is in certain key ways a paradigmatic figure for today’s Israel. A paradigm, though, would be expected to show some consistency in his conduct. In at least one important regard, Abraham seems to engage in behaviors that radically contradict each other.

When God prepares to leave Abraham’s tent encampment for Sodom, having heard that “sin is very grievous” there and in Gomorrah, Abraham rightly infers that—should the rumors turn out to be true—God intends to do away with these dens of depravity. Yet, at that point, Abraham seems to show incredible chutzpah: he confronts God with a series of questions that seem to challenge the morality of “the Judge of all the earth”—as Abraham, who appears well aware that he’s on shaky ground, takes care to address him.

Yet later in the story, when this same God, whom Abraham has had the audacity to challenge, commands Abraham to “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest” and turn him into a burnt offering on a mountain–Abraham meekly, humbly, and unquestioningly sets out to do exactly that.

How can the same Abraham who seemed to stand up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the point of morally accosting the deity, immediately accept the decree to sacrifice his son?