The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Vayera 5756
Reflections on the Akedah Narrative (the Binding of Isaac)
The following is a presentation of a particular approach to the Akedah Narrative (Gen. 12,1-19). Though a number of the issues arising here have deep roots in Jewish literature due to constraints of space I will not be able to examine them all here.
The opening of the chapter forms an inclusion (i.e. a literary frame) with the opening of the story of Abraham (Gen. 12,1). Both parts begin with the words "Lech lecha - take yourself", a command to separate himself from three things and to journey to a place unknown by the believer, though appointed in advance by G-d.
In the first part of our chapter (verses 1-8) the use of triple repetition stands out. This is especially true regarding the word "hineni" - here I am" which appears three times and creates a sense of rhyme with the other parts of the narrative. Its second appearance "Hineni bni - here I am, my son" carries an enormous emotional charge. Similarly, in verse 2 the word "et" appears three times. In verse 3 - three travel together: the father, the servants (who comprise one unit), and the son. The journey ends on "the third day". Verses 6,7 and 8 each contain a threesome: wood, fire, knife (6) ; fire, wood, lamb (7) and finally, G-d, Abraham, the son (8).
The number three generally indicates a small but complete unit. True, in the final third of the first part of the story this pattern breaks down and pairs appear: the servants and the ass in contrast to "I and the Boy" (5) and especially "and the two of them went together" which appears twice (6, 8) in order to teach us that this is the central point of the story (see below).
Central to the next unit (verses 8-13) are three "sacrifices": the lamb, the son and the ram. They serve as various alternatives. I believe that here we reach the central point of the chapter. The unblemished lamb is Abraham (see Gen. 17,1) whose wholeness has already been expressed, as we saw, in the opening of the chapter. However, in the natural course of events Abraham will eventually step down as the leading figure in the drama. What will his successor be like? The opening words of the chapter: "And it came to pass after these things", probably hint at the birth of Isaac and his upbringing, as being separate and distinct from that of his older brother (chap.21). This proves that Abraham raised Isaac hoping to find in him a copy of himself (as emphasized by the phrase "and the two of them went together" - which is stated twice!). This narrative comes to show us that there is an "alternative" or a successor - but not a copy. We perceive the image of the "son", in proximity to the father. Like his father he also asks a question of faith, but he accepts the laconic answer which is an absolute expression of perfect faith. This is the image of Isaac - without struggle or contention. He is succeeded by the ram [i.e. Jacob]. What is its image? It is "achar - behind" (see Baba Batra 93a), excited (perhaps after mating). and only the thicket holds him back - "by its horns". The horn takes the lead, it is the head. Jacob experiences numerous entanglements and confrontations, but through everything: "when (the horn) of Jubilee is sounded they will ascend the Mountain". His destination is clear: to rise up to the pinnacle. We have, then, three main-characters each one representing a different type of religious belief, all of them positive in nature, but each one is different from the others. This, it seems, is the central message of the story which is restated as the story continues.
At this point the even numbers return as if to tell us that there is no absolute perfection, but rather one is dependent on the other - they are a pair. Each unit is first connected to the one which precedes it and afterwards to the one which follows it. "Abraham, Abraham" appears in verse 11, "et bincha, etýý yechidecha - your son, your only son" in 12 (in sharp contrast to verse 2): the site is called "the Lord will see... the Lord will be seen (yireh ... yeraeh)" in verse 14. The word "shenit - a second time" appears in 15, verse 16 repeats "et ... et". And verse 17 contains three "pairs": "barech avarechech - I will bless you exceedingly", "harba arbeh - I will exceedingly multiply" "kekochvei hashamaim vekechol - like the stars in the heavens and like the sand". The end of verse 17 and the beginning of 18 also create a pair: "and your descendants shall inherit (veyirash) - and in your descendants shall all... be blessed (vehitbarchu)". The main point: "because you have listened to My voice" (18) seems to stand alone but in fact is not alone at all! Its "mate" is the clause "since you have done this thing" (16) at the beginning of this part of the paragraph thus forming a framework for it which is the central theme of the entire chapter. It comes to tell us that the true test of the believer, already discussed previously in its various appearances is "to listen to the voice...".
We now come to the greatest surprise: verse 19 "forgets" Isaac. Abraham is mentioned, as are his servants. Those who were told "stay here with the ass" - the "extras" - in this dramatic production, at that point "rose up", to return to normal everyday life in Be'er Sheba. They were not mentioned in the story in vain merely as servants in . It was done to make clear to us that life is pluralistic in nature, full and complex, and there is life after death. Again - where is Isaac? He seems to be included in the words "and they went together "(19) but it no longer refers to "the two of them" (6,8) alone. The circle has become wider, and immediately moves into the next narrative (verses 20-24) which is a part of the Akedah story ("and it came to pass after these things..." from verse 1 is repeated in verse 20). The story teaches us about the way of the world and the flow of time, but the eternal test always remains: "to listen to the voice..." . Previously we read: "and G-d heard the voice of the lad..." (21, 17 in the story which precedes the Akedah, as previously noted), but that was not two-directional. Isaac, in contrast to Ishmael, expresses the gaze of man toward Heaven. Here we surely can find the hidden allusion: Divine choice ("G-d will show for himself...") is dependent on human response.
In summary, this story has three main sub-units: a) the wholeness of Abraham - to teach us that there is no limit to the devotion of a true believer, b) various expressions and degrees of faith - to teach us that "their opinions are not identical" but "there are many approaches to G-d", and c) the actual test as an enduring cornerstone of religious behavior which can be attained by everyone.
Prof. Moshe Hallamish
Department of Philosophy
Translated by: Phil Lerman
Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak