From The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio, 1603. Wikimedia.
This week’s Torah reading of Vayera (Genesis 18-22) is the centerpiece of a trilogy devoted to Abraham. In the entirety of the Pentateuch, only Moses receives more attention. But Moses gets to perform miracles; Abraham merely muddles along, founding monotheism. Just what that entails is the subject of this reading.
I’m going to focus on the climactic scene, which unfolds like a terrible murder ballad—but first, a swift rundown of the interrelated sub-plots. At the opening, three angels come and prophesy to Abraham that he’ll have a son. Immediately thereafter, God announces His intention to destroy Sodom. Abraham persuades God to spare the city if He finds ten righteous men therein. But it turns out that there’s only a single righteous man—Abraham’s nephew Lot, who has been so corrupted by living in Sodom that he offers up his daughters to the neighbors if they’ll only refrain from raping his guests, who happen to be the angels from the previous segment.
The angels whisk Lot and his family away and torch Sodom. Frightened by what he has seen, Lot hides in a cave with his two daughters, who give him wine and seduce him. Abraham then flees (perhaps from this disgrace) to Grar, where he tells Sarah to pose as his sister, whereupon she is seized and taken to King Abimelech. Abimelech releases her after the Lord appears to him in a dream, and then he reproaches Abraham:
Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see to make you do such a thing?”
And Abraham said, “I only said, perhaps there is no God-fearing in this place.”
Only after this exchange does Sarah become pregnant with Isaac. Following her son’s weaning feast, she takes exception to the sight of Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born with the handmaiden Hagar, fooling around with her boy and insists that Abraham send both Ishmael and his mother off into the desert. Abraham isn’t happy about it, but the Lord talks him around. Then Abraham strikes a treaty with Abimelech at Beer Sheva. That’s where the Lord springs His trap.
And it was after this conversation that God tried Abraham
And said to him, “Abraham,”
And he said, “I am here.”
And He said, “Take your son, your only one, the one you love,
And wend your way to the land of Moriah
And sacrifice him on one of the mountains,
The one that I’ll show you.”
Unlike the decimation of Sodom, which he protests, or the banishment of Ishmael, which troubles him, here there’s not a word about Abraham’s reaction. Rashi, the great 11th-century commentator, explains the Lord’s series of specifications as to just whom He wants done in as a response to Abraham’s series of evasions—“Which son? I love them both!,” etc. This reading creates a lovely embroidery, but the text by itself is much sparer than that:
And Abraham rose early and saddled his ass
And took his two boys with him
As well as Isaac his son
And split logs for an offering
And rose and went to the place God told him to go.
There is an inexorability about Abraham’s conduct. Much as, later on, Isaac’s son Esau will be reduced to sputtering a series of active verbs, so here Abraham, the great debater with the Lord, is reduced to a doer, a man doggedly taking one step after the other to where he does not want to go.
On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place in the distance.
And Abraham said to the boys, “Sit here with the ass,
And the boy and I will go and bow down and come back to you.”
But Abraham took the logs for the sacrifice and put them on his son Isaac,
And he took in his hand the kindling and the knife and they went off, the both of them.
The constant refrain about its being “the both of them” emphasizes the fact that there are boys and a donkey and other props but ultimately this is a story of two people, one of whom is about to kill the other. Then the ballad ups the stakes:
But Isaac spoke to his father, saying, “Dad,”
And he said, “I am here, my son,”
And he said, “Here is the kindling and logs but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”
And Abraham said, “God will see for Himself a lamb for the sacrifice, my son.”
And they went off, together, the both of them.
Rashi takes that last clause to mean that Isaac understands from his father’s answer just who is going to be sacrificed, but I read it as a darkly ironic exchange, like Richard III joking with the nephews he will later have executed. To say that Isaac knew and still went is to paint him as more pious, but Rashi’s interpretation also diminishes the horror both of what Abraham is doing and of the utter awfulness of what the Lord has asked of him. Forget spiritual greatness. Can you imagine the person who washed your hair in the bath and put you to bed at night tying you up one day and putting a knife to your throat?
And they came to the place that God told him to go to,
And Abraham built there the altar,
And arranged the logs, and tied his son Isaac hand and foot,
And placed him on the altar,
Over the logs.
And Abraham put out his hand
And grasped the knife to slaughter his son.
But an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven
And said, “Abraham, Abraham.”
This is the moment of ultimate horror and Abraham is so intent on doing what he has to do—he is almost in a trance—that the angel has to call him twice, with mounting urgency lest it be too late.
And he said, “I am here.”
And he said, “Do not put out your hand to the boy
And don’t do a thing to him,
For now I know that you are God-fearing
And have not spared your son, your only one, from Me.”
Now we understand the trap sprung by the exchange with Abimelech. Abraham didn’t think the Grarites were God-fearing, and now the Lord is bringing that judgment home to him.
Just what does God-fearing entail? And how much is enough? Offering up your children to Moloch, in the ritual of child-sacrifice that Abraham’s monotheism was meant to eradicate for all time? Or does it just mean serving up your children on an altar of any kind, to whatever local deity or stand-in you admire? Lot offers up his daughters to the local rapists, and the retribution is that he is sexually exploited by his daughters in turn. Abraham offers up his son to God, because God asks him to, but it’s unclear if he gets either reward or retribution. It’s even more unclear what reward could motivate such a decision. Can any explanation make sense of this most unsettling of demands?
Abraham is the only person in the entire Pentateuch whom the Lord will describe as God-fearing. Elsewhere in the Bible, only Job is so tested—by Satan in a debate with God—and found to merit the term, which is why commentators hypothesize a parallel debate here between God and Satan over Abraham; but there is no such convenient explanation in the text itself. God is simply unknowable. I personally find His promises of plenitude and fecundity at this point, which are pretty much the same promises He made earlier, almost insulting. Who’s to say He won’t want Isaac to walk the coals next week?
Then an angel of the Lord called to Abraham again
From heaven, saying, “Upon my life I swear, says the Lord,
Since you have done this thing
And did not spare your son, your only one,
I will bless you with blessings and manifestly multiply your offspring,
Like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. . . .
And Abraham returned to the boys
And they rose and went together to Beer Sheva,
And Abraham stayed in Beer Sheva.
And it was after this conversation that it was reported to Abraham, saying,
See how Milcah has also borne sons to Nahor your brother:
Uz his eldest and Buz his brother and Kemuel father of Aram. . . .
So at the end of the story Abraham is permitted to return to Beer Sheva, where he had struck a treaty with the non-God-fearing Abimelech. And just after God repeats His extravagant promises to Abraham of numerous offspring, the next thing Abraham hears is that, in contrast to his meager complement of two sons—one of whom he has sent off nearly to die of thirst in the desert, and the other of whom he has just scared to death—his brother Nahor has fathered a legion, twelve sons altogether.
What exactly is it that God wants? As far as I’m concerned, at the end of the day, only He knows. And anyone who reads this parashah to mean anything else is whistling in the dark.
My former neighbor in Jerusalem, Rabbi Daniel Landes, used to say, “If you want an image for it, it’s very simple. You drive your child to the Jerusalem bus station, you put him on the bus to the army base and you drive away.” And he is not alone in that reflection. Every secular Jew in Israel understands the binding of Isaac. But is that what the Lord actually requires? And what exactly is Abraham’s reward? There is no record of another word exchanged between Abraham and Isaac for the rest of their lives.