Abraham’s Test and Recognizing Our Need to Change: Commentary on Parashah Vayeira; Genesis 18:1–22:24
“Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test.“(Genesis 22:1)
The Akeidah starts out so innocently, but quickly spins out of control. This is no ordinary test, no ordinary form of service. God asks Abraham to sacrifice the son he loves: Isaac. This is not merely a decree of death for Isaac, but a decree that Isaac die at Abraham’s own hands.
What causes God to choose Abraham and Isaac? Why is Isaac bound before being spared?
We could say this request is a test of Abraham’s devotion to God.
Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher, speculated that the command to sacrifice Isaac was a test of motives to determine whether Abraham would respond out of reverence for God. The angel’s statement tells us that Abraham clearly passed the test.
If this logic is applied to our own lives, what would that kind of theology look like? Perhaps the suffering we face allows us to demonstrate our finer qualities by rising above the suffering, growing in the midst of our pain, and learning something about ourselves. Of course, this concept has its own problems: Why must it be necessary to suffer first? What makes the test necessary in the first place? And why must the test be so difficult, so wrenching, so hurtful?
This could also be a test of Abraham’s self-control: Is he able to change course when it becomes clear that the current path is profoundly destructive?
Let’s look at the text when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac:
“They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar… bound his son Isaac, [and] laid him on the altar… and picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the Eternal called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.'” (Genesis 22:9-12)
This is a moment of decision: Will Abraham shrug off this new request and continue with fulfilling God’s initial command or will he heed the angel’s new set of instructions?
According to the text in Vayeira: “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” (Genesis 22:13)
It is at this moment that we become aware we’ve been holding our breath throughout the reading. This is the moment when we finally exhale. It is at this point that we hear the news that the terror is over; Abraham has fulfilled God’s will.
If this logic is applied to our own lives, what would that look like? The real test was not the act of bringing Isaac up to the mountain for the sacrifice – for such things were done in the ancient world. This story is so terrifying because we can imagine Abraham completing the task.
The real test was the angel’s demand that Abraham not go through with it.Abraham had to heed the call and believe that he heard the angel correctly. Abraham had to understand that this new request was genuine and that he had the capacity to hear, understand, and act upon it. Abraham had to have the humility to recognize that he was being called to step down.
God tells us to change our ways all the time, just like with Abraham. That call goes out daily, continuously. We can change.
Abraham’s virtue was not in his willingness to sacrifice his son, but in his willingness to heed the second command, even though it meant changing his ways.
Abraham did not repeat the destructive history of his past. In last week’s portion, he was willing to put Sarah at risk by claiming she was his sister and later put Hagar at risk by allowing Sarah to mistreat her. In this week’s portion, he heeds God’s command and steps down.
It is difficult to learn from your mistakes or take a new path when you have committed to the old one. That is true even if the old path was destructive. We do not like to change. God’s challenge to us is to answer that call: “Do not raise your hand against the boy” (Genesis 22: 12) – even when we are ready to do otherwise. When God says, “Do not raise your hand against the boy,” the “boy” could be anything in your life worthy of protection: your family, your work, or your own gentle heart. Do not harm it. The hardest part is recognizing our need to change.