Abraham, the Cowardly Hero

Did God whimsically decide to test Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac and then, at the last minute, tell him he didn't have to? Does the story have a happy ending, since Abraham passed the test and a few days of anxiety don't matter, since all's well that ends well? The story of the binding of Isaac, told in Chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis, may be read from either a historical or a religious point of view. The text itself, if we are willing to accept it as true, leaves all sorts of questions unanswered, essentially because these questions are never asked: Was Abraham Isaac's biological father or did Abimelech, King of Gerar, sire Isaac? Since Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, can it be that Abraham and Sarah never had sexual relations with each other? Since God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son directly, but commanded him not to do so indirectly, through an angel, can it be that Abraham invented or imagined the angel? And if that's what Abraham did, did he feel he didn't have to go through with the sacrifice since Isaac was only his adopted son?

Let us examine the historical interpretation first. Although there is no evidence, other than the Book of Genesis itself, that Abraham or Isaac existed, the story may be read as a document concerned with end of the practice of sacrificing one's first-born son. We know from various other parts of the Bible that child sacrifice was practiced by various nations in Biblical times: "And the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burnt their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of the Sepharvaim" (2 Kings 17:31). We are even presented with one account where child sacrifice actually works:

And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too
sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that
drew swords, to break through even unto the king of
Edom: but they could not. Then he took his eldest son
that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him
for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was
great indignation against Israel: and they departed
from him, and returned to their own land
(2 Kings 3:26-27).

Abraham was clearly not the only father who ever felt called upon to offer his child as a sacrifice. Indeed, the practice apparently had been adopted in Jeremiah's time even in the land of Judah, and Jeremiah denounced the practice: "And they [the children of Judah] have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart" (Jer. 7:31). To this day, the Jewish custom of Pidyon Ha-ben, where one pays a kohen, a descendant of the ancient priestly caste, to redeem a first-born son, shows the discomfort that Jews must have felt at one time about not performing this sacrifice. In the Book of Numbers we read, "Every thing that openeth the matrix [womb] in all flesh, which they bring unto the Lord, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine: nevertheless the first-born of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem" (18:15). Archeological evidence exists to support the biblical charges that child sacrifice was practiced among neighboring peoples. The Carthaginians, descended from the Phoenicians, did so, according to an article in the September 1, 1987, issue of the New York Times. Under the headline, "Relics of Carthage Show Brutality Amid the Good Life," we read the following: "A trove of relics now arriving in New York contains evidence that the ritual slaying of children in ancient Carthage was so common that it helped control the growth of the population and helped families keep fortunes intact over generations, archeologists say." As late as the time of the New Testament, the idea of the efficacy of child sacrifice survives; God sacrifices his only begotten son to spare mankind from the consequences of sin by diverting the punishment to himself--in other words, as a sin offering. Abraham is called the first Jew. Why not Jacob, renamed Israel, the ancestor of the 12 tribes? Why not Moses, who received the Torah — the law that defines Jews? Abraham's very name suggests that he is no more linked to the Jewish people than to several other nations; in Genesis 17 we are told it means av hamon goyim (father of many nations).

Why Abraham? One answer has to be that the abandonment of child sacrifice was a defining moment in the history of the creation of Judaism. A second reason is that Abraham is linked in Jewish tradition to the end of idolatry. Abraham was an iconoclast, an idol breaker. In the Aggadah (rabbinical narrations, not to be regarded as authoritative, that form part of the literature of the Oral Law), Abraham's father, Terah, made and sold idols (Breshit Rabbah 38:12). He once left Abraham in charge of his business, and when he returned, all the idols were smashed except for the largest. Abraham explained that the idols had gotten into an argument over a sacrifice, and that the biggest idol had won the fight. This is the same Abraham who did not sacrifice his son Isaac.

Was Abraham showing obedience to God when he bound Isaac and placed him on the altar? Certainly, if we read the text exactly as it was written. But no more so than when other fathers did the same thing. The importance of the story is that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac. If we are to respect Abraham, it must be because he was an innovator. This remains true whether we believe there was a historical Abraham or whether we look upon the story of the binding of Isaac as an allegory.

Abraham's willingness to obey God even to the point of sacrificing his son is traditionally taken as evidence of his goodness and moral strength, since he puts God's commandment above his own emotions. Abraham's compliance implies that obedience to the Lord takes priority over such commandments as "Thou shalt not kill." To be sure, the Ten Commandments had not yet been given to Moses, who was not to be born for several generations. But from a historical point of view, the story may be read in a different way, as an example of Abraham's originality and courage. His contribution was the beginning of a new religion that both ended idolatry and prohibited all forms of human sacrifice. Otherwise, his willingness to obey the command to offer his son would simply be an example both of lack of originality and of callousness.

Let us now consider the binding of Isaac from a religious point of view. Abraham had been quite callous when Sarah asked him to drive his son Ishmael and Ishmael's mother, Hagar, into the desert. But God told him it would be all right: "Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called" (Gen. 21:12). Abraham did not point out that driving people into the wilderness was heartless. He didn't have to look at Hagar and Ishmael suffering from thirst in the desert; all the same, he knew what deserts were like. Let us examine a detail from this story: "And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice and wept" (Gen. 21:15-16). It is possible to say that Abraham's trust in God was not misplaced; both Ishmael and Isaac were rescued in the nick of time. Then we are left with the fact of Abraham's silence. This very silence could be considered further evidence of Abraham's virtue, since it is an example of unquestioning faith. But we know that God did not always demand silence from Abraham, as is shown by the story of Abraham's argument with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. If God did not demand silence, Abraham's reluctance to argue in the face of imminent death becomes criminal. If God did not demand silence, then Abraham's faith is nothing more than the abandonment of morality and thought and his binding of Isaac is both unthinking and timid.

But perhaps God did indeed demand silence. Let us look at Genesis 22:2, where God said, "Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee unto the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of." By saying "thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest," God was telling Abraham not to argue, since he already knew Abraham's argument. He knew that Ishmael was no longer a functioning son, since he had been driven away, and for all Abraham knew, Ishmael might not even be alive. God's words to Abraham were a commandment, whereas in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, God had merely informed Abraham of his plans, leaving Abraham free to argue. The whole idea of sacrificing one's first-born son was that it gave to God someone who was not only loved but who represented one's future and one's hopes. In the face of such a commandment, Abraham had no choice but to be timid.

The commandment came from God. The counter-order came from an angel: "And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham; and he said Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me" (Gen. 22:11-12). It is extremely odd that God's voice spoke directly to Abraham when telling him to perform the sacrifice but indirectly via an angel when telling him not to hurt Isaac. Every detail of the Bible is supposed to be significant. What is the significance of the third-person pardon Abraham received? Perhaps God wasn't sure he wanted to release Abraham from his obligation to sacrifice Isaac. Perhaps Abraham, alone on the mountain, imagined the angel or made him up and reported the story when he came down from the mountain. The text does not tell us that this happened, but the very fact that God did not speak to Abraham directly at this critical moment, when a direct reward or at least a direct compliment was in order, should set us thinking. Furthermore, God never spoke to Abraham again.

Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, who lived from 1040 to 1105, is considered by many to be the first and greatest commentator on the Hebrew Bible. In his comments on Genesis 25:19, he tries to refute the idea that Isaac was not Abraham's son at all but rather the son of Abimelech, king of Gerar, a Philistine city. Rashi's attempt at refutation leads us back to the text of Genesis in order to see why Rashi felt that it needed to be done in the first place.

In Genesis 20:2, we are told, "And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, she is my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah." God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him that Sarah was Abraham's wife. "Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done" (Gen. 20: 9). We were told in verse 4 that Abimelech had not touched Sarah, but his call to Abraham sounds like an excuse for guilt, since he hadn't been told Sarah was married. Abraham explains his omission as a result of his fear: "Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife's sake. And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife" (Gen. 20:11-12).

Abimelech then gave many gifts to Abraham. "And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with thee, and with all other: thus she was reproved" (20:16). The meaning of the verse is unclear, but the size of the gift does suggest that Abimelech, albeit unknowingly, had committed adultery with Sarah and was trying to atone for his sin. And in the next two verses, we see that Abimelech and his people were punished until Abraham prayed for them: "So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and their maidservants; and they bare children. For the Lord had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah, Abraham's wife" (20:17-18). We then go directly to Chapter 21, which begins with the words "And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him" (21:1-2). The phrase "bare Abraham a son" does not say that Sarah bore Abraham his own biological son.

Except for the denial in verse 4, which can be explained as an attempt by Abimelech to protect himself, the rest of Chapter 20 is clearly telling us that Abimelech had sexual relations with Sarah and was punished for it. Sarah then becomes pregnant. No wonder Rashi had to try to prove that Isaac was Abraham's son. He goes about it by referring to Genesis 25:19, where there is a repetition of Isaac's ancestry. Rashi tells us, "Since the verse wrote "Isaac son of Abraham," it had to say "Abraham begot Isaac" for the scoffers of the generation were saying "Sarah became pregnant from Abimelech." For she had spent many years with Abraham as his wife, yet she did not become pregnant from him. What did the Holy One, Blessed is He, do? He fashioned the form of Isaac's face to resemble Abraham's, and everyone attested Abraham begot Isaac."

Rashi's explanation is not convincing. If Isaac had resembled Abraham from the time he was born, the scoffers Rashi is referring to wouldn't have scoffed. It was only as a result of the scoffing that God changed Isaac's face to look like Abraham's. Unlike the story cited above of Abraham's breaking the idols in his father's shop, which links the end of idolatry to the end of child sacrifice by telling us that Abraham rejected both these practices, Rashi's story contradicts the most likely meaning of the text of Genesis 20. Rashi understood that Genesis points to Abimelech as Isaac's father, so had to invent a story to contradict the text.

Isaac's name in Hebrew is Yitzhak, which is a form of the verb meaning "to laugh" and refers to Sarah's laughter when she heard she would bear a son, since she was "after the manner of women" (18:11), or post-menopausal. When we read Chapter 18, we do not yet know Sarah is Abraham's half-sister, even though Abraham had told that story to Pharaoh in Chapter 12, when it appeared to be a simple lie. Continuing in Genesis, past the story of Abimelech, another possibility presents itself: Perhaps Sarah hadn't become pregnant, perhaps she laughed at the prediction she would have a child, because she was a virgin. She and her half-brother were married, to be sure, but they perhaps they couldn't bring themselves to consummate their marriage because they were siblings. We are never told this, but it is a possibility. On the other hand, we are told in Chapter 20 that despite Abimelech's claim that he did not have sex relations with Sarah, he was punished for having done so.

Both Rashi and the rabbis who wrote the Aggadah composed or collected stories to support or deny meanings implicit or explicit in Biblical texts. None of them, to my knowledge, suggested that the reason Abraham claimed or imagined he heard an angel telling him not to sacrifice Isaac was that he felt he could get away with it. When God told him to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, maybe he thought to himself that Isaac was not his biological son but Abimelech's. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the person he loved most, the person who was his hope for the future of a nation that would not worship idols, he had an out. The sacrifice demanded of him wasn't quite so great as it sounded. He differed from all the other fathers of his time and place who sacrificed their biological children. Abraham's biological son, Ishmael, was lost, and his beloved heir was adopted. If a sacrifice isn't total, he might have thought, one doesn't have to do it.

If God knew all the time that he would release Abraham from his duty to sacrifice Isaac, then the story of the binding is merely a test — a type of practical joke. But since the Bible introduces the possibility that Abraham may not have been Isaac's biological father, a literal reading of the text introduces a great many more problems than a historical interpretation. Abraham, the historical figure, or the allegorical figure referring to a real moment in history, was the first person to understand that idols were only sculptures. He dared to understand that human sacrifice has always been wrong. The Biblical story, with its introduction of the doubt about Isaac's paternity, cannot be understood. The historical or allegorical Abraham, on the other hand, is one of the heroes of history. He introduced the traditions of arguing and questioning into religion. That is why he is the first Jew.

Parts of this essay appeared in the November 2001 issue of Midstream.