Abraham Passes the Test of the Akedah But Fails as a Father
Many modern readers wish that the story of the Akedah were different. Abraham should have protested! He did so about Sodom, so why not now? He should have resisted! A command, even from God, is not binding if it is not ethical, and we hardly have to point out that murdering a child is not ethical.
And yet, the Torah’s story seems unambiguously positive about Abraham’s behavior. Not only does God say to him עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me” (Gen 22:12), but the same action merited a divine oath of favor:
בראשית כב:טז בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה כִּי יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידֶךָ. כב:יז כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו. כב:יח וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי.
Gen 22:16 By Myself I swear, The Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only one, 22:17 I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. 22:18 All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.
Traditional commentators have long tried to mitigate the problems with the story, both on God’s part and Abraham’s, in such a way as to make all parties seem ethical. And yet there has always been, even among traditional readers, an under-current of unease with the story.
Walking There Together but Leaving Separately
While the text may be unambiguous in its praise of Abraham’s devotion to God, it also clearly hints at a problem: a rupture in his relationship with Isaac. On the way to the Mountain, one phrase is used twice about Abraham and Isaac (vv. 6 and 8):
וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו
The two of them walked together.
Yet, after the Akedah, a variant of the phrase is used a third time, “and they walked together,” וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו, but the word “the two of them” is absent:
בראשית כב:יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.
Gen 22:19 Abraham returned to his attendants, and they rose and they walked together to Beersheba, and Abraham lived in Beersheba.
Abraham walks back together with his attendants, but, as Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) comments: ולא הזכיר יצחק, “It does not mention Isaac.” Ibn Ezra and Radak argue that Isaac was in fact there, and only not mentioned; Abarbanel, more dramatically, suggests that Isaac did not in fact return with Abraham to Beersheba, but instead went to his mother in Hebron, apparently living separate from her husband. In any case, however, the omission of Isaac is jarring, and suggests some sort of rupture between father and son, husband and wife. In short, vis-à-vis God, Abraham is doing very well, but vis-à-vis Sarah and Isaac, things are less happy.
Comparison to the Story of Hagar and Ishmael
Comparing the story of the Akedah in Genesis 22 to the story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael in the previous chapter (Gen 21) suggests a particular mistake Abraham made.
The two stories are strikingly parallel. In both,
- God tells Abraham that he needs to get rid of his son – banish in the case of Ishmael, kill in the case of Isaac (21:12-13; 22:1-2).
- Abraham “wakes up early in the morning” (וישכם אברהם בבקר) and takes his supplies (21:14; 22:3).
- The end draws near: Ishmael, about to die of thirst, is left under a bush by his mother (21:15-16), and Isaac is about to be slaughtered by his father (21:9-10).
- At the last minute, an angel appears to offer a reprieve (21:17, 22:11–12).
- The appearance of the angel is followed by blessings for the future (21:18; 22:16-17).
- The salvation is tied to the parent seeing something new – a well of water in the case of Hagar (21:19) and a ram in the case of Abraham (22:13).
- Each end with notices related to the children’s marriages (21:21; 22:20-24).
For both stories, “the central issue,” as biblical scholar Jon Levenson puts it, “is whether the first-born son of Abraham will survive the ordeal into which he has been placed by a father preeminently obedient to God’s command.”
Hagar Cries Out to God: What About Abraham?
One important difference between the stories relates to the issue of God’s covenant with the Patriarchs. Ishmael and his Egyptian mother are banished; Ishmael marries an Egyptian girl and will not inherit his father. Isaac, however, will inherit his father’s blessings and marry within his father’s family.
For our purposes, though, an ostensibly small difference between the stories is the most important. The story of Hagar and Ishmael describes Hagar’s reaction to her plight (Gen 21:16):
וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ
[Hagar] lifted up her voice and cried.
This is immediately followed by the message from the angel reassuring Hagar that God has heard her cry and reassuring her about the future of her son. In the story of the Akedah, however, Abraham never cries out for mercy for Isaac. The rabbis were troubled enough by this absence that they seem to have simply assumed that he did pray, as can be seen in the words of a blessing the rabbis wrote for the fast days, and which is familiar to many of us from selichot (m. Ta‘anit 2:4):
מי שענה את אברהם בהר המוריה הוא יענה אתכם וישמע בקול צעקתכם היום הזה
May He that answered Abraham our father on Mount Moriah answer you and hearken to the voice of your crying this day.
What did Abraham request on Mount Moriah? The mishnah appears to assume that Abraham prayed that he would not have to sacrifice his son, and that this prayer was answered.
But of course this is absent from the biblical text. In the narratives themselves, Abraham could have prayed, as Hagar did, but failed to do so. Taken together with the previous observation, this suggests that Abraham was pious, but not perfect, in the Akedah.
Jewish interpretation has long been open to highlighting the flaws and shortcomings of revered biblical figures even when they are explicitly praised in the Bible. Just such an approach to the Akedah story is discernable in a piyyuṭ [liturgical poem] by R. El‘azar b. R. Qillir (c. 500 CE, Byzantine Eretz Israel).
Why Didn’t Abraham Receive the Torah? A Piyyuṭ by Qillir
According to rabbinic midrash, the Torah antedates the creation of the world (Gen. Rab. 8:2). Why, then, did God wait until the time of Moses to actually bestow it upon the world? In a piyyuṭ for Shavuot, R. Qilliri answers that until the time of Moses, no worthy recipient could be found.
The poem takes the form of a dialogue between two characters:
- God reviews history looking for people to whom the Torah may be gifted.
- The Torah rejects each potential recipient with a critical look at their flaws.
And thus, we hear of the great of yore, and the flaws of each. Adam was ruled out because of the sin; Cain because of his murder; Noah because of his drunkenness. Then we come to Abraham.
God begins, in Qilliri’s poem, with all the reasons to think that Abraham may indeed be deserving:
סב לסוף עשרים צץ איש עצתי
סלה למולו ששתי ועלצתי
שרף פסילים ועליו הצצתי
סובליו עזב להכנס במחיצתי
Turning to the end of twenty he saw
Indeed, to circumcise him I rejoiced and exulted
He burnt idols, and I gazed upon him
He abandoned his family to enter my fold.
But the Torah—referred to here as אָמוֹן, “the faithful one”—replies:
עֶלֶם אשר חננתו בכלות כֹּחוֹ
The young man with whom you graced him when his strength was spent
עקדוֹ על עצי מזבחו
He bound on the wood of the altar
עצור שלושה ימים עָשׂ אפרוחו
Arrested for three days, he offered his chick
עָרַב ונרצה ניחוחו
It was pleasant, and his offering was accepted
עָצַם ובכל ארץ הפיח ריחו
He became great, and his reputation spread throughout the land.
עניין כְּרַחֵם אב על בנים בְּשָׁכְחוֹ
But he forgot how a father is supposed to have mercy on children
עטיפת תחִנָּה היה לו לערוך בְּשִֹיחוֹ
A prayer or plea he should have offered!
'עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי' שִׁימַּעְתּוֹ לשבחו
“Now I know,” you said to him, to praise him,
עושה ארץ בכחו.
The One who made the land with his strength.
The Torah does not, of course, criticize Abraham for having offered Isaac – it could not, and concedes that God said, “now I know that you are a fearer of God.” But still it finds something to criticize, a profound reason why Abraham cannot receive the Torah: He forgot to have mercy to on his children.
The phrase used is drawn from the Psalms:
תהלים קג:יג כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים רִחַם יְ־הוָה עַל יְרֵאָיו.
Ps 103:13 As a father has mercy on children, so does the Lord have mercy on those who fear Him.
But Abraham does not have mercy. It may be that he had no choice, that faced with the overwhelming command of God, even a loving father must act as he did. But surely he should have asked!
A Byzantine Poem: Praise or Satire?
A similar note may be struck by an Aramaic poem from the Byzantine era.
דין הוא יומא / די יהון אמרין
אב לא חס / בריה לא עכיב
This is the day that they will say,
A father had no pity, and a son did not delay.
It is actually hard to know whether this poem is serious in its praise, or satirically critical. It later quotes the following speech of Isaac, encouraging his faltering father to take bold action:
כגבר אכזרי / סב סכינך
ותכוס יתי / דלא תסאיבני
לא תהוי בכי / דלא נעכבך
ולית אנא מן ידך / נסב גרמי
Like a cruel man, take your knife
And slaughter me, do not defile me.
Do not cry, that I should not delay you,
And I will not take myself away from you.
Even if the poem is seriously praising Abraham, praising him “as a cruel man” is cruel praise indeed.
The Pathos of the Akedah in Yudisher Shtam
A thousand years later, a Yiddish epic poet turned his attention to the Akedah in the poem Yudisher shtam. This text, written in rhyming quatrains in around 1500, is part of a genre of early Yiddish epic re-tellings of biblical stories, combining the biblical text, midrashic and other rabbinic interpretations and embellishments, as well as creative additions and recastings. The text is unflinching in its depiction of the pain and pathos of Abraham and Isaac, focusing on the pain the sacrifice would cause Sarah:
יצחק אויבר גושן מיט היישן טרעהן
Isaac’s face was covered in hot tears:
ליבר ואטר ווש ווילשטו צו מיינר מוטר יעהן
“Dear father, what are you going to say to my mother,
ווען זיא מיך מיט דיר ניט ווערט קומן זעהן
when she does not see me returning with you?”
ליבר זון איך ווייש וואל ווש אונז ביידן ווערט גישעהן
“Dear son, I well know what will happen to us both.
איך אונ' שרה דיא ליב מוטר דיין
I and your dear mother, Sarah,
ווערדן נוך דיינם טוט ניט לנג אויף ערדן זיין
After your death, will not long remain on earth,
דען ווער וועלט טרוישטן דיא אילענד מיין
for who could comfort me in my misery
אונ' דיינר מוטר שווערניש אונ' פיין.
and your mother in her grief and pain?”…
This text is noteworthy for its cynicism about the value of the Akedah – a stunning attitude for a traditional Jew to take towards one of the most often-quoted biblical stories. Contrary to the long line of Jewish texts that emphasize the significance of the Akedah for later Jewry, the Yudisher shtam concludes on this note:
אך שטיט אין אונזרן ספרים
It is also written in our holy books
ווער מיר מאכן תקיעה תורעה שברים
that when we blow teki‘ah, teru‘ah, shevarim,
זא טוינן זיך אויף ויל רחמי שערים
then many of the gates of mercy open
אונ' צו ריישן אלי בויזי גזירות אונ' בויזי נדרים...
and all evil decrees and evil vows are torn apart. …
אונ' בון דעם גלות זולן מיר ווערדן באלד לידיג
And we will soon be delivered from the exile.
אונ' זול אונז משיח זענדן אפילו ביז קרימונה אונ' וינידיג.
And he will send us the Messiah even as far as Cremona and Venice.
דענוך זול מיך נימנט האלטן דש ווארט צו רידה
If you want to know the truth,
איך האלט אין לייט ניט ויל דראן למען תדע
I (=the poet) do not think much of people.
איך שווער אוייך אז איין ויד אפידה
I swear to you as a true Jew:
זיא זיין אזו ורום זיא בידורפטן וואל ווידר אל טג איין עקידה.
they are only so pious that they indeed need another Binding just about every day.
נון זייא וויא אים זייא איך קאן עש דוך ניט ווענדן
Now, be that as it may, I cannot change it.
איך וויל ביטן הש' ער זול עש איילן אונ' זול עש ענדן
I will ask His name, blessed be He, that He hasten and end it
אונ' זול אונז באלד דען גואל זענדן
and soon send us the Redeemer.
זא מיט וויל איך באלד אויז לושן אונ' בולענדן.
And with that I will conclude and make an end.
Modern Poems Critical of Abraham
Far more criticism of Abraham, against the grain of the text, can be found in modern times.
Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”
The British poet of World War I Wilfred Owen, who died on the front in 1918, published “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” in the year of his death.
He stands in a line of modern readers who see the Akedah as a stand-in for some of the evils of the world, older men sending the younger generation to fight and die for a cause that is dear to those who will return to their homes, safe and sound, at the end of the conflict:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Leonard Cohen’s “The Story of Isaac”
Leonard Cohen, writing “The Story of Isaac” in the midst of the Vietnam War (1969), utilized the same trope, but exonerated Abraham and blames God:
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.
Anticipating the Modern Critique
The Byzantine poets, Qilliri and the anonymous Aramaic poet, already touched on the points discovered again by modern readers. Abraham’s piety is beyond doubt, unreproachable and unapproachable, but what of his fealty to his child? Is this beyond censure?
For many readers throughout the ages, the answer has been no. Abraham may be the father of the people who displayed unparalleled piety, but as a father, he falls short.
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September 26, 2019
October 11, 2020
Prof. Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His last book was Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press), and his next is Unbinding Isaac: The Akedah in Jewish Thought (forthcoming from JPS/University of Nebraska Press in 2020); he is also the author of numerous studies in Semitic philology. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.
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