The Akeidah – The Tenth Trial
Abraham missed Ishmael greatly and after several years, went to visit him.
He arrived at Ishmael’s tent and found Ishmael’s wife sitting with her children. Abraham asked about his son and she told him that he had gone with his mother to get some fruit. Abraham asked for some water and some bread. She refused and would no longer acknowledge him, not even asking who he was. She then went into her tent and Abraham heard her beating her children and cursing her husband.
When your husband comes home, Abraham told her, ‘tell him: “An old man from Canaan came to see you. He said to tell you to change the threshold of your house for it is not good.”
When Ishmael returned home and heard what happened, he understood his father’s allusion and divorced his wife.
Three years later, Abraham repeated his journey and again did not find Ishmael at home. His new wife, however, asked Abraham to discount and refresh himself in the tent. Abraham declined, asking only for water. She brought him water and bread and urged him to partake of it, showering himself with hospitality. He blessed his son for having chosen so considerate a mate. Again, Abraham left a cryptic message for Ishmael, but this time it was warm and complimentary. When Ishmael returned home, his heart rejoiced that his father still had compassion for him, and that his new wife had found favor in Abraham’s eyes.
It is further related that from time to time, knowing that his father would favorably receive him, Ishmael repeatedly visited Abraham and apparently was there when God commanded Abraham regarding the Akiedah.
22:1 “And it happened after these things..” – The phrase always demotes a close connection with the preceding. In the case of this chapter, however, the opening phrase cannot refer to the preceding incidents because a period of twelve years elapsed between Abraham’s treaty with Abimelech and the Akiedah.
Some Sages explain that this event occurred ‘after the words’ (the Hebrew also translates to words) of Satan who accused Abraham (to God) saying: “Of all Abraham’s banquets he did not offer a single sacrifice to You!” God answered, “He prepared it all for his son’s sake yet if I were to say: ‘Sacrifice your son to Me’, he would not refuse.” Therefore, immediately after these words God tested Abraham.
Others say that it means: After the words of Ishmael who boasted to Isaac that he – Ishmael – had willingly allowed himself to be circumcised at the age of thirteen, whereas Isaac was circumcised as an infant and could not protest. By this taunt, as the Midrash further notes, Ishmael was indicating that he was dearer to God than Isaac. Isaac retorted: ‘You intimidate me by boasting about your sacrifice of one part of your body? If God were to tell me to sacrifice myself, I would not refuse.” Therefore, immediately after these words – the sort of words which would precipitate such a test – God put Abraham to the test.
Note: That Isaac’s age was thirty-seven at the Akiedah is derived as follows: Sarah was ninety years old at his birth, and 127 years at her death. Since Sarah died when she heard that her son had been taken to be slaughtered, it follows that Isaac was thirty-seven years old at the time.
Rambam continues that the Akiedah narrative includes two great principles of our faith. First, it portrays the extent of fear of God:..At the age of one hundred, Abraham finally is rewarded with a child who, he is promised, will become father of a great nation. How intensely he must had his hopes on Isaac! Yet as soon as he is commanded to slaughter him, he sets aside all considerations and undertakes to comply with God’s command not out of fear that God would punish him but because it is man’s duty to love and fear God … This is why the angel told him (verse 12): For now I know, i.e. your action proves that you truly deserved to be called a God-fearing man, and all people shall learn from you the extent of the fear of God. This was accomplished because Abraham was commanded to perform an act that surpasses any other sacrifice of property or life and belongs to the class of actions which are believed to be contrary to human feelings.
The second purpose was to demonstrate by Abraham’s example how a prophet must unquestioningly confirm the principles of the truth of prophecy – regardless of how difficult the command is to perform. His compliance with the command to slaughter his beloved Isaac would have been impossible were he not to believe in the truths of the vision he perceived.
22:2 “Please take..” – The mildness of the request was itself part of the test. Sensing that this was not a harshly worded absolute command, Abraham might have been encourages to beseech God to rescind it, especially since God had repeatedly promised him that his seed would descend from Isaac who was to be the link with the future destiny upon which God’s promises to Abraham were based. Thus, Abraham’s undertaking to sacrifice that son is perhaps among the profoundest personal experiences recorded. In addition to offering his son, it involved giving up the objectives toward which his life had been focused, for they had revolved around Isaac and the mission to preach that God loves goodness and abhors human sacrifice. Yet, true to his faithfulness, Abraham unquestioningly complied although the command was worded in a mild, supplicating manner.
Note: The Sages comment that Abraham spent the entire night persuading Sarah. He could not bring himself to let her know of the plan, for he was afraid she would try to stop him. On the other hand, he was afraid she would die of grief if he were to take Isaac without telling her. He therefore asked her o prepare a banquet during which he engaged her in conversation and told her that he recognized God when he was but three years old, yet Isaac was already an adult and not yet fully trained in God’s commandments.
‘There is a place not far from here,’ Abraham told Sarah, ‘where youths are educated. I will take him there and have him educated’ (see verse 19). Sarah cautiously consented and prepared provisions for the way, giving Abraham extensive instructions regarding the care of their son. She then gave Isaac one of the beautiful garments Abimelech had given her.
Sarah kissed her son and bade him farewell, praying that she live to see him again. The entire household wept at the touching scene, which lasted until sleep overtook them.
This is one of the reasons that Abraham awoke early in the morning, – planning to leave before Sarah awoke, lest she change her mind and not consent to let them go.
“..bring him up there as an offering..” – Rashi notes that God did not say slaughter him, because it was never his intention that Isaac should, in fact, be slaughtered, but only that he be brought up to the mountain and be prepared as a burnt offering. Therefore, once Abraham had brought him up, God told him to bring him back down.
“..upon one of the mountains..” – God first keeps the righteous in suspense in order to increase their reward. For embarking on a journey without knowing the final destination makes the trial even more difficult and calls for unqualified devotion, therefore carrying with it much greater reward.
Abraham was familiar with the land of Moriah but not with the mountain. Therefore, God told him to go to that country where he would be directed to the particular mountain. God chose that mountain because it was to be the site of his future abode; He therefore wanted to be the merit of the Akiedah to be perpetuated in the sacrifices which would be offered there.
22:3 “..awoke early..” – The implication ‘awoke’ is clear that Abraham actually slept that night. One can only marvel at his complete trust in God which allowed him to remain clam and serene despite the knowledge that he would set out the next morning to slaughter his beloved son.
22:4 Abraham saw a cloud he recognized as the manifestation of God’s Presence enveloping one of the mountains. He turned to his son and said: ‘Isaac, my son, do you see the same thing I see?’ ‘Yes’, he replied. Upon hearing this from Isaac, Abraham then turned to the two attendants and asked ‘Do you see the same thing I see?’ They answered ‘no’.
22:5 “..Stay here by yourselves..” – Abraham was telling them that the spectacle about to unfold was beyond their capacity to comprehend. They could never have understood Abraham’s motivation to slaughter his son; they might even have tried to prevent it. For the Akiedah marked the difference between the seed of Abraham and the children of Noah. Abraham and his descendants ignore the objections of the senses, the protestations of the rational and obvious. To them the only reality is the will of God. Until Moriah, all could go together; but now Abraham and Isaac had to walk alone. (Hirsch)
“..and we will return to you.” – The commentators explain that Abraham’s statement was divinely inspired and therefore a form of prophesy. God often causes the spirit of prophecy to enter the righteous as He did here in allowing Abraham to unwittingly prophesy that Isaac would return unscathed.
22:6 The Midrashim record that the satan appeared to Abraham as an old man and tried unsuccessfully to thwart this plans.
He asked Abraham: ‘Should an old man like you kill his son who was given to him in old age?’ ‘God Himself has commanded it,’ Abraham retorted.
To Isaac he appeared as a young man and confronted him saying, ‘…Your father plans to sacrifice you.’ ‘It does not matter; I shall follow him,’ Isaac answered.
The satan seeing that his scheme was spurned, disguised himself as a deep river. Abraham and Isaac entered the water which reached their necks.
Abraham then cried out to God: ‘I did not refuse even Your command to sacrifice my beloved son, although You had promised me that through him Your Name shall be known throughout the world. But the waters have reached the soul (Psalms 69:2): If I or my son Isaac drown, who will assert the Unity of Your Name?’
God then rebuked the satan and the water disappeared.
The satan then appeared to Sarah and asked her where Abraham and Isaac were. ‘He took Isaac to an academy to study,’ she answered. ‘You will never see your son again’ the satan said coldly. ‘May God do as He wills,’ Sarah replied.
Nevertheless, she died from the shock of later hearing the account of the Akiedah. See 23:2
22:7 The Midrash comments: Why the stress on the paternal relationship: his father, … my father? ~ So that Abraham should have compassion with Isaac. For as the Midrash points out, though the satan could not dissuade Isaac, his attempt nevertheless had some minor effect upon him and induced him to plead indirectly to his father.
Abraham responded to Isaac’s implied doubt. ‘Here I am, my son,’ i.e. you are still my son, my love for you is undiminished. Now that Isaac was reassured of his father’s love, he was convinced that Abraham could not wish to slaughter him. That being the case, Isaac asked, ‘Where is the lamb for the offering?’ Abraham replied (verse 8), that the choice of the offering was the will of God: ‘You are to become a sacrifice because He desire it – and we both place His command above all else.’ Hearing this, Isaac resolved to fulfill God’s will and, as the next verse declares, ‘the two of them went together’ ~ of single mind and with a single purpose.
22:8 Hirsch comments that Isaac’s greatness in this trial ranks equal to Abraham’s. Isaac had not been commanded directly by God; he heard from his father as Oral Law. Nevertheless, the first Jewish son is ready to sacrifice himself for a tradition he knew only from his father. This created the precedent for the devotion of future generations to the traditions of their fathers. The Sages ask (Sanhedrin 89b) how Isaac could believe in such an extraordinary ruling, and allow himself to be a human sacrifice? How dared he do so? The answer is ~ where a prophet’s veracity is proven, one may obey his prophecy.
22:9 “..Abraham built the altar there,..” – Not an altar but the altar, which the Midrashim explain as referring to a previously existing altar. It was the altar on which the ancients had sacrificed, and which Abraham now rebuilt after centuries of disuse.
God pointed out the altar to Abraham and said: ‘This is the altar; where Cain and Abel sacrificed; and where Noah and his sons sacrificed.’
This was a known tradition that the place where David and Solomon built the altar is the threshing floor of Aravnah (II Samuel 24:18 See also in II Chronicles 3:1 where he is called Arnon) was the same place where Abraham built the altar upon which he bound Isaac … it was the soil from which Adam was created.’
The Torah again emphasizes the orderliness with which Abraham proceeded: First he built the altar, then arranged the wood, then tied his son, etc. Abraham maintained his full presence of mind throughout and no act was impulsive. (Abarbanel)
“..he bound Isaac..” – Why did he tie him? According to the Midrash, Isaac said: ‘Father, I am a vigorous young man and you are old. I fear that when I see the slaughtering knife in your hand I will instinctively jerk and possibly injure you. I might also injure myself and render myself unfit for sacrifice. Or my involuntary movement might make you unable to perform the ritual slaughter properly. Therefore bind me so well that at the final moment, I will not be deficient in dutiful honor and respect, and therefore not fulfill the commandment properly! Thereupon, Abraham immediately bound Isaac. Could he have bound a thirty-seven year old man without his consent?
Isaac then said: ‘Father, make haste and execute the will of your Creator. Do not delay. After you have slaughtered and thoroughly burned me as an offering, gather my ashes, bring them to my mother, and place them in a casket in her chamber. Whenever she enters the chamber and sees the casket, she will remember her son and weep for him.
‘O beloved father,’ Isaac continued, ‘what will you tell Mother when she asks what became of me? What will you both do in your old age?’
The tears welled up in Abraham’s eyes and he answered: ‘My son, we know we will not long survive you, and our death is near. But meanwhile, he who comforted us before you were born will comfort us until the day of our death.’
22:10 “..to slaughter his son.” – is mentioned so that we may infer the principle that specific intention is required for the slaughter of sacrifices.
The Sages movingly depict the intensity of emotion that enveloped Abraham and the heavenly angels. Abraham felt a mixture of joy, that he was fulfilling God’s will, and sadness, that his beloved son was about to die: He stretched forth his hands to take the knife, while in fatherly compassion, the tears streamed from his eyes and dripped into Isaac’s eyes . Yet in spite of that he rejoiced to do his Creator’s will. (Midrash) Abraham looked at Isaac, and Isaac looked up at the angels on high. Isaac saw them, but Abraham did not. The angels were also weeping as it were, and their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. (Rashi to 27:1) … The angels appealed, ‘Sovereign of the Universe … was Abraham not hospitable to strangers and did he not lead them into Your service by proclaiming You as the source of all the blessings of the world? Did not Sarah’s menstruation return in Abraham’s merit that she could bear Isaac? Will now the promise made to Abraham regarding his offspring be broken? The knife is at his throat. How long will you wait?’
22:11 ‘And an angel of Hasem called to him from heaven.” – When the Ministering Angels saw how the father wholeheartedly bound his son, and the son wholeheartedly allowed himself to be bound, the angels pleaded to God. ‘Lord of the Universe, do not let Abraham’s progeny be erased from the world.’
God replied: ‘Was it not you who approached Me with charges about Abraham’s ingratitude, which instigated this trial? Now you come to Me to plead for compassion?’
He nevertheless beckoned an angel of mercy to call Abraham, as it is written ‘an angel of Hashem called to him from heaven’. (Midrash HaGadol)
The angel called and the divine Word ‘spoke’ – i.e. the actual communication came from God; the angel merely called Abraham’s name to draw his attention to the communication about to be heard from God.
God opened the heavens and said (verse 16) “By Myself I have sworn…”
‘..Abraham! Abraham!” – The repetition expresses love and according to the Midrash, it also expresses urgency.
Others, too, were addressed: ‘Jacob, Jacob’ (46:2); ‘Moses, Moses’ (Exodus 3:4); “Samuel, Samuel’ (I Samuel 3:10) – The repetition indicates that He spoke both to him and to future generations: There is no generation which does not contain men like Abraham, and there is no generation which does not contain men like Jacob, Moses and Samuel ~ each of whose name was likewise repeated. Yafeh Toar explains that the four respectively represent philanthropy, service of God, Torah Study, and civil justice, which may be regarded as the fundamentals of civilization ~ and accordingly each age must have some who represent them. (Midrash)
22:12 “..Do not stretch out your hand..” – Abraham protested, ‘Then I will have come here for no purpose, I will wound him and cause some blood to flow!’ God answered, ‘Nor do anything to him..’
Note: This must be understood in the light of how intensely Abraham wished to perform God’s command. The dialogue is not meant to imply that he was eager to harm his son. Rather, Abraham’s reaction should be understood in the light of the Zohar which explains that when the angel said to him: ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad’, Abraham was distressed because he erroneously understood it to indicate that his offspring was unacceptable and that his labor preparation had been for nothing. He therefore attempted to demonstrate his desire to comply with the original command even in some lesser form than originally intended.
“..for now I know..” – When God sees that an individual has within himself great love for and devotion to Him, He tests him so that his spiritual greatness can be demonstrated and thus revealed to all.
“..you are a God fearing man, ..” – Radak explains that Abraham’s fear as expressed in this trial was an expression of love, for he did not fear in the physical sense that one seeks to avoid pain or punishment. Rather he feared that his soul would be deemed unworthy. He loved his son more than himself, yet he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac in order to safeguard his own place in the World To Come ~ so great was his love for God and his reluctance to forfeit the opportunity to cleave to Him.
Love and fear are not separate and distinct forms of divine service, rather they are one. Love leads to fear, fear compliments love but is even a higher level than love. The more a parent loves his child, the more that he will fear that the child may be endangered. Similarly, the more one loves God, the more he will fear committing a deed that will cast dishonor upon His Holy Name. Therefore, it was only from Abraham’s fear of God that the extent of his love was determined.
“..from Me.” – Ikkarim 2:28 explains: Angels are spiritual beings that are not subject to the flaws to which material beings are liable; such as envy, hatred, strife. They are free from all evil, and always choose what is good and right in the eyes of God. Therefore, when they are sent to man, they are given permission to speak in the name of God, as we clearly see in many instances where an angel speaks in the name of the One Who sent him. The reason for this is because the angel cannot disobey the command of God and alter the message or speak of his own volition. For this very reason an angel is called ‘messenger’ because he is not a distinct intellect, but the bearer of a mission from God. If he changed the message he would no longer be an angel….
22:13 “..instead of his son.” – The Torah specifies this to indicate that with each part of the sacrificial service which he performed on the ram, Abraham prayed to God that He accept that particular act as if it were being done to his son ~ ‘..As though his blood were sprinkled; as though he were flayed; as though he were consumed and became ashes’ (Rashi)
22:14 Hashem Yireh = “Hashem will see.” – The plain meaning is: God will seek out for Himself this place for the dwelling of His Shechinah and the offering of sacrifices. (Rashi)
Hashem will see to it for all generations, that the merit of the Akeidah shall remain with Isaac’s descendants for all time.
22:15 “The angel of Hashem called to Abraham a second time..” – Hirsch explains that the angel appeared a second time, because after having sacrificed the ram and named the mountain, Abraham had turned this notable event into the external standard of behavior for his descendants. Only then did the angel announce the great blessing that lay in store.
22:16 “’By Myself I swear,..” – Before the Akeidah, God’s commitment to Abraham had been merely a covenant – something that was dependent upon the mutual fulfillment of both parties, although it was not dependent on external conditions. Now, however, it became an oath – completely unconditional. Abraham had fulfilled the highest possible demand and thereby had indelibly inscribed in his descendants the ultimate allegiance to God no matter how far they might stray along the way. (Hirsch)
God had already promised that He would increase Abraham’s children as the stars of the heaven (15:5) and the dust of the earth (13:16). Now God assured Abraham by an oath on His name that his descendants would possess the gates of their enemies. Thus, even should they sin grievously they would never be completely destroyed nor permanently fall into the hands of the enemy. Accordingly this was a solemn assurance of the ultimate redemption. (Ramban)
“..that since you have done this thing..” – The Midrash asks: These were ten trials, yet God attaches everything to this one thing? This, however, was the final trial which counterbalanced all the others, for had he not submitted to it, the merit of the others would have been lost.
The merit of the Akeidah is two-fold: through it, the highest moral perfection became part of Isaac and his descendants, and its example remained before them at all times. This assured that Israel would always survive as the nation of God. (Hirsch)
There were two aspects of Abraham’s devotion: 1. The act of placing Isaac upon the altar and the readiness to slaughter him. 2. Abraham’s reluctance to free Isaac from the altar thereby forfeiting the opportunity to serve God by giving up what was more precious to him than anything on earth.
22:17-18 “..that I shall surely bless you..” – The blessings given to Abraham were unconditional; God did not say that they would be granted only if his descendants scrupulously obeyed the commands of the Torah. It is this promise to which we refer when we beseech God ~ Remember what You swore to our forefathers, “like the stars of heaven will I increase your seed. We pray that God will fulfill His oath even though we are undeserving.
“..inherit the gate of its enemies..” – The capture of the gate, the stronghold of a city, is symbolic of its downfall. Therefore, ‘gate’ is used in this connotation, for they will possess the city by inheriting or seizing its gate.
Abarbanel explains that the three blessings of these two verses were given Abraham measure for measure. 1. Because he was prepared to render himself childless, he was blessed with abundant offspring; 2. Because he would have forfeited his inheritance (by slaughtering his only son), he was promised that his offspring would inherit the Land; 3. Because he was ready to incur the curses of the populous for having slaughtered his son, he was promised that all would bless themselves by his offspring.
22:19 “Abraham returned to his young men,..” – Where was Isaac? According to the Midrash, Abraham sent him to Shem, son of Noah, to study the Torah and he remained there for three years.
Note: Abraham felt compelled to return to Beer Sheva, site of the eshel (21:33), because it was there that he had experienced spiritual tranquility and had carried on his mission of proclaiming God’s Name. And as Ramban suggests in 23:3, he went first to the site of his eshel to give thanks for the miracle that befell him.
22:20 Hoffman points out that the birth of Rebecca at this time is another instance of Divine Providence with which the story of the Patriarchs is replete. Because she was born, Isaac, who had submitted himself to becoming a ‘perfect offering’, did not have to be defiled by marriage to one of the Canaanite women. It is to accentuate this fact that the Torah does not mention the genealogy of Terach’s family previously.
Ramban observes that God must have performed a miracle in giving children to Nachor and his wife in their old age, for it appears from the verse that Abraham was unaware previously that they had children. Milcah, like her sister Sarah miraculously gave birth to children in her old age.
The Midrash notes, when God had ‘remembered Sarah’, He remembered ‘all the other barren women in the world and they too, including Milcah, conceived.
22:21-24 According to one view, Utz is identified with Job. For the Holy One, Blessed Be He, told Abraham after the Akeida that many, more severe trials, should have befallen him, but now that Utz, (who some believe was in fact Job) was born, they would not. For God told Abraham (Ecclesiastes 9:7): ‘Go, eat your bread with you … God has already approved your deed.’
“And Bethuel begot Rebecca.” – The entire genealogy was recorded only to lead up to this key verse. (Rashi)
Laban is not mentioned here although he was older than Rebecca, because the Torah was concerned only with mentioning the eight children of Milcah. Rebecca was mentioned only because her genealogy was necessary for the narrative. (Ramban)
The Torah includes the genealogy of the concubine as well to establish that all of these children of Nachor were worthy to marry the children of Abraham, and they were all included in Abraham’s injunction to Eliezer in 24:38. (Ramban)