‘And God tested Abraham ….“Take your son… and bring him up there as an
offering…”’ (Genesis 22:2) ‘And an angel of the Lord from the heavens called out
to him… and said: “Do not cast your hand upon the lad and do not do anything to
him; now I know that you fear God since you did not withhold your only son from
Me”’ (Genesis 22:12)
One of the most difficult narratives in our Bible is this
story of the “binding” (akeda) of Isaac. How can the Almighty God, the God of
compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen. 18:19), command Abraham to
sacrifice his beloved and innocent child? And, secondly, how can a father ever
think of carrying out such a command without the slightest dispute with God such
as the argument Abraham made for the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.
18:23-33)? Let us begin with our first query: How can a compassionate God make
such a request? The great existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his
celebrated work Fear and Trembling, maintains that herein lies the precise
nature of the Divine test, the reason why Abraham emerges as the supreme Prince
of Faith: God expects of his most trustworthy servant the “teleological
suspension of the ethical”; in response to a command by the ultimate value and
ideal of life and world (telos is the Greek for “end” or “goal”), the individual
must be able to still the ethical voice of his conscience.
We hearken to
the word of God not because it is good, but rather because it was given by God!
Fascinatingly, Rav Yosef ibn Kaspi suggests a very different approach: the
entire story of the akeda was only meant to teach Abraham that God is not
Molech, and He abhors child sacrifice. Hence Abraham, a child of this world of
idolatry, may well have expected just such a command; and perhaps the real test
may have been Abraham’s (correct) decision to listen to the second “voice” of
the angel of the Lord: “Do not lay your hand upon the lad.”
A number of
years ago, I visited the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.
As I stood before
Rembrandt’s celebrated painting of the akeda, I noticed that Rembrandt pictures
Abraham’s hand outstretched with the knife, ready to slaughter Isaac and an
angel from the Lord staying Abraham’s hand and forcibly preventing the father
from sacrificing his son. Why does Rembrandt add an element which the Bible does
not record? Clearly, Rembrandt was disturbed by how Abraham could favor the
words of a mere angel telling him to desist from the act of slaughter which God
Rembrandt concludes that the angel actually prevented
Abraham’s action, so that Abraham emerges from the story as the Kierkegaardian
Prince of Faith par excellence! Rav A.I. Kook gives a most startling reason for
Abraham’s preference for the command of the angel over the command of God: The
angel was actually Abraham’s conscience telling him not to slaughter
Remarkably, he suggests that it is only he who does not silence
his conscience who is truly God fearing.
Apparently, Rav Kook is saying
that the inner voice of the human conscience is actually the “image of God,” the
“portion of God from on high” within each and every one of God’s human
creations, which was the angel of the Lord who came to Abraham; it was a voice
from within, not a voice from without.
In fact, it is quite possible that
Rav Kook is hinting at the possibility that since God’s words were nebulous to
begin with, His having said, “bring him up there as an offering” (or a
“dedication”), but never saying explicitly to “slaughter Isaac” (see Rashi),
Abraham misinterpreted God’s words; God meant only that Isaac should be
dedicated – in life, not in death! And this is what our talmudic sages say (B.T.
Ta’anit 4a) when explicating the words of the prophet Jeremiah regarding the sin
of idolatrous child sacrifice: “‘Which I never commanded, nor spoke of, nor
thought about’; ‘I never commanded’ refers to Mesha, the King of Moab [who
sacrificed his son to Moloch]; ‘which I did not speak of’ refers to Jephthah,
who sacrificed his daughter [to God]; ‘which I never thought about’ refers to
Isaac the son of Abraham.’” I do not believe that subjective human conscience
can take precedence over the word of God; however, in the case of God’s initial
command to Abraham – which leaves room for two different interpretations – it
makes perfect sense for Abraham to invoke the “angel of the Lord.”
all, Abraham certainly knew the biblical portions prior to his ministry, God’s
displeasure over Cain’s murder of Abel, the lame excuse of Cain, “Am I my
brother’s keeper?” (and if Cain is indeed his brother’s keeper, how much more so
is Abraham his son Isaac’s keeper!), and – most of all – the dictum following
the story of the flood: “Whosoever sheds his fellow’s blood, his blood shall be
shed by his fellow, since in the image of God was the human fellow created”
(Gen. 9:6). These words previously given by God could very well have been the
“angel of the Lord from heaven” which gave the correct interpretation to Abraham
of God’s true desire vis-à-vis Isaac.
Shabbat shalom The writer is the founder
and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief
rabbi of Efrat.
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