This week’s parashah is Vayera. It starts with the story of Abraham and the three angels and finishes with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which is one of the most enigmatic and troubling stories in the Hebrew Bible. The parashah includes Abraham’s dialogue with God prior to the destruction of the wicked cities and continues the story of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael and the conflict that follows the birth of Isaac. The story of Abraham, Sarah and Abimelech is similar to the encounter with the Egyptian Pharoah that we read least week.
The Abraham narratives portray a world that is capable of great cruelty. It is inconceivable that a woman would travel alone and even families must resort to stratagems in order to forestall arbitrary and brutal violence. Life in the wicked cities is graphically described and it is very frightening. In Genesis 15, Abraham hears that his descendants will be oppressed for centuries in a strange land and he is given an equally dark vision of what will be at the end of time.
It is against this background that one must consider Abraham’s hospitality, because in the simple gestures of welcome offered to passing travellers, Abraham is recreating humanity and civility. Abraham’s tent was pitched at a crossroads on the way to Sodom, and Sodom was not a world that knew anything of kindness or compassion.
When travellers arrive, Abraham hurries to meet them: each wayfarer is treated like a royal personage and offered the best that Abraham is able to provide. Abraham’s hospitality gave people new insight into themselves and the preciousness of their apparently ordinary lives. As God had shown him a new way with “lech lecha” – go to whom you truly are – so Abraham tried to help everyone he encountered, so, likewise, Abraham had no interest in politics or the great cities of his time: he lives on the margins of society and spends his days with those whom the great world considers to be of no account.
The Akedah at the end of the parashah seems far removed from Abrahamic hospitality or the passion for just behaviour that is the occasion of his dialogue with God prior to the destruction of Sodom. When Abraham was told about the impending catastrophe, he famously argued with God about it (18:23-24). He did so with great humility: “I am but dust and ashes”, but his argument was very clear and forthright: How can it be that the judge of all the earth will not do justice and will ”destroy the righteous along with the wicked”? At the Akedah, however, Abraham obeys without question, albeit that the Akedah is framed as a request rather than a commandment.
Rashi, following the Talmud, notes that in 22:5 Abraham tells the young men who were accompanying them that “we will go and worship and we will come back to you.” The “we will come back” is seen as a prophetic insight and suggests that Abraham ultimately believed that they would not have to go through with it. The implication might be that, albeit uncertain, he continued to trust in God.
Some rabbis have also pointed out that Abraham was never actually asked to slaughter his son and the verb used of the burnt offering is rarely found in that context, but these points are hardly conclusive, and the text remains very troubling.
The Akedah is indeed meaningful, but only in the light of the experience of subsequent generations who found it an inspiration in times of martyrdom and ultimate self-sacrifice. The text was famously quoted by the Maccabean martyrs in the second century BCE and was clearly present when, a century later, the Romans pillaged the Temple in Jerusalem and priests were cut down as they continued to perform the sacred rites. One also feels its presence in the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva who saw his death as a moment when he was finally able to love God with his entire being. In the twentieth century, there are stories of Rabbi Akiva’s spiritual descendants who sang ecstatically in their final moments, before their lives were taken from them.
The Akeda was clearly meaningful in first century Judea, especially in very difficult times – one Midrash has Isaac carrying his cross on the journey to Mount Moriah. It is not a Christian reference but the Akedah did provide significant language for the first followers of Jesus. The “beloved son” is similar to the opening of Genesis 22, especially in the Septuagint and the “Lamb of God” first appears in Abraham’s response to Isaac in 22:9: “God will provide the lamb, my son.” The Midrash also finds echoes of the Lamb of God in the paschal lamb and sees it in terms of forgiveness, although it was not a sin offering.
At first sight, the Akeda seems unintelligible, but it is, in fact, a profound source of mutual understanding for Jews and Christians.