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Abraham's failed test.

Throughout the ages, Abraham's decision to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac has been hailed as a remarkable instance of faith in God. And so taken were Jews with Abraham's deed that this story (Genesis 22:1-22) is included in the Siddur and read every day of the year during the Morning Service.

But there is another way of looking at this story of unquestioning obedience, wherein Abraham is not the hero who passes a supreme religious test but a flawed man who failed the test God had given him.

Just four chapters earlier, in Genesis 18, Abraham has his memorable dialogue with God, bargaining with Him to avert the destruction of Sodom. (All of this is read during one Sabbath in the fourth weekly portion of Genes/s, "Va-Yera," Chapters 18-22.) In one impassioned speech, Abraham puts God to the test and asks if He will destroy the entire city and all its inhabitants if there are 50 righteous men in it. Moreover, Abraham assumes an equal stance with God. (It is only in the later exchanges that he prefaces each remark with extreme submissiveness and politesse.) Abraham even chides God that "it isn't fight for You to kill a righteous person along with a wicked man." The bargaining process continues until God declares that He will not destroy the wicked city if ten righteous men are in it. Then, the Torah tells us that God departs and Abraham returns to his place.

Positioning of stories in the Hebrew Bible is crucial and never haphazard. The proximity of the above scene to the "Binding of Isaac" is telling. It accents that in the former encounter Abraham stood up to prevent the deaths of strangers, many of whom were wicked, while he remained silent in the latter encounter regarding the death of his own little boy, Isaac.

In fact, the entire portion of "Va-yera" is full of incidents where people are willing to sacrifice others, often to save their own skin. Abraham is ready to give up his wife to Abimelech, saying she is his sister, lest he be killed by the leader of another people. To satisfy his wife, Sarah, Abraham sends his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael--out to the desert, to certain death. Lot, Abraham's kinsman, is willing to sacrifice his two daughters to the men of Sodom who are at his door, clamoring for the visitors to Lot's house that "we may know them" (the Hebrew verb for sexual intimacy). Note that Lot doesn't offer himself but rather his two daughters. And, finally, in the culmination of the dramas in "Va-Yera," Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to show his obedience, rather than stand up to God as he stood up to Him for the evil men of Sodom.

One may rightly ask: If Abraham put up such an impassioned plea with God in behalf of absolute strangers in Sodom, why did he so readily agree to God's wish with regard to Isaac? Why didn't Abraham elicit God's sympathy for Sarah by saying she had been childless for decades until she finally gave birth to her one and only child at ninety? Never mind me, Abraham could have said, but don't make me do this to her. He could have said: Take me instead of the child. Or: I'll sacrifice anything you want, even all of my flocks, but don't ask me to kill my son.

But Abraham said none of the above; in fact, he didn't say anything. He just started to carry out the command.

It is noteworthy too that nowhere in the text do we read that Abraham loved Isaac. It is God who tells Abraham, "your only son, whom you love." Indeed, in excellent literary adumbration, just a few verses before this scene, in the middle of Chapter 21, Abraham sends his concubine, or co-wife, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael, into the desert wilderness to a certain death. Thus, this lack of parental feeling is foreshadowed for the next scene concerning Isaac.

When Sarah and Abraham had trouble with Ishmael, they consulted before Abraham drove Hagar and her son from the house. But when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he doesn't even let Sarah know, for surely Abraham sensed that she would stop him.

As I will show below, God Himself was not pleased with Abraham's silent acquiescence. He expected Abraham to initiate a bargaining dialogue similar to the one for the people of Sodom.

That Abraham's blind consent to sacrifice his son is a disappointment to all those close to him may be seen by three crucial silences.

Although God speaks to Abraham before the Binding, from the time the sacrifice is aborted only an angel of God talks to him. A close reading of the chapters that follow this event will reveal that God never speaks to Abraham again.

Here are God's possible thoughts: (with apologies to those who feel that no human can encompass God's thoughts)

Abraham, you disappointed me. You stood up to me regarding Sodom, but you agreed, too quickly I feel, to sacrifice your son to show your faith in me. I don't doubt your devotion--and the blessings I gave you a long time ago will hold--but as a faithful Jew who believes in God, you have to show your compassion for your children, just as you asked me to show compassion for strangers. Yes, you disappointed me. I'm not speaking to you anymore.

Moreover, Abraham's deed also causes a rupture in his family life. After the Binding, the Torah states that Abraham returned to his servants (who were told to wait till he comes back) and then they all went to Beersheba together. But where is Isaac? Poor, traumatized Isaac is not mentioned at all. The text, Genesis 22:19, states: "Abraham returned to his servants." The verb for "return" is singular, "Va-yashav" and not in the plural "va-yashuvu" (they returned).

The very next chapter begins with the death of Sarah in Kiryat Arba, in Hebron. Apparently, Abraham did not go back to his wife, for he comes up from Beersheba for Sarah's funeral. What's more, Abraham arrives alone. There is no hint of Isaac at his mother's burial. And here we note the second of the great silences. After the Binding Sarah never spoke to Abraham again. Moreover, she left him.

Here is what may have run through Sarah's mind:

I still haven't forgotten how quickly--to save your own skin--you told Abimelech's troops that I was your sister and not your wife, lest they kill you and take me. But Abimelech took me anyway as his concubine until God appeared in his dream and told him I was married. And then you did the same thing a second time when we went down to Egypt and Pharaoh took me and gave you vast herds of cattle and sheep and donkeys and camels and also many servants. Then, when God afflicted Pharaoh with plagues, and he found out I was your wife, he sent us away. Abraham, you're very quick to save the lives of strangers and yourself, but when it comes to your own wives and sons you have no feeling.

Killing your own son? What's wrong with you? Why didn't you argue with God? You plucked up your courage and scolded Him for wanting to destroy an entire city of evil people that might have a few good men. You wanted to save the lives of people you didn't even know. But for my son, my only son, my beloved son, the son I waited ninety years for, for your son, for our child, just to show you believe in Him, you were willing to take a knife and slit his throat? What kind of blind obedience is that? What kind of religion is that? Killing your own son? Murdering a little child? What's wrong with you? Go! I'm not speaking to you anymore. Go live somewhere else.

And the third great silence is the silence of the shocked and nerve-shattered Isaac, who speaks very little during the rest of his life. But he certainly never spoke to his father again.

Here is what Isaac might have thought:

Me? This entire trip is to have me killed? The son you waited one hundred years for? And you were willing--just like that, at the snap of a finger--to kill me just to prove your belief in God? For the wicked in Sodom you put up an argument. But for my life you were silent. For me you didn't even show one ounce of the compassion that you showed for the evil men of Sodom. And you didn't even have the decency to tell Mother what you were going to do. My brother, Ishmael, you sent into the desert wilderness. Me you were ready to sacrifice. Tying me with rope to the altar and waving that sharp knife over me ready for the kill. Do you know what that did to me, a young boy? I'm not speaking to you any more.

To demonstrate his faith in God Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In any civilized society, a man would be condemned and convicted and vilified for even attempting such a deed.

Abraham was put to the great test and failed.

The fact that Abraham's agreement was not a meritorious act but a meretricious one can be measured by the imagined reactions to it by the three other principals in this great drama: God, Sarah and Isaac.

But it is to the credit of the Torah, and the rest of the Bible too, that it presents our forefathers and leaders and kings and prophets with all their flaws. Unlike other religions, Judaism does not sanitize its holy texts but presents the heroes as they are, so that we can learn from their deeds--both good and flawed--as well as from their teachings.

CURT LEVIANT's most recent book is his seventh novel, the comic A Novel of Klass, which the Sun-Sentinel cited as among the "Ten Best Books of 2008."
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Author:Leviant, Curt
Publication:Midstream
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Words:1680
Previous Article:Judaism's pursuit of justice.
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