The Emotional Frame of the Akedah

The Emotional Frame of the Akedah


Howard Adelman

In my last series of blogs before the Aside, I suggested that the four previous narratives prior to the actual story of the binding of Isaac provided a frame for understanding the story of the requested sacrifice. I suggest that the frame is an emotional one. Further, the frame encompasses the full range of basic human emotions which can be divided into four sets. (Research at Glasgow University confirmed that the 42 facial muscles operate to convey four basic emotions.)

The four sets and their corresponding narratives are charted below. I have also included how each relates to four different (and exhaustive) functions in life.

Story                                Emotion                      Life Function

Sarah Laughs                   happy/sad                   replication (vs barren)

Sodom &Gomorrah        hope/fear                     survival (vs death)

Abimelech                       trust/distrust                detachment (vs disgust)

Birth of Isaac                   anticipation/surprise   action (vs passivity)

There is no dispute that the core of the portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1-15) is about replicating oneself, having progeny. However, in Hebrew thought, in contrast to Aristotle, happiness is not a goal in itself; it is a by-product of other activities, the greatest of which is giving birth to a child. Happiness (eudaimonia for the ancient Greeks) does NOT depend on the cultivation of virtue. As both Sarah and Rebekah unequivocally demonstrate, petulance and conniving rather than virtue may accompany a defence of your child or even your favourite child.

The pure form of laughter is boundless, open and all-encompassing but does not in-itself encompass the whole of life as it did for Aristotle. It is one pole of one pair of emotions; there are three other pairs just as basic. Happiness does not depend on fulfilling certain requirements, even keeping God’s commandments. It is not a consequence of meeting certain conditions, including obeying God’s commandments or even getting an education in the Great Works. Happiness is an accompaniment of certain types of actions. Happiness is NOT the supreme good. It is NOT an ultimate end in life, an end-in-itself. But it is a basic good.

Basic happiness entails being calm and untroubled, a concept captured by the term serene. In my blog on the section which I called “Sarah Laughs,” I distinguished various senses of laughter. A different sense of laughter or joy is determined by that with which it is combined. When combined with hope, the joy turns into elation. When married to trust, we experience a state of satisfaction, somewhat different than serenity since there is an objective reference credited with the joy. If the joy is tied to something anticipated in the future, the joy can become ecstatic.

Sadness is the absence of any sense of joy. When sad, we have lost touch with ruach, with the spirit in life. We are lonely, depressed and dejected – low in spirit. When combined with fear, the sadness expresses itself as a sense of grief about the past and gloom toward the future. When married to distrust, sadness turns into a deep sorrow. When we find ourselves in a dark tunnel without a ray of light coming from any opening, we have sunk into depression.

Between the two polarities of happiness and sadness are to be found derision, jest, absurdity and mockery. Each is a different admixture of happiness and sadness.

Abraham expressed his derision at the idea that he and Sarah could have a child at their advanced ages by laughing so hard that he fell flat on his face at the opposite proposition and promise that the couple would indeed have a child. We, alongside first Abraham and then Sarah in the first of the quartet of stories, laugh at the improbable juxtaposition of two antithetical propositions:

Abraham and Sarah will have a child

Abraham and Sarah biologically cannot have a child.

In one sense, you cannot laugh at the miracle of life and not fall on your face in embarrassment.

Abraham does not tell Sarah of God’s patently absurd promise. Sarah, hiding in the wings, also laughs at the prophecy, but inwardly, not as a sight gag as with Abraham. That is the difference between Sarah’s and Abraham’s derision. Abraham openly laughs at the messenger who conveys the incredulous prophecy. Sarah takes the message and laughs mostly at herself, at her unattractiveness at the age of ninety, at the biological absurdity of having a child at that age, at the idea of suddenly, and miraculously, opening her womb that had for so long been closed to the possibility of reproduction. There is a huge gap between her bemusement and Abraham’s scoffing.

Does it matter that Sarah denigrates herself while Abraham rails at the message itself? Abraham is not reproved; Sarah, in contrast, is questioned and challenged. The difference does matter. Abraham guffaws; he engages in slapstick. Sarah only denigrates herself. With self-abnegation, her laughter hides her sadness. However, there is an irony. Though hiding, in expressing her dejection even if behind the mask of derision of a promise, Sarah opens herself to the possibility that her womb will be opened. She is prepared for the possibility that others will share in her joy. As she says at the birth of Isaac: “God made me laugh so that all that hear will laugh with me.” (21:6)

Contrast Sarah’s self-disparagement with the sneering with which Lot is greeted by his son-in-laws when he tells them that the end of the world as they know it is at hand. They treat a life-and-death message, not just a promise of reproduction, as a jest.

In the story of Abimelech, which evidently takes place sometime between the prophecy that Sarah will have a child and Isaac’s birth, Abimelech supposedly absconds with a withered ninety-year-old no-longer beautiful woman. How absurd! Either Abimelech was blind to her age and, as in a Hollywood comedy, saw only smooth skin and a luscious figure when objectively that was not the case (a version of Ramban’s interpretation), or Sarah actually returned to her former beauty and smooth and delicate skin. If Sarah giving birth at her age seems a natural impossibility, Sarah becoming attractive to Abimelech seems an absurdity. We, the readers, laugh even as source criticism tears apart the series of stories to root them in different original texts, as if the effort at combination ignored all contradictions instead of playing with them.

In the final stage of laughter, when Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and Sarah becomes “a woman of valour” and a vehicle of continuity, when the pain of labour is followed by the exhilaration of Isaac’s birth, Sarah laughs on that last day as derision, jest, absurdity come together in an inversion of self-mockery; a child is born. “What is closed opens [the lungs], and what is open closes” [dependency and blood supply through the umbilical cord.]

If the theme of laughter in its various forms and the move from the hidden to the open and transparent takes place against the theme of reproduction through the four tales of the frame, a very different theme is introduced in the Sodom and Gomorrah story – one of fear and anxiety, anger and regret as Lot and his family cope with death on a mass scale. Lot moved to a prosperous city to participate in its dream of the future and delight in the present. Below the surface of pleasure and hedonism, there was anxiety.

With God’s determination to eliminate the sinners as well as the sins, normal anticipation turned to apprehension and worry. The sons-in-law ignored the fear and treated the threats as a joke. In contrast, Abraham took the threat seriously and, out of care and empathy for the innocent, tried to bargain with God. He was unsuccessful. Those blind to the threat were destroyed. Even Lot’s wife, who remained nostalgically attached to what she had, became frozen and unable to move into the future. In Aristotle’s philosophical world, she became inanimate like minerals and lost her soul.

God refused to live amidst us lest his wrath once released consume us. God disappeared from our presence in an act of contrition and mercy to protect us. Hope then became not reliance on God nor a deliberate ignoring of that which one should fear, but an acceptance and, as the emotion matured, a sense of self-confidence. The latter was not a belief in the best-of-all-possible-worlds nor its twin brother that emerged first from the womb of Rebecca, an illusionary belief.

The opposite of hope is fear, loss of hope and pessimism about the future and then an unjustified resigned paranoia towards any agent we confront. However, as that fear develops further, when caught up in the dichotomy of trust and distrust, directed at oneself, that anxiety and dread become timidity and eventually shyness when directed at oneself. It becomes panic, dismay and even fury when directed at others. It was in the latter stages that Lot’s daughters decide to sleep with their drunken father in order to conceive, to enjoy the happiness of progeny.

If the story of the three messengers, each a carrier of a different dichotomy than happiness and sadness – hope and fear, trust and distrust, anticipation and astonishment – dealt primarily with the polarity of happiness and sadness, if the story of Sodom and Gomorrah dealt with the duality of hope and fear, the story of Abimelech dealt with trust and distrust. However, the narrative went beyond basic trust and reliance on the word of another. Abraham misrepresented the status of Sarah as his sister (she is his half-sister) and not his wife. Abimelech, who absconded with her, was the recipient of a divine message in a dream that revealed the truth. Disgusted at the deceit and the position in which he had been placed, Abimelech confronted Abraham on his deceit driven by fear.

The result of the confrontation was not resentment or even war. Abraham and Abimelech entered into a contractual relationship based both on trust and distrust of the other, trust that the other would fulfill his side of the bargain and distrust that in the future the other might break the terms. The deal was not closed with a handshake, but with an exchange and a legal contract that reinforced the idea that Israelite society would be based, not on a shame culture, but on law, on contracts – even between a man and his wife – and on guilt.

Clearly, the above sketch only offers the flimsiest introduction to the emotions at work that frame the narrative of the binding of Isaac. The above depiction barely touches the story of Isaac’s birth, the tension between anticipation and surprise as action versus passivity become the prime tension (not faith and obedience) in the life of the Israelites.

Aristotle, despite his euphoria over happiness, despite his view that the happy man would be virtuous and that virtue will be the key to that happiness, acknowledges that a life of action is NOT a happy life. Further, action for Aristotle was divorced from the labour of producing one’s clothes and growing one’s food. Action and the productive life belonged to different spheres. Based on such a dichotomy, production could be assigned to serfs and slaves. A man of action was characterized by reason, by thought governing one’s behaviour. In what is possibly Aristotle’s most famous phrase, a human is a rational animal – the more rational and the less like an animal, the more deserving of happiness.

But there is an apparent contradiction as excellence (areté), the ultimate virtue, results from habit not deliberation. It is a product of practice. I will use the sketch above, the tracing of the bare outlines of our emotional expressions, to explicate the story of the birth of Isaac and the narrative concerning the binding of Isaac in the next blog. To understand how sketchy the above analysis is, the chart added hereto as an appendix offers a very abstract outline of the emotions upon which the Torah focuses rather than upon the laws of reason and logic.

The Torah is not a story of rationality, of the reflective and contemplative life, of meditation and in-depth introspection, of the pensive human. That absence in a people that will become known for their mathematical and scientific work has to stand out. Neither Abraham nor Isaac brood as we shall see. They do. They act. There is no alacrity in their behaviour. But I am adumbrating. I am stimulating your anticipation of the next blog. I want you to read it with hunger in your belly, with a voracious appetite – and impatience. I want you to be avid readers filled with fervour.

A Taxonomy of Basic Emotions


Happy/Sad                             Transcendent emotions


Self-directed                           serenity; elation; satisfied; ecstatic

Other-directed                         derision, jest, absurdity and mockery


Self-directed                           dejection & lonely; gloominess & grief; sorrow; depressed

Other-directed                        grief & loss; nostalgia; betrayed; displaced


Hope/Fear                             Present oriented


Self-directed                           apprehension; worry; acceptance; confidence

Other-directed                        kind; bargaining; illusionary beliefs; Leibnizian optimism


Self-directed                           pessimism; paranoia; timidity; shyness

Other-directed                        hostility & loathing; terror & panic; dismay; fright & fury


Trust/Distrust                        Past oriented


Self-directed                           aware; grateful; anxious; brave

Other-directed                        attentive; tolerant; assured; admiring


Self-directed                           envy; ashamed; stubborn; embarrassed

Other-directed                        dislike; hostile; aversion; revolted; rejection


Anticipation/Astonishment Future oriented


Self-directed                           interested; vigilant; apprehensive; uncertain & anxious

Other-directed                        expectant; curious; bored; weary


Self-directed                           upset; stubborn; distracted; rejected

Other-directed                        amazement; astonished; annoyed; dislike and distaste


With the help of Alex Zisman


Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah


Howard Adelman

The first side of the frame for understanding the story of the binding of Isaac is the narrative about how Sarah received the message that in her old age she would have a child, a segment I titled “Sarah Laughs” (SL). The second of the four-sided frame is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G). It is revealing if we compare two themes in the two otherwise very very different narratives.


  1. In SL, Abraham hid from Sarah the news that God had promised that she would become pregnant and Sarah hides within the tent and eavesdrops on the discussion between Abraham and God’s messengers.
  2. In S&G, God asks (Genesis 18:17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”


  1. a) One can almost hear God chuckling to Himself fully aware of the irony when He asks the question (and He asks, in contrast to Abraham and Sarah who act) as if He were considering whether He should behave in the same way that Abraham and Sarah did.
  2. b) What considerations go into God offering an answer? Two factors. First Abraham is to become the forefather of a great and populous nation and a blessing for all other nations. Second, Abraham has been chosen to defend what is just and right as a condition of the first – becoming a father of a great nation.
  3. c) We do not get an answer. The question appears to be rhetorical since, when Abraham pleads with God to save the city if a minimum of ten just men can be found within its walls, Abraham has to know God’s intentions just to plead with him. The contrast stands out. While God is totally transparent, Abraham and Sarah hide.


  1. In SL, Abraham pleads with the three strangers to be their host.
  2. In S&G, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city if only 10 just men can be found who live there.
  3. a) Note the similarities between the two types of plea. In neither case does Abraham’s plea constitute begging. Abraham, in offering his hospitality to the three strangers in SL, does bow down and call himself a servant, but it is as a generous host. Secondly, both pleas are interpersonal; neither involves a formal, let alone written, petition.
  4. b) However, note the radical differences. In SL, the plea is an appeal both to the needs of the strangers and the demands of the norms of hospitality. Abraham entreats the three divine messengers in a most earnest and humble way. “My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) In S&G, there is no bowing and scraping on Abraham’s part. Instead, Abraham does not even simply stand before the Lord; he approaches Him. Abraham walks towards God. He was being forward. There was no humility, no begging. Abraham’s intercession, his proposal, was an offer, a plea bargain.
  5. c) In SL, Abraham is successful – he gets the divine messengers to stop, stay and accept his hospitality. In S&G, Abraham is successful, not in stopping God, but in setting the conditions for a reprieve. Abraham does not achieve a stay of execution. Abraham does not even get God to send his angels to investigate. God announces: “I will go down to see whether they have acted in accordance with the complaints against the citizens.” (18:21) Abraham sets the conditions for a possible reprieve – if there are at least 10 just men in the town.
  6. d) Finally, in S&G, Abraham succeeds because of a rational argument rooted in the principle of proportionality. Even if only a few innocents are affected, no punishment should befall the city. But one need not be a purist. Nine innocents may be killed, Abraham establishes, but not ten. The principle of proportionality is determined by absolute numbers, not by a ratio. In SL, Abraham made an emotional appeal that implicitly evoked the principle of hospitality.

What is most noteworthy is that it is Abraham in both cases who establishes the rules of behaviour, not God.

What is the connection between humans hiding and God being transparent while, at the same time, humans are setting the standards for action rather than God? There seems to be no connection. For in one case, Abraham and Sarah (humans) hide and God does not. The second is not a contrast between human and divine behaviour, but between two different types of human behaviour apparently with the same designation.

However, on another level, there appears to be a connection. From God’s side, from the side of full transparency, we are dealing with either impossibilities (Sarah being attractive enough for Abraham to want to have sex with her and Sarah being able to bear children in her old age) or with normally unacceptable behaviour – destroying everyone in a city, infants and children as well, for the sins of their parents. However grave the sin, the destruction seems totally disproportionate.

In contrast, those who hide are fully understandable as actors, whether on the rational or the emotional plain. Their disbelief in the first case seems totally justifiable. Abraham’s offer of a plea bargain also seems to appeal to a higher sense of justification. But the evidence in the first case will be an event that seems impossible. The evidence in the second case – apparently no evidence is found to support Abraham’s conditions, that is, there are at least ten just men in the city – seems very likely, but proves to be impossible to find. These two expressions of the mixture of impossibility and implausibility, so characteristic of some of the best fiction, are what give each of the stories their power.

In the case of SL, the attitudes of Abraham and Sarah on first hearing the promise of a child is totally consistent, not only with their experience, but with ours as readers. In the case of S&L, Abraham’s plea seems most reasonable. It is God’s actions which come across as either totally impossible (SL) or totally unacceptable even if less than 10 non-sinning adults could not be found. If one thinks about it, God’s action seems totally unacceptable.

But why are supernatural events accepted in the first case but remain dubious in the second? The first operates in the realm of scientific possibility and, to go along with the narrative, one has to adopt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rule of thumb for the narrative to have any power – “a willing suspension of disbelief.” The second takes place in a realm in which evidence is required, not to support a fact and justify a belief, but to support an act and justify it.

Feasibility is operative in the first case. Desirability operates in the second. In the first, God’s actions disobey natural scientific law; what happens is biologically unfeasible. In the second, God’s action seems legally and ethically unnatural, not only with respect to the likelihood of finding ten innocents within the confines of a city, but with respect to natural ethical norms. In the two cases, the non-natural wins over the natural. But the non-natural in explicitly operating juxtaposed to natural scientific laws and natural ethical and legal norms.

In the SL tale, there are two human actors, Abraham and Sarah. In the S&G narrative, the tale of Abraham bargaining with God over standards for mass killing is succeeded by the story of Lot. Note the differences between the story of the strangers passing Abraham’s tent and the angels and their meeting with Lot.

SL                                     S&G

Number of strangers                 3                                           2

Location                        in front of a tent                  at the gate of the city

Appeal to self-interest   feel refreshed                   so the angels can get

away early

Method                            bow                                     bow, face to the ground

Behaviour                      eat outside                           enter the tent

Staying overnight          acceptance                           rejection

What follows is different in the two cases. In the first, Sarah equivocates.  In the second, an intolerant mob comes on the scene and demands that Lot surrender the strangers. Lot pleads with the mob rather than for divine intervention. But divine intervention comes with a literally blinding light. In SL, there is a promise. In S&G, Lot and his family are offered an escape. In SL, Sarah greets the promise as if it is a joke. When Lot pleads with his sons-in-law to leave, they treat his insistence as a jest. In SL, there is no use of force. In S&G, the angels seize the hands of Lot, his wife and his two unmarried daughters. They are urged to flee to the hills. Lot agrees to go there, but only when the strangers promise that the town be made a sanctuary. Then the annihilation of the population, the city and the vegetation follow.

There are two other differences. Sarah looks back in time and regrets her initial response to the promise. Lot’s wife looks back in space and I s reified as a pillar of salt. Second, Sarah gives birth as a result of sleeping with her husband. Lot’s two daughters each give birth as a result of incest with their father and give birth to nations, not rooted in laughter (Yitzhac or Isaac) with both its negative and positive associations. However, the Moabites and the Ammonites by their very names cannot forget that they were nations born in sin rather than a divine promise, for mo-av means “from my father” and ben-ammi means son of my paternal kin.

When I come back to the story of the Akeda, I will try to use these differences to show how an understanding of the words that came before the Akeda throw light on the meaning of the binding of Isaac story. By then I will have depicted the other two sides of the frame.


With the help of Alex Zisman