Vayeira - The Akeddah
(Gen. 18:1 - 22:24)
© 2017 S.H. Parker
וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.
And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him: "Abraham" and he said "Here am I." (22:1)
The Akkeda, the binding of Yitzchak and his near sacrifice at the hands of Abraham is one of the best known, most moving and most difficult tales in the Torah.
Despite all the other events in this sedrah, the three visitors, the annunciation, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's seduction by his daughters, Abraham's giving Sarah to Abimelech, the birth of Yitzchak, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, the dispute over the well ... despite so many noteworthy events, it is impossible to avoid God's request that Abraham offer up Yitzchak as a sacrifice:
וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
And He said: "Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak and get yourself [lit. go to yourself] to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as burnt-offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of." (22:2)
(Yes, this is a request, not an order; note the use of נָא which always indicates a polite form of petition.)
The Akeddah raises many questions:
Did Abraham actually slay Yitzchak, as the failure to mention him leaving the mountain at the end of the story might imply?
Did Abraham pass the test?-In fact, what exactly was "the test?"
Did God fail Abraham in the very act of making this request?
Yes, there are many questions. But there is one question I have not heard asked: Why does God need to test Abraham at all?
One thing all commentators, ancient, medieval, modern, agree on is that Abraham was, if nothing else, obedient. Whatever God asks of Abraham - leave his home, his family, go to Canaan, listen to Sarah and expel Ishmael - whatever God asks, Abraham has but one answer, הִנֵּנִי (heneini), "I am here," "I am ready."
Whatever is asked, הִנֵּנִי. Why does this man need testing? Of all people, why him?
What is easy to forget is that נִסָּה, to test, to try (and, in modern Hebrew, to experiment) has two very different uses.
When we think of being tested, we think of school. A test is proving to someone else that you know something, that you can demonstrate mastery of something. But anyone who has taught a child to ride a bike or skate or any of a myriad of skills, knows that "test" has another usage. "Test" means, not proving to the tester that you know or can, but proving to yourself that you know or can.
In the sense of Abraham proving to God that he is willing to sacrifice his son, "God tested Abraham" really doesn't make much sense. So, is there a sense in which Abraham needed to know, for himself, that he was capable or willing to sacrifice Yitzchak?
An important clue is that the sacrifice is call an עֹלָהָ (oleh, burnt offering). An עֹלָה is entirely consumed on the altar. Unlike other types of sacrifices, none of it is eaten. An עֹלָהָ is always an expiatory offering, a repentance offering. That is, it is a guilt (sometimes, incorrectly, called "sin") offering. Whoever offers an עֹלָהָ is repenting an unintentional sin.
What has Abraham to feel guilty about? Rather a lot.
He lies about
his relation with Sarah, twice
He gives Sarah to another man, twice
He bargains with God like a common shouk (marketplace) merchant
He shows a complete lack of confidence in God's promises by descending to Egypt when he's hungry
He insults the customs of his neighbors, and of his time, by refusing to share the spoils of the War of the Five Kings
But all of these were intentional acts and none of these speak to "Why Yitzchak?"
Why Yitzchak? Yitzchak, because the firstborn belongs to God.
The firstborn becomes the leader of the family and the family "priest" (i.e., shaman). Cain didn't quite understand this and look at the trouble that caused.
But Ishmael is Abraham's first born, isn't he? Torah is very clear that one may not disinherit the child of the "unloved wife." No legitimate child (in Torah any child born to persons who could legally be married is legitimate, whether the parent are actually married or not) may be disinherited. But this idea is many generations after Abraham. Abraham and Sarah lived under Hammurabi's Code. Under Hammurabi's Code, Sarah's demand that Hagar, and Ishmael with her, be sent away is perfectly legitimate, for she tried to supplant her mistress, the first wife.
But, isn't the firstborn redeemed rather than dedicated to the god (as Torah assumes we know)? Yes. But not until after the slaying of the firstborn in Egypt, and redeeming of the firstborn is made a memorial, many generations after Abraham.
Why does Abraham not question the request to sacrifice Yitzchak? Is it just another example of his unquestioning obedience? The problem with this interpretation is that the request has no context; all the other requests provide a context.
As it turns out, there is a social context that Israelites in the first millennium B.C.E. would know. There was, in the first millennium, a general belief that at Abraham's time, the firstborn was sacrificed to the god. If so, Abraham would have believed that this was required of him too, at least in Canaan, where it was the custom (it wasn't but since when does fact stand in the way of social convention?). And ... he hadn't done it, hence the guilt.
Is this sufficient justification for the writer of our story to laud Abraham on account of his obedience? Or are we to learn that Abraham should have questioned God (after all, it kills Sarah), that there are limits even to God's demands? Did Abraham pass the test or was the test something other than Abraham coming to realize that he was able to sacrifice his son?