Testing Abraham: Justice in Sodom Before Loyalty in the Akedah
The Literary Make-up of Parshat Vayera
There are three major ways of framing the reading of Parshat Vayera as a literary unit.
- Isaac-centered, where the parashah goes from his birth to his near death experience.
- Sarah-centered, where this parashah opens with her giving life and the next parashah to her losing life.
- Abraham-centered, where the parashah goes from Abraham’s objection to G-d over Sodom to the sacrifice of his son without objection.
Each way privileges a specific beginning and ending. This reading will focus on Abraham by asking what is gained by binding the Akeidah episode of Genesis 22 and the Sodom episode of Genesis 18 into one parashah.
Testing the Commitment for Justice in Sodom
Abraham’s challenge of Divine justice is introduced by God’s question, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" (Gen. 18:17). The question assumes a degree of intimacy between God and Abraham as if God, in the words of Amos, "does nothing without having revealed His purpose to His servants the prophets" (3:7). Although God’s comment could be understood as a rhetorical way of making a statement (i. e., I will not hide something from Abraham), it can be also understood as a real question about whether Abraham is worthy of the role of intercessory prophet.
In pondering whether to divulge His plan to Abraham, God considers three factors (vv. 18-19)
- Abraham will one day become a great and populous nation;
- He is to serve as a medium of blessing to all the nations;
- He is to instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.
The last verse then continues, “in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him” (Gen. 19:19b). The first two points are familiar. Both appear in Abraham’s original mandate (Gen. 12:2-3); the second is also mentioned with regard to Abraham’s posterity (Gen. 22:18, 28:14). The final one, however, is new and found only here. The other new element is that God’s promises are contingent on Abraham’s ability to convey to his posterity the keeping of the way of the Lord, defined as doing what is just and right. Both must hence play a decisive role in this story.
Verse 20 goes on to establish the heinousness of the crime. The question is only whether all are guilty. To make sure, in verse 21, God goes down to check out whether they have acted altogether according to the severity of the report. If they did not, God would know how to make the requisite distinctions. Since we later find out that God is bent on destroying the whole city, we may assume that He found no basis for making distinctions; all were found to be guilty.
Reflecting typical biblical economy of expression, we the readers, who have been privy to the Divine soliloquy (Gen. 18:17-21), only hear of Abraham‘s response from which we have to surmise what God must have told him. Since Abraham charges God with seeking to “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty” (18:25), we realize that God briefed Abraham only of His plan to destroy Sodom, but not that He had found the city totally wicked.
The dramatic tension of the episode results precisely from Abraham’s ignorance of the true moral nature of Sodom. Paradoxically, we the readers have been taken into God’s confidence while leaving Abraham in the dark. Left in the dark, Abraham makes a presumption of innocence with regard to some of the residents, assuming that such a large city must have some saving grace. Moreover, if the number of innocent reaches fifty, then not just they, but the whole city should be spared on their account (as in Jer. 5:1). He then reverts back to charging God with failing to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, “Shame on You, shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (18:25).
Is Abraham Asking for Justice or Mercy?
The force of the argument is its basis in justice not mercy. For God to be worthy of the mantle of universal justice, it is incumbent on Him to adopt the fundamental claim of justice, to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. But justice demands that all get their just desserts, not the sparing of the guilty by virtue of the innocent in their midst.
At first, Abraham’s righteous indignation in confronting God appears as a way of avoiding a perversion of justice, but it turns out to be a surreptitious request for clemency. In actuality, were the guilty to be spared because of the innocent there would equally be no distinction between them, making Abraham’s proposal subject to the same charge leveled against God. In this case, the argument is that God should forgive, or at least bear it, that is, suspend punishment of the whole city. No city tolerating a righteous community in its midst can be all that bad. Moreover, at fifty strong the righteous community might ultimately prevail. Surely, forbearance, a deferral in execution, is in order.
Abraham, despite his fear of overstepping bounds and provoking God’s ire, works at reducing the number of innocent people needed to save the city from fifty to ten bit by bit.
What was the Goal of Telling Abraham?
The subsequent destruction of Sodom raises the question whether Abraham was a success or a failure. Were he operating on a contingency fee he would surely have failed to collect. From the perspective of God, however, he was a rousing success. God had already ascertained that the cities, having no saving grace, were to be destroyed. The unresolved issue was whether to apprise Abraham. Either course of action would entail risks.
Were God not to divulge His plan, Abraham would rise the following morning only to see two cities supernaturally devastated. Abraham's presumption of innocence of some Sodomites would have led him to harbor doubts about the absolute justice of God. Such reservations would have impaired his capacity to transmit the commitment to Divine justice to his posterity thereby endangering the multi-generational covenantal enterprise.
The alternative risk in divulging the plan would be to find Abraham posturing conventional piety by deferring to Divine authority. For Abraham to proclaim ''Glory to God on the highest" in the face of presumed injustice would mark Abraham as soft on justice, God’s self-proclaimed way thereby disqualifying him from being God’s elect. Abraham chose his God-cultivated commitment to justice over fawning loyalty. In adhering to God’s way, he maintained God’s adherence to him. Only through challenging God on the basis of justice did Abraham find out that God was just, indeed willing to temper justice with mercy. The result was not only the confirmation of Abraham’s belief in Divine justice but also the maintenance of his worthiness of Divine promises.
Abraham’s dilemma illustrates a calculus of ultimate concern. Only through the confrontation of one’s two primary concerns can one ascertain which is ultimate. Abraham’s top two commitments were loyalty to God and loyalty to justice. Heretofore, they had converged one reinforcing the other. God constructs a test to see which will emerge supreme. The test makes God appear unjust to see which way Abraham sways; unwavering commitment to justice or unwavering commitment to God. Paradoxically, by siding with justice Abraham validates his election by God. Thus, the story of Abraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to be also a story of God testing Abraham’s commitment to justice.
The Test of Sacrificing Isaac in the Context of God’s Justice at Sodom
Once Divine justice has been confirmed, the binding of Isaac can ensue. The story of Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac mirrors our story of Abraham testing God. The former also contains a calculus of ultimate concern. Abraham has two great loves, for God and for Isaac. Heretofore, they had converged with one reinforcing the other. God constructs a test foisting upon Abraham a choice between them. The goal is to test Abraham’s unconditional commitment to the covenant. Only by demanding that which Abraham loves most, his favorite son (Gen. 22:2, 12), can the unconditional commitment to the covenant be manifested.
By going ahead, hoping that God will see to the sheep instead of his son, Abraham ends up also testing God’s commitment to the covenant, since Isaac, as spelled out in Gen. 15:4-6, 18, embodies God’s commitment to the covenant. Were Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he would eliminate God’s commitment to the covenant; were he to “withhold (ח-ש-כ)” (Gen. 22:12) his son from God, he would fail the test of unconditional commitment to the covenant. In either case, the covenant would be irreparably fractured.
In both cases, God leads Abraham on. In the first, God lets Himself appear willing to destroy a city unjustly; in the second, God lets Himself appear willing to demand the sacrifice of Isaac. By siding with God here, Abraham validates his election by God just as he did by siding with justice at Sodom. Thus, the story of God testing Abraham’s commitment to the covenant turns out to be also a story of Abraham testing God’s commitment to the covenant.
The dilemmas of the two episodes are parallel albeit reversed. At Sodom, in siding with loyalty to justice against loyalty to God, Abraham ends up retaining the loyalty of God. At Moriah, in siding with the love of God against the love of son, Abraham ends up retaining Isaac. The restatement here (Gen 22:17-18) of the first two considerations that God weighed before informing Abraham of the destruction of Sodom, at Gen. 18:18, makes the point that the result of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is meriting him as his successor.
Testing Abraham’s Commitment to the Covenant only after Confirming God’s Commitment to Justice
Once Abraham’s and God’s commitment to justice is beyond question, Abraham can be tested on his commitment to the covenant to find out whether he is willing to offer his beloved son. As Abraham Heschel notes:
It was because of the experience of God’s responding to him in his plea for Sodom that Abraham did not question the command to sacrifice his beloved son.
The ethical is not suspended; it is extended. Only because Abraham is totally convinced of divine justice can he hope to return with Isaac, as he says to his servants “we will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you” (Gen. 22:5), and hope, as he says to Isaac, that “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering” (22:8). After all, Abraham could now presume that the God of justice would never let him go through with it.
With regard to Sodom, God had to inform Abraham of the impending destruction to test his commitment to justice. After all, how can the judge of all the earth promote a great and numerous people, as Gen. 18:18 predicts, without first testing its progenitor’s commitment to justice? In this case, it is Abraham’s commitment to justice that qualifies him to serve as a medium of blessing to all the nations (Gen. 18:18b), the second promise in Abraham’s election there. It is precisely this promise of being a blessing to others that is transmitted to Isaac after the Akeidah (Gen. 22:18), who then transmits it to Jacob and his descendants onward (Gen. 28:14b).
Sodom and Akeidah as Bookends
We have come full circle. By mirroring each other terminologically and ideationally, the Sodom and Akeidah episodes serve as bookends for the construction of an envelope figure for Parshat Vayera.
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Prof. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman is Professor of Classical Judaica at Brandeis University and rabbi of Beth Abraham Sephardic Congregation of New England, Brookline, MA. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in religious studies. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of ‘Lekhah Dodi’ and Kabbalat Shabbat’ and the forthcoming The Rhetoric of the Jewish Liturgy: A Historical and Literary Commentary on the Prayer Book. His audio course books are The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Moral Meaning of the Bible.
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