The Test of Abraham
Ever since I was a child, I’ve struggled with a fundamental question about Abraham’s personality, a question which is posed by this week’s parashah, Va-Yera. When God comes to Abraham to inform him that the city of Sodom is to be destroyed for its wickedness, Abraham responds aggressively by shaming God into agreeing to spare the city if fifty righteous can be found within it, saying, “Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25). Then, with a bargaining style that would be the envy of any used-car buyer, teenager or trial lawyer, he lowers the number to forty-five, to thirty, to twenty, to ten.
In contrast, when God comes to Abraham and commands him, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2), Abraham does not respond and heads off to do God’s will. How could Abraham care so deeply for strangers, and not fight for the life of his own son?
I stand further in awe of the zeal and single-mindedness that Abraham brings to his assignment. Rather than prolonging goodbyes, he does not delay — arising and setting out first thing in the morning, and attending to many details himself. When God summons Abraham to offer up his son, (Genesis 22:1) God calls his name once, and Abraham responds Hinneni — here I am. In contrast, when God’s messenger calls upon Abraham to stop, at the last moment, (22:11), it is with a twofold repetition “Abraham, Abraham” — Abraham must be asked only once to raise the knife, but twice before he will stay it.
I think the sages were trying to soften that perception when they re-imagined each phrase of God’s command to Abraham as one side of a conversation, with Abraham taking the other side (Sanhedrin 89b):
“Take your son”
“But I have two sons!”
“Your only son”–
“This one is the only child of his mother, and this is the only child of his mother.”
“Whom you love”–
“I love both of my sons.”
And Abraham is unable to respond further.
The tone of this conversation sharpens the question in a different way, because it puts these events into the context of Abraham’s treatment of his older son. When Sarah demands that Ishmael be sent away after Isaac is born, Abraham is deeply distressed. It is only after God reassures him that all will be well with his eldest son that Abraham sends him off to risk death in the dangerous desert.
There are many approaches to the resolution of this paradox. For instance, many Jewish sources (e.g. Pirkei Avot 5:3) understand that the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac were the culmination of God’s ten “tests” of Abraham’s faith. Some would argue that seen in this context, the changing responses show a progression of deepening faith. At first Abraham had challenged God’s wisdom aloud (in the case of Sodom) or required reassurance, even though his doubts were unspoken (in the case of Ishmael). Abraham’s willingness to give up his own son could then be seen as an example of having reached the most profound level of faith, a deep appreciation that indeed everything belongs to God. There are those who find this explanation comforting, but for me it rings false when viewed in light of the actions of Moses and later prophets — men and women of faith. In the words of my teacher, biblical scholar Yochanan Muffs, they “stood in the breach” to ask God to overturn the divine decree and defend the innocent.
Abraham’s behavior makes sense in light of his cultural milieu. Archaeologists may debate the actual prevalence of the custom of child sacrifice in the ancient Near East, but the Biblical text portrays it as a norm of religious expression that was a temptation for Israelites even long after Abraham’s day. Abraham’s relatively advanced moral sense might have enabled him to perceive that collective punishment of innocents was wrong. However, if the false, powerless idols received human sacrifice, why should Abraham give any less to the one true God, a God who had already given, and demanded, so much? Some modern thinkers have suggested that the true test was not whether Abraham would indeed offer up his son, but whether he would not.
One could also see Abraham’s behavior as reflecting a certain purity of purpose. Abraham was a man of such humility that he would challenge the creator of the universe on behalf of others, but would recuse himself from the divine court when the matter was one of personal interest. Of course Abraham’s care for the people of Sodom need not be seen as purely disinterested; his estranged nephew Lot lived among them, and he had already acted once (in the battle of the five kings against the four kings) to rescue its people from disaster.
Recently, I’ve come to appreciate the paradox in light of what it means to balance responsibilities as a parent with responsibilities to the larger community. I have a renewed respect for my own parents, who somehow managed to make family their first priority despite their devoted involvement in the life of our local community and the larger Jewish world. Even though many struggle with the question of how to balance family time with work and professional life, the challenges are particularly vexing when one is involved in the work of communal leadership, or in one of the “caring” professions, responsible for the physical and/or spiritual wellbeing of others. I am certain that my own experience, and that of colleagues in the rabbinate, resonates with that of educators, lay leaders, political leaders, physicians and others. The urgent demands of the larger communal family threaten to overtake those of ones’ own, and many fail to find a point of balance. Abraham was perhaps the first, but by no means the only, Jewish leader to nearly sacrifice his children in the process of promoting the Jewish tradition.
Given the terseness of the Biblical text, it is difficult to make an argument from silence, but I am struck by the fact that the Biblical text records Abraham’s many conversations with God and with foreign leaders, but only one with Isaac. That single conversation comes while they are on their way up the mountain, knife and wood in hand. Perhaps Isaac was willing to walk toward oblivion, with the ram mysteriously absent, so long as it provided an opportunity for father and son to “walk together.”
One could read the text as proof that Abraham did not love his son. Before the Akedah, God refers to Isaac as “your son, your only son, whom you love,” (Genesis 22:2). Afterward, God twice refers to Isaac as “your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12,16), omitting the phrase “whom you love.” I believe that the opposite is true — I have always perceived great tenderness and love in the way Abraham carried the dangerous objects himself, and the way he responded to his son with the same “Hinneni“- (“Here I am”) the same “presence”- that he offered to God.
Rather, it took the threat of the knife for Abraham to appreciate the relative importance of the single, unique soul that he and Sarah had made together, as opposed to the many souls/followers that they had “made” in Haran and brought with them to Canaan (Genesis 12:5). It took an unfathomable divine decree, for Abraham to be truly present with his son. All of us face the test of Abraham. Will it take a moment of crisis before we walk together with those we love?
Rabbi Joshua Heller