Friday, February 11, 2011

The Akedah and its Meaning in Our Lives

   One of the most enduring and complex Bible stories can be found in the Book of Genesis and it is known in Hebrew as The Akedah (the Binding of Isaac).  Genesis 22:1-19 tells us that Abraham received a command from God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on “the mountain that I shall show you” (Gen. 22:2).  Abraham rises early the next day, takes Isaac and two of his men, and proceeds to Mount Moriah.  
   Once they arrive, Abraham tells his men to stay with the animals while he and his son go up the mountain to pray.  He places a bundle of sticks on Isaac’s shoulders and proceeds up the mountain.  Isaac begins to wonder what is going on and asks his father, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering” (Gen. 22:7).  Abraham, knowing what God has asked of him states, “God Himself with provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). 
   These nineteen verses give us no indication of what was going through Abraham’s mind as he built an altar, placed the wood on it, bound Isaac, and place Isaac atop the wood.  Abraham seems to be have almost transfixed on his mission.  There is no emotion emanating from Abraham, he is not crying as he binds his son, the son promised to him by God and born to him when Abraham was ninety-nine years old.  He waited all those decades for a son and now that he finally has an heir, God has asked him to sacrifice the boy and Abraham does not even ask God why. 
   Even the opening verse of the chapter leaves us perplexed.  And so “it came to pass after these things that God put Abraham to the test.” (Gen. 22:1)  Although the phrase, “And it came to pass after these things,” is clearly formulaic and should be translated as “sometime later,” yet we would immediately ask: What event(s) preceded the Akedah which gave rise to it?  What “things” occurred which made it necessary for God to demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac?  Since chapter twenty-one gives us no indication of any such events, it became necessary over time that rabbinical lore (midrash) provide some answer for future generations.
   The rabbis believed that the juxtaposition of events implied a causal relationship between them.1 Therefore, the Akedah, which followed upon Isaac’s birth and weaning, and Ishmael’s banishment, must have occurred because of one or both of these events. Perhaps, as they argue, the sacrifice of Isaac was necessary because of Abraham’s misgivings about the depth of his faith.  Having just celebrated the birth and weaning of Isaac with a gala feast, Abraham is pictured as feeling unworthy of this gift and unappreciative of God’s benevolence. Accordingly, it was because of these feelings that the Divine had to test Abraham. Both God and Abraham had to know if he could sacrifice the object of his greatest love, the child who bore his legacy, Isaac. The rabbis are right.  Although Abraham had succeeded in passing every test that God had placed upon him, including the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, in each case God had guaranteed the outcome in one way or another.  But could Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the very guarantor of the future?  Would Abraham be willing to sacrifice the promised greatness of his progeny, in essence his own immorality, all of which depended upon Isaac’s survival? 2
   Abraham is so caught up in the mission which God has given him that he operates almost on automatic pilot.  As Abraham raises the knife to slay his son, an angel called to him from heaven, “Abraham”, as God called out his name at the outset of the test. However, this time, Abraham did not respond immediately. So consumed by the task at hand and so altogether bent upon demonstrating his unconditional fidelity, he was oblivious to the angel’s call.  So the angel boomed forth one more time: “Abraham”.  At that moment, Abraham the father, was finally awakened to the reality of what he was about to do, and he responded as before, “hineini”—here I am.3
    It is important to keep in mind that this story was originally written in Hebrew and there is more than one title for God in that language. The view of the Akedah chapter is that the one who puts to the test and commands the Akedah is God (Elohim), and the one who prevents it makes the (subsequent) promise is the angel of the Lord (YHWH). 4 Wherever in Scripture Lord (YHWH) is used, the reference is to the Mercy Attribute, as it is written, “The Lord (YHWH)! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious” (Ex. 34:6); wherever God (Elohim) is used, the reference is to the Justice Attribute, as it is written, “The case of both parties shall come before God” (Ex. 22:8).5  This belief answers some questions, but in the process raises others.  For example, are there two distinct religious layers, one from the stratum of ancient idolatry where the sacrifice of human first born was practiced, and the other from biblical religion which put an end to this cruel practice and substituted animal sacrifice? 6
   In regard to Abraham being oblivious to the call of the angel, the fact is that we are all like him.  Each of us is so involved in our own outside worlds—our  careers, interests, our principles—that we cannot see that it is our child, or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar.  We are so adept at sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of the angel before it is too late.  Those of us who are blessed to be rabbis, cantors, priests, educators and communal workers are no exception; in some ways, we are the most vulnerable in this regard.  We who see ourselves as doing “God’s work” when we are constantly there for others, when we spend so many hours of the day responding to the needs of our congregants and members of the wider community must begin to understand Abraham as he walks with his son on the road to the mountain.  For when Isaac calIs out to Abraham, “My father, as you walk on your journey of such universal import, when all is said and done, where are you for me? Am I important in your life?”, he calls out to each one us.  It could be your son who is saying, “I know that you’re busy dad, but do you have some time to watch the basketball game with me tonight?” and it is so easy to blurt out, “I’m very tired. Some other time.” At those very moments, would that we would have the strength to respond “hineini” in the fullness of its meaning; would that we could say more often, “Absolutely, nothing would give me greater pleasure!”
   This then was the final part of Abraham’s test: Would he have the strength to heed the call of the angel/his son as he had responded to God’s call at the outset of the drama?  Would Abraham now be able to sacrifice his own needs and truly listen to the voice of the Divine (as conveyed by the angel/Isaac)?  As Abraham had to sacrifice his own feelings toward Ishmael when God asked him to respond to Sarah’s demand that he banish Hagar and Ishmael, so, too, here at the climax of the Akedah, Abraham had to transcend his own ego in order to insure that Isaac would live.  Could he see beyond himself and recognize his real source of strength; that which would insure his own future? 7
    Abraham was so caught up in what he was supposed to do that he could not even heed the voice of God when he heard it.  One midrashic tale states that at that moment, God implored the archangel Michael saying, “Why are you standing there?  He’s about to kill the boy! Don’t allow him to be slaughtered!” Although Michael argued with God saying that he did not have the strength to stop Abraham, God pushed him out of the heavens and Michael cried out, “Abraham, lay not your hand upon the boy, neither do anything to him!”  Abraham responded, “God commanded me to slaughter Isaac and you command me not to slaughter him.  The words of the teacher and the words of the disciple—to whom should I harken?” 8 So it was that God was forced to intervene and called out to Abraham, “By Myself have I sworn…because you have done these things and have not withheld your son. I will bless you and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore” (Gen. 22:17).
   The story of the Akedah is retold every year in synagogues throughout the world at Rosh Hashanah; however, this story is not only important to Jewish families, but to Christian families as well. As a counterpoint to the Akedah Story, Paul placed the Golgotha Event at the heart of the new faith.  If in the former there was something active for the merit of Israel, in the latter there was something active for the merit of the whole world, to redeem it from sin and deliver it from death through the Serpent’s plotting. (Rm. 5:12)  From these calamities there could have been neither escape nor liberation, had it not been for the compassion of the Father, who, like Abraham, did not spare His son, His favored one whom He loved, and whose life He set as a ransom for all creatures. What is more, unlike Abraham He did finish what He began, and the son was crucified and died, actually died, so that those who believe in him might be forgiven and by his blood be forgiven and saved from the wrath. (Rm. 8:32)  The sin of one—Adam’s rebellion, loaded all with guilt; the free grace of the other—the first born of all created beings—came to justify all. (Rm. 5:18-19)  The first set in motion the cycle which leads the world to death, the second set in motion the gift of resurrection and eternal life. (1 Cor. 15:45-49)  Even as the Father raised him up to the top of the altar so that he might bear the shame of the many, so He raised him up from the sepulcher in order that to the many glory might be brought. (Gal. 3:13-14)  He was raised from the death so that he would be the first of all who sleep in the dust to wake to life.  From the beginning of time this was part of the design, that the first born of Creation should be the first born of Resurrection. (Col. 1:15-18)  All who are baptized in his name cleave to him, to his death and his rising again. With him they are crucified, so that the Evil Impulse be slain within them and the old Adam die; henceforth they are washed clean of sin and freed of the obligation of the Law’s commandments. (Rm. 6: 2-11)  With him they will rise to a new life and never again return to the pit. (1 Thess. 5:10) Thus, “everyone who believeth is justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the Law of Moses.”  (Rm. 3:28) 9
   While St. Paul does not reference the Akedah on a regular basis, there is every reason to believe that he had this profound story in mind as he made reference to the mission of Jesus.  There is a Jewish midrashic tale that the angel was unable to prevent Abraham from slaying Isaac; however, Isaac was resurrected and the sacrifice of the ram caught in the thicket stood in place of the sacrifice of Isaac.
    What impact did the attempted sacrifice have on the relationship of Abraham and Isaac?  Well, the last thing that Abraham ever said to Isaac was, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  The rupture of the relationship between Abraham and Isaac as a result of Abraham’s intention to sacrifice his son on the altar he created is hinted at when Abraham descends the mountain.  Abraham returns to his [two] servants, who were waiting at the foot of the mountain and they departed together for Be’er Sheva. When Abraham descended the mountain he was conspicuously alone.  The fact that the two servants returned together (yachdav) with Abraham to Be’er Sheva emphatically underscores Isaac’s absence.10 All Abraham had were his two servants, he would never see Isaac again.
   Abraham, the patriarch, the head of the Israelite clan, was indeed alone. Isaac and Ishmael, victims of their father’s beliefs, were gone. Abraham was bereft of his children. In addition, Hagar had been banished and he would never see Sarah again. When Abraham returned to Be’er Sheva from Mount Moriah, his wife was not there.  As the story unfolds, Sarah was in Kiryat Arba, where she died and Abraham is pictured as travelling to Be’er Sheva to mourn for his wife.11  
   The picture of Abraham at this juncture is surely a disturbingly sad one: the tribal patriarch, leader of his clan, who had lost those closest and most dear to him.  However, we ask, “Is it too late for Abraham? Is this what he has to look forward to—a life of isolation, cut off from his progeny and the promise of the future?” As we frame the question, dare we ask it of ourselves as well? Is it too late for us, we who also are so adept at sacrificing on the altars which we have erected—the altars of our careers, interests, hobbies—the ones whom we love so dearly?  Are we oblivious to the cry of the angel until it is too late? 12
   As Christians we believe that where there is life there is hope.  We do not have to sacrifice our families and loved ones on the altars which we have erected; however, this means that we must reevaluate our priorities and ask, “What is most important to me?” If we were forced to give up our careers, our interests, and/or our hobbies what would we have left?  Whatever remains standing after the dust settles following the whirlwind of giving up everything we held fast to is what is most important.  Keep in mind that no one ever said on their deathbed, “If I had only spent more time at the office.”

                                                      End Notes

1)Bereshit Rabbah 55:4
2)Norman J. Cohen Self Stuggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006) p. 81
3)Cohen, p. 84
4)Moses Nahmanides Commentary on Genesis 22:12
5)Shalom Spiegel The Last Trial: On The Legends and Lore of the Command of Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003) p. 121.  Originally published in 1967.
6)Spiegel, p. 124
7)Cohen, p. 85
8)Cohen, p. 85
9)Spiegel, p. 83
10)The word yachdav is used twice previously in describing how Isaac accompanied his father on his journey to the mountain (Gen. 22:6, 8)—they had indeed proceeded together.  (Cohen, p. 201)
11)Since Sarah’s death follows on the heels of the Akedah, the rabbis see a causal relationship between the two events. See, for example, Sefer ha-Yashar; Genesis 22.  (Cohen, p. 201)
12)Cohen, p. 88


Bereshit Rabbah 55:4

Norman J. Cohen Self Stuggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006)

Moses Nahmanides Commentary on Genesis 22:12

Shalom Spiegel The Last Trial: On The Legends and Lore of the Command of Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003)

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