Midrash

Abraham, Isaac, and God: Promises and Partings (More Midrash Ep. 4)

Listen to More Midrash on Soundcloud, or subscribe on iTunes.

The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 56:11

“The angel of Adonai called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I swear…” (Genesis 22:15-16). Why was there a need for this oath? [Abraham] said to [God]: Swear to me that You will not test me nor my son Isaac anymore. A parable (mashal) to one who jumped the banks of a swiftly flowing river and jumped his son along with him.

Davar Acher (Another Interpretation): Why was there a need for this oath? Rabbi Chama bar Rabbi Chanina: [Abraham] said to [God]: Swear to me that You will not test me anymore. A parable (mashal) to a king who married a noblewoman. She bore him a first son, and then he divorced her. [He remarried her and she bore him] a second son, and he divorced her. A third son, and he divorced her. After she bore him a tenth son, all of them gathered and said to him, “Swear to us that you will not divorce our mother anymore! So too, after Abraham was tested with a tenth test, he said to God: Swear to me that You will not test me anymore.

Rabbi Chanin said: “Because you have done this…I will bestow My blessing” (Genesis 22:16-17). This was the tenth test, and you say that because you have done this one?” Rather, this was the last test, which was equal to all of them, for had he not accepted it upon himself, he would have lost everything. [Another wording: He would have lost all that he had done.]

“I will bestow my blessing (vareich a-va-rech’cha)” (Genesis 22:17). A blessing for the father and a blessing for the son.

“And make…as numerous (v’harbah arbeh)” (Genesis 22:17). An increase for the father and an increase for the son.

“And your descendants shall seize the gate of their foes” (Genesis 22:17). Rabbi said: This refers to Tadmor. Fortunate are those who will see the downfall of Tadmor, which participated in the destruction of two Temples. Rabbi Yudan and Rabbi Chanina – one of them said: At the destruction of the First Temple [Tadmor] supplied eighty thousand bowman [Another wording: shooters] and at the destruction of the Second Temple it furnished eight thousand bowman.

“Abraham then returned to his servants” (Genesis 22:19). And where was Isaac? Rabbi Berechyah said in the name of the Rabbis of “over there” (i.e. Babylonia): [Abraham] sent [Isaac] to Shem to study Torah under him. A parable to a woman who became wealthy through her spindle. She said: Inasmuch as I became rich through this spindle, it shall not ever leave my possession. So too, Abraham said: All that has come to be mine is only because I occupied myself with Torah and mitzvot. Therefore, I do not want that these things should ever depart from my descendants.

Rabbi Chanina said: [Abraham] sent [Isaac] at night because of the [evil] eye. For from the time that Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah came out from the fiery furnace, their names are not mentioned anymore. So where did they go to? Rabbi Eliezer said: They died through spit. Rabbi Yose said: They died through the [evil] eye. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: They moved away to a different place and went to Joshua son of Jehozadak to learn Torah from him. Thus it is written, “Listen now, O Joshua, the High Priest: you and your companions who are sitting before you, for they are men of a wonder” (Zechariah 3:8). Rabbi Chanina said: It was with this understanding that Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah went down into the fiery furnace – with the understanding that a wonder would be effected through them.

Understanding the Midrash

Genesis 22, the infamous Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, has perplexed and outraged people for thousands of years. Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? How could Abraham not say a word to protect his child? Today’s midrash, though, looks closer at a different set of problems, towards the end of the story. Abraham has already been stopped by an angel calling out his name, and he has already offered a ram in place of Isaac. All that’s left is to leave, it would seem, but of course it isn’t that easy. Here’s how the story concludes (Genesis 22:15-19):

The angel of Adonai called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I swear, declares Adonai: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheva; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheva.

There are at least three odd elements in this passage. First, God swears to bless Abraham. Why does God need to promise him in such strict and formal language? Second, what’s the deal with this blessing and its connect to the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son? Third, what happens to Isaac? The text just tells us that Abraham returns to his servants and they leave to Beer-sheva. Isaac’s name is omitted.

So there are three main components under investigation in this midrash: (1) God’s oath; (2) God’s blessing; and (3) Isaac’s exit.

The midrash notes that the biblical text seems to offer no reason that God would make an oath to Abraham. It imagines a provocation from Abraham, insisting that he and his son be tested no longer. The loyal servant puts his foot down. Or, in the words of the parable, leaps across the river with his son.

“The angel of Adonai called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I swear…” (Genesis 22:15-16). Why was there a need for this oath? [Abraham] said to [God]: Swear to me that You will not test me nor my son Isaac anymore. A parable (mashal) to one who jumped the banks of a swiftly flowing river and jumped his son along with him.

Davar Acher: Why was there a need for this oath? Rabbi Chama bar Rabbi Chanina: [Abraham] said to [God]: Swear to me that You will not test me anymore. A parable (mashal) to a king who married a noblewoman. She bore him a first son, and then he divorced her. [He remarried her and she bore him] a second son, and he divorced her. A third son, and he divorced her. After she bore him a tenth son, all of them gathered and said to him, “Swear to us that you will not divorce our mother anymore! So too, after Abraham was tested with a tenth test, he said to God: Swear to me that You will not test me anymore.

The second opinion subtly shifts from an oath to Abraham and his son, to being about Abraham solely, but situating him between a demanding God and a demanding son. The parable makes little sense at first.

Mashal Nimshal
King God
Married a noblewoman Abraham
She bears him a son Passes a test
He divorces her
x10 10 Tests
All of the sons gather
Abraham confronts God
Swear you’ll stop divorcing our mother! Swear you’ll stop testing me!

The primary confusion is in the apparent equation of sons with tests. In the parable, we never hear how the woman feels. Her sons eventually band together and tell the king to stop divorcing their mother, but it isn’t entirely clear whether that is primarily for her benefit or for theirs. In other words, is she in pain from the whiplash of relation and disconnection, and they seek to stop the emotional damage, or are they in need of a stable parental structure?

In the nimshal, however, it is Abraham who confronts God! The sons seem to indicate a successful outcome of a trial relation, but can test results truly speak for themselves in this situation? In a way, the parable manages in sophisticated fashion to evoke the silent man of faith that matches how the Torah describes Abraham, while at the same time allowing his actions to speak on his behalf – at ten tests, is any more pain needed? Simultaneously, the personalization of the test results, their transmutation into children in the parable, echo the human toll that comes from these tests, and the son in particular evokes Isaac. The parable says, Enough!, and subtly (or not so subtly) rebukes the pattern from the get-go. Or the accumulation of results/sons matters, strength building up to argue against the condition.

The second element of the midrash is God’s blessing.

Rabbi Chanin said: “Because you have done this…I will bestow My blessing” (Genesis 22:16-17). This was the tenth test, and you say that because you have done this one?” Rather, this was the last test, which was equal to all of them, for had he not accepted it upon himself, he would have lost everything. [Another wording: He would have lost all that he had done.]

“I will bestow my blessing (vareich a-va-rech’cha)” (Genesis 22:17). A blessing for the father and a blessing for the son.

“And make…as numerous (v’harbah arbeh)” (Genesis 22:17). An increase for the father and an increase for the son.

“And your descendants shall seize the gate of their foes” (Genesis 22:17). Rabbi said: This refers to Tadmor. Fortunate are those who will see the downfall of Tadmor, which participated in the destruction of two Temples. Rabbi Yudan and Rabbi Chanina – one of them said: At the destruction of the First Temple [Tadmor] supplied eighty thousand bowman [Another wording: shooters] and at the destruction of the Second Temple it furnished eight thousand bowman.

Rabbi Chanin suggests that the tenth test was “equal to all of them”. Perhaps that means that this test had particular suffering and merit, or simply that as the final test in a chain, it was the last opportunity to succeed or fail. Wherever the chain has the potential to break, the entirety depends on it being upheld.

The common emphatic biblical phrasing of infinitive plus conjugated verb, which looks like a doubling of sorts, is often interpreted in rabbinic readings as referring to two different scenarios. So we get for “surely bless” (vareich avarech’cha) a blessing for both father and son, and for “surely make numerous” (v’harbah arbeh) an increase for both father and son. The clarification that the blessing will be for both highlights the traumatic nature of the trial wherein the son nearly died, while the close proximity of father and son in these short phrases becomes ironic foreshadowing of the third part of the midrash which will wonder why Isaac does not accompany Abraham home.

The final part of the blessing lists a general quality of “seizing the gate of their foes”. Perhaps because the gate is singular, suggesting one particular enemy, or because the rabbis prefer particulars over generalizations anyway, Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] identifies the enemy as Tadmor (also known as Palmyra, from the Hebrew tamar, date-palm). Tadmor was an important oasis city in the Syrian desert. I don’t know the background of the claim that Tadmor helped with the destruction of both Temples, but it seems to be identified as a principle enemy of Israel. I wonder if it might be an easier rhetorical target than Rome, which controlled the land of Israel at the time these rabbis were teaching and might not appreciate being told of future military invasion, or if Tadmor is chosen because of links to both destructions, not just the most recent one.

The third part of the midrash focuses on Isaac’s disappearance from the text after he is saved from slaughter.

“Abraham then returned to his servants” (Genesis 22:19). And where was Isaac? Rabbi Berechyah said in the name of the Rabbis of “over there” (i.e. Babylonia): [Abraham] sent [Isaac] to Shem to study Torah under him. A parable to a woman who became wealthy through her spindle. She said: Inasmuch as I became rich through this spindle, it shall not ever leave my possession. So too, Abraham said: All that has come to be mine is only because I occupied myself with Torah and mitzvot. Therefore, I do not want that these things should ever depart from my descendants.

Rabbi Chanina said: [Abraham] sent [Isaac] at night because of the [evil] eye. For from the time that Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah came out from the fiery furnace, their names are not mentioned anymore. So where did they go to? Rabbi Eliezer said: They died through spit. Rabbi Yose said: They died through the [evil] eye. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: They moved away to a different place and went to Joshua son of Jehozadak to learn Torah from him. Thus it is written, “Listen now, O Joshua, the High Priest: you and your companions who are sitting before you, for they are men of a wonder” (Zechariah 3:8). Rabbi Chanina said: It was with this understanding that Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah went down into the fiery furnace – with the understanding that a wonder would be effected through them.

Where was Isaac? Rabbi Berechyah suggests Babylon, to study Torah with Shem. Remember that Abraham had helped establish Shem’s place of learning, his yeshiva. Then we get another parable. The woman is Abraham, the spindle is Torah, and Abraham acknowledges that everything comes from his occupation with Torah and wants to make sure that Isaac is grounded in it as well. What’s astonishing is that the learning comes from Shem and not from Abraham himself. After all, didn’t Abraham strengthen Shem with mitzvot? Perhaps the relationship between father and son has been impaired.

Shem’s yeshiva seems to be where characters in Genesis go when we lose track of them.

Rabbi Chanina on the other hand suggests that Isaac is sent home at night out of fear that the evil eye will cause danger to befall him, balancing the miraculous delivery. He builds off a teaching from various rabbis about what happened after Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah were miraculously delivered from the fiery furnace (in the book of Daniel). One rabbi says they died from spit – that is, they survived the element of fire, but the element of water (or human hatred) did them in. Another rabbi says the evil eye worked its magic and balanced the tab with their deaths. A third rabbi says they went to Joshua son of Jehozadak to learn Torah (like Isaac and Shem!).

The conclusion returns to Rabbi Chanina, who notes that these characters understood that a wonder was happening through them (not necessarily to them). There is some element of humility, gratitude, and a desire to ground in learning and relating to God, after an unexpected escape from disaster. This counters the tendency to attribute good things to ourselves, to assume our success stems from ourselves.

So what can we take away for ourselves from examining this midrash? I find the parable of Torah as a spindle particularly moving. It suggests that involvement with Torah is a craft, that one can spin new yarns out of old threads – as the midrashic process demonstrates. You can create and witness new forms and new insights, and when engaged with care and skill, Torah can enrich us. Like a spindle, or any other tool of craft, Torah is there for anyone who chooses to take it up, to learn its particular discipline, and to embrace this sacred tool for living a vivid and ethical life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.