Attention to the Names of God Can Explain the Binding of Isaac

November 3, 2017 | Jerome Marcus
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Few biblical passages have provoked as much theological handwringing as the one, read in synagogues tomorrow, in which the Almighty commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Of particular concern to many commentators is God’s countermanding at the end of the passage the order he gave at the beginning. By noting the text’s use of both Elohim (God) and the tetragrammaton (rendered here as “Lord”), Jerome Marcus proposes a fresh approach:

The first half of the story (Genesis 22:1-10) presents God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son. Throughout this section of the story, God is referred to as Elohim. However, in the second half (Genesis 22:11-19), where the sacrifice is ultimately averted, all references to God [save one] use the tetragrammaton; [likewise] the command to Abraham [not to go through with the sacrifice] comes from a “messenger of the Lord.” Abraham thus hears God in two different modes. [Put differently], Abraham’s understanding and experience of God . . . changes midway through the story.

The text emphasizes this shift clearly by a striking altered repetition. . . . When Isaac asks his father where the lamb is, Abraham answers “God will see to (i.e., provide) the lamb Himself.” But after the crucial shift, Abraham . . . names the place where the binding had occurred not “God will see” but instead “the Lord will see.” . . .

[The talmudic sages frequently] distinguish between these two names of God: Elohim portrays God as unyielding, expressing the characteristic of inflexible justice. The tetragrammaton is understood as representing mercy. The apparent contradiction between what God wants in the two halves of Genesis 22, then, may map onto the difference between these two understandings of God. . . .

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