We have a frame. What we lack is knowledge of how the frame informs the content of the Akedah narrative. I will review the narrative and then attempt to tie the frame to explicating the meaning of the story.
The tale is almost too familiar so that when we read or hear it, our understanding is coloured by many assumptions. The bare story, however, is fairly simple and straightforward. Further, it is only 24 verses long (Genesis 22:1-24), and the last four verses are concerned with genealogy rather than the substance of the narrative.
Many questions are raised. What is the test? Who is being tested? What is the purpose and significance of the test? What is the meaning and role of faith? What is Abraham thinking and feeling during the events that unfold? What about Isaac? What are his feelings and thoughts?
Previously, I had referred to the words that came before and argued that these narratives provide the frame to explicate the tale, the text states that “God put Abraham to the test.” God addresses Abraham. Abraham responds in a phrase repeated earlier in Genesis, “Here I am.” (verse 1) In the dominant conventional interpretation, God then issues a command. Just as he ordered Abraham to leave his family in Ur in Mesopotamia, he now instructs Abraham to take his son, explicitly described as his favourite son whom he loves, to the land of Moriah. Further, he is told from the very beginning of the trip that when he arrives at his destination, he is to “offer him as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I (God) will designate.” Heights are not just geographical. The intention is to raise the covenantal relationship to a new height.
From the overlay of centuries of interpretation, the most familiar sense of the text is one of obedience. Will Abraham follow God’s orders? Will he take his favourite son, the one whom he deeply loves, and offer him to God as a burnt offering on a distant mountain top? Questions immediately arise. Did God issue a command or a request. In the Plaut text, the words are translated as, “Take your son…” Rashi translates the same words as: “Please take your son…” (Rashi Commentary, 230) God is making a request, not issuing a command. For Rashi, the inclusion of the particle na’ (naw) suggests an entreaty. God is, in effect, saying that, “I pray that you take your beloved son Isaac…” Or, as I would word it, God is saying, “Abraham, I want you to do something for me please.” Abraham obliges.
There is a clear difference between an entreaty and the expectation that a subject obey unconditionally and without question to what on the surface appears to be an extraordinary – indeed, a most unethical – demand, to sacrifice his most beloved son. One says: “Do this.” The other says: “Please do this for me.” What difference does it make if it is a command or a request if what is commended or requested seems crazy?
There is a difference. If it is a command, then Abraham has no escape. Abraham has agreed to carry out the order to the final degree. However, if it is a request, Abraham can say in his own mind that I will go along with the gig and see what happens. I can always opt out. I trust that God keeps his promises and does not really intend to have me burn my own son. In the command mode, David Hartman writes: “This is the story of the Akedah: the demand (my italics) of God that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the only son of his wife, Sarah.” Such a demand is indeed in apparent breech of God’s promise to make a great nation through his son, Isaac. As Hartman adds, “Nevertheless, Abraham obediently set off for the land of Moriah as instructed.” (A Living Covenant, p. 43)
Obedience does demand a leap of faith if the commandment is to undertake a travesty, not simply to justice in killing the boy, but a travesty to God’s own promise. But if it is a polite request to perform a seemingly extreme act, then the issue is not about submission and the terror, or fear and trembling, that would accompany fulfilling such a mission, but an act of obliging another who Abraham has no reason not to trust and whom he always believed would never intend to see Isaac harmed. The test then is not of Abraham’s faith, for Abraham would have to have faith in abundance to go along with the gig. The test is whether Abraham believes that God is a trustworthy partner. For God does not instruct that Abraham slaughter his son, but only that he make an offering of his son. As the commentator Yosef Halle wrote, the text includes the word sham, there. Without that inclusion, the request would indeed mean a request to slaughter his son. With the inclusion of “there,” it means to bring Isaac up and offer him, but does not entail slaughtering him.
Look at the differences.
The Obedience Model The Request Model
God commands or orders requests or entreats
God’s intent to test Abraham’s blind faith confirm Abraham’s trust
Abraham obeys agrees
A’s thought faith against reason reasonable trust
Relationship master and slave covenantal partnership
In the first model, God’s command is unintelligible and extremely mysterious. In the second model, God’s intent and plan of action is yet to be revealed; it is just unknown at the time the command is issued. When the time comes, what is now unintelligible will become clear. In the first model, we as readers are dumbfounded that the same Abraham who stood up to God at Sodom and Gomorrah for principles of proportional justice would now accede to a request that had absolutely no iota of justice, but blatantly challenged on a very personal level Abraham’s trust that his God was a just God. For those who believe in homiletics, who believe that faith precedes all else, the first reading is a test of that faith. For those who believe that the text is a tale of ethics relative to the period, it will be a story about establishing a higher morality and rejecting child sacrifice. However, even if the latter solves the puzzle about God’s sense of justice, it does so only by diminishing Abraham’s.
Note that in the tale, when the pair and the accompanying servants reach the foot of the mountain, Abraham says to his servants, “You can stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you.” There seems to be no doubt in Abraham’s mind that the boy will return with him and not be sacrificed. There seems no intention to mislead the servants. There is no indication that Abraham believes that when he offers his son that God will accept the offer.
How then does one interpret the conversation between father and son when Isaac asks where the sheep is for the offering? Abraham replies, seemingly in full confidence, that Isaac can count on God providing the sheep. Abraham trusts God to provide. Isaac trusts that his father is reliable. Thus, they complemented one another in their trust.
Then we arrive at the dramatic climax. The two prepare the altar. Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the altar. Abraham even raises the knife in the air. Does Abraham ever believe he might be asked to thrust that knife into his son’s flesh? Does Isaac ever believe that his father might? If Isaac suspected such, he could have easily overpowered his frail and aged father for Isaac was not a child but a mature young man. So the climax is the binding of Isaac and raising the knife.
It is then that God calls off the performance. God addresses Abraham as he did at the beginning of the story. Only this time God repeats Abraham’s name twice. Rabbinic commentators have generally interpreted the doubling of names as an expression of endearment, as when a parent says, “John, my dear boy John, …” Abraham replies, as he did at the very beginning of the narrative, “Hinaini,” “Here I am.”
Later in the Torah when Moses asks God for his name (Exodus 3:14), God replies in the most common translation, “I am that I am.” אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ehyeh asher ehyeh. However, since ancient Hebrew lacked a future tense, an alternative translation is that God answers, “I shall be who I shall be.” The reference is not to Being but to Becoming. God is the one who reveals Himself over time. That is the God in whom one should trust. Abraham, when he answers, “hinaini,” “Here I am.” Why hinaini and not ehyeh poh? The suggestion is that in Abraham’s answer, he is saying, “I am here for you.” I can be trusted. I am a good partner. And I trust that as you reveal yourself to me, trust on my part will be a condition of that partnership, but will be reinforced with every revelation about Yourself.
God now commands and does not request. “Do not raise your hand against the boy.” (22:12) Not, “Do not kill him.” God is remonstrating Abraham for going too far in the partnership. In binding Isaac, Abraham had proven he trusted God would not see Isaac harmed. But in raising his hand with a knife, Abraham has gone too far, for raising the knife is a threat and Isaac then would necessarily be frightened. The climax should simply have been the binding of Isaac, not holding a knife over his bound body. It was sufficient proof of our partnership that you bound Isaac and trusted that I would see that no harm came to the boy, appears to be God’s thought. God remonstrates Abraham.
If God was to continue the partnership in the next generation, Abraham had to enjoin Isaac in the covenant. The first stage began with the circumcision. The completion stage took place when Abraham bound Isaac and Isaac, testing both his dad and God, acceded to being bound. There was no need to raise the knife. Then God repeats his promise that Abraham via Isaac will give birth to a great nation.
Does the frame I already described reinforce or undermine this interpretation?
To be continued.