Phantom Akeidah: Abraham's Sacrifice Of Ishmael?
Phantom Akeidah: Abraham's Sacrifice Of Ishmael?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Phantom Akeidah: The Sacrifice of Ishmael Part I
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and I want to welcome you to our new class: Was There a Binding of Ishmael or, The Phantom Akeidah and Other Biblical Surprises. I think I've used both of those titles interchangeably and hopefully I will settle down to one or the other. As its title suggests, we're going to be looking over the next seven weeks at a few different stories. We're going to start with the story of the Akeidah - the Binding of Isaac, a very, very difficult story. It's one of those things that I think, again, we learn in Kindergarten and as little kids - I'm not sure why we teach little kids this story, because it's a very tough story, it's not the kind of thing that you teach kids at bedtime, it's not a good bedtime story. G-d inexplicably comes out of the clouds and calls upon Abraham to kill his son, only to say no, that he's not - he shouldn't carry it out in the end. But why would He do such a thing? What is the story meant to teach Abraham? What's it meant to teach us?
Very difficult, vexing questions - not all of which, by the way, I think we'll answer in this class. I do have a series of tapes which I devoted to the Akeidah, a seven-part series. Again, by the way, the word Akeidah is just Hebrew for the Binding of Isaac, I may use them interchangeably but they mean the same things. I dealt with those issues, the moral questions behind the Akeidah, how could G-d demand this of Abraham? Maybe Abraham should have just said no? Maybe it was the right thing to say no? How did Abraham know it was morally correct to proceed? What's the nature of the test? And all of those things. Those are large and weighty issues and I'm not going to repeat them in this series. For those of you who are interested, again, it's a series of tapes I think I did a while back. I believe it was called: Akeidah, Coming to Grips with the Binding of Isaac. So maybe I'll put up a link of where you can get those tapes.
But since the time that I've recorded those tapes years back, I've begun to see different sides to the Akeidah as well, and I want to talk to you about today and in the coming weeks. But suffice it to say that the - I guess - new ways that I've begun to see the Akeidah for now were introduced to me through two literary devices that I've become more aware of over time, and which seem to shed, I think, dramatic new light on the meaning of this story. Dramatic new light on the meaning of the Akeidah. I'd like to take some time to just talk to you about these devices because they're incredibly powerful literary tools it seems to me, to aid us in our pursuit of understanding the Torah more deeply. So let me take a minute to talk about that.
Okay, when we think in global terms about the Torah - about the Bible, so we all agree that the Bible is a classic. For some reason or another whether you are a religious person who believes fervently in the Divinity of the Bible, or whether you are skeptical and you have your reservations, it has to be meaningful for a reason. But clearly this Bible, this document, is trying to tell us meaningful things about how to live and we sense that there must be some depth to it. But how do you access that depth?
One of the problems is, is that the Bible is incredibly concise, it does not spend a lot of time telling us about things. Some of the most dramatic events in the history of the world that are narrated in the Bible are narrated in surprisingly small segments. If you take a look at the story of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge, it's what, 15, 20 verses. Take a look at the Tower of Babel, it's nine verses, 11 verses. Cain and Abel, the first murder in the history of the world, six verses. The revelation at Sinai, 20 verses. So when you think about these huge, dramatic, world-changing events, if you would think about how we would narrate them today, we would narrate them in extremely expansive fashion. If you were an editor at the Encyclopedia Britannica how many columns would the Encyclopedia Britannica spend on the Tower of Babel if it had happened 50 years ago? I mean, the story would have taken up 30 columns at the very least - the Bible spends nine verses on it.
So how do we expect the Bible to convey anything meaningful to us in such a short amount of space? That's really the question. Technically we would say - the technical term we would use for this, is we would call the Bible a minimalist document. It uses a minimal amount of words, it speaks in a very minimal kind of way. From a writing standpoint it means the Torah doesn't use a lot of adjectives, it doesn't give us a sense - a descriptive sense of what's going on. It uses a very simple set of verbs, a very simple set of nouns. If you know probably 200 words you can get by 95 per cent of the Bible - I mean, it's amazing how - the economy of words that the Bible uses.
By the way, Strunk and White in their Elements of Style argue somewhat counterintuitively that you don't need a huge vocabulary in order to write well - or maybe you do need a huge vocabulary but you don't need to display it all on the page. I saw one famously simple essay, which I think was quoted in Strunk and White or maybe it was Mark Twain, I don't remember who - maybe some of you know what I'm talking about? But it was a beautifully written, one-page essay, which I think was composed with all one-syllable words, there was not any words that was longer than a syllable. The argument was is that you don't need to write in a complex fashion in order to write well.
I remember when I first began writing for Artscroll earlier in my writing career, one of my first jobs coming out of Yeshiva and coming out of college - I just finished my Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. I had a summer job editing Mishnayos for a Mishna for Artscroll. I remember I was thinking, gee I'm going to do such a fancy job on this, I have all these elegant literary stylistic ways of doing things that I picked up when I was in college. I sent in my first draft of this Mishna and I had composed these very elegant and somewhat convoluted sentences, the kind of things that gets you an 'A' on your papers when you hand them in to college. I sent them in to the editor there, to [Rabbi Danziger 5:55] - still continues to remain a good friend of mine. I got them back with just red ink all over the place. He had completely cut out all of the fancy language and all of the complicated sentence structure and had just pared it down to almost nothing. My notes were a quarter of the size that they used to be and all of the elegance was gone.
But as I began to look at the text which he had put together by crossing out so much, it was sparse but it was elegant, it was crafted beautifully. It was very simple. Simple, declarative sentences. And the message rang through to me loud and clear, which is that good writing does not require complexity. It may make you look good in school, it may be the kind of thing that you can get away with impressing a professor, but it actually does not necessarily contribute to clarity or to depth of understanding on the part of the reader. And if you can make your point - you should be able to make your point in as simple as language as is necessary and you shouldn't be complicating it just for the sake of complexity. It tends to detract from the lucidity of your arguments rather than contribute to them.
So for what it's worth, the Torah is what you might call a classic minimalist document. It is written with very sparse language - and by the way, it's not something which you necessarily see in translation. If you pick up the King James' version of the Bible or other things, you really get - I think - a skewed pictured of the sense of the text in Hebrew, with the thee, thy and thou. There may have been a time when that was spoken language but despite its regal connotations it has a kind of distance and a kind of complexity to it, which does not exist in the Hebrew. The Hebrew is very simple, schoolchildren are able to understand and able to easily translate - once you have basic Hebrew knowledge - the words of the Bible.
By the way, I want to encourage those of you who have not embarked upon studying Biblical Hebrew and it seems intimidating, how can I at the age of 45 learn a new language? If I wanted to learn Ugaritic or something how would I do this? Latin? But the truth is it's not really that difficult. Again, once you get the grammar down, if you know 200, 300 words, you really can make your way through the Bible remarkably well, in the original, without having to rely on anyone for translation. It's not as intimidating a task as you might think. So I do encourage you to consider that if you haven't - if you aren't a Hebrew reader yet.
But in any case, here's the problem. If the Torah is what you might call a minimalist document that is written in such sparing language, it's true that it can convey its point simply and elegantly, but how do you convey a great deal of meaning, no matter how you do it, in nine verses? It would seem to suggest that if there is real meaning to be uncovered in the Bible it must be layered into the text somehow. It almost seems like some sort of - to borrow a term - some sort of cryptological devices must be used. I don't mean to sound like Mission Impossible over here, Ethan Hunt in spy games, and all of that, I don't buy into necessarily the Torah Codes book are sensationalist. But that having been said, it may be that there are devices which the Torah uses to layer meaning into its text. There are different layers of meaning accessible at different levels - various literary tools which are used.
It's not as if the Torah is unique in that the only document that ever layers text - I think it layers text in an incredibly sophisticated level. But it theoretically could be done and probably is done in some other documents to some extent. It's done, I think, in the world of nature. If you take a look at DNA for example, is millions and millions of strands long and it seems huge, but if you actually look at the amount of data that it encodes, it seems to code in a human being for far greater data than millions of strands would seem to be able to. It seems - scientists suggest - that DNA has a way of layering information so that there's - it's the information in DNA is accessible on more than one level. For example, if you read sequence CGAB forwards, it can code for an eye, but theoretically, if you read it backwards, or every other one - every other letter, it would code for something else. Maybe there's some sort of index in the DNA which tells the body or the cell where to look and how to read that particular information that it is. So DNA can be a coded - or it can have layers of meaning encoded in them.
I guess the question is, if the Torah does use various literary devices to tip the reader off to other layers of meaning in the text, what are those devices? For those of you who have been with me for some time, what I'm going to tell you now may not seem as news, it just seems like a review, but bear with me anyway. I think there are a number of these literary tools which the Bible uses, and they're incredibly powerful tools of analysis, but let me introduce you to two of them in particular. The first one I want to talk about I'm going to call; Where Have We Heard These Words Before? Okay, so where have we heard these words before, what do I mean by that? What I mean is, is I think one of the ways that the Torah uses to encode meaning into its text is to deliberately quote from earlier - or perhaps even later - sections of text. To almost steal a section of text from an earlier story or an earlier episode and insert it in another episode. The Torah seems to use that kind of device as a way of linking two stories or as a way of, I think, kind of tipping off the reader and saying, if you really want to understand what's going on in the story don't understand it in isolation, you have to understand it in some sense in relation to this other story that appeared earlier.
Let me try and give you a few examples of this - there's probably a lot of examples, we could discuss this for a very, very long time. But just off the top of my head a couple of examples. Let's take the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In that story you have a phrase which appears in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and then repeats itself in the story of Cain and Abel - a variation of that phrase repeats itself. The phrase I'm referring to - let's take the Cain and Abel example first, is when G-d says to Cain immediately before Cain is ready to kill Abel, when he is sort of wrestling with the dilemma of what to do with G-d's rejection of his offering, so G-d says to Cain that the Yetzer Harah - the evil inclination, its entire desire is unto you, but you can rule over it.
This is a very famous phrase, Steinbeck made it famous in his book East of Eden, where I believe the main character in that book spent - one of the main characters in the book spent a long time deliberating about the meaning of that phrase, the proper translation of the Hebrew. [Unclear 12:27] we were talking about a little bit earlier that; V'atah timshal bo - the Hebrew is - and yet you can rule over it. The question is exactly what Timshal means, does it mean you can rule over it, you must rule over it, you will rule over it, you have the capability to rule over it? What exactly is the [tinge 12:41] of meaning? And to some extent the meaning of East of Eden, which is patterned after the Cain and Abel story, turns on the proper translation of that phrase.
But whether the character in East of Eden realized it or not, that phrase does not appear for the first time in the story of Cain and Abel but it appears earlier. In the Cain and Abel story the phrase is; V'eilecha teshukato, v'atah timshal bo - its - the evil inclination - its entire desire is unto you and yet you can rule over it. In the story of Adam and Eve just 30 verses earlier or so in immediately the preceding chapter you have a phrase which clearly this phrase seems to be echoing. It's not exactly the same but its core elements are the same and they are the only time they appear in Tanach. V'el isheich teshukaseich - G-d says to Eve - your desire will be for your husband; V'hu yimshal bach - and yet he can rule over you.
Whatever that means, strange turn of phrase, it's astounding this connection between these stories. Each phrase is difficult and to some extent troubling in and of themselves, when you link them together, what does the Bible mean to do? Why - is it creating some sort of analogy here? It's a very disturbing analogy. But somehow the Bible seems to be saying if you really want to understand the nature of what G-d is saying to Cain about his relationship with this force inside of him, these passions, you have to understand something about the relationship between masculinity and femininity, they're linked in some way. What can that possibly mean?
So when I did my study on Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel so we dwelled upon that - and you can consult the tapes on that if you have them. I actually have a book coming out soon on Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel which touches on that too.
But that is an example of where have we heard these words before, where the Bible seems to be overlaying meaning into this text, and saying if you really want to understand this phrase, understand where it appears earlier and understand this story in relation to that story.
Now, there are times when where have we heard these words before gets rather sophisticated, elegant and complex. Where it's not just that the Bible is taking one phrase out of a certain story and accentuating its connection to a previous time the phrase is used, but there are times when the Torah will do this over and over again within a story. There will be - in a given story there may be five, six, seven, eight, a dozen examples of various phrases that are linked back to another story somewhere in Tanach. In which case, it's really asking you to take the totality of that story and perhaps each of the individual occurrences and contrast them back to the later story.
Some examples of that actually you find in the last series which we did - what was it - in the spring I suppose it was, a series on the Golden Calf. If you go back to lecture - maybe I think it's lecture 12 probably, maybe lecture 11 and 12, the final lectures, I think it's lecture 12. We talked about the story of the revelation at Sinai and the cloud of G-d that descends upon Mount Sinai being parallel to the story at the very end of Exodus - at the very end of Pekudei, where the cloud of G-d descends upon the Mishkan - upon the Tabernacle. If you look at those two stories and if you look at the PowerPoints connected to that class, you'll find that one after another, many, many, many elements of those stories are borrowed one from the other, and there's similarities and then there's contrasts between them. You can just line them up and the Torah is sort of begging you to come and say look if you really want to understand what's happening with the story of the Tabernacle, you have to understand it has something to do with what happened at Sinai - the revelation at Sinai. The Torah is asking us to compare, contrast and to see how these two stories line up and relate to each other with a whole bunch of where have we heard these words before.
Okay, so that is one literary technique and we're going to get back to that, but that's a technique which we're going to be using a lot in this series and it is one of the ways, I think, which the Torah overlays meaning. We're just going to nickname it; Where Have We Heard These Words Before.
So now moving onto our second literary device, this will be familiar to you for those of you who have been with me in our last series on the Golden Calf, and this is the wonderful world of chiasms. Again, just for a quick review for those of you who have heard about chiasms from me in the previous class and a quick introduction for those of you who haven't, chiasms is a fancy name - by the way, it's spelled C-H-I-A-S-M, I'm not sure if that's the right way to pronounce it, it might be 'ki-asm'. But in any case what a chiasm is, is a fancy way of expressing what in Kabbalistic circles is known as an ATB"SH system. An ATB"SH comes from an acronym which is developed by taking the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet - Aleph and Taf, and putting them together into AT. The second and second to last letters of the Hebrew alphabet which is BSH, taking them and putting them together, so you have ATB"SH.
Basically that's an acronym for a type of system which is developed kind of like an arrow, where you have a story or a piece of text in which the first element of the text which we'll call A mirrors the last element of the text which we'll call Z. The second to first element of text which we'll call B mirrors the second to last element of text which we'll call Y. And this keeps on going until you reach the middle of the text where these two halves kind of converge.
Let me first give you an example of a chiasm very quickly and then we can talk about why we care about chiasms - aside from the fact that they're elegant and they're nice, why is it that they mean anything? There's an interesting article which I pointed people in our last series to, it talks about chiasms in Biblical text, it's developed by a fellow by the name of Yehuda Radday. One of the things he points out to there is chiasms in the story of Esther. He argues that the entire Book of Esther - he also says that the entire Book of Jonah - is arranged chiastically. You might be interested in his article, I'll try and put a link again to his book, it's called: Chiasms [Chiasmus 18:17] in Antiquity, is the book of which Radday's article appears as one of the examples.
But he argues that if you look at these stories carefully they seem to be arranged in an ATB"SH system kind of way, where you have things that happen early in Esther get mirrored and happen afterwards. Just by some examples, you find the horsemen that run out to give the first decree that the Jews are going to be destroyed, the same language as the horseman running out to give the second decree that the Jews are going to be saved and they're going to have the ability to defend themselves. In the beginning of the story you have when the decree is leveled against Mordechai and against the Jews that they're going to be destroyed, you have this moment where Mordechai laments to Esther, his niece; Et kol asher karahu - everything that happened to befall him. If you fast-forward to the end of the story in perfect chiastic form, you've got the counterpoint of that where the same language is used by Haman, where Haman laments to another woman who is close to him - in this case, his wife Zeresh - everything that happens to befall him; Et kol asher karahu. Exactly the same words.
So these are some of the chiastic elements of the Book of Esther, you can look at Radday's article where he develops all of them.
Now, I'll give you some other examples shortly perhaps. But why do we care about chiasms? Why do they mean anything? Aside from just being a pretty literary structure I think they help shed meaning on text. They are one of the ways in which the Torah overlays or encodes meaning in text. Why? Because in an ATB"SH system if the beginning of the text is really parallel to the end of the text, and each element actually parallels each other, so again it's kind of like where have we heard these words before, that the Torah is asking you if want to understand element A, understand it with reflection to Z. If you want to understand element B, understand it with reflection to Y. The Torah is saying that you can't really see this without seeing its counterpoint and seeing how they play off of each other.
Another reason why I think chiasms are interesting is because chiasms are structured in an arrow-like kind of way. In other words, if you would visualize a chiasm - and I'll reproduce here a section of the PowerPoint which I developed for - I think it was - lecture 11 back in the Golden Calf series, which was an introduction to chiasms, where you can sort of see visually the arrow-like structure of a chiasm. It's pointing you somewhere. An ATB"SH system is going to point you towards the center. It's these two halves of a story converging closer and closer towards each other until they reach a section in the middle where they actually meet. By middle I don't mean geographical middle, it's not necessarily if you add up all the verses it's right - if in a 100-verse story it's right there at verse 50. Oftentimes the chiasms can be arranged where the verses meet at verse 78. So what's really interesting about this is that the Torah is telling you, as it were, where the real middle or where the thematic middle of the story is.
In other words, what would you expect to find at the middle of a story? You'd expect to find something central, either a turning point or a center of gravity - an idea or a theme around which everything kind of revolves. Now if the Torah is revealing for you what the essence of a text is, what its middle is, that's a very, very significant point in the Torah giving its own indication of how to interpret this text. It's saying, this is what you need to focus on, this story is revolving around this idea. Oftentimes the middle is sort of counterintuitive, it's telling you something that you wouldn't otherwise assume is the middle.
I think I mentioned to you back in the Golden Calf lectures, one of the interesting things about the Esther story which Radday notes, is that the middle of the chiasm in the Book of Esther are these verses where the king was up all night and it's; B'lailah hahu nadedah shenas ha'melech - that night the king failed to go to sleep. Radday comments, I think, that he says it's strange that that would be the middle, like what's the big deal about that? But if you really think about the Book of Esther it's a very fitting middle to the story. If the Book of Esther is characterized by political coincidence, by serendipitous events kind of coming together to form a picture of salvation which seems to happen almost accidentally, but which the hand of G-d is there behind the scenes. There is no greater conversion of serendipitous events that happen in those few verses which are right there at the middle of the chiasm.
I mean think about it. It's the middle of the night, the king can't fall asleep - what's happening that night? In the verse right before that Haman has come home very upset and told Zeresh all the terrible things that are going on. Actually the real truth is that things are quite wonderful for Haman except for one terrible thing which is getting him down which is he says, that I have all of this great wealth, I have all these wonderful things - he tells her about all of the fame and wealth that he has in the kingdom. And yet the one thing that gets Haman down is every time I see Mordechai the Jew standing in the courtyard of the king and he doesn't bow before me; Kol zeh einenu shoveh li - none of this is worth anything to me. I'd trade it all just for that. This poor guy, this tortured man, Mordechai, the one guy who won't bow to him, stands in the way of his entire success in life, in his view. Zeresh says, ah you know, don't worry about it. Prepare a tree, and in the morning you'll hang him on the tree - and take two aspirin you'll feel better in the morning, no problem.
Now what happens? That very night - Haman does not wait until the morning - that very night Haman goes out and he goes out to approach the king for permission to hang Mordechai. Now if Mordechai is hanged, it's curtains for the good guys, this story is kind of over. So that very night it just so happens - and here's the center of the chiasm - the king can't sleep, so the king - Haman just happens to go to the king at the right moment when he can't sleep and he just happens to not wait until the morning and come in the middle of the night. What happens when the king happens to not be able to sleep? He happens to ask for the Book of Remberances - the court documents - to be read to him. There's nothing more boring in Persian culture than reading Persian history, so he asks for the book of Persian records to be read before him. It happens to open to the right page where it's recorded that Mordechai saved the king years before. It just so happens to be that Mordechai was never rewarded for that and the king asks was Mordechai ever rewarded for that, and they say no.
Just at that moment Haman knocks on the door and comes in and Haman says, hey you know, can I have a word with the king, there's something on my mind I really want to talk to you. The king interrupts him and says no, you know I really want to talk to you, I have to talk to you. What would you do to honor the man who the king really wants to honor? Haman's mind is racing and he thinks it's him and he says, well I'd dress him up in the king's garments, I would [dress him up 24:31] with the king's horses and I'd give him the king's crown, and I'd have him run through the streets to say this is what should be done to the man that the king wants to honor. The king says, good, do it for Mordechai.
That really is the turning point in the story. If you have to analyze one point where things start to go well for the Jews, it's that point, it's that turning point. At that night all of the serendipitous events come to pass and the king can't sleep and that is the center, the center of gravity, as it were, in the story of Esther.
So chiasms are very interesting for a number of reasons because (a) they help the two sides of the story shed light on each other in the kind of where have we heard these words before system, the A mirrors the Z, the A has to be understood in connection with the Z, B has to be understood in connection with the Y, et cetera. Also because it's identifying, as if, for you the center of the story. So chiasms, again, another very powerful kind of tool which you can use to understand the meaning - sort of the Torah's own commentary on its meaning.
So again, two literary devices; where have we heard these words before, and chiasms. These are devices which we'll be using significantly here in this class.
Okay, now the really interesting thing that is kind of new about this series is the following. What is it that unifies all of this? I'm going to be talking about the Akeidah story, I'm going to be talking about a couple of other stories, the sub-title of this course was: Other Biblical Surprises. The other Biblical surprises that I have in mind as well as the first story which I'm going to be talking about, come from the merging of these two literary tools. In other words, what happens when you take where-have-I-heard-these-words-before, and you take chiasms, and you put them together? When you put them together it seems to me really very powerful tools of analysis.
In other words, occasionally, it seems to me that you'll have a story which is built chiastically and you'll have another story in which the chiastic story is mirrored in another story. In other words, story X is a chiastic story and then at some - a later point in Tanach - in the Bible, you have a where-have-we-heard-these-words-before version of that story, where element after element in that second story is mirroring elements in the first story. So now what happens when you merge those things? In other words, the really interesting thing is if the chiasm is identifying the center of the first story and telling you what that first story revolves around, then you look at that second story and you say, is there any element in that second story that reminds me of that first element? And by implication that first story is shedding light - the chiastic structure of that first story is sort of reaching out and shedding light on that second story as well. Is that possible? Is that really true? What would it look like in real life?
Now it may sound kind of abstract to you right now - almost like an algebraic equation, but it's not, it's very real, very concrete. That's what I hope to show you in these examples. Is to go through some examples of this and to - I think it really enriches our view of some texts that are maddeningly puzzling.
One of those texts that are maddeningly puzzling - and why don't we start with - is the Akeidah. The story of the Akeidah as I mentioned to you before is a very, very difficult text, it's not your typical bedtime story, it's a very difficult thing to understand, a very difficult thing to read. What is its meaning? How do we possibly understand its meaning? What was G-d trying to get across to Abraham? Now if you think of questions like this and you ask, what is the Akeidah really about? What was the nature of this test? The story begins with the idea that G-d was testing Abraham, so what was that test about? What was the nature of that test? So I think if you stand in the street corner, if you ask people - or at least people who are familiar with the text - and again, the text that we're looking [at 28:04], you'll find it in your source notes, is Genesis Chapter 22.
So the test begins; Vayehi achar hadevarim ha'eileh v'ha'Elokim nisah et Avraham - that after these things G-d tested Abraham. It doesn't explicitly say what the test was about but if you read the end of the story it sounds like the test is - most people would say it's a test of faith, although that's a difficult word to understand, what does it really mean a test of faith? The word faith is kind of elastic in that thing. But you might say it's a test of how much loyalty, as it were, Abraham has to G-d. Will he make the supreme sacrifice? Will he even give his beloved son to G-d if that's required of him? That, I think, would be the simplest understanding of the Akeidah, and is borne out indeed by the text itself.
When the angel appears to Abraham and says, don't touch the child, he says; Atah yadati - two things actually. Now I know; Ki yarei Elokim atah - that you're somebody who fears G-d - now we have to understand what fear means here in this context. Does it mean that he's scared of G-d? It's very hard to understand that that's what it means, and if that's the case Abraham is not really a hero. He was afraid - what would he be afraid that G-d would do, that G-d would kill him? That G-d would throw him in jail forever? So don't sacrifice your son because of that. But the commentators talk about fear here in this context being a word which is more elastic than the English, it doesn't just mean fear but it means awe; Now I know that you have a sense of awe about G-d. And we can talk about what awe means, but it's different than being scared.
The second thing the angel says is; V'loh chasachta et bincha et yechidcha mimeni - and you haven't held back your son, your only son, from Me. So the simplest understanding of the Akeidah would be that a test of dedication, loyalty to G-d, is Abraham even willing to give up his son, of course is not an easy way of explain the story, it's still difficult to explain the story. But I think that's how most of us would understand the story.
What I'm going to argue to you is that once you look at the story using the tools - the methodological tools - which I've outlined before, I think a much richer portrait of the test emerges. I think that our understanding of the Akeidah story becomes, I think, quite different. So that's a road which we'll kind of embark upon here.
So let's begin by asking this question. Where have we heard these words before? Let's think of that question in terms of the Akeidah story - the Binding of Isaac story. Are there any other examples or phantom Akeidahs in the Torah? Are there any other times that the Torah goes out of its way to use language borrowed from the Akeidah - and not just once, but to use a pattern of language borrowed from the Akeidah, borrowed from the Binding of Isaac stories. Does this kind of language appear in other texts throughout Tanach?
So I want to give that to you actually as a homework question for you to think about. I'll mention one or two examples. By the way, I do think that the story of the Binding of Isaac is a story which appears more than once elsewhere in Tanach, that there are probably multiple examples of stories throughout the Bible that are patterned in some way or another after the Akeidah story. You may think of some that I completely haven't thought of at all, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it. You could put that up on the discussion board if you want or email me or whatever, if you think of some stuff. But I'll talk to you about a couple of examples - a full scope of this issue is beyond really the scope of what I'm going to talk about, I'll mention a couple.
The story of the Shunammite woman in Second Kings, Chapter 4 - if I'm not mistaken - seems to be patterned after the story of the Akeidah. Let's do that actually for a second, I'll put that in your source notes; Second Kings, Chapter 4, read through that story yourself and see if you pick it up, the resonances of the Akeidah story. Maybe I'll read through some of this and give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Okay - and you can follow along with me if you have a Tanach or if you have a Bible or your source sheets in front of you. I'm going to be reading from Chapter 4 - let's see, let's start from verse 8, just so we get the context here.
Vayehi hayom vaya'avor Elisha el Shunam - and it happened on a certain day - by the way, that beginning - this is a little bit beyond the scope of this course, but that beginning is a very auspicious beginning. Vayehi hayom sounds like one of these words which appears very often in the Bible; And it happened on that day. Actually it only appears in four contexts in the entire Bible; in this story, it appears in the story of Jonathan and Saul in the Book of Samuel where Jonathan prosecutes a war started by his father against the Philistines - actually Jonathan starts the war and Saul prosecutes the war, but it's a kind of turning point in Saul's kingship. It appears in the beginning of the story of Job and it appears again in the beginning of the Book of Samuel when the whole story of Chana being childless in the beginning of this book and going down to the Temple and Eli overhearing her prayer and eventually her having a child. It appears there as well.
We talked about phantom Akeidah stories - the real truth is, is that - and this is kind of mind-blowing - every one of these four examples of Vayehi hayom - and it happened on that day, each of these four episodes where those words occur, are each an echo of the Akeidah. You can go through each one of them and find example after example that reminds you of the Akeidah, it's absolutely fascinating. Maybe I'll talk about that in next class and try to show how - maybe, actually for homework, think about that. Look at those stories - I'll try and post them up on the source notes - if you want to look into them and see whether in your mind they echo the Akeidah, I think they do.
But let's focus on one of these Vayehi hayom stories right now, the story of the Shunammite Woman and see where that takes us. So anyway, reading from Chapter 4, verse 8. So Elisha, this prophet, goes to the place of Shunam and he finds this woman there. What happens is, is that he eats at her house and the woman consults with her husband and says, you know there's this man and he always passes through this section of town, he has nowhere to stay. Why don't we make him a little apartment in our house and whenever he needs to stay here, he'll stay here?
Then in verse 11 we have these words; Vayehi hayom - that it happened one day, and Elisha came there and he went into the attic and he slept there. Elisha had this idea, he called to Geichazi his servant and said, call this Shunammite woman down I want to talk to her. He says to her, look you know you've done all of this for us, you've been very kind to us, what can I do for you? Can I put in a good word with the king? Or with the general? She says no, you know, nothing, I'm really fine. But he presses her and he says; [U'meh la'asot lah 34:37] - in verse 14. Then Geichazi says, well look master; Aval ben ein lah v'ishah zaken - she has no child; V'ishah zaken - and her husband is very old.
Okay, the first light bulb should go off here, what does this remind you of? This is not an Akeidah reference but an Abraham and Isaac reference; this is exactly what happened with Sarah. Sarah had thought my husband is old and I have no child and how could I possibly have a child? So this language is borrowed from the Akeidah.
Let's continue. Vayomer kerah lah - so Elisha says what a good idea, call her and let's talk to her; Vayikra lah vata'amod ba'patach - and they called this woman, the Shunammite woman, and she stood in the doorway. Now why is it so important that she stood in the doorway? It seems like a strange detail to mention. But anyway she's standing there in the doorway; Vayomer - and he says; La'mo'ed hazeh ka'eit chayah - at this time next year you will be [present 35:29]; Oti choveket ben - or really; At choveket ben - you will be hugging a child that you've just given birth to.
Now what does this remind you of? This actually is the same words that the angel said to Sarah when they promised to Abraham about Sarah. And where was Sarah standing by the way when they said this to Abraham? Lo and behold, she was standing in the doorway of the tent. Look back to the story in Vayeira and you'll find that to be true. V'Sarah shoma'at petach ha'ohel v'hu acharov - Sarah was listening by the doorway of the tent, the verse goes to say. So here also she's by the doorway, the Shunammite woman, and this is the same language; This time next year - La'mo'ed hazeh ka'eit chayah - this time next year you will be present. Almost borrowed verbatim from Genesis.
What happens then? What's the woman's response? Al techazev b'shifchatecha - don't joke with me, don't joke with your servant. What does this remind you of? Vatitzchak Sarah b'kirbah leimor - Sarah, when she heard the news that she was going to have a child, so she laughed and she said, how can I possibly have a child, after my master is so old, my husband is so old? Again, that reference appears here as well when Geichazi says; And her husband is so old.
So again, all of this is borrowed from the birth of Isaac story. So what happens? Vatahar ha'isha vateiled ben la'mo'ed hazeh ka'eit chayah - and it happens in fact that she gives birth to a child just at the same time and the child grows up. Then we have the second half of the story. Now whereas the first half of the story mirrors the birth of Isaac, the second half of the story - this is going to seem to mirror the Akeidah - the story of the Binding of Isaac. Let's listen in. What happens?
Vayomer el aviv - one day the child is out in the field and he says to his father; Roshi, roshi - my head, my head. Vayomer el ha'na'ar sa'eihu el imo - and the father says to those around him; Sa'eihu el imo - go bring the child to his mother. Now keep those words in mind, they don't appear in the Akeidah story themselves, in fact Sarah is not actually involved in the Akeidah story, she's noticeably absent, but keep those words in mind because they will become very important later. They don't appear in the Akeidah story, but they're echoed in another phantom Akeidah story, and we'll come back to that.
But in any case the father says, go bring the child to his mother. Vayisa'eihu vayevi'eihu el imo - and they bring him up to his mother; Vayeishev al birkeha - and the child sits upon her knees; Ad ha'tzaharayim vayamot - and the child dies. Vata'al vatashkiveihu al mitat ish ha'Elokim - and the woman goes up and she lays the child down on the bed of the man of G-d, of Elisha. Vatisgor ba'ado vateizei - and she closes the door behind him; Vateizei - and she leaves. Vatikra el ishah vatomer - and then she calls out to her husband and says; Shilcha nah li echad min ha'ne'arim v'achat ha'asonot - go find for me - the woman says - get me one of the lads and one of the donkeys; V'arutzah ad ish ha'Elokim v'ashuvah - and I'm going to run to the man of G-d and I will return.
Now recall that so far the father is being, so to speak, commanded by the mother to do this, but the father doesn't know why, the father is not aware that the child has died. The woman has kept this secret. In fact, the father says; Vayomer madu'ah at halechet eilav - why are you going today; Loh chodesh v'loh Shabbat vatomer shalom - he says, it's not a special day, and she says; Shalom. She just says, don't worry about it, everything will be fine. And she really does not mention anything. Vatachavosh ha'ason vatomer el na'arah - and she saddles her donkey and goes - and says to the lad to go with her; Nehag va'leich al ta'atzor li lirkov ki im amarti lach - go run and we're not stopping, we're single-minded focused, don't stop until I tell you.
Now here we have the beginning of the echoes of the Akeidah. First of all, we have a woman acting without telling her husband what's going on. A mirror image of the Akeidah where Abraham acts without telling Sarah what's going on. Sarah is entirely in the dark for the whole Akeidah story, here the husband is in the dark in this story. Both stories revolve around the death or the potential death - the already death or the possible death of the child. The woman has a single-minded focus, she's going and not thinking about anything, just all of her actions were just going, going, going. If you look at the verbs in the beginning of the Akeidah story it's going, going, going. Abraham is not thinking, just one verb after another verb; Vayevakah atzei olah vayakam vayeilech - and he's cutting the wood for the offering and he's getting up and he's going and he's waking up early in the morning. It's just verb, verb, verb. Here as well, she's going, single-minded focus.
In the Akeidah story who does he go with when he saddles the donkey? He goes with the lad. Here, she saddles the donkey, goes with the lad. It's the same - and where are they going? They're going in both stories to the top of a mountain; Vateilech vatavoh el ish ha'Elokim el Har ha'Carmel - she goes here to the top Har ha'Carmel. Abraham when to the top of Mount Moriah, and now she's going to the top of Mount Carmel.
Vayehi kir'ot ish ha'Elokim otah minegged vayomer el Geichazi na'aro hinei ha'Shunamit halaz. Atah rutz nah likratah ve'emar lah ha'shalom lach, ha'shalom l'isheich, ha'shalom la'yaled, vatomer shalom. So Elisha here intuits that something is wrong, that something is strange and says, go check out what's happening. But she doesn't tell Geichazi, she says everything is fine. Vatavoh el ish ha'Elokim el ha'har va'tachazek b'raglov vayigash Geichazi l'hadfah vayomer ish ha'Elokim harpei lah ki nafshah marah lah v'Hashem he'lim mimeni v'loh higid li. What happens? She goes, so she grabs hold of - Va'tachazek b'raglov - she grabs a hold of the legs of Elisha and Geichazi thinks she's a crazy woman, he's going to push her away, but he says no, don't touch her; Ki nafshah marah lah - because her soul is very bitter; V'Hashem he'lim mimeni v'loh higid li - and Hashem has held this back from me, G-d has held this back from me, and has not told me what's going on.
By the way, what does this remind you of folks? This is not an Akeidah reminder but again a reference to another phantom Akeidah story. It's like as if all these stories are linked with each other. They're linked to the Akeidah but they're also linked to each other. Which phantom Akeidah story does this remind you of, where a man is approached by a woman who seems to act in a crazy kind of way, but she's in fact acting out of anguish? He realizes in this case that she's acting out of anguish, the anguish is called being of embittered soul, and he's not aware of this because G-d doesn't tip him off what's going on. What does this remind you of? Well it reminds you of the story of Chana and Eli.
Look back at the story of Samuel, at the beginning of the story of Samuel, the story of Chana and Eli, exactly the same. Chana seems to be acting crazy. She's not grabbing hold of Eli's feet but she's whispering and talking and she's not speaking and Eli think that she's drunk, and he's ready to push her away just like Geichazi does. But he doesn't realize that in fact where she's coming from is a place of deep anguish, it's not that she's crazy, and that's in fact what Chana says. Chana uses the same language here as is being mirrored here by the Shunammite woman, she says; [Ki nafshah marah lah 42:20] - my soul is very better, and here again we have that echo, my soul is very bitter.
In fact, what does she say? This is the first things out of the mouth of the Shunammite woman; Vatomer - she says; Ha'sha'alti ben mei'eit adoni - did I ever ask this child of you? Haloh amarti loh tashleh oti - I told you not to joke with me, I didn't ask for this child, you gave me this child, I never asked for this child. What happened? Then Elisha understands what's going on.
By the way, not an echo of the Akeidah story here but an echo of another story which is a phantom Akeidah story - the Chana story, which is another story by the way of a woman giving up her child. Not to death, but giving up her child; [Hakadesh hikdashti et ha'yeled 42:58] - I set aside this child, I consecrated this child, I made this child holy. Isaac was made holy as an offering, Samuel was made holy and given to the Temple service for all the days of his life, and he was almost orphaned, he was taken away as a very young child, after weaning. The weaning of Isaac and the weaning of Samuel are the only two weanings we know of in the entire Torah. These two children are weaned and then they're off and they are G-d's, they're not their parents' anymore. The Samuel is weaned and she gives him off and it's another Akeidah story, it's a mother giving up her child. Not physically, the child is still going to be alive, she can still visit him, but she's no longer in some fundamental way, his parent, she's given over to G-d, to the service of G-d. [He's off 43:42] in the Temple, and Eli has taken over the parental duties, as it were.
But what does she say? Ha'sha'alti ben mei'eit adoni - the Shunammite woman says to Elisha - did I ever ask this child? What is this? This is a mirror image of Chana. Chana when she names Samuel, Samuel, she names Samuel, Samuel because Samuel in Hebrew, she says; Ki mei'Hashem she'iltiv - I asked this child from G-d. Chana asked the child from G-d, G-d responded. Because G-d responded to what she asked for how did she reciprocate? She says; V'gam onochi hish'iltihu laHashem - now I asked the child from You, and now I'm responding by lending the child back to You. In Hebrew the word for ask and lend is the same. Sha'alti - I asked the child; V'gam onochi hish'iltihu - and now I'm returning him to You, I'm lending the child back to G-d. Chana says that it is legitimate for me to lend the child and give the child to G-d because I asked the child, I borrowed the child, the child is really just on borrowed time and therefore I'm lending him back to G-d. Over here we have the mirror image where the woman is saying; Ha'sha'alti ben mei'eit adoni - did I ask this child? I never asked this child of you.
What this is, is a mirror image of the Akeidah. What's happening in the Akeidah? They're going up the mountain for what purpose? What's going to happen at the top of that mountain? What's happening at the top of that mountain is that Abraham is ready to give the child back to G-d. What's happening in this story? G-d has the child, he's dead, but it's a mirror image of the Akeidah in the sense that this woman is doing the very opposite of the Akeidah, she's asking for the child back. Why? For exactly the opposite reasons. Because Chana - another mirror image of the Akeidah story - Chana asked the child of G-d, she didn't ask this child. I never asked for it, you gave it to me, you can't be an Indian giver, give me the child back.
This story, I think, when you look at this in relation to the Akeidah story it makes you ask fundamental questions. One of the questions to ask is maybe there's another response? It's not always that you give your child up. This woman got her child back - and by the way this child survives, this child lives, this child comes back to life. G-d listens to what she has to say and this child is resuscitated. He comes back from the dead. It's just fascinating because he's an example of - you would say, well the pious and the right thing to do is to give your child back to G-d. Here's a woman who did exactly the opposite, she had her child taken away from her, and demanded the child back, and won, in a mirror image of the Akeidah story.
So this is one example of where have we heard these words before, it's a phantom Akeidah story, another Akeidah story which reappears elsewhere in Tanach and seems to be begging us to ask us to analyze it and to see it in light of the first Akeidah story.
As I mentioned to you there are a number of other such stories, maybe I'll touch on some of them briefly, but I do want to give you some homework for next week. I think there is one phantom Akeidah story which appears closest to the Akeidah in the entire Bible. It is the nearest to the actual Akeidah story geographically in the Bible, and it is patterned in this kind of step by step, one reference after another reference, after another reference, kind of way back to the story - the fundamental Akeidah story in Genesis. That is the story which appears just a chapter before in the Book of Genesis, it's the story of the sending away of Ishmael.
For homework I'd like you to look at that story, it appears - I think it's in Genesis Chapter 21, if I'm not mistaken - let me just take a quick look. Yes, it's in Genesis 21. Read through that story of the sending away of Ishmael and look at it in terms of the Akeidah. See if you can find the connections. What are the connections between that story and the Akeidah story? See if you can find them and once you find them, we'll talk next week if we can, about what the significance of that might be, of how that story sheds light on the Akeidah. By the way, I may get to some of the other Akeidah stories, we'll see if we have time. But try that out for homework.
I'll see you next week, we'll get together and we'll proceed from there.