Akedat Yitzchak – The Double Test

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

A. “After These Things…”

The story of the akeida begins with the words, “And it was, after these things…” This suggests that the story is connected in some way to the preceding chapter.[1] Turning back to the chapter in question (21), we find two narratives, each of which is said to have occurred “at that time”: the banishing of Yishmael and the forging of the covenant between Avraham and Avimelekh. We must therefore ascertain which of these two events is alluded to in the opening verse of the akeida story.

Close examination of the text would seem to indicate that the episode that the akeida is said to follow is the banishing of Yishmael.[2] This conclusion is based on several thematic and linguistic connections between them:

  1. In both stories, Avraham is required to part from a son.
  2. In both instances, he fulfills God’s command early in the morning: “And Avraham got up early in the morning…” (21:14; 22:3)
  3. In each instance, the son, referred to as a “lad” (na’ar), faces mortal danger, but is ultimately saved.
  4.  These are the only two stories in which we find an angel calling “from the heavens” (21:17; 22:11,15). The angels described in Biblical narratives are more commonly found on earth.
  5. In both instances, following the call of the angel, something new is perceived: “And God opened her [Hagar’s] eyes, and she saw a well of water” (21:19); “And Avraham lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (22:13).
  6. There is a Divine promise that the lad in each story will become “a great nation” (21:18) or have a multitude of descendants (22:17).
  7. The conclusion of each narrative points in the direction of marriage. In Yishmael’s case, there is explicit mention of marriage (21:21), while the genealogy presented end of the story of the akeida hints to the future marriage between Yitzchak and Rivka (22:23).

Obviously, the presence of all these links raises the question of what they are meant to indicate. First and foremost, the connections between the two stories would seem to emphasize the difficulty of the test that Avraham faces. God’s command to him includes four different references to Yitzchak: “Take, now, 1) your son, 2) your only one, 3) whom you love – 4) Yitzchak.” Later on in the chapter, only the first two expressions are repeated, twice (22:12, 16). It thus appears that the different references to Yitzchak are built on an a-b-a-b pattern:[3] “whom you love” parallels “your son,” while “Yitzchak” parallels “your only one.” Thus, the verse emphasizes two different dimensions of the test. First of all, there is the difficult demand made of Avraham, as a father, to sacrifice that which is most precious to him – his beloved son. In addition, there is the fact that Yitzchak is his “only one,” which itself presents a dual challenge. On the practical level, if his only son dies, Avraham himself will be left with no continuation in this world, and this amplifies his personal anguish. In the realm of faith, the challenge might be summed up as the contradiction between Yitzchak as his only son and the promise made to him in the previous chapter – “for through Yitzchak shall your seed be called” – which was also the basis for banishing Yishmael. Avraham is called upon to fulfill God’s command even though it is a direct contradiction of “these things” that were said to him in the story of Yishmael’s banishment. The theological difficulty is emphasized no less strongly than the personal, emotional one. Even if on the personal level Avraham is willing to sacrifice literally everything, the inexplicability of the opposite commands remains, appearing to point to deception.

The words, “and get you (lekh lekha) to the land of Moriah…” recall the only other place in Tanakh where this expression appears: the beginning of Parashat Lekh Lekha, where Avraham is told, “Get you out of your country…” (12:1). In addition, in both instances there is a three-fold command. In Lekh Lekha, Avraham was told:

Get you out of your country, and out of your birthplace, and out of your father’s house. (12:1)

In the story of the akeida, he is told to take:

 (et) your son, (et) your only one, whom you love; (et) Yitzchak. (22:2)

Another element common to both stories is the undefined destination. Previously, Avraham had been commanded to go “to the land which I will show you;” now he is told to offer Yitzchak as a burnt offering “upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of.”

This last connection underlines the great difference between the two tests. The first came to establish whether Avraham was willing to relinquish his past, led by the promise of a shining future:

And I shall make you into a great nation, and I shall bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. And I shall bless those who bless you, and those who curse you – I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth will be blessed. (12:2-3)

Now he is asked to give up his future and all that had been promised to him, such that he will remain bereft of both his past and his future.

B. The Dual Challenge

How does Avraham deal with this dual challenge? In keeping with the dual aspect of God’s command to him, his response also seems to display a certain duality. While he accepts the command and is willing to carry it out in full, he appears to maintain his belief that the monumental contradiction between the promises he had received thus far and this new command will somehow be resolved, and that through Yitzchak he will indeed merit a multitude of descendants.

This duality is expressed quite clearly early on, even before Avraham reaches the land of Moriah. On the one hand, even before hearing the content of God’s command, he already declares, “Here I am!”[4] After he hears the command, he gets up early in the morning to perform the will of God: “And Avraham arose early in the morning…” On the other hand, there seems to be some hint at what we might call “delaying tactics.” In light of the command,

“Take, I pray you, (et) your son… and get yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of,”

we would have expected the text to record, “So he took… Yitzchak, his son… and he arose and went to the place of which God had spoken to him.” Instead, we find him busy with details of which there was no previous mention:

And he saddled his donkey and he took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak, his son, and he broke up the wood for the burnt offering…

The saddling of the donkey and the taking of the young men are mentioned even before the taking of Yitzchak. This is especially surprising in light of the fact that “young men” or “attendants” are usually mentioned after the main characters, not before.[5] Seemingly, the consolidation of this cumbersome expedition arises from Avraham’s decision to take the wood with him, even though he could have found wood later on. This might be viewed as an early indication of Avraham’s dual response: he sets about immediately to fulfill God’s command, but prolongs his preparations with the hope and faith that something will happen.

When Avraham reaches his destination, he tells his attendants,

“Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder, and (we will) prostrate ourselves, and (we will) return (ve-nashuva) to you.” (22:5)

Why does Avraham tell them that he will return with Yitzchak – an outcome that is not supposed to happen? We might propose that Avraham says this only in order to reassure them, or to prevent Yitzchak from taking fright. But if this is his only intention, it is not clear why the Torah finds it necessary to record his words. Apparently, the text is revealing a deliberate message, which is confirmed and reinforced by the language at the end of the story:

And Avraham returned (va-yashav) to his attendants, and they rose up and went together to Beer Sheva. (22:19)

This verse speaks only of Avraham returning, even though Yitzchak returns with him. This proves that linguistically speaking, Avraham could have said earlier on, “and I shall return to you,” and the attendants would still have thought that he would return together with Yitzchak. In choosing to say “we shall return,” Avraham was thus expressing his inner conviction that he would indeed return with Yitzchak. Of course, this in no way affected his commitment to carry out God’s command, even if ultimately the decree would stand.[6]

The same idea might guide our understanding of the conversation that begins with Yitzchak addressing a question to his father:

And Yitzchak said (va-yomer) to Avraham, his father, and said (va-yomer): “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said (va-yomer), “Behold, the fire and the wood – but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (22:7)[7]

The question itself tells us that Yitzchak is coming to realize that he himself is going to be the offering. Logic dictates that Avraham should have purchased an animal for the offering by now; it makes no sense that he would ascend the mountain with nothing to offer. This is especially clear in view of the fact that Avraham has brought wood, having taken the trouble to prepare this at the very outset.[8]

Avraham’s first response to Yitzchak is, “Here I am (hineni), my son.” This is the second time that Avraham has made this declaration: the first was in response to God’s command. While the expression “hineni” indicates a readiness for absolute obedience, here Avraham cannot declare himself absolutely ready to accede to whatever Yitzchak will ask or say. If he asks to go home, Avraham will have to refuse, owing to the commitment he took on with his first declaration of “hineni.

Hence, the two declarations of “hineni” reflect the paradox from within which Avraham is trying to proceed. On the one hand, there is his hineni towards God’s command; on the other hand, there is his hineni towards Yitzchak, the son through whom God promised him descendants.

Avraham’s explanation to Yitzchak reflects the same complexity:

And Avraham said: “God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (22:8)

Theoretically, Avraham has two choices. One is to tell Yitzchak that he is the designated offering. The other is to reassure him, stating clearly that there are many animals in the region that can be used as offerings.

However, Avraham chooses a third option, telling Yitzchak that it is not he – Avraham – who decides what to offer; the choice is in God’s hands.

Here, too, we might say that Avraham says what he does only in order to reassure Yitzchak. But if this were the case, he could have formulated his answer in clearer and less opaque language. It therefore seems that Avraham is once again expressing his complex thinking – his readiness to accept God’s decision, whatever it will be, along with his belief that the question of who or what exactly the offering will be is still open to change.

Avraham therefore tells Yitzchak quite honestly that he does not know what or who exactly will be the lamb for the offering, leaving the decision to God.[9]

C. The Akeida

The drama reaches its climax when Avraham and Yitzchak reach the appointed place:

And they came to the place which God had told him of, and Avraham built an altar there, and he arranged the wood, and bound Yitzchak his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. (22:9)

The description here is drawn out, with four separate verbs specifying Avraham’s actions. This protracted articulation seems to be a continuation of the same hesitant action, slowed by the hope for some last-minute turnaround.

Avraham’s foot-dragging is particular conspicuous here against the background of the command concerning the burnt offering in chapter 1 of Sefer Vayikra. Avraham is commanded to offer Yitzchak as a burnt offering, and we would therefore expect the description of the akeida to parallel the description of the offering in Sefer Vayikra. However, a comparison of the two units shows that Avraham is deliberately hesitating. In the description of the offering in Sefer Vayikra, the order is as follows:

  1. And he shall slaughter the bullock before the Lord…
  2. And the sons of Aharon the Kohen shall put fire upon the altar,
  3. and arrange the wood upon the fire,
  4. and the kohanim, Aharon’s sons, shall arrange the parts – the head, and the fat – upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar… (Vayikra 1:5-8)

In other words, first the animal is slaughtered; then fire is placed on the altar, upon which the wood is arranged, and the pieces of the offering are laid upon it. In contrast to this order, Avraham first arranges the wood upon the altar, and only then binds Yitzchak, intending to slaughter him upon the prepared altar. Thus, he delays the slaughter to the last possible moment.

In the next verse, his foot-dragging is depicted in even slower motion:

And Avraham stretched out his hand, and he took the knife to slaughter his son. (22:10)

When he stretches his hand and brandishes the knife, the feeling is that all options have been exhausted. There is seemingly no solution to the contradiction.

D. The Solution

At that dramatic moment, the angel is revealed to Avraham:

And an angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven and said, “Avraham, Avraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (22:11)

This call to Avraham, unlike the first one, is doubled: “Avraham, Avraham!” It seems that one call would not have been enough; there was indeed a need for two. It seems that Avraham hesitates, uncertain as to whether the call he hears is real or whether it is rather the scream emanating from his own heart. For the third time in this narrative, Avraham answers, “Hineni,” expressing his commitment, beyond any personal consideration, to whatever God will now ask of him.

Now Avraham is granted the resolution to the great contradiction:

And he said, “Do not lay your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (22:12)

Once again, we are reminded that the test was a dual one: “your son, your only son.” But now Avraham is told that it was only a test; it was never meant to be given practical expression.

The essence of Avraham’s thinking had been, “God will provide Himself (or “see for Himself” – Elokim yireh) a lamb for a burnt offering” – an acceptance of God’s decision, whatever it might be. This acceptance is now reflected back to him: “Now I know that you fear God… (yerei Elokim).”

This explains Avraham’s subsequent actions:

And Avraham lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns, and Avraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering in place of his son. (22:13)

Avraham (like Hagar) lifts his eyes, and he sees a ram that has become caught. He realizes that this is doubtless a sign that God has indeed chosen Himself a different “lamb.”

Avraham goes on to call the place “Ado-nay yireh,” since the central message of this episode is commitment to God’s word. Avraham did not know that ultimately God would indeed choose a different lamb. It is therefore appropriate that this place later becomes “the place that God will choose,” as an expression of the commitment to whatever God chooses.

Now the angel calls to Avraham a second time. While the first call was meant to stop him and to inform him that he had passed the test, the second call comes to bless him anew. Once again, for the third time, we find the expression, “You did not withhold your son, your only son,” representing the double test of the akeida.

The blessing itself is formulated in terms of “measure for measure”:

“Because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will exceedingly bless you, and I will exceedingly multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is upon the sea shore…” (22:16-17)

Avraham was willing to give up his only son, and as a reward, God will multiply his descendants.

We might still ask: What happened here that has not already been said before? After all, Avraham was promised descendants and blessing already in Parashat Lekh Lekha and at the Covenant of the Parts.

The main new element here would seem to be the expression, “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord.” This expresses the idea that from now on, the promise is not a matter of a covenant, which is dependent on its fulfilment by both parties; rather, it is a Divine promise that cannot be revoked.

In reward for Avraham’s absolute devotion, he receives an absolute, non-conditional promise for all eternity.

Let us now return to the parallel with which we began, between the akeida and the banishment of Yishmael, which serves to demonstrate the sharp contrast between Avraham and Hagar.

In contrast to Avraham, Hagar had an explicit promise from the angel in chapter 16 assuring her:

“I will multiply your seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude,”

and that Yishmael would be

“a wild man, his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him, and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”

Nevertheless, Hagar does not maintain her faith, as Avraham does. Rather, she later falls into complete despair:

And she went and sat her 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 lifted up her voice, and wept. (21:16)

In contrast to her despairing figure, it is notable that Yishmael himself turns to God in prayer. The angel tells Hagar, “Arise, lift up the lad and hold him in your hand…” (21:17). This is meant as rebuke; she should never have cast him down and distanced herself from him. She should have remained next to him, as indeed Avraham did in the story of the akeida.

*

In the Selichot we say, “Answer us as You answered Avraham our forefather on Mount Moriah.”

Although it is not written anywhere in the whole story of the akeida that Avraham prayed, the idea of him praying is firmly supported by what we have said thus far. All his actions were undertaken with a dual intention: prayer that the decree would change, and readiness to fulfil God’s command either way.

And this day remember unto the descendants of Yaakov with mercy the binding of Yitzchak.

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

 


[1]  In Sefer Bereishit, we find 6 instances of narratives beginning with this formula (in four places we find “Achar…” (after); in two other places, we find “acharei…”). Each instance invites an evaluation of whether this is meant as a purely technical statement of chronology, or whether there is a more substantive connection to whatever was previously narrated. In our parasha, the connection seems to be a substantive one, as we shall see.

[2]  Cf. the commentaries of Rashbam, Radak, and others, who link the akeida back to the story of Avraham’s covenant with Avimelekh.

[3] This is a common structure in Tanakh. See, for example, Tehillim 113:5-6 – “Who is like the Lord our God, Who is enthroned on high, yet looks far down to behold the things that are in heaven and on the earth!” The expression “on high” refers to and parallels “the heavens,” while “looks far down” refers to and parallels “the earth”.

[4]  Wherever this expression occurs (16 times in all of Tanakh, of which 12 appearances are in the context of Biblical prose, with another 4 appearances in the prophecies of Yeshayahu), it expresses readiness to fulfil a command, and, indeed, the command follows immediately afterwards. See, for example, Bereishit 27:1-3: “And it was, when Yitzchak was old and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esav, his eldest son, and said to him: ‘My son!’ And he said to him, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘… Take, I pray you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and catch me some venison, and make me savoury food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat…’”

[5]  For example, in the case of Shmuel: “And Shmuel took Shaul and his attendant and brought them into the dining chamber” (Shmuel I 9:22).

[6]  Citing the midrash, Rashi gives unique expression to this idea: “’Yonder (ad ko)’ – in other words, ‘just a little further, to the place that awaits us.’ And a midrash aggada teaches, ‘I will see where the realization is of that which God said to me, ‘So (ko) shall be your descendants…’ (15:5)” (Rashi, ad loc.) In other words, Avraham alludes here to God’s earlier promise. This idea has its basis in the literal text, insofar as these are the first two appearances of the word ko in Tanakh.

[7] The thrice repeated introduction to Yitzchak’s words conveys the difficulty of expressing the question, seemingly because he fears the answer.

[8] Yitzchak makes no mention of the knife, and this would seem to indicate that Avraham hides it from his sight. The ma’akhelet is a large knife that is mentioned in Tanakh only in the context of cutting human flesh. Other than our narrative, the only other place where it appears is the story of the concubine in Giv’a (Shoftim 19:29).

[9] The literal translation of Avraham’s words to Yitzchak is, “God will see Himself (yireh lo) a lamb for a burnt offering.” The verb “to see” (or “see to”) is often used in Tanakh in the sense of choosing, as in the following examples: “Now therefore let Pharaoh see himself [choose] a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt” (Bereishit 41:33); “… Go, I will send you to Yishay of Beit Lechem, for I have seen [chosen] for Myself a king among his sons” (Shmuel I 16:1); “And Shaul said to his servants, See [choose] for me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me” (Shmuel I 16:17).