It is frightening: "Some time later God tested Avraham."
It is dramatic and haunting: "Take your son, your only son, Yitzchak whom you love."
It is life-altering and chilling: "...and go to the region of Moriah."
Perhaps most of all, it is confusing: "...and elevate him there as an olah on one of the mountains that I will tell you."
When we consider the Akeida we need to read the text carefully, and note what it does say, and what the text does not say. Is it our imagination or is it our faulty memory? Things we think are in the text are absent, and things we don't remember suddenly "appear."
Let us begin without any preconceived notions:
Some time later God tested Avraham. He said to him, "Avraham!" "Here I am," he replied. Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Bring him up there as an olah on one of the mountains that I will tell you." Early the next morning Avraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Yitzchak. He cut olah wood, and he arose and set out for the place God had told him about. (Bereishit 22:1-3)
The first noteworthy term is "test". While we have learned that Avraham was tested ten different ways, the only instance which is explicitly called a test, and the only instance in which the nature of the test is explicit, is the Akeida. This, then is the quintessential test, the ultimate test.
When we continue to read the text we are left searching for something which is not there. In fact, nowhere in the entire set of instructions do we find the word that is most closely associated with this series of events: God never does command Avraham to bind Yitzchak or to tie his son in any way. Despite this, for all time this section is known as "the binding (Akeida) of Yitzchak."
There is something else missing, something far more troubling: At no point in the narrative does God command Avraham to kill Yitzchak. The exact words are "v'ha'alyahu sham l'olah" - "elevate him there as an olah."
Rashi comments on this verse, pointing out that God never said to slaughter Yitzchak. God did not want Yitzchak's life to be ended. He wanted Yitzchak to be "raised up", designating him as an "olah.". Once he was uplifted, He commanded Avraham to take Yitzchak down.1
Were we to conclude from our cursory reading that God had indeed commanded Avraham to slaughter his son, we would be justifiably disturbed: elderly, saintly, loving, kind Avraham is asked to perform a grotesque and horrifying act - to kill is own son. Clearly, the episode's finale would allow us to modify our understanding: When God tells Avraham to take Yitzchak down from the altar, the larger ultimate message and lesson would be God's declaration against human sacrifice.
If God never did ask for the slaughter, why did Avraham seem to think He had? What was on Avraham's mind? Might we say that if God did not command him to slaughter Yitzchak, then Avraham should be seen as so bloodthirsty a man that he pulled a knife on his own son? Or might we say that God did command the death of Yitzchak, but subsequently He changed His mind?
We should note that, prior to the Akeida, Avraham erected numerous altars, but never brought an offering upon them.
God appeared to Avram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built an altar there to God who had appeared to him. (Bereishit 12:7)
In these verses, Avraham receives confirmation that indeed he has found the holy place that God had spoken of. He is granted revelation, and to express his thanks he builds an altar. But quite significantly, nothing is placed upon it. In subsequent chapters Avraham builds altars on various occasions, and never puts anything on them. Instead, he "calls out to God"; he prays.
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to God and called on the name of God.(Bereishit 12:8)
From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Avram called on the name of God.(Bereishit 13:3-4)
If Avraham had never brought a korban (sacrifice) prior to the Akeida, why would he assume that now God requires a sacrifice?
There is another, more subtle point to consider: The name of God used in the text which commands the Akeida is Elokim. This name is never used in the Torah in association with sacrifices:
It was taught: R. Simeon b. 'Azzai said, 'Come and see what is written in the chapter of the sacrifices. Neither (the names) el nor elohim are found there, but only (the Tetragramaton) '(YHVH)', so as not to give sectarians any occasion to rebel. (Talmud Menachot 110a)
It is interesting that in the Akeida story an offering is eventually brought - but only after an angel of God (YHVH) interceded.
In fact, Rabbenu Bachya clearly states,2 as did Rashi, that God never did ask Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak, but he buttresses his argument with a subtle grammatical point. Had Yitzchak been meant to be an actual offering, the text should have read "haleyhu olah," but instead it says l'olah, which is understood -"as on olah" or "instead of an olah." 3 Had God in fact commanded Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, it is theologically impossibility that He "changed His mind". Rabenu Bachya therefore draws the conclusion that Avraham, motivated by love of God, goes farther than God's command, and is prepared to slaughter Yitzchak.4
The next term which catches our attention is "lech lecha," translated as "go - for you" or "go for your sake". This is not the first usage of this phrase. These, in fact, are very likely the first words God says to Avraham.
God said to Avram, "Leave your country, your birthplace and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. ... So Avram left, as God had told him; and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Charan. (Bereishit 12:1,4)
We should therefore expect that there be some connection - or contrast - between the two uses of the phrase "lech lecha." There should be something about this new mission which should echo the previous mission. In both instances the precise location is withheld and an element of faith or trust is needed. In both cases there is a clear commandment to do something, but in both cases there is something lacking regarding knowledge of the implementation.
We should also note Avraham's zeal: Avraham does not merely accept the mission, he wakes up early in the morning and busies himself with his task with purposefulness. This is one of three instances where it is recorded that Avraham rises early.5 His faith and his enthusiasm combine to push Avraham forward, to single-mindedly fulfill his mandate. It may be somewhat surprising that in the case of the other lech lecha, when God's first communication with Avraham is recorded, we have no reason to believe that Avraham set off immediately to fulfill God's command. The text does not say that Avraham arose early the next morning and set off on his journey. In fact, the only information we have is that Avraham was seventy five years old when he set out. How old was he when God commanded "lech lecha"?
There is no clear answer to this question, but the text offers us ancillary information as clues to constructing a time-line. When God tells Avraham "Leave your country, your birthplace and your father's household," we understand "father's household" and perhaps "country" but "birthplace" is perplexing: Avraham was born in Ur Kasdim, but left his birthplace when he followed his father Terah on an aborted mission to the land of Cannan - which only took Avraham as far as Charan.
Terah took his son Avram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Avram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. They came to Charan and they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Charan. (Bereishit 11:31-32)
It seems unequivocal that Avraham was born in Ur Kasdim,6 and that Terah took him and other family members away from there, and the family settled in Charan. We are mystified as to why idolatrous Terah was on his way to Canaan - Israel. The Ramban7 offers a partial solution when he notes that the text is inverted: The natural order would be to leave the most immediate context, his father's household, followed by the larger circle, his birthplace or home town, and then the larger and less personal context of country. The Ramban posits that the verse is written in the inverse order, for Avraham had in act already left his country and birthplace, along with his father and the other family members who joined this entourage, and God's commandment at this juncture is to "finish the job" and leave his father's sphere of influence as well. While this solution does explain the peculiarity in the syntax, we are left none the wiser as to Terah's motivation to travel to Canaan.8
Later in the text, we become even more confused:
He said to him, "I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it." (Bereishit 12:7)
Who took Avraham out of Ur Kasdim? Was it Terah, or was it God?9 Whose idea was this, Avraham's, Terah's, or God's? We don't know why Terah was on the way to Canaan, which is part of the reason we don't know when God spoke to Avraham and told him "lech lecha".
The Ibn Ezra10 suggests that the command of "lech lecha" was given while Avraham was still in Ur Kasdim, which means that while we don't have a clear time line, at least in this instance Avraham did not get up early the next morning and immediately obey the Divine imperative. But now we understand why God asks Avraham to leave his country and birthplace - he was still there. This reading of the text leads to the conclusion that God "gets the credit" for taking Avraham out of Ur Kasdim, and Terah was a facilitator of God's will. We thus vey neatly reconcile the syntax of the verses, the timeline issues and the question of motive, but we create a different problem: If God spoke to Avraham and commanded him to go to Canaan at that juncture, why did he need Terah to help him out?
Let us re-frame the issue of the sequence of events. How old was Avraham when God spoke with him the first time, commanding him to leave his entire past behind and journey to an unnamed destination? A cursory reading of the text reveals that "lech lecha" is the first recorded communication, and Avraham was seventy five years old when he left on this journey. "Lech lecha" is not fixed anywhere on the timeline of Avraham's life. While various rabbinic opinions mark off significant stages in Avraham's religious development, with benchmarks at three years of age, forty-eight, and again at fifty-two11 years of age, we do not know at what point in Avraham's life he receives his first revelation, when God first confirms for Avraham his beliefs and convictions.
Rashi raises the possibility that there was a direct communication from God before "lech lecha." When God tells Avraham about the slavery of the Jews He speaks of 400 years.
Then God said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. (Bereishit 15:13)
According to accepted Rabbinic chronology, the Jews were in Egypt for 210 years. Commentators who explain God's reference to 400 years of slavery point back to the birth of Yitzchak: As any parent knows, this is where the worrying begins. When Avraham and Sarah have a child, they begin to view the world from a new perspective, considering the larger context. From this point Avraham and Sara begin worrying about their descendants. They have a child, the subject and the vehicle for their angst.
To make matters more interesting, another set of figures is thrown into the mix when the story of the Exodus from Egypt is told:
At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all God's divisions left Egypt. (Shmot 12:41)
We see that 210 years of slavery12 become 400 of emotional distress, when counted from the birth of Yitzchak. But how do the 400 years become 430? Where are the extra 30 years from? Rashi13 explains that while we count the four hundred years from the birth of Yitzchak, 30 years prior to that is when God spoke to Avraham at the "Brit bein hab'tarim" the covenant of the splitting in two.14 We know that Avraham was 100 years of age when Yitzchak was born, which would mean that he was 70 years old when he had this epiphany- five years prior to his arrival in the land of Canaan, and therefore prior to "lech lecha."
Rashi's reading of the text is based on a book of Biblical chronology called Seder Olam Rabbah, a comprehensive, over-arching time-line drawn from biblical narrative and midrashic traditions. One of the most dramatic episodes in Avraham's life is when he is thrown into the furnace, an episode embedded in our collective memory, recorded in midrashic and Talmudic sources but absent from the biblical text in any explicit way. However, the furnace episode may be subliminally encoded in the biblical text, within the name of Avraham's place of birth, Ur Kasdim. What was this place and why was it so named? The Targum (pseudo) Yonatan15 translates Ur Kasdim as "the furnace of fire in Kasdim." Thus, when God speaks to Avraham at the Brit bein hab'tarim and says "I am God, who brought you out of Ur Kasdim," what God is really saying is "I am the One who saved you from the fiery furnace." This reading forces us to conclude that "lech lecha" preceded the Brit bein ha'btarim.
According to the Seder Olam Rabbah, Avraham was at the tower of Bavel and was forty eight years old at the time. The Torah tells us of the use of furnaces to forge the bricks used to build the tower,16 and it is into one of these furnaces that the nefarious Nimrod throws Avraham, who has rejected the idolatrous overtones of Nimrod's rule. It is from that furnace that Avraham is saved.
Nimrod and his followers become known as the "Generation of the Dispersion." Can Terah's sudden departure for Canaan be understood in this context? Did he quit Ur Kasdim out of a nascent sense of Zionism, or was his move part of the general atmosphere in that generation? Did Terah, like others of his time, get some sort of Divine inspiration that told him it was time to move on, or did he recognize and seek out some inherent spirituality in Canaan?
The Netziv concurs with Rashi and follows the same chronology, positing that the Brit bein hab'tarim transpired when Avraham was seventy years old. The Netziv then proceeds to describe the Brit bein hab'tarim as more of a dreamlike experience, an "awakening" or "enlightenment", rather than a full-fledged prophetic experience.17 God whispered into Avraham's heart and told him that he should leave Ur Kasdim and head to Israel. Perhaps Avraham was not the only one to receive such an "awakening"; perhaps Terah did as well.
The Ramban's line of thought is of a similar vein:18 Avraham built an altar upon arriving in Israel, because only then did he receive actual prophecy, as opposed to the dreams, or Ruach Hakodesh he had experienced up to that point. The Kli Yakar 19 reminds us of the more general principle hat outside the Land of Israel prophecy may be all but impossible.
We have seen, then, that according to both the Ramban and the Netziv "lech lecha" was not a clear prophetic command but rather a "feeling", even an intuition. This would explain why Avraham did not "pick up and go" early the next morning. Terah's journey may also be the result of a similar awakening. We might even dare to say that God spreads this type of feeling among all of humanity, but only Avraham was willing to take up the challenge. This is reminiscent of the midrashic20 insight regarding receiving the Torah: God called out to many nations but only the Jews accepted the Torah.
Terah never completes the journey. Though he and Avraham ostensibly travel the same path, we do not find a description similar to the relationship between father and son that characterizes the Akeida, "and the two of them went together". Instead, we get the feeling that Avraham and Terah took the same trip - separately, as opposed to Avraham and Yitzchak travelling together on the way to the Akeida.
...the two of them went on together. 7 Yitzchak spoke up and said to his father Avraham, "Father?" "Here I am, my son" Avraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Yitzchak said, "but where is the lamb for the olah?" Avraham answered, "God will provide the lamb for the olah, my son." And the two of them went on together. (Bereishit 22:6-8)
They walk together, two people on one mission. If there is a binding, it is between Avraham and Yitzchak. With the words "ha'aleyhu sham l'olah" Avraham is commanded to elevate his son. The two will be joined, unlike Avraham and Terah.
Avraham receives the awakening, accepts the challenge, leaves his homeland and sets off on his way, destination unknown. The Ramban21 notes that Avraham travels from place to place waiting for the right feeling, for confirmation from God that he has arrived at the intended place. He doesn't build an altar until he arrives in Israel. Now he knows and feels that he has found the place of holiness. He can build an altar, but he doesn't feel as of yet that it is the right place to put an offering on the altar; he continues his quest.22 He has found a holy place - but it is not quite holy enough. He receives prophesy, revelation, but the places he has found are not quite holy enough for an offering. Finally, God tells him of a place that he can bring an olah. We know the name and location of that place: Har HaMoriah, the place that one day would be called Jerusalem. Now, marching together with his son, Avraham knows he has found the right place - and so does Yitzchak. They march together, father and son. Overwhelmed by the holiness, both father and son know that this is a place where one can be completely consumed by God. And instead of simple physical elevation - of lifting Yitzchak on top of a glorious mountain and having Yitzchak join him in the covenant that he has with God, Avraham seeks complete, permanent elevation. He thinks this is the place for a sacrifice. Indeed, he is correct: The offering would soon be revealed, and the place they found would one day be the Beit Hamikdash, where so many offerings would be brought, and elevation achieved on a grand scale for all of Avraham's descendents.
The Shela Hakadosh suggests that in fact Avraham found the holiest place, the inner sanctum, the Kodesh Hakdoshim, citing the Midrashic tradition that the voice that calls out to Avraham comes from between the two Keruvim. Such a voice, says the Shela, could only be heard in the Kodesh Hakdoshim. There, deep in the holiest place, no sacrifices are offered, only incense. The command Avraham received was, in actuality, to enter the Kodesh Hakdoshim, to assume the role of Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and to pass it on to Yitzchak.23 The Akeida thus unlocks for us an understanding of the core of the Beit Hamikdash: Har HaMoriah is named for mor, one of the spices used to make the incense offering brought in the Kodesh Hakdoshim. The very core of the Beit HaMikdash, of Har HaMoriah, of the Kodesh Hakdoshim itself, is incense and not sacrifice. This is the core of the Akeida as well.24
So much for the message of the Akeida. But what of the test? If this was to be a test of Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship with one another, or of their relationship with God, they clearly passed with flying colors: Would the two walk together, clinging to one another and clinging to their faith in God? Yes. But their love of God pushed them beyond the actual command of God: If the commandment was to elevate Yitzchak, then Avraham certainly succeeded. God did not require Avraham to elevate Yitzchak in a traumatic manner. Perhaps Avraham, who entered Nimrod's fiery furnace because of his love of God, did not find it strange that at times God may require such heroic action. But Avraham should have paid closer attention to God's words: "I am the one who took you out of the furnace". God did not ask Avraham to sacrifice himself in this way. On the other hand, Avraham, who almost met his death in the furnace, knew of God's miracles and His salvation, knew that somehow Yitzchak, too, would survive. In the end, he was not wrong.
After the Akeida, Avraham and Yitzchak had even more in common than before: Both were willing to give up their lives for their love of God. They were both almost burnt offerings, and they were both elevated by that experience. Most importantly, they walked together.
1. Rashi Bereishit 22:2.
2. The Tosafists make the same observation in their comments on Bereishit 22:2.
3. Rabbenu Bachya Berishit 22:2.
4. Shela Hakodesh Vayera Torah Ohr 4.
5. The first recorded instance of Avraham getting up early is Bereishit 19:27-28, when Avraham arises and witnesses the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah go up in smoke. The next instance is Bereishit 21:14 when Yishmael will be sent away: "Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the LORD. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace."(Bereishit 19:27-28)
6. There are those who do debate this point - see the comments of the Ramban.
7. The Ramban proposes that Avraham was born in Charan; that was his birthplace, and he had subsequently travelled to Ur Kasdim (comments on Bereishit 12:1).
8. In a separate comment the Ramban states that the journey from Ur Kasdim to Canaan was Avraham's idea, not Terach's. See Ramban 11:31. Also note as stated above the Ramban has different theory regarding the birthplace of Avraham.
9. The Netziv makes a suggestion that Terach was travelling at Avraham's request, but Avraham was a luftmensch - his head was in the clouds - and therefore Terach "drove" so as not to disturb Avraham's meditations about God. While this presents an idyllic description of the Avraham-Terech relationship, such a description is not really supported by the text, especially regarding the crucial point was Avraham leading or did Terach take Avraham.
10. Ibn Ezra 12:1.
11. See below for the significance of some of these junctures on the timeline, and the seminal events that are linked to them.
12. According to Rabbinic tradition, of the 210 years in Egypt only 86 were years of actual slavery.
13. Rashi's source is Braita Seder Olam Rabbah, the definitive book on biblical chronology, Chapter 1.
14. We should note that here Avraham does kill animals, at God's request. (Bereishit 15:9-10) However subsequent to this covenant all the altars that Avraham builds remain empty - devoid of flesh and blood - until the Akeida.
15. Targum (pseudo) Yonatan Bereishit 15:7. Also see the comments of the Rosh on the Torah and the Ketab V'Kabbala.
16. Bereishit 11:3. 3 They said to each other, "Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and clay for mortar.
17. Ha'amek Davar Bereishit 15:7.
18. See Ramban Bereishit 12:7.
19. Kli Yakar Bereishit 12:7, the Netziv concurs.
20. Sifri 343.
21. Ramban Bereishit 12:1.
22. See comments of the Meshech Chochma to Bereishit 12:1 (which is the first Lech Lecha) that Avraham's entire sojourn in Israel was in search of Holiness and the right place for serving God.
23. Shela Hakosesh Vayera Torah Ohr 4.
24. Rashi Berishit 22:2.