Mitigating the Akedah
God’s Devastating Request
While Isaac is still a boy, God demands that Abraham sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of the land of Moriah:
בראשׁית כב:א וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. כב:ב 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.
Gen 22:1 Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” 22:2 And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”
The demand makes God appear absurd, unethical, cruel, inconsistent, and unreliable:
Absurd – It is absurd that the God of the universe, who created every flock and herd, would be hungry for the only little ewe lamb of the aged parents.
Unethical – How can God command the killing of an innocent person?
Cruel – How can God to be so cruel towards his own loyal servant to unconditionally demand that he murder his long-awaited and beloved son?
Inconsistent –God’s request contradicts his own commandments, such as שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed…” (Gen 9:6; which appears in the biblical text prior to the Akedah) and לֹא תִּרְצָח, “You shall not murder” (Exod 20:13 / Deut 5:17; which appear subsequent to the Akedah).
Unreliable – By demanding the life of Isaac, God reneges on his own promise to Abraham, בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע, “through Isaac shall your descendants be named” (Gen 21:12), making himself out to be a liar.
It Is Only a Test
The story contains what seems to be a mitigating factor; it is the only episode among the biblical stories of Abraham that opens with the words: וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם, “God tested Abraham” (Gen 22:1). This opening softens the impression of God’s cruelty, since it communicates to the reader that God does not really wish for a human sacrifice of an only son from his aged servant. Rather, God merely wishes for a demonstration of Abraham’s unconditional belief. Moreover, the end of the story proves its original intention, as an angel of YHWH rescinds God’s command:
בראשׁית כב.יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. כב:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָּה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי.
Gen 22:11 Then an angel of YHWH called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 22:12 And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”
God Never Intended Isaac to Die
In the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 4a, the Rabbis pick up on the concept of testing and take the next step. They assume that God never intended Isaac to be a burnt offering, and attempt to prove this through a midrashic reading of Jeremiah 7:31, in which the prophet states that God never wished for child sacrifice.
ולא עלתה על לבי – זה יצחק בן אברהם.
“And never entered my mind” – this refers to Isaac the son of Abraham.
Although Jeremiah is referring specifically to child sacrifice at Topheth / the Valley of Ben-hinnom, the Talmud extends the application to other stories in the Bible, including the Akedah.
God Only Meant for Abraham to Raise Isaac on the Altar
In order to soften the problematic test even further, Rabbi Acha, imagining Abraham’s surprised reaction to the angel telling him to stop, offers a midrashic reading of God’s words (Genesis Rabbah 56:8).
א”ר אחא התחיל אברהם תמיה אין הדברים הללו אלא דברים של תימה, אתמול אמרת כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע, חזרת ואמרת קח נא את בנך ועכשיו את אמר לי אל תשלח ידך אל הנער אתמהא, אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא אברהם (תהלים פט) לא אחלל בריתי ומוצא שפתי לא אשנה, כשאמרתי לך קח נא את בנך לא אמרתי שחטהו אלא והעלהו לשם חיבה אמרתי לך אסיקתיה וקיימת דברי, ועתה אחתיניה.
Rabbi Acha said: Abraham became surprised [and said]. “These words are confusing. Yesterday you said (Gen 21:12), ‘For it is through Isaac that offspring shall be called for you.’ Then, you went back and said, ‘Take your son…’ And now [your angel] says to me, ‘Do not lay your hand upon the land’ – I am bewildered!” The Holy One, blessed be He responded: “Abraham, ‘I will not violate my covenant or change what I have uttered’ (Pss 89:35). When I said to you ‘take your son’ I never said to slaughter him. I merely said to ‘raise him up.’ I said this to you to demonstrate your belovedness (לשם חיבה), and you did my bidding. Now take him down.”
According to this source, God never intended to request Abraham to sacrifice his son. It is Abraham who mistakenly understands this as a command to do so.
Another rabbinic text that supports the idea that God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac comes in the list of things created by God during twilight of the 6th day, the first Sabbath-eve of the week of Creation (Tanchuma [Buber] 17:2; ca. late 8th–9thcentury).
איילו של אברהם נברא בין השמשות.
Abraham’s ram was created at twilight.
Since God had already prepared the ram at creation, and it was waiting since then to replace Isaac, God planned all along for Abraham to sacrifice a ram and not his son.
Questioning the Cruelty of the Test
Even granting that God never intended for Abraham to slaughter his son, and that testing of a human by God plays an important role in the Bible, still the test is too cruel. God’s demand of Abraham’s obedience to offer his only son stands against all human nature, and his cancelation of it only at the last moment by a messenger seems unbearable. What was the impetus and justification for such a cruel test?
Most likely, the Rabbis are trying to solve this very problem in their hermeneutical approach to the first words of the story: וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה (Gen 22:1a). This phrase is technical, and simply means “sometime afterward.” Early Jewish exegetes, however, seized upon the phrase as the definition of a chronological sequence of a story and connected it with one or more stories recounted previously.
The term debarim (plural of dabar) is interpreted either as “words” (e.g., Gen 39:17, 19; 44:4–7; Deut 1:1; 4:12) or as “acts, things” (e.g., Gen 18:25; 2 Chr 32:1). Accordingly, וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה is understood either as “After these words” or “After these acts/things.”
After these “Words”
In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 89b, Rabbi Yossi ben Zimra interprets this phrase as “after the words of Satan.”
[מאי אחר?] אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יוסי בן זימרא: אחר דבריו של שטן, דכתיב ויגדל הילד ויגמל וגו’, אמר שטן לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם! זקן זה חננתו למאה שנה פרי בטן, מכל סעודה שעשה לא היה לו תור אחד או גוזל אחד להקריב לפניך? אמר לו: כלום עשה אלא בשביל בנו, אם אני אומר לו זבח את בנך לפני -מיד זובחו. מיד והאלהים נסה את אברהם, ויאמר קח נא את בנך.
[To what does “after” refer?] Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi ben Zimra: “After the words of Satan.” For it says (Gen 21:8), “And the child grew up and was weaned.” Satan said to the Almighty: “Sovereign of the universe! To this old man You graciously granted the fruit of the womb at the age of a hundred, yet of all that banquet which he prepared, he did not have one turtle-dove or pigeon to sacrifice before you!” God replied, “Yet were I to say to him, ‘Sacrifice your son before me,’ he would do so without hesitation.” Straightway, “God did test Abraham… And he said, ‘Take, I pray [נא], your son’ [Gen 22:1].”
This Midrash connects the story of the Akedah with the previous story concerning the long awaited birth of Isaac (Gen 21:5; cf. 17:17), and the aged parents’ celebration of the occasion, as it appears at the opening verses of the previous chapter (Gen 21:1–8). It does this by creating another dialogue, between God and Satan that is not found in the biblical story. This dialogue is built upon the story of Job and is meant to explain why God tests Abraham.
By connecting the Akedah to the story of the miraculous birth of Isaac to elderly parents, the Midrash actually emphasizes the cruelty of the divine command to slaughter Isaac! Be that as it may, the intention of the midrash is to mitigate God’s cruelty by tying the test to Abraham’s unworthy behavior of not offering a sacrifice at the celebration and by laying some of the blame on Satan’s malicious words.
This midrashic feature of bringing Satan into the Akedah story predates the rabbinic era, and can be found in the book of Jubilees (ca. 161–140 B.C. E.) and in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo Philo (32:1–4).
Jubilees 17:15–16 …[W]ords came in heaven concerning Abraham that he was faithful in everything which was told him and he loved the Lord and was faithful in all afflictions. And Prince Mastema came and he said before God, “Behold, Abraham loves Isaac, his son. And he is more pleased with him than everything. Tell him to offer him (as) a burnt offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. And you will know whether he is faithful in everything in which you test him.”
Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo 32:1–2 [God] gave [Abraham] as son in his late old age and took him out of a sterile womb. And all the angels were jealous of him, and the worshiping hosts envied him. And since they were jealous of him, God said to him, “Kill the fruit of your body for me, and offer for me as a sacrifice what has been given to you by me.”
Like the Talmud, Jubilees works with a Midrash on “these things,” but instead of “these things” referring back to the birth of Isaac or the words of Satan/Mastema, they refer to the report—absent in the Bible—of the positive account of Abraham’s faithfulness that made it up to heaven. Biblical Antiquities does not have this hook, but, like the Rabbis, it connects it to the story of the birth of Isaac. All three sources mitigate God’s behavior by creating a third party, angels whom God must convince of Abraham’s faithfulness.
Words between Isaac and Ishmael
A different legend appears in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (ca. 7th–8th centuries C. E.) on Genesis 22:1. The term debarim is also understood as “words,” but in this case, the words are not attributed to Satan / Prince Mastema, but to the dispute between Isaac and Ishmael (Gen 21:9–21) that precedes the Akedah. This Targum embellishes the biblical story (22:1):
וַהֲוָה בָּתַר פִּתְגָמַיָא הָאִילֵין מִן דִי נָצוּ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל יִשְׁמָעֵאל הֲוָה אָמַר לִי חֲמָא לְמֵירוּת יַת אַבָּא דַאֲנָא בְּרֵיהּ בּוּכְרַיָא וְיִצְחָק הֲוָה אָמַר לִי חָמֵי לְמֵירוּת יַת אַבָּא דַאֲנָא בַּר שָׂרָה אִנְתְּתֵיהּ וְאַנְתְּ בַּר הָגָר אַמְתָא דְאִמִי עָנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל וַאֲמַר אֲנָא זַכְּאַי יַתִּיר מִנָךְ דַאֲנָא אִתְגְזָרִית לִתְּלֵיסְרֵי שְׁנִין וְאִין הֲוָת צְבוֹתִי לִמְעַכְּבָא לָא הֲוֵינָא מָסַר נַפְשִׁי לְאִתְגַזְרָא וְאַנְתְּ אִתְגַזְרַת בַּר תְּמַנְיָא יוֹמִין אִילוֹ הֲוָה בָּךְ מַנְדְעָא דִלְמָא לָא הֲוֵיתָ מָסַר נַפְשָׁךְ לְאִתְגַזְרָא מְתִיב יִצְחָק וַאֲמַר הָא נָא יוֹמַיָא בַּר תְּלָתִין וְשִׁית שְׁנִין וְאִילוּ בָּעֵי קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא לְכוּלֵי אֵבְרַיי לָא הֲוֵיתִי מְעַכֵּב מִן יַד אִשְׁתְּמָעוּ פִּתְגָמִין הָאִילֵין קֳדָם מָרֵי עַלְמָא וּמִן יַד מֵימְרָא דַיְיָ נַסִי יַת אַבְרָהָם וַאֲמַר לֵיהּ אַבְרָהָם וַאֲמַר לֵיהּ הָא נָא.
And it came to pass after these words that Isaac and Ishmael were in dispute. Ishmael said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am his first-born son.” But Isaac said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am the son of Sarah his wife, but you are the son of Hagar, the handmaid of my mother.” Ishmael answered and said: “I am more righteous than you, because I was circumcised when thirteen years old; and if it had been my wish to refuse, I would not have handed myself over to be circumcised.” Isaac answered and said: “Am I not now thirty-seven years old? If the Holy One, blessed be He, demanded all my members I would not hesitate.” Immediately, these words were heard before the Lord of the universe, and immediately, the word of the Lord tested Abraham, and said unto him, “Abraham,” and he said, “Here I am.”
According to this source, the testing of Abraham is secondary to the testing of Isaac, pictured as 37 years old. Similar to the approach in the Talmud, it is Isaac’s “bragging” about his own righteousness, in response to Ishmael, that brings about God’s request that he demonstrate its true extent.
After these “Acts”
The interpretation of the term דברים as “acts” appears first in the retelling of the biblical story by Josephus Flavius in the end of the first century, where he refers to all acts of Abraham (Jewish Antiquities 1,223–224; ca. 93–94 C. E.):
And Abraham put his own happiness solely on the hope that on departing from life he should leave behind his son unscathed. He attained this, to be sure, by the will of God, who, wishing to make trial of his piety toward Himself, appeared to him and after enumerating all the things that He had granted, how He had made him stronger than his enemies and how he had his present happiness and his son Isaac owing to His benevolence, asked him himself to offer this one as a sacrifice and victim to Himself, and He bade him to lead him up Mount Moriah, build an altar, and offer him as a burnt-offering.
The acts upon which the Akedah follows are the benevolent acts God performed for Abraham.
The Act of Making a Treaty with Gerar
Later on, the medieval commentator, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam; 1080–1160 C. E.), also takes this approach when he relates the Akedah to the act of the covenant that Abraham made with the Philistines, as recounted at the very end of the previous chapter (Gen 21:22–32):
נתגאותה בבן שנתתיך לכרות ברית ביניכם ובין בניהם, ועתה לך והעלהו לעולה ויראה מה הועילה כריתות ברית שלך.
[God said to Abraham:] You became proud of your son that I gave you and made a covenant with them [= the Philistines], now go and make him a burnt-offering, and let’s see what will happen with the covenant.
Rashbam attempts here to give God a reason to punish Abraham—pride in a son and an ill-conceived treaty. But why should he not be proud of his son? What is so terrible about a covenant?
Abraham’s Role in Going Along with the Akedah
Abraham’s role presents another problem with the story—he doesn’t question God. Yet the biblical stories of Abraham (Gen 12:1–25:10) demonstrate that he does not hesitate to question God when necessary, for example, regarding the promised land (Gen 15:7–8), and the promised offspring (17:15–17), and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:16–33). Why then is Abraham silent now when he would have ample grounds to question God? He might have contrasted the harsh divine command with the divine promises that God had made to him, yet the story of the Akedah does not report any such questioning on Abraham’s part.
Astonishingly, Abraham does not even pray to God to cancel the command! On the contrary, as one who is motivated by his belief in God, Abraham is portrayed as immediately ready to perform the immoral act, to kill his son, without any hesitation or question. Is he prioritizing his religious belief (בין אדם למקום) over his moral principles (בין אדם לחבירו)?
Abraham’s Silence Is a Merit for Future Generations
The Rabbis are aware of some of these questions. Thus, Genesis Rabbah 56:10 affirms that Abraham said to God:
רבון העולמים בשעה שאמרת לי קח נא את בנך את יחידך היה לי מה להשיב, אתמול אמרת כי ביצחק וגו’ ועכשיו קח נא את בנך וגו’ וחס ושלום לא עשיתי כן אלא כבשתי רחמי לעשות רצונך, יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלהינו בשעה שיהיו בניו של יצחק באים לידי עבירות ומעשים רעים תהא נזכר להם אותה העקידה ותתמלא עליהם רחמים.
“Sovereign of the universe! When you did order me, ‘Take your son, your only son’ (Gen 22:2), I could have answered, ‘Yesterday you promised me: “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named” (Gen 21:12), and now you say: “offer him there for a burnt offering” (Gen 22:2)?’ But, God forbid, I did not handle it so, but suppressed my feelings of compassion in order to do your will. Even so, may it be your will, O Lord our God, that when Isaac’s children are in trouble, you will remember that binding in their favor and be filled with compassion for them.”
This passage shows an awarenessthat Abraham does not struggle with God in the story. Rather, he suppresses his feelings and completely controls his thoughts. By doing so, Abraham is investing in his progeny’s future, assuming he knows or believes that he will have progeny or that Isaac will somehow come out of this ordeal alive.
Reasons for Not Criticizing Abraham
The Rabbis are not interested in rebuking Abraham, but rather in understanding, justifying, and praising him for his behavior. There may be several reasons for this:
The Rabbis mainly follow here the biblical judgment that Abraham is tested and found completely faithful (Gen 22:12). Therefore, he is praised and rewarded with blessings for his obedience and extraordinary act:
בראשׁית כב:טז וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם יְ־יהוָה 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 have I sworn, said YHWH, for because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son; 22:17 that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 22:18 And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed my voice.
2. Not Criticizing Patriarchs
The Rabbis generally avoid criticizing the patriarchs, the core founders of the Israelite/Jewish people. This tendency is apparent already from the book of Chronicles (for example, omitting the story of David’s affair with Bathsheba), and becomes a norm of the classical rabbinic literature, as well as in almost all pre-modern Jewish exegesis and liturgy. Only from the seventh century onward, some subtle criticisms are expressed in some piyyutim concerning Abraham’s readiness to offer his son.
3. Abraham Knows It Is Only a Test
The Rabbis may have thought that Abraham fully trusted that somehow God would save Isaac and fulfill his promises to him. (This fits with the Genesis Rabbah text in the previous section, where Abraham uses his obedience to extract a promise of protection from God for his offspring.) Perhaps, their opinion was similar to the one expressed in the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews 11:17–19 (ca. 60–69 C. E.):
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named’ [Gen 21:12]. He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
Saadia Gaon offers a similar thought in his commentary on Genesis: Abraham trusted that God in any case could resurrect Isaac in order to fulfill his promises to him. Indeed, some Jewish traditions even suggest that Isaac was actually killed and resurrected.
Abraham: The Knight of Faith
All in all, the Rabbis consider Abraham’s silence a sign of nobility. They admire Abraham’s control of his fatherly love and mercy in order to implement God’s command. They illustrate his portrait as a paradigm of an ultimate trust and belief, the highest expression of unconditional adoration and obedience to God. Subsequently, Abraham becomes “the father of believers,” or to cite the term coined later by the Danish philosopher, Søren A. Kierkegaard (1813–1855), “the knight of faith.” This becomes Abraham’s defining characteristic for the subsequent generations and secures eternal merit for Israel.
The Rabbinic Defense of God and Abraham
Rabbinic sources provide a rich plurality of perspectives on the Akedah, as they attempt to fill in the gaps of the narrative and deal with the philosophical and ethical problems it brings out. This discussion has shown how diverse and complex the rabbinic responses to the Akedah were. Some of the rabbinic exegetical traditions are reflected in Josephus’ writings and are rooted already in the Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature. Many of the exegetical traditions in turn influenced Jewish medieval biblical interpretations, which continue to have a great impact on Jews up to the present day.
Generally, the Rabbis are rarely critical of God or Abraham, and this holds true even in such a difficult story as the Akedah. They see God’s request as a mere test of Abraham’s unconditional belief in God. Several Rabbis seem to take it as a given that God did not really mean for Abraham to sacrifice his son, since he expresses elsewhere that he opposes human sacrifice (e.g., in the book of Jeremiah). They read the text as implying that Abraham actually misunderstands God’s intent, that he is merely to “raise him up” on the mountain, but not to kill him. Other Rabbinic exegetes further mitigate God’s apparent cruelty and justify God’s demand by either blaming Satan, Isaac, or Abraham himself for the necessity of God’s doing so.
This last point does, in fact, criticize Abraham, but only very lightly, suggesting that he failed to offer a sacrifice to God during the celebration of Isaac’s birth or that he expressed too much pride in him. Nevertheless, Abraham is viewed as a “knight of faith”: one who is truly motivated by his deep religious belief in God that a solution will be found, and therefore he fully obeyed him. Far from seeing Abraham’s apparent lack of feeling, or his suppression of it, as callousness, this stoicism suggested to the Rabbis that Abraham was actually quite noble.
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October 27, 2015
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Prof. Isaac Kalimi is Gutenberg-Forschungsprofessor in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israelite History, at the Seminar für Altes Testament und Biblische Archäologie, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany, and Senior Research Associate in the University of Chicago, USA. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Kalimi is the author of The Reshaping of Ancient Israelite History in Chronicles and The Retelling of Chronicles in Jewish Tradition and Literature: A Historical Journey.
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