Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Abraham and Isaac

Long ago, in a far-away country, there lived a very old man named Abraham. He was so old that he was bent over with age and shuffled when he walked; and his long white beard nearly touched the ground.

This Abraham was known far and wide for his faith in God. He had never disobeyed the divine voice, even when it told him to do things contrary to all reason. Because of this Abraham was a special favorite of God.

Another remarkable thing about Abraham was that, old as he was, he had a little son. Isaac, as he was called, was his father's pride and joy. Whenever Abraham saw Isaac playing, his old legs wanted to caper with him and his wrinkled old face creased even more with laughter.

One night, after everyone had gone to bed, Abraham heard the Divine Voice again....

The next morning Abraham looked even older and his beard whiter than ever. He called his son Isaac and said to him, "We must make a journey to the mountain of God. And there we must make a sacrifice."

Isaac's eyes shone with pleasure. "And am I to go too, father?"

"Yes," said Abraham, "you must come with me."

Isaac ran, beaming, to tell the servants to make ready for a journey. And Abraham's legs this time did not ache to run with him.

The mountain of God was not far from their home, but Abraham's shuffling gait made the journey last several days. But at last, no matter how slowly the old man walked, they saw the mountain of God before them.

"Stay here," Abraham told the servants, "and we will come back by and by."

Isaac's heart was bursting with excitement and with love for his old father. But oh, how slowly the old man went up the mountain!

"Father," said Isaac, "where is the lamb for the sacrifice?"

"It is waiting for us on top of the mountain." And the two of them walked on together.

Finally, they reached the flat summit of the mountain of God, where the altar was. There Abraham made ready the wood, unsheathed the knife, and set a burning branch near him to light the sacrifice.

Then he turned to his son, fingering the knife with his gnarled fingers. And Isaac looked into Abraham's eyes; and despite his love, he was afraid.

But, with a sigh, Abraham lowered the knife. "No," he said, "this cannot be done. Without you, I cannot live."

Then he raised his eyes to heaven. "And without You, I cannot live."

He sighed again. "Therefore, O Lord, I beseech thee — let old Abraham die in Isaac's place. Do You need a sacrifice? Take me instead.

"But know this, oh my Heavenly Father — I cannot and will not harm the boy."

Isaac stared, astonished, as his old father began to try to climb up on the altar, and then he rushed forward to try to pull him down and off the stones. They struggled together weakly, the old man and the little boy, both of them weeping. Suddenly the Divine Voice filled the air around them, and they became still.

"Abraham," it said. "You have passed the test."

Then a great light shone around them, dazzling their eyes; and so great was the weight of that light that they were unable to stand and fell on their knees; but their hearts were filled with joy.

When the echoes of the Voice died away and their eyes had regained their sight and their legs had regained their strength, the father and the son rose and saw before them a slaughtered lamb burning on the altar. The two of them held hands and watched it for a little while, listening to the pop of the burning branches and the hiss of burning flesh. Then, turning around, they made their way down the mountain in peace.

UPDATE (1/9): I wrote this piece years ago and I don't remember the thought process that led up to it or any other concomitant circumstances. Therefore in a sense I read it as a stranger. But I am sure that I had no desire to set up my story as replacing the biblical one or as a negative comment on it. Rather I see it as a midrash, written by a man who loves his children dearly and whose faith is minuscule compared to Abraham's. What would happen to such a man who was tested as Abraham was? The answer — so I feign — is that God might still accept such a man, even in his failure, by receiving what he is able to give (love for his offspring and the desire, if not the ability, to obey God) and by supplying the sacrifice that the "unfaithful believer" (or the "disobedient servant") is not able to give.

I appreciate the comments, both complimentary and critical. Certainly I intended no irreverence. Looking back on the story, my main criticism is that it is too sentimental, a fault that the biblical writer avoided while remaining sensitive to the human emotions of his protagonists. Now there was a writer!


Anonymous said...

Why the distortion?

- Mike

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


WOW!!! You do have the gift of telling a story. What about some more of the David story this year?


Christopher Heard said...

If only ...

Q. Pheevr said...

"Distortion" or not, this version appeals to me much more than the original; I'd like to believe that love, rather than obedience, is the right answer. Should we admire Abraham for behaving like the majority of subjects in Stanley Milgram's (in)famous experiment?

Of course, either way, it's an awfully cruel test.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very nice! Thank you.

The Grinder said...

Distortion it most certainly is, and it detracts from the meaning of the story in a detrimental way. Clearly, the intent of the test was to prove Abraham’s obedience to God and not his obstinacy based on Abraham's moral sense, as your version suggests. This is offensive to me because this story is so important to the unfolding revelation of God’s grace in Salvation.

“God himself will provide a lamb for the sacrifice”

“for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me”

To change a story because we do not understand God’s ways (love vs. obedience) shows ignorance, and from someone so versed in biblical languages it is irresponsible. It demonstrates a lack of respect for the Word. Further, to value a corrupted version for its supposed human appeal is completely backward.

Unknown said...

A well-told and moving story. You have a gift, no question. You may find a book I picked up last summer interesting; it's titled "Jesus Christs" by A.J. Langguth. Share s'more with us, will you?
- The Pilgrim

Anonymous said...

hasnt it been suggested by some scholars that in the original, original version isaac was actually sacrificed?

just asking, i dont know.

John W Leys said...

hasnt it been suggested by some scholars that in the original, original version isaac was actually sacrificed?

This is an idea that gets bandied about now and then based on the odd fact that Gen 22.19 only has Abraham returning from the moutain with no mention of Isaac. The theory goes that the original had Abraham sacrfice his son & that a later editor inserted the intervening "angel of YHWH" who stops the sacrifice. The editor forgot to amend the last sentence which only has Abraham returning from the sacrifice. This also is meant to explain why Isaac's tales in Genesis are so anemic, the most eventful being a retread of an event that Genesis has happening to his father twice. The idea is that the later tales of Isaac were invented to bridge the Abraham and Jacob stories, which were originally thought to be separate tribal myths.

I'm away from my references right now, but I think that is the gist of the idea you refer to.

--John W. Leys

Anonymous said...

Well, told, Ed, but I'll still keep the original. The story is disturbing but there's more meaning there than I understand yet. The line, "God will see to the lamb, my son," for me captures something not only about Abraham but about the Torah, and maybe our relationship with God. Abraham almost, but not quite lies to Isaac. It's a lie subjectively, from the standpoint of what Abraham expects Isaac's understanding to be, but not a lie objectively, since Abraham expects God will see the lamb -- his son. But at the same time it's a hope and a prayer that either God's command turn out to be likewise ambiguous and misunderstood, or that God will change His mind and provide a lamb.

As for Abraham returning from the mountain alone, the following just occurred to me. Having spun it out, I have to acknowledge Richard Rubenstein's book Power Struggle, Bob Sacks (probably), and maybe others I've forgotten.

The Torah says repeatedly that Abraham and Isaac ascended "yachdav," literally "as one." Perhaps the near-sacrifice so shattered Isaac's ego that he became only an extension of his father and his father's relationship with God. In a metaphorical sense, two persons return, but only one personality.

The Oedipus myth is also about Laertes, the father who wants to kill the son who threatens to supplant him. Abraham is a dominant, commanding personality, and such personalities want sons but not successors to remind them they will die. When Abraham lifts his eyes he sees a ram with horns, an unmistakeable symbol of male power and domination -- but caught by its own horns. He sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac, accepting that Isaac's life implies his own death.

But the effect on Isaac is shattering. Young men sometimes turn to God to replace an absent or inadequate father, or to help them break free of an abusive one. Isaac, inevitably overshadowed by his larger-than-life father, would be likely to rebel after Abraham's death, ending God's project. But Isaac has now been instructed that God, the most awesome and irresistible Father imaginable, stands squarely behind his father, and presumably his father's subliminal wish to kill him.

So Isaac doesn't rebel, and continues Abraham's covenant. But God's drama staged on Mount Moriah has broken him. The Torah depicts him as passive, he is unable to choose a wife for himself, he lamely duplicates some of his father's exploits and reopens his father’s wells. In old age, the psychologically castrated (blind) Isaac wants to identify with his son Esau's rough masculinity, but Esau is not the proper successor to Abraham. His last hope of rebellion against the identity, or non-identity, his father forced on him is thwarted by Rebecca, the wife his father found for him.

So in a sense Isaac really was sacrificed, and the Torah can say without contradiction that although Isaac lived, married and had children, only one person -- Abraham -- came down from Mount Moriah.

Shalom, happy new year, and sorry for taking more space than I intended.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

The Akedah incident is traditionally the cause for God being called 'the Terror of Isaac' פחד יצחק as found in Gen. 31.42 and also Sarah's death, when they return and she learns what had happened (Gen 23). I'd like to see as well-written a story that presents those traditional readings with their quite human and believable reactions: a young man forever afraid of his God who wanted him dead, and an old woman who dies upon hearing that her husband nearly killed their beloved only child.

Anonymous said...

All of this is nice, but I suspect all misses the original intent of the Torah itself. It would appear that those here who choose to comment are either trying to bend the text to fit their religious needs or psychological needs - but not one person here is striving to understand the text of the story prior to the onset of Midrash, either early Palestinian or even later European based Midrashim influenced by nothing less than the Crusades which left so many Jewish families decimated by the mobs or by their own hands (rather than fall into the hands of the barbaric Crusaders).

In the story itself it is clear that Abraham is put to the test, and yet he demonstrates no hesitation with "the test" we are informed of at the beginning of Gen 22. This is even more unusual when we see hesitation and disagreement on his part when Abraham becomes aware of destruction of Sodom & Gemorah and chooses to argue with God; exactly what he doesn't do with regard to his son.

Maybe this is no test at all. Maybe the test of tahta the opening line of Ch 22 refers to is the command of God to take his child off the altar once he has been placed there by an overly zealous Abraham who only THINKS that this is what God would want.

By the way, why would he think that to be the case? More than likely because that is what many of the pagan gods are written about as "wanting" - the sacrifice of "seed" or of first born children.

Abraham in this case might just be used by the Torah to demonstrate that this is precisely what this God DOES NOT WANT: the sacrifice of a child. But, since Abraham may not know this yet, if the reader notices, the only hesitation in the story comes when Abraham is told to take his child off the altar. In fact, the text shows that the angel (in this case acting as an agent of God) actually has to call him twice and even restrain him.

Now if you ask me, that is a that Abraham actually passes. He has not witheld his son - he has actually not given him up - with a little help from God.

The story is used to show the conditioning of even Abraham himself. Conditioning here means that just as everyone might indeed seek to sacrifice their own first born - this story is trying to demonstrate that Abraham has passes a test by actually listening to God and taking his child off the altar - not by placing him "on" the altar.

No Midrash needed. The text speaks for itself.