Sunday, March 27, 2011

My passion is Torah – the Law and history and lessons of the five books of Moses. It’s the Original Red Pill and perhaps what it reveals is too bright, until the eyes become accustomed, to be viewed without the protective lens of creative interpretation. But the comfort and safety of that lens has a price. It isn’t the same book anymore.

Wander in without shades, and the landscape is as exquisite as it is terrible. In chapters of the Archive – the memories of some visits. 

Abraham, Sarah, and the Akedah


Part 1: Preface


(nun – samech – hey)  is a funny word. It's ambiguous. It is understood to have several different meanings in scriptural usage – depending on context – but, even in context, it isn’t always obvious which meaning should apply or is most appropriate. In any one phrase or sentence, the different possible meanings could be virtually interchangeable, depending on the message one wishes to convey.

In the Torah (specifically in Genesis 22:1, Exodus 15:25, and Deuteronomy 13:4), the word is generally understood (and translated to English) as denoting some form of “test”.

For example, Genesis 22:1 (leading into the Akedah, where God appears to ask Abraham to offer his son as a human sacrifice) tells us: 
        “And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham…” (Hirsch Chumash), or
        “And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham…” (Stone), or
        “And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove[1] Abraham…” (Hertz).

In the one other instance in Torah (Deuteronomy 4:34), the context is slightly different and there seems to be more variation (Confusion?) in the understanding, as indicated by the different translations:
“Or hath a God proved Himself (to come to take)…?” (Hirsch)
“Or has any god ever miraculously (come to take)…?” (Stone)
“Or hath God assayed (to go and take)…?” (Hertz),
There isn’t even agreement on whether this passage refers to God, or just to a god (“any god”), so this particular passage offers little guidance.

English renderings relating to “test”, cited above, represent the understanding that is applied in the context of Torah. But outside of Torah, a significantly broader spectrum of meanings is accepted. In different biblical usages it is understood as:
test, or assay, or examine, or try, or attempt, or venture, or tempt    
For example, from Isaiah 7:    
            “12. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord:”

The various understandings are all related, so it’s easy to see why the single word could have different shades of meaning, depending on context.

We may try or venture or attempt something in pursuit of a tempting objective – a Prize. Even if the Prize is real, there's no guarantee of achieving it, so the effort is a test. Or the Prize can be an illusion, and the temptation itself is the test.

Or – another variation – If we “test the patience” of somebody with the power to harm us, do we thereby “tempt fate”?

is a versatile word! “Test” and “tempt” and “attempt” are all tied together in a knot. So much so that, in Hebrew, one word can suffice for all three.

And this leads to a dilemma:

How do we know that, in declining to ask (for a sign), Ahaz was reluctant to “tempt” the Lord? How do we know that what he expressed wasn’t a reluctance to “test” the Lord?

And similarly, how do we know that, in asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, God was “testing” him? How do we know that God wasn’t “tempting” him?

Part 2: The Standard Narrative



The Storyline

The story of the Akedah is well known – at least in concept. There are relatively few people in the Judeo-Christian world who haven’t heard of it and know at least the bare bones.

In extreme brevity: God tells Abraham to go offer his son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice. Abraham complies, and takes Isaac to where the sacrifice is supposed to take place. At the last minute, God intervenes and tells Abraham to not kill Isaac after all, and God is impressed that Abraham had been willing to kill Isaac for Him, and Abraham earns some brownie points. There’s certainly more to it than that, but that’s the extreme short-form.

But the long-form story goes into much greater detail, and detail leads to questions. As the saying goes: “The devil is in the details!” 

Here is another look at the story of the Akedah, the standard narrative, in somewhat greater depth, and with connections to some of its more significant precursors and consequences:

Abraham and his household were living in the region of Beersheba, having left Hebron subsequent to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. Ch. 19,20).

God spoke to Abraham and, to “test” him, asked him to take his son, Isaac, to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering: “And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham…..” (Gen. 22:1,2)

Abraham agreed, and set out the next morning (v. 3) with a couple of servants, supplies, and his son Isaac. It appears that the people accompanying Abraham knew that the purpose of the trip was to make a sacrifice to the Lord. However (as we learn in v.7), Isaac did not yet know that he was to be the sacrifice.

When they arrived at the sacrificial site after several days of travel, they set up to do the deed, and Isaac was compliant (v 9,10).

God stopped the sacrifice just in time, by sending an angel to intervene and tell Abraham to desist (v. 11,12).

Abraham found a ram nearby, and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. The angel thanked Abraham, on behalf of God, for his willingness to comply with God’s command/request, and then Abraham and company all went home to Beersheba. (v. 13-19)

Precise time-frame of the above is not specified. However the rabbinic legend is that Isaac was 37 years old at the time and that sequence of events, related to his almost-sacrifice, led to additional consequences in rapid succession.

Sarah died (Gen. 23:2). Further, according to rabbinic legend; upon finding out that her son, Isaac had almost been sacrificed, the shock was too much for Sarah and that was what precipitated her death. (Again according to legend; she may have died before they arrived home, allegedly because Satan told her that Abraham had indeed killed Isaac, and the shock and pain killed her.) 

Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah (and the field in which it was located) in Hebron, from Ephron the Hittite, and buried Sarah in it. In the real estate negotiations for the burial site (according to rabbinic interpretation) Ephron was a big talker and put on airs as if the money was unimportant to him, but he was actually very greedy and overcharged Abraham shamelessly. In any case, Abraham paid the price and bought it with dignity (Gen. 23:3-20).

Also after arriving home, Abraham heard tidings of his family back in Mesopotamia, that since his last contact with them he had new nieces and nephews, and even grand-nieces and grand-nephews. Among them, he  learned that Rebekah had been born to Bethuel, Abraham’s nephew (Gen. 22:20-24). According to rabbinic legend, Rebekah in particular had only just been born when Abraham heard about it, i.e. Rebekah was apparently born at roughly the same time that the Akedah was taking place.

Isaac was overcome with melancholy over his mother’s death. Approximately three years after that loss, Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to Mesopotamia to find a suitable bride for Isaac. Eliezer found Rebekah and brought her to Isaac (Gen. ch. 24). At that time Isaac was 40 years old and, according to rabbinic legend, Rebekah was three years old. “And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife” (Gen. 24:67).

The Consequences

The “standard narrative” includes inconsistencies, loose ends, and implicit assumptions of highly implausible events (as if  “miracles” were a routine hardly worth noticing). At a minimum, for the sake of thoroughness, it is appropriate to at least identify some of those issues that might deserve a second look. 

The first and most obvious issue raised is the all-enveloping: “Why?” 

Did God really want Abraham to kill his son? Why? And, if so, why did He change his mind? And if it was a “test” to see if Abraham would comply… Did Abraham pass it or fail it? Human sacrifice was no novelty at the time. Did God really think it was a virtuous practice? Has He not told us, on numerous occasions, that it is an abomination? And, in that case, would compliance indicate virtue? But then, on the other hand, would disobedience to God indicate virtue?

For Abe, it was a classical no-win situation! This issue stands out like a wart on a supermodel’s nose, and others have noticed and been concerned about it, e.g.:

“Specifically, I propose, first, that God was testing Abraham's willingness to refuse to commit murder even when commanded by God to do so; second, that Abraham went along with that command with faith that – in the end – he would not be required to do so, and not with the zealous intent to consummate Isaac's murder, although he was prepared, in the end, to resist the command to kill his son if he had to; and third, that Abraham was rewarded for his moral stance, and his faith that God really does not need or want child sacrifice, or any violations of His moral law, to prove man's love or fear of God. This view of the Akedah is consistent with fundamentals of Jewish law and philosophy. [2] (italics added)

So the author of this explanation seems to be playing both ends against the middle. God never really wanted Abraham to murder his son, but wanted to see if Abraham would be willing to do it for the sake of perfect obedience. Meanwhile, Abraham never really intended to obey, but went along and pretended to obey, knowing that God would change His mind (but planning to disobey if God failed to change His mind). But God knew that Abraham was only pretending to obey, and God was pleased with that. The explanation has more moving parts than a pinball machine, but it illustrates the mental contortions necessary -- to pretend to resolve the issues raised by the standard narrative.

Then there is the timeline. God’s Covenant with Abraham was already made. Abraham and his children were already chosen, before Abraham even had any children (Genesis 15). What could be the purpose of a “test”, when the results had already been announced?

More specifically, God had already told Abraham that Isaac, his son by Sarah, would be heir to the covenant:

15. And God said to Abraham, As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be:
16. And I will bless her, and give you a son also of her; and I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her: (Gen. Ch. 17)

19. And God said, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son indeed; and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him: (Gen. Ch. 17)

12. And God said to Abraham, Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your slave; in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall your seed be called: (Gen. Ch. 21)

Was it Abraham’s understanding that God might change his mind, do a total about-face, and want Isaac killed and (along with him) put an end to all His promises regarding “seed” or “everlasting covenant”? Did Abraham believe – is it possible – that the God of all creation had a credibility problem?

Further, in that same vein – When God resolved to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham had no reluctance to petition God to spare them, while acknowledging their overwhelming wickedness (Gen. ch. 18:24-33). Did he feel that his own son was somehow less worthy than the people of those two cities? Why did he not protest over Isaac?

Other subtle issues are raised when Isaac’s bride is found and brought to him by Abraham’s servant:

     First there is Rebekah herself (described in Genesis ch. 24). At age 3, she speaks with greater poise, dignity and sophistication than any lady one may reasonably expect to meet on the disco scene – or pretty much any other scene – even full-grown. 

She lifts water from the well in earthenware jugs (typically weighing about 30lb. when filled) and carries them around on her shoulder, pouring for the camels to drink and for the household’s consumption. For reference, average weight of a 3-year-old girl is 30lb., so she is routinely lifting, carrying and handling roughly her own weight in jug-plus-water. 

Yet far from being solid and well-muscled, she is described as “very fair/pretty to look upon” and as “…a virgin, and no man had known her…” (as if that was something of a novelty for a 3-year-old girl).

And, as unusual as she clearly is – a 3-year-old girl who the louts in her family consistently relate to as if she was a young lady, and even Abraham’s emissary instantly relates to her as such – yet nobody appears to notice that’s there’s anything significantly unusual about her.

Then there is an odd, and unexplained, shuffling of tents:
 “And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah's tent…” (Gen. 24:67)
But previously, referring to the Lord’s appearance to Abraham:
 “And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day:” (Gen 18:1)
and also:
“And Abraham hurried to the tent to Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes:” (Gen. 18:6)

Previously, there was only one tent, which was “the tent” of Sarah and Abraham together. Did Sarah, at some point, begin to have her own tent? Were Abraham and Sarah living in separate tents?

Which dovetails with:
“…Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham lived at Beersheba.” (Gen. 22:19)
“And Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba; which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her:” (Gen. Ch. 23:2)
So they were estranged – living apart? When did they separate? And why?

And then, the bottom line:
God conducted a “test” – an experiment – to find out what Abraham would do in response to His request for Isaac’s sacrifice? The One from whom nothing is hidden, who sees thousands of years into the future, is not capable of predicting how Abraham would respond? He needs to perform an experiment to find out?
What’s wrong with this picture?

So the standard narrative simply doesn’t work! There are too many problems raised, too many self-contradictions, too many assumptions have to be made, and too much overlooked or ignored. Is there a different narrative – one not so beset with problems?

Suppose we constructed a narrative based on the innovative premise that it must be entirely in harmony with the Torah?    What would it look like?

Part 3: A Less Incredible Account (?)


The key: Abraham lived in Beersheba, but Sarah died in Hebron. From this key, an entirely different understanding begins to emerge.

As above, we begin with Abraham and his household living in the region of Beersheba, having left Hebron some time after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

God spoke to Abraham and asked him to take his son, Isaac, to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering:

“And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham…..”

Abraham agreed, and set out the next morning with a couple of servants, supplies, and his son Isaac. It appears that the people accompanying Abraham knew that the purpose of the trip was to make a sacrifice to the Lord. However, Isaac did not yet know that he was to be the sacrifice.

Others have noted that the command to sacrifice Isaac was from God, whereas the last minute reprieve was delivered by an angel. Also:
a)   Abraham “set out the next morning”, and
b)  Abraham also made all his preparations for the trip the next morning, e.g. chopping wood for the sacrificial fire,
so it is likely that the initial communication from God came to Abraham in his sleep, in a dream (but later, when the angel stayed his hand, he was wide awake).

This may be a significant distinction. Recalling God’s reprimand of Aaron and Miriam (Numbers, Ch. 12):

6. He said, Hear now My words. If there shall be prophets among you, in a vision shall I, Hashem, make Myself known to him; in a dream shall I speak with him.
7. Not so is My servant Moses; in My entire house he is the trusted one.
8. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles, at the image of Hashem does he gaze. 

Abraham’s impulse to sacrifice Isaac was based on a dream, and not on a clear vision or on mouth-to-mouth communication with God. 

In any case, the party arrived at a place near Moriah (which is where the sacrifice was to take place):

“And Abraham said to his young men, Stay here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you:” (Genesis 22:5).

This is where the first clear conflict occurs, between the Torah account vs. the standard narrative. Abraham refers to Isaac as “the lad” (since he was a boy), or more generally, “the youth”:

So for the purpose of seeing where it may lead, whether it may help to resolve some of the problematic issues plaguing the standard narrative of the Akedah, we assume that the reason Abraham referred to Isaac as “the lad” is because Isaac, at this point, is indeed a lad. A youth. What does that mean?

Genesis 25:27 recounts the growth and transformation of Jacob and Esau, from young boys/lads, to young men, Esau a ‘man’ of the field, and Jacob a quiet ‘man’: 

 It is apparent that, in the context of Torah (just as in our own contemporary understanding), one cannot simultaneously be a “young boy” and a “man”.

Moreover, we know that from the age of twenty on, the Torah does not refer to a young man as a “lad” or a “youth”. Rather – the Torah is quite clear on this – from the age of twenty he is an adult, counted among the men of the Children of Israel (Exodus 30:12-14 and 38:26).

Still further, Genesis 21 refers to Ishmael both as the boy/child (v. 15&16): 
and also as the youth/lad (v17), when we know from the text that he is at least 14 years old but not much (if at all) older than that.

So in the context of Torah, a clear distinction is made between a “lad” (or “youth”) and a “man”. A person who is a “lad” or “youth” is less than 20 years old. From age twenty and above, he is a “man”.

We have undertaken to accept the premise that our account must be entirely in harmony with Torah, so Isaac (at the time of the Akedah) was less than 20 years old. This is significant, because Sarah died when Isaac was age 37, so it means that Sarah’s death was not coincident with the Akedah. Not even close!

When they arrived at the sacrificial site after several days of travel, they set up to do the deed. Young (teenage or pre-teen) Isaac was compliant. God sent an angel to intervene, and stopped the sacrifice just in time.

Abraham found a ram nearby, and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. The angel thanked Abraham, on behalf of God, for his willingness to comply with God’s command/request, and then Abraham and company all went home to Beersheba.

And so Abraham learned a valuable lesson. God does not want children sacrificed to Him. He hates it! There is reason to believe Abraham already knew that, but he was going to do it anyway, because he also accepted that God had asked him to do it. He grew up in Mesopotamia and sojourned in Canaan, and he lived all his life in places where human sacrifice was accepted. It was in his blood.

If it had been Jacob, instead of Abraham, that God asked to kill  his son, Jacob would likely have gotten into a fight over it. He might have lost the fight, but he would have fought a good one.

If it had been Moses instead of Abraham, he would have been livid. “You want someone killed?” he might have fumed. “Well then, kill me – because I didn't sign on for this, I don’t want any part of it, and I won’t do it!”

But they came later, and they had the benefit of Abraham’s experience.

When Abraham had a dream indicating that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac, he jumped at the opportunity. He ignored all the promises that had been made to him, that Isaac was to be his heir to the Covenant. He believed that sacrificing Isaac for God was the ultimate in reverence, and all else he had learned was instantly forgotten.

It isn’t clear whether Sarah knew that Abraham was going off to kill Isaac in tribute to God. Probably not, since Isaac didn’t know. But she certainly found out (when the travelers returned) what the journey’s purpose had been. She was horrified and enraged!

Sarah had been through a lot with Abraham. Twice, he’d been willing to give her away to other men, and she swallowed her fear and her anger. But, now… going off to murder her only son – who she prayed for all her life and was finally granted her at age 90 – because of a stupid, deranged dream? That was absolutely the end of the line!

Sarah left Abraham and moved back to Hebron. 

She and Abraham had lived there for a long time, and they weren’t just strangers hanging around with their sheep. They had very close friends there who, with Abraham (then Abram), had struggled militarily against common enemies together, when marauding invaders came from the North:

“Then there came the fugitive and told Abram, the Ivri, who dwelt in the plains of Mamre, the Amorite, the brother of Eshcol and the brother of Aner, these being Abram’s allies.” (Genesis 14:13)

In those days, Abraham had been seen as strong, wealthy, and wise.

When his wife left him (which was probably an unusual event in the pre-historic middle-east – very different from 21st century Manhattan, for example), he came to have a different image. Still wealthy, but somewhat addled, and maybe not quite so strong. He wandered off to murder his son over a dream? And his wife left him?! He became the butt of jokes. But that all came about much later – at least a couple of decades later – long after they had fought together against a common enemy.

So after the events of the Akedah, Sarah moved back to be among people that she knew, in Hebron, and then she had her own tent there. She probably brought Isaac with her. Abraham was left with his wealth, his employees, and his animals.

There is no way to know for sure (and it doesn’t really matter), but Sarah was probably in the range of 100 to 110 years old when she moved back to Hebron (which would correspond to Isaac being a pre-teen or teenage lad). She died at age 127, and Abraham came to arrange her final affairs. He went to the gate to buy a burial site, and they mocked him. 

He had money, but he had not the prestige among them as in previous years. However Abraham managed to hold on to a vestige of his dignity, paid the price, and bought the land to give Sarah a decent burial. (Genesis 23:3-19)

Isaac continued to live in Hebron, in the tent where he’d lived with his mother: “…his mother Sarah’s tent”. Abraham was very worried that Isaac would (assuming he ever married) marry a local – a Canaanite. When Isaac was 40 years old, Abraham sent his servant (we never learn this servant’s name with certainty) to find a bride for him among his relatives back in Mesopotamia.

The first prospect that the servant meets is Rebekah, and the servant instantly identifies her as an attractive prospect for Isaac. She is apparently of normal marriageable age – not a toddler (or the servant would never have approached her in the first place). 

We never learn her age, but the Torah refers to her as “the youth”: 

when the servant meets her, just as it had previously referred to Isaac at the time of the Akedah. 

Apparently she was roughly the same age, when the servant met her, as Isaac had been at the Akedah – probably a teenager. 

The servant arranged for her to be Isaac’s bride, and brought her to Isaac, “And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife” (Genesis 24:67).


Part 4: Postscripts and Conclusions



Resolution of Problem Issues


We set out to develop an account of the Akedah that is entirely consistent with the Torah. We wanted this account to be in harmony with all that Torah tells us, without leaving any loose ends, and without requiring a series of gratuitously assumed miracles to bend the rules of ordinary, everyday reality. Has that been achieved?

The biggest question was:  Why?

Why would God need to “test” Abraham? Or (alternatively), why would God want Abraham to kill Isaac?

With respect to both of those issues: He didn’t.

He certainly didn’t need to do either of those things, and He didn’t do them. It was a lesson  –  not a “test”. It was simply a chapter in Abraham’s education. Hence, the most problematic issues disappear.

Such sacrifices are not wanted. 
4,000 years ago, that was a hell of a lesson!

Did Isaac really marry a 3-year old girl, bring her to his (mother’s) tent, take her, and make her his wife? Not hardly. Rebekah was not 3 years old when she married Isaac. She was a young lady of marriageable age – probably a teenager – perfectly normal for the time. No more problem!

How is it that Isaac brought Rebekah to “his mother’s tent”, if his mother and Abraham lived together in “the tent”? The question is based on a false assumption. At that time, his mother and Abraham did not live together in “the tent”. Isaac’s mother, Sarah, had her own tent because she and Abraham were no longer living together in Beersheba. She died in Hebron because, at the time of her death, she had been living in Hebron.

It’s simple. Just follow the text. Simply by taking the Torah at its word, the problems fade and go away. The need for gratuitous miracles dissipates, and the problematic issues become non-issues.

Questions Abound!

Our alternative narrative – the obvious one that follows scripture – has advantages over the “standard” narrative. Perhaps the primary advantage is simply that it follows scripture but, in addition (or as a result), it doesn’t depend on miracles intruding into the mundane of everyday life. With the exception of Abraham’s two communications from God (the first being a dream, and the second via an angel), nothing is other-worldly in this alternative account.

However the message is disturbing. It means that Abraham was not necessarily being saintly by his willingness to kill Isaac. Instead, he revealed that he, too, had internalized the culture of human sacrifice in which he’d grown up and lived. But that’s not a surprise. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us, and it would not have been a surprise to God (who isn’t surprised by much).

What it means is that Abraham was not being “tested” here. God had no need to conduct an experiment. God knew the outcome beforehand. Instead (returning to the question asked at the outset):  God was “tempting” Abraham, for the purpose of teaching him a lesson:

Human sacrifice -- and (perhaps especially) child sacrifice in particular -- is an abomination. 
Don’t do it!  Ever!

But that’s a simple, narrow lesson, for such a richly elaborate communication. It could have been conveyed via a simple command (or “commandment”), and indeed it subsequently was (in Deuteronomy 12:31). Could it be that there is also a broader, more subtle lesson being taught here – one that is not so easy to encapsulate in a one-liner?

This is a far broader and more speculative issue than anything addressed here thus far. 

When the angels had gone off to Sodom, to destroy it, and Abraham remained standing before the Lord, then Abraham came forward and argued for the few in Sodom who may be (relatively) righteous and said, “….Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” Abraham had no problem distinguishing between what he’d heard God was planning on doing, as opposed to God’s Law. He took a big chance, but he was right, and it worked out well. Abraham knew the Law.

When the angels went off to destroy Sodom, he appealed to God, even reprimanded God, lest He violate His own Law. Yet, when he heard God tell him to kill his son, he chose to abide by what he believed was God’s spoken command to him, rather than by the Law. Big mistake! He won’t make that one again.

Moral: Never mind what even God may say (or appear to say). Know the Law, and live by it. Abraham’s really big lesson via the Akedah may have been: If there has to be a choice between obeying God’s Law vs. what may seem to be God’s voice – go with the Law, the Torah

And, if that’s true with respect to what God may say (or appear to say), how much more so is it true with respect to anything that anyone else may say – however well intentioned, and regardless of their credentials! 

The Law is a bit like the hidden estrangement of Abraham and Sarah. It was never hidden. It’s all there, for anyone reading the text to see what it says (rather than what someone says it says).

But (as indicated above) that interpretation, of the Akedah’s big lesson for Abraham, is entirely speculative. Plausible – but speculative.

How Did Rebekah's Marriage-at-Age-3 Get Thrown In?

One can only guess – so here is my guess.

It appears to be a complete red herring – thrown into the mix to distract from the more significant issues being papered over:

a)      Abraham’s acceptance that God appeared to want human sacrifice, and
b)      Abraham’s sad domestic turmoil and separation from Sarah.

First the Akedah, ending with Isaac’s return home alive, is alleged to be approximately simultaneous with Sarah’s death.

This pretense of simultaneity serves a purpose.

It minimizes the apparent duration of Abraham’s and Sarah’s estrangement, which began with Abraham’s and Isaac’s return and ended with Sarah’s death. Minimizes? It makes that duration appear to be equal to zero – like, it never really happened! That was probably the objective.

But in order to achieve that apparent simultaneity – of Sarah’s death with the Akedah – the Akedah must be described as taking place when Sarah is 127 years old, because that’s when she died. Then, since Isaac was born when Sarah was 90, he must be portrayed as being 37 years old at the Akedah, in order for the rest of the story to hold together.

Rebekah’s birth, allegedly simultaneous with the other events, creates the sensation of momentous events all happening at once. Also, if one accepts that she was three years old, then Rebekah’s very (oddly) adult behavior and capabilities help to establish an aura of ‘miracle’ over the entire affair.

Abraham's Quest

All this is in no way an indictment of Abraham. He was incredibly capable, strong and brave, struggling against all he'd ever known, almost entirely alone and without any precedent to guide him. If anything, this could be considered an indictment of those who felt that the reality of Abraham's struggle needs to be suppressed, but it isn't even that. 

This is simply a tribute to him, and a recognition of his strength to make a total break with his past and his roots, for which he paid a heavy price, and for which most of the “civilized world” is indebted to him.

1. The word  “prove” is not synonymous with “test”, but one can see the relationship as well as the difference. A test may be successful or not, but a “proof” can be the result of a successful test.

2. “The real test of the Akedah: blind obedience versus moral choice”, Judaism, Winter 1993, by Lippman Bodoff.

*     *     *     *     *


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dating the Covenant between the parts

The Torah tells us that Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran to go to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:4).  He was 100 years old when Isaac was born to him (Genesis 21:5). The difference is 25 years. A superficial reading seems to indicate that the Covenant between the parts took place some time during that period, and Isaac’s birth marked the end of the 25 years.

However this creates difficulties.

The Torah tells us that the children of Israel spent a total of 430 years as sojourners “in Egypt”. However God also told Abraham that, within the total of 430 years of exile, his descendants would be enslaved in a land that is not theirs for 400 years (Genesis 15:13).

The difficulties arise because, according to rabbinical legend, the 430 years of exile as sojourners “in Egypt” also included the years that Abraham and his descendants lived in Canaan (prior to taking possession of it after the Exodus). “In Egypt” is thus considered a general and perhaps somewhat poetic term, for living as sojourners without a permanent home of their own, rather than a literal statement of where they were located.

However the prophesied 400 years of Abraham’s descendants’ enslavement could not begin until he had descendants. Accordingly, that 400 year period is considered to begin with the birth of Isaac. The remaining 30 years as sojourners “in Egypt” (the difference between 400 and 430) is considered to be time subsequent to the Covenant, but prior to Isaac’s birth, i.e. prior to Abraham having an heir.

The difficulty arises because the Covenant took place in Canaan, and the Torah tells us that Abraham went to Canaan only 25 years before Isaac’s birth – not 30 years.

In order to make this difficulty go away, there is a rabbinical hypothesis that the Covenant took place on a second (but earlier) trip to Canaan (Tosafos, Berachos 7b). That second trip, not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, would have been when Abram was 70 years old, in order to provide 30 years between the covenant and Isaac’s birth. It would have been a temporary visit to Canaan, rather than a migration. Abram is alleged to have then returned to Haran, and then migrated permanently at age 75. 

This hypothetical second trip is justified by observing that events in the Torah are not necessarily presented in chronological order, a qualification which is well known and is essentially incontestable.
Sometimes, though, the Torah specifically tells us that a particular series of events IS described in chronological order. This is one such instance.

The Covenant between the parts is described in Genesis chapter15. Genesis 15:1 begins: “After these events, the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision…”1, and goes on to introduce the Covenant.

When the Torah starts an account with “After these events…”, it is telling us that what is about to be described did chronologically follow those things that are described just before it. That is, literally, what “After these events…” means.

The “events” or “things” referred to as preceding the Covenant were the Assyrians’ capture of Lot from Sodom, and his rescue by Abram, in Chapter 14. Obviously, Lot being captured from Sodom had to be preceded by Lot moving to Sodom in the first place. Lot’s move to Sodom took place after he left Haran permanently, accompanying Abram’s migration to Canaan at age 75 (Genesis 12:4).

So if the Covenant came after Abram’s rescue of Lot, which itself came after Abram’s big move at age 75, then the Covenant also took place after Abram’s big move. The Covenant took place within that 25-year period, during which Abram was at least 75 but less than 100 years old.

The superficial reading, and the plain meaning, are correct.

Moreover, the Covenant took place in the first decade of that 25-year period, since the text tells us that Abram was still childless at that time (Genesis 15:2 & 3). Therefore, the 30 years prior to the beginning of Abraham’s descendants’ enslavement could not have been prior to Isaac’s birth.

Since the prophesy had nothing to do with – was not triggered by – the appearance of descendants, the event it apparently refers to is the beginning of servitude (which is precisely what it says). And this is what did happen, much later. It happened literally – not poetically. The 430 years “in Egypt” did not begin with the Covenant, and the 400 years of slavery did not begin with Isaac’s birth.

(More to come, on this subject.)

Who wrote the Torah would have known that some people, some day, would tamper with it. He may have purposefully left “After these events…” as a clue, for those who want to find the truth.

1.         Nosson Scherman et. al., ed. and trans., Ninth Edition, 1998, The Chumash, The Artscroll Series / Stone Edition, Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Apparent Conflict

Regarding the Law, Deuteronomy 17: 8 to 13, but specifically 17:11, tells us:

“According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.” (Stone translation).

According to “Rashi” and “Ramban”:

“you must obey the decision of the courts even if you are convinced they are wrong, even if they seem to be telling you that right is left and left is right….”

In context, the term “courts” certainly includes religious authorities (as referred to in verse 9:      “… the judge that shall be in those days”), such as “Rashi” and “Ramban” themselves.

Here we have a reasonably unequivocal Torah passage, saying that we must abide by what our leaders tell us, that what our leaders tell us has the force of law and the authority of Torah behind it, regardless of what we may think about it.

That’s one side of the story…

However, Numbers 15:22 to 26, but specifically 15:24 and 25 tells us:

“If because of the eyes of the assembly it was done unintentionally, the entire assembly shall prepare one young bull as an elevation offering for a satisfying aroma to Hashem, and its meal offering and its libation according to the rule, and one he goat as a sin offering. The Kohen shall atone for the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and it shall be forgiven them, for it was unintentional, and they have brought their offering, a fire offering to Hashem, and their sin offering before Hashem for their unintentional sin.”

Here is discussed the situation where the congregation has sinned because of being misguided by the leadership.

According to Stone this refers only to idol worship, but according to 15:23 it refers to:

“…everything that Hashem commanded you through Moses, from the day that Hashem commanded and onward, throughout your generations.”

Without much need for interpretation, “everything” does not mean “idol worship”. “Everything” means “everything”.

According to “Ramban”:

“The atonement applies only to those who sinned unintentionally. Although the sin was very grave, the people receive atonement because it was unintentional, and because they brought the prescribed offering.”

But according to Sifre:

“However those who knew that the Sanhedrin had erred, but committed the sin anyway, are not atoned for by the offering.”

In their case, the sin was not “unintentional”. They knew it was a mistake, and they went along even though they knew it was wrong.

So on the one hand, we seem to have the authority for insisting that the leaders “…who will be in those days…” must be obeyed even if we know they are wrong.

On the other hand, if we do that we will sin, and we will not even have recourse to normal atonement, because we sinned intentionally

This looks like a no-win situation; a Catch-22. Can this really be? Or, if not, how can this apparent conflict be resolved?

The existence of what appears to be a contradiction may convey a subtle lesson about the reality of the world as God created it. In that case, there are potential insights to be gained by considering: Why and how can a person be a sinner when he had ‘no choice’? There were only two options, and neither of them was “good”.

At this point, the interesting speculation finds a foothold on something solid. Tanach (especially the Biblical books dealing with Israel’s history following the Exodus) is full of references to leaders who “made” the people to sin. Made the people to sin! It isn’t just poetry. Torah is telling us something, and Tanach gives us examples of it:

1.     If we have allowed ourselves to have leaders who lead us in the wrong direction, we will bear consequences whether or not we follow those leaders. After all, leaders are only leaders because (and to the extent that) they are accepted by the community.

If they are the accepted leaders, it is evil to knowingly follow them when they are wrong, since wrong-is-wrong no matter who says so. But it is also evil to not follow them, since they represent and lead the community.

2.     The existence of “sin” is enough to create problems for everybody, whether or not they follow suit and even if they oppose it, because opposition disrupts harmony.

3.     At that point, when the leadership has gone seriously astray, all we can do is attempt to choose the “least bad” option for the specific situation, and hope for the best.

Don’t the people have free will? Of course they do but, if there is an established and accepted leadership in place, then the time when free-will might have saved us has long since passed. Fat lot of good free-will does when all the choices are bad ones! 

If the community’s established leaders go down a wrong path, we can sin by following them, or we can sin by not following them. Those are the options! That’s the practical reality with which Torah is confronting us.

If we have leaders who are leading us down wrong paths, then we have no good options because our “original sin” is in having and accepting such leaders who mislead. After that, everything that follows is essentially inevitable. Torah tells us it would be wise to consider that now, while the future is still a work-in-progress.