And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham," and he replied, "Here I am."
~Genesis 22: 1
We are so used to reading these words in light of knowing what the subsequent test is, that is, the Akeidah, that we forget to read the verse as it really is. While in shul on Rosh Hashana, I really read this verse and was completely amazed to realize what it could read like or could sound like on further consideration. Do you know what the verse actually seems to be saying?
God tested Abraham- and said to him, "Abraham." If you read this sentence carefully, you see that the one follows the other! God tested Abraham, and what was the test? It was that he said to him, "Abraham." The test is God's calling Abraham! It says "vayomar eilav," not "lomar." If it is, as we often assume, that the test is the Akeidah itself, the verse should read, "And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham, saying, 'Take your son...." and so forth. But that is not the way the verse is written. The statement of God's testing Abraham is followed by the actual test, this being God's call.
But what kind of test is this? What does it mean that God tested Abraham by simply calling his name, "Abraham?" And what does Abraham's answer, "Hinneni," here I am, entail?
Abraham did pass his test. He was the first person to truly respond to God's call and God's command, the first person to answer "I am here." I am here, I am present; whatever you wish of me, I will do.
Consider those who were called upon by God- and their responses. The first and most obvious place in which God calls upon man is in his sad question, "Ayeka?" Where are you?
- ט וַיִּקְרָא יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-הָאָדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, אַיֶּכָּה.
9 And the LORD God called unto the man, and said unto him: 'Where art thou?' (Genesis 3:9)
What about the next time God calls upon man? What happens there?
ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-קַיִן, אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ
9 And the LORD said unto Cain: 'Where is Abel thy brother?'
How does Cain respond? Does he take responsibility for his actions, draw himself up and admit, as it were, "Hinneni?" Here I am! This is what I did; these were my actions. I killed my brother. Does Cain act in such a manner? No! He has inherited his father's flaw; in the same way that Adam was unable to defend himself before God, to take responsibility for what he had done, and passed the blame to his wife, so too Cain chooses to pass the blame to anyone but himself. "I know not; am I my brother's keeper?"
By the time God comes to Noah, he no longer calls upon people. He commands. Note the difference when it comes to his words to Noah. He no longer questions; there is no gentle question, "Noah?" There is no "Where are you?" Instead there is a command, harsh and not to be disobeyed.
- יג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי--כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.
13 And God said unto Noah: 'The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
יד עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי-גֹפֶר, קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת-הַתֵּבָה; וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ, בַּכֹּפֶר.
14 Make thee an ark of gopher wood; with rooms shalt thou make the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.
~Genesis 6: 13-14
When God first interacts with Abraham, he uses this same language of command. He commands Abraham to leave his country, his land.
א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. (Genesis 12: 1)
This is Abraham's test and it is the test he passes, far more than the actual binding and sacrifice of his son. We are so enamored by this sacrifice because we forget how common it was during the time. To Abraham, such a request would not have been peculiar or frightening, as it would to us Americans. The Deity had changed his mind; he now desired the choicest of Abraham's possessions, his very son. Abraham's response was natural, even if emotionally bound to his son, he would know, in the manner that all men knew, that the Deity came first.
More importantly, and something that I somehow had not really thought about until this Rosh Hashana, Abraham had done this before! I think it is in gradeschool that we are somehow taught to minimize the depth of love that Abraham felt for his son Ishmael. Abraham loved him dearly and had no desire to cast him away, to send him out; it was only at the behest of God that he bowed to his wife's sounder judgement. At school, we are so busy priding ourselves on our descent from Isaac that we do not allow Ishmael a fair chance; we defame and malign him in order to make him seem lesser or somehow cruel. But consider Abraham's relationship to Ishmael. Yes, he was not the chosen child, the one who's birth was predicted by three angels. And no, he was not Abraham's child through Sarah, the woman he loved. But he was still his child and still beloved (do we not all know the Midrash that Abraham did not know which son to offer up till God said "Isaac" explicitly?) Abraham had no wish to send him away.
And how he sent them! He took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. True, God promised him that the child would be the father to a great nation. And certainly Abraham would believe God's word. But would it not tear his soul in two to give up his child, to send he and his mother out into the desert with the barest provisions, mere bread and water? (Incidentally, if you're reading the Torah as literature, one has to wonder whether this "bread and water" idea is similar to the bread and water idea mentioned by the angels, in which chase Hagar and Ishmael were amply provided for and ought to have had many sumptuous meals.) But according to the literal meaning, what must it have cost for Abraham to obey God and send away the woman with whom he had conceived a child and that very child, perhaps to die? Do you think this was done so lightly? No! Abraham grieved for this, even knowing that Ishmael was to father a nation; the very fact that God must comfort him "Be not distressed" (Genesis 21: 12) demonstrates how inconsolable and unhappy Abraham was.
After having sent away one son, do you not think that Abraham would have attempted to take care not to become overly attached to his new son, the child who had just been weaned (assuming you're reading this chronologically?) That would be the logical response, having just seen that God demanded that he send away a child- but I doubt Abraham responded that way; Abraham is the kind to seize life, not to create barriers for fear that they would be broken. Depending on the way you read him, however, Abraham would have become cynical and assumed that God would demand such a sacrifice of him at some point (seeing as He had already demanded Abraham's sending away one son) or he would have been truly broken by the request, since Isaac was all that he had left.
If I may digress for a moment, there are a few things I want to point out because I found them interesting:
A. Sarah tells Abraham "Cast out this bondwoman and her son." But Abraham's response is to be "very distressed on account of his son." Only his son! Not the bondwoman! God's response to Abraham suggests a rebuke, because He says, "Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman..." (Genesis 21: 12) God does place the lad before the bondwoman (seeing as he knows the son is more important to Abraham) but he mentions Hagar nonetheless. This reminds me a little of Moses' rearrangement of priorities by the tribes of Gad, Asher and Reuven. They wanted to stay in the land for "their cattle and their children;" Moses says they ought to stay "for their children and their cattle." The children come first. By God, God is pointing out to Abraham that he ought to be feeling distressed about his bondwoman, too.
B. If you read Genesis 21: 19 carefully, you notice a marked resemblance to an episode by Bilam.
- יט וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת-עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם; וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת-הַחֵמֶת, מַיִם, וַתַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-הַנָּעַר.
19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
Now compare to Numbers 22: 31.
- לא וַיְגַל יְהוָה, אֶת-עֵינֵי בִלְעָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלֻפָה בְּיָדוֹ; וַיִּקֹּד וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, לְאַפָּיו.
31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.
I wonder how many things I walk right past and don't see...
All right, end of digression. It appears that Abraham's true test wasn't so much whether he would offer Isaac on the altar, as that outcome was already foreseen due to his prior behavior when it came to sending Hagar and Ishmael away. You may argue it's quite different to kill your son than to send him and his mother off into the middle of the desert. I would argue that a) for all Abraham knew, he was killing his son- he'd only given them some bread and water and sent them into a desert! Though yes, he did have God's promise and b) it might be even worse to have a son who hates you for having cast him off. This might be worse from a strategic point of view; that is, wouldn't such a son want revenge? But aside from that, the pain and guilt that one must live with every day, never knowing where his son is, what has happened to him (because if you read the literal text, not the aggadata, Abraham never interacts with him again) could potentially be worse than a known, if horrifying truth, that your son is dead (and that you killed him.)
Hence Abraham's test was how he would offer Isaac on the altar. Would he do so reluctantly? Joyfully? When called by God, would he respond "Hinneni," I am here, I am ready to obey? Or would he attempt to hide from God, as others had in the past? Abraham passed his test; when God called, he answered; when God told him to act, he acted. Abraham is God's first man-at-arms, standing at attention, ready to obey, reliable and trusted, unlike the deserters in God's past.