September 22, 2018 |

Vayera -- Abraham's apostasy and the Akeda

From a standpoint of ordinary human ethics, Vayera is perhaps the most difficult of all the parashot. When we read the Akeda, those of us with children shudder at the thought of a man unhinged enough to offer up his own son as a sacrifice, and cringe at a G-d who would put him to that kind of test. Almost as disturbing if you stop to think about it, is the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah. Can it truly be that even the little babies of those cities were better dead than alive? And above all, why would Abraham argue with G-d for the Sodomites, but not for his own son?

Many try to defend the text by denying it. Abraham failed the test, they say. The Hebrew is ambiguous, G-d actually commanded him to take Isaac _to_ a sacrifice, not _for_ a sacrifice. The angel had to call him twice because he was so wrongminded. He should have looked up and seen the ram earlier.

Bushwah, say I. G-d says flatly that Abraham will be rewarded because he obeyed and did not withhold Isaac. (22:16-18). Abraham understood the test and passed it.

Why, then, that test? Or perhaps the question is, why that test then? Why test Abraham at this point in his life? Wasn't he already G-d's loyal servant?

Perhaps not.

Consider that G-d rewards Abraham for the most part by renewing the very promises G-d had already made to him in Lekh Lekha (compare 12:13, 13:16, 17:4-8 to 22:16-18). There must be some reason that G-d felt it necessary to reaffirm this covenant. G-d is a faithful G-d (omeyn), so He did not break it. But close examination of the sequence of events suggests that Abraham did.

Here is the sequence. Abraham is promised the land of Canaan for himself and his offspring. (13:14-18). Later, he is told he and Sarah will be given a miracle of fertility and virility and thus a miraculous conception. (17:15-21). He cuts that covenant into his (and our) flesh by circumcision, into the very organ that will generate the miracle baby, Isaac. (17:21-24) Soon after (three days, says Rashi), G-d tells Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah. Why? Because now that the covenant is in place, Abraham and his posterity must follow a moral path. (18:17-19) Soon enough we see what the alternative to clear moral vision is -- rape, inhospitality, murder and incest. (ch. 19). But Abraham cannot quite see it.

Instead, Abraham argues. (18:23-32). He is right of course, that G-d should not punish the innocent along with the guilty. But why did he suppose G-d would? Perhaps he felt some affilation to the cities because Lot was there, or because he had fought for Sodom and Gomorrah against Cherdolaomer. (14:13-25) At bottom, it seems he cannot believe the whole cities are so corrupt. So Abraham shows immense courage and virtue, when he dares to argue with G-d himself to save lives. But at the same time, he shows a profound lack of faith in G-d's own virtue and judgment.

Despite his impassioned defense, of course, G-d goes ahead anyway. The great Cities of the Plains are wiped out. Some of Lot's daughters, Abraham's kin, are killed. Lot himself is morally destroyed, reduced to drunken incest with his remaining daughters, a sordid moment that generates Israel's great enemies the Ammonites and Moabites. (19:36).

And Abraham's reaction?

He leaves. He had been well settled in at the terebinths of Mamre, a great man of the vicinity, what with his wealth from Egypt and his victory in war; the perfect situation to raise his miracle child, one would think -- but he up and leaves. He goes to the southern border of Canaan, and perhaps just a bit into Egypt, virtually abandoning the Promised Land. (20:1).

Unlike his other moves, this one is not prompted by famine or urged by G-d. It must be a response to the destruction of the Cities. Fear? Horror? Both, perhaps. Recall that until now, Abraham's experiences with G-d have been 100% positive. Only Cherdolaomer and his allies were hurt, and that at night when Abraham could not see the slaughter clearly. G-d gave Abraham wonderful promises, wealth, and victory. Now, suddenly, Abraham confronts a very different face of G-d.

He runs.

But he does much worse than run. He goes well out of his way up north to Gerar, in the land of the other great enemy of Israel, the Philistines, and there he contrives to put the miraculously fertile Sarah in the hands, in the bed, of Abimelech. (20:2). Unlike the earlier episode in Egypt, we are not told that Abraham had to go to Gerar or was in danger of being killed for possession of Sarah. Sarah does not cooperate with the ruse this time; she knows it is unnecessary. This time, Abraham deliberately replicates the circumstances that led to another man taking Sarah as wife. Indeed, Abraham's intentions are obvious, when you consider that the name Abimelech means, "the father of a king."

No miracle baby of mine, one can imagine Abraham thinking, so no debt to be repaid to G-d. If Sarah is fertile, let Sarah be impregnated by the Philistine, and the covenant is canceled. Abraham can wash his hands of the whole ugly, scary mess and settle down in Egypt with (the younger, more biddable) Hagar and (his beloved firstborn) Ishmael.

Abraham tries his best, in short, to sabotage the miracle of Isaac's conception. It takes two (perhaps three) further miracles to both salvage and prove Isaac's proper bloodline: Abimelech is inspired not to sleep with Sarah at the outset, the wombs (and/or the vaginas themselves, depending on translation) of his whole household, including Sarah, are sealed up, and Abimelech is given a vision expressly warning him to return Sarah to Abraham. (20:3-5)

Abimelech now sounds more like Abraham than Abraham -- will You kill the innocent?, he pleads. (20:4). Abraham, in contrast, explains himself thusly: "I thought surely there is no fear of God in this place." (20:11) Like Jonah, he tried to find a place where G-d's writ did not run. Like Jonah, he failed. And like Jonah, the nature of his sin will be brought home in the most personal way possible.

Abashed, frightened, Abraham prays, and the curse is removed from Abimelech, but G-d does not reassure Abraham. (20:17). G-d takes note of Sarah - not of Abraham - and gives her Isaac, as He promised. (21:1). That promise was made to Abraham, but now it is transferred to Sarah. When Isaac is weaned, Sarah orders Abraham to send his beloved Ishmael away. When Abraham hesitates, G-d orders him to do whatever Sarah tells him to. (21:12). G-d comforts him that Ishmael will prosper, but the message is clear: the faithful Sarah is in charge now, not the apostate patriarch. Abraham, who tried to give over the essentials of his household to Abimelech, loses control of it anyway, and not even to another male, but to the woman whom he treated with such contempt.

In a great moment of irony, Abimelech tells Abraham, "God is with you in everything that you do," and asks for a pact of friendship. (21:22-24). Was that a compliment or a threat? At the least, an uncomfortable moment for Abraham, and a sharp reminder of his humbled circumstances. Instead of a miraculous covenant with G-d Himself and glorious victory over four kings, he must covenant with the Philistines as a resident alien and pray that they leave him alone. (21:22-34).

And so, "Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test." (22:1). The test, savage though it is, makes a horrible sense. Now that he has come to love Isaac, now that he knows how fine is the gift that he tried to reject, his rejection is flung in his teeth. He must give back the gift he scorned.

No wonder Abraham does not try to argue. He already tried to run from G-d, only to find G-d even in the court of the Philistine King. He understands why G-d is punishing him, and he has no defense. He surrenders...and so at last returns to G-d's grace. The son he thought lost is returned, the miracle is renewed, and the covenant he broke is remade. The most horrific apostasy in all of Tanakh is redeemed by the greatest imaginable act of self-sacrifice and faith.

This is a radical d'rash of Vayera, I admit, but it is thoroughly justified by the text, and it makes more sense of the Akeda than anything else I have seen. Comments are welcome.

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