My theme is the education of the patriarch Abraham, Father of Judaism, father of Christianity, father of Islam. God Himself undertakes Abraham’s education in order to address and to overcome the natural psychic and social human obstacles to righteous and reverent living, obstacles amply displayed in the pre-Abrahamic stories of Genesis. Abraham, the new man, is to be the founder of a new nation steeped in God’s new way, which this nation is to carry as a light unto all the nations of the world. The new way entails rightful conduct toward and rightful relations with members of one’s household, members of the tribe, strangers and members of other nations, and the divine. I have taken as my focus Abraham’s education in matters domestic: in the first part of this essay. ( First Things, November), the meaning of wife; here, the closely connected meaning of fatherhood. Educating the father of his people means, in the first instance, educating him to be a proper husband and father; for the perpetuation of God's new way will depend not on a fortuitous succession of naturally virtuous men and women but on the proper rearing of the young in every generation to the task of transmitting their moral and spiritual heritage.
In the first article, we saw how this task of transmission is at the heart of the meaning of husband and wife. Rightly understood, man cleaves to his wife not because she is “flesh of his flesh,” nor because she is beautiful or because she loves him back, but because she is his chosen, willing, and coequal lifelong partner in self-conscious devotion to the work of perpetuation. Here, we shall look more closely at the work itself, or at least the paternal part of it. We shall look at Abraham’s education in fatherhood.
A comparable discussion could, of course, be presented about Sarah’s education in motherhood. Central to this tale would be the wondrous birth of Isaac, after a lifetime (ninety years) of infertility, which leaves no doubt that children are a gift, not a maternal product and possession-the latter a dangerous, albeit perfectly natural, belief of womankind, as we learn from Eve’s proud boasting at the birth of Cain. But this must remain a tale for another day. Our concern here is Abraham, who, like most men, needs much more instruction in these matters than does his wife.
I. Fathers and Sons: The Uninstructed Way
The pre-Abrahamic chapters of Genesis tell one crucial story that explores the uninstructed or natural ways of fathers and sons and the vexing difficulties that confound their relationship: the story of Noah and his sons (Genesis 9:18-27).* Noah, after the flood, turns to the grape and is laid low by drink; without his clothes and prostrate in his tent in a drunken stupor, Noah lies dehumanized and “unfathered,” stripped of all respectability. His disrespectful son, Ham, views his father in disgrace and traffics in his shame; he metaphorically kills his father as a father, without disturbing a hair on Noah’s head. Noah as father is reduced to mere male-source-of-seed; eliminated is the father as authority, as guide, as teacher of law, custom, and a way of life. The danger of such a reversion to the merely natural, shameless, and amoral-i.e., to the pagan-view of human affairs lurks in every household, both from the side of disreputable fathers and from the side of impious sons.
In such cases, the iniquities of the fathers are often visited upon the sons. Noah, awakening to discover what Ham had done, curses Canaan the son of Ham, measure for measure driving a wedge between Ham and his own son. Ham becomes the father of peoples-including the Canaanites and the Egyptians-whose abominable sexual practices (and, hence, whose family life) will be the antipodes to the Jewish laws of purity. In contrast, Shem, the son who piously covers his father’s nakedness without even looking upon it, becomes the father of the line that leads to Abraham. Shem, we know not how, appears to have divined the sacred meaning of the authoritative relation of father and son. But as we see from Noah’s Dionysiac weakness and Ham’s antinomian rebellion, one cannot rely on nature alone (or on the uninstructed natural family) to ensure decency or to guarantee the transmission of righteous ways. Fathers and sons will both need instruction in how to promote filial piety and how to secure the work of cultural perpetuation.
II. Abraham’s Paternal Beginnings: His Father and His Nephew
As we noted in the first part of the essay, Abraham had an unusual father: Terah had children very late, perhaps because he was into other things. More important, he was a radical, a man who left behind the land and presumably also the ways of his fathers in search of something new. A severed link in his own cultural chain, Terah set the example for Abraham’s own radicalism. Cultural discontinuity was part of the cultural teaching on which Abraham was raised. There is also something significant in the name Terah gave his first-born son: Abram, which means “lofty or exalted father,” or perhaps “the father is exalted,” is in either case an expression of paternal pride at his birth. But we must imagine that this paternal pride was in the end dissipated, as Terah lives long enough to feel the isolation that often comes with having abandoned the ancestral ways: one of his three sons (Haran) dies in his young manhood, a second (Nahor) refuses to follow his father on his journey toward Canaan, and the third, Abram, leaves him behind in Haran where he lives alone for sixty years and dies without heirs to bury him. Though he stems from Noah’s pious son Shem, and though he himself was more attached to his father than was his brother Nahor, Abram’s immediate paternal ancestry is not a model for the work of cultural perpetuation.
Abram’s condition as a homeless, rootless, godless, childless son of a radical makes him a natural candidate to respond to God’s promise of land, seed, rule, and fame. But, for the same reasons, he is not, to begin with, well educated in the successful art of fatherhood, in the work of transmission. Such lessons-and they will prove complicated-he must gradually learn through his adventures.
When God calls Abram out of his father’s house, Abram is clearly enticed by the promise of greatness and prosperity. The content of the promise is clearly political, and its scope is global: Abram will become the blessed founder of a great nation and will acquire a great name, and all the families of the earth will be blessed because of him. Not bad work if you can get it, and Abram, age seventy-five, sets off immediately, “as the Lord had spoken unto him.” But not unaccompanied: “and Lot went with him” (12:4). The promise of founding a great nation might have seemed odd to a childless man, and so Abram maximized his prospects by taking not only his barren wife Sarai but also his nephew Lot, the son of his deceased brother Haran, whom Abram had in effect adopted. When Abram arrives in Canaan, to find it occupied, God appears and informs him, “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” God hints that Abram will yet have seed, but the focus is on the land, this promised land. Abram is not yet thinking in a fatherly way-and for obvious reasons.
Circumstances change. After the episode in Egypt, recounted in the last article, Abram and Lot come to a parting of the ways, “for their substance was great so that they could not dwell together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle” (13:6-7). Now grown wealthy and wishing to avoid trouble more than he wishes to preserve his family intact-“Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee . . . for we are brethren” (13:8)-Abram magnanimously offers Lot the first and finest choice of land. Attracted by civilization, Lot chooses the fertile plain of the Jordan (eventually settling in Sodom), and the men “separated themselves the one from the other” (13:11). But in the immediate sequel, Abram no doubt feels a sense of loss, and needs consolation:
And the Lord said unto Abram after that Lot was separated from him: “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land which thou seest, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed forever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length and breadth of it; for unto thee I will give it.” (13:14-17; emphasis added)
Compensating Abram for the recent loss of the more favorable land, God stresses in beginning and ending how the lost land and more will eventually be Abram’s. But in the center, addressing Abram’s loss of his probable heir, God speaks explicitly and graphically about Abram’s own unborn progeny. God tries to put Abram in mind of his prospective paternity. But Abram remains attuned to matters political, and he still hasn’t reconciled himself to the loss of Lot.
Lot is indirectly the cause of the next episode, which, for the first time, will lead Abram to care powerfully about paternity. The kings of Babylon invade Canaan to suppress a rebellion against their rule. The Canaanite kings are routed, Sodom among the other cities is sacked, and Lot is taken captive. Abram, who initially had prudently sat out the war, now, upon learning that his nephew was taken captive, leads forth his band of 318 men into battle and wins a mighty victory: he smites the enemy, pursuing them past Damascus, and brings back all the goods, all the people, and his kinsman Lot (who promptly returns to Sodom). Refusing the spoils of war, Abram attempts to return to his previous life but, we infer, he cannot. His brush with death in battle, his fear of reprisals, and perhaps, too, the irrevocability of Lot’s separation weigh on his mind.
God is, as usual, exactly responsive, and speaks to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great” (15:1). But God partly misses the mark, for Abram now for the first time is weighed down with a concern for his childlessness, a concern which his encounter with death has now made acute. Abram, who had met all of God’s previous interventions with silence, now addresses the Almighty for the first time, and with pathos and passion:
”O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? . . . Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed, and, lo, my steward will be my heir.” (15:2-3)
God now seeks to give reassurance on the subject of inheritors:
”This man shall not be thine heir; but he that shall spring forth from thine own loins shall be thine heir.” And He brought him forth abroad, and said: “Look now towards heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them”; and He said unto him: “So shall thy seed be.” (15:4-5)
With a more specific promise about his own progeny, and a loftier image to convey their innumerability, God for the time being calms Abram’s fears.
But not for long.
When Abram next impatiently demands proof that he will indeed inherit the promised land, God enacts the awe-inspiring covenant-between-the-sacrificial-pieces and, in the eerie darkness, gives Abram some bad news: not he but only his seed will inherit the land, and then only after they have suffered four hundred years of slavery as strangers in a strange land. God concludes with remarks about Abram’s own fate:
”But thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. And in the fourth generation they shall come back hither. . . .” (15:15-16)
Forced by God directly to contemplate his own death, Abram now more than ever longs for a son. It is in this frame of mind that he receives and eagerly accepts Sarai’s offer to try to have a child of his own by Hagar the Egyptian. God neither interferes with nor approves the surrogate arrangement, and Abram gets the son he wants in Ishmael. At age eighty-six, fatherhood at last.
But fatherhood is more than siring, just as God’s new way is more than the way of nature. Now that Abram has a son, the crucial task of perpetuation begins in earnest, and Abram must be shown what is required.
As Ishmael approaches young manhood (age thirteen), God, looking to the future, proposes a new covenant, giving Abram a new charge: “[W]alk before me and be thou whole-hearted [or “perfect” or “blameless”; tamim]. And I will make My covenant between thee and Me, and will multiply thee exceedingly” (17:1-2). The new covenant is announced in explicit relation to the theme of procreation and perpetuation.
God’s part of the covenant is very generous and full: identifying Himself to Abram (for the first time) as “God Almighty,” He promises Abram (whom he here fittingly renames “Abraham,” “father of multitudes”) that He will make him exceedingly fruitful, the father of nations and the progenitor of kings; He will make an everlasting covenant with the seed of Abraham to be their God; He will give unto them the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession. As for Abraham (and his seed), the obligation is simple: keeping the covenant simply means remembering it, that is, marking its token or sign in the flesh of every male throughout the generations, by the act of circumcision.
Why should this covenant between God and Man be marked by circumcision? We can think of many possible reasons, all of them apt. Unlike the rainbow, the sign of God’s earlier covenant with Noah and all life after the Flood-which addressed only the preservation of life rather than its moral character and which accordingly demanded nothing from man in return-circumcision is an unnatural sign, both artificial and conventional. It is the memorial of an agreement that deems it necessary (hence, conventional); it must be made by man (hence, artificial); yet it is marked in the organ of generation (hence, also natural). The world as given, and life even when secure (“No more floods”), are not yet completed; the best way to live remains hidden and must be revealed by additional human effort, exercised in the face of powerful human drives that lead us astray.
Circumcision emphasizes, even as it also restricts and transcends, the natural and the generative, sanctifying them in the process: under God’s command, men willingly produce in their living and generational flesh the mark of their longing for God, of their desire for His benevolence and care. Though it is the child who bears the mark, the obligation falls rather on the parents; it is a perfect symbol of the relation among the generations, for the deeds of parents are always inscribed, often heritably, into the lives of their children.
The obligation of circumcision calls parents to the parental task. Performed soon after birth, it circumcises their pride, reminding them that children are a gift, for which they are not themselves creatively responsible. More importantly, they are called from the start to assume the obligations of transmission. They are compelled to remember, now when it counts, that they belong to a long line of descent, beginning with Abraham who was called and who sought to walk before God and to be whole-hearted. They are reminded that bearing the child is the easy part, that rearing him well is the real vocation. They are summoned to continue the chain by rearing their children looking up to the sacred and the divine, by initiating them into God’s chosen ways. And they are made aware of the consequences for their children-now and hereafter-of their failure to hearken to the call: “And the uncircumcised male . . . that soul shall be cut off from his people: he hath broken My covenant” (17:14). With circumcision, the child, and all his potential future generations, are symbolically offered to the way of God.
And why a rite applicable only to the male children? Because males especially need extra inducement to undertake the parental role. Freed by nature from the consequences of their sexuality, probably both less fitted and less interested by nature than women for the work of nurture and rearing, men need to be acculturated to the work of transmission. Virility and potency are, from the Bible’s point of view, much less important than decency, righteousness, and holiness. The father is re-called to this teaching, and, accordingly, symbolically remakes his son’s masculinity for generations to come. When he comes of age, the son will also come to understand the meaning of the mark of his fathers and their covenant with God; presumably, it will decisively affect how he uses his sexual powers and how he looks on the regenerative and nurturing powers of woman.
As Abraham prepares to execute the covenant, circumcising himself (at age ninety-nine) as well as Ishmael and all the males attached to his house, God announces that Sarah will bear him a son, Isaac, within the year. Isaac, son of Sarah, not Ishmael, son of Hagar, is to be Abraham’s true heir within the new covenant. Abraham resists the suggestion, partly out of disbelief, partly out of his attachment to his first-born; but the reader is given to understand that, to overstate the point, Abraham is here with Ishmael undergoing basic training, as it were, just practicing to become the father of Isaac. Thus, now he obediently circumcises his son; only later, on Mount Moriah, will he fully understand what it really means.
IV. Father or Founder: A Painful Lesson
To this point we have been emphasizing how Abraham is being educated to understand that founding a great nation and gaining a great name requires a concern for progeny and transmission, and, in particular, requires rearing one’s sons in full memory of God’s solicitude and care. Also, Abraham is here still in the midst of a protracted education about the meaning of wife without which he cannot fully enter into proper fatherhood. But in the midst of these domestic transformations, God undertakes to give Abraham some instruction in political justice, indispensable for a political founder who cares for righteousness. This sobering instruction greatly alters Abraham’s view of the world, including his understanding of fatherhood. He begins to see that proper fatherhood must be grounded not on the natural love of your own but on the acquired love of the right and the good. I refer to the famous conversation between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
God arranges the encounter, “seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations shall be blessed in him,” and reveals for the first time His true interest in Abraham: “For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the ways of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice: to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him” (18:17-19; emphasis added).
Abraham, the founder of a great nation, must do righteousness and justice, and command his children after him to do likewise, for only in this way can Abraham bring the Lord’s righteous ways to the entire world, and thus be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Although he has shown himself to be personally just, Abraham, because he is to be a political founder, needs also some instruction in political justice, that is, in justice regarding whole communities-cities or nations. God not only wants Abraham to know about the judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah; He also wants him to understand its rightness. More important, God also intends that Abraham share responsibility for the punishment as a result of his participation in the judgment. Through this conversation, Abraham is to become God’s partner, as it were, in executing political justice.
The Lord makes known, presumably within Abraham’s hearing, the problem that demands His attention:
”Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous. I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.” (18:20-21)
The cry of injustice rising from these two cities has brought God to investigate: He does not rely on hearsay, He will see for Himself. What He intends to do about it is not stated.
Abraham draws near the Lord and initiates the conversation:
”Wilt thou indeed consume the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou indeed consume and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the Judge of the whole earth do justly?” (18:23-25)
We are immediately struck by the boldness and intensity of Abraham’s speech; unlike most of his subsequent offerings in this conversation, he makes here no preface and offers no apologies for his challenge, and the repetitions of certain phrases (e.g., “that be far from thee”) indicate his passion. But closer examination provides some clues about just what it is that moves Abraham so. It is not, I submit, compassion for strangers, but a concern for justice centered closer to home.
It is Abraham, not God, who introduces the punishment of destruction; God was still investigating, but Abraham, far from shrinking from punishing the wicked, is the one who suggests it. Justice, not compassion or mercy, is on Abraham’s mind, as it is on God’s. But Abraham’s leap to questioning the punishment of wholesale destruction may be motivated by something closer to home. Here is a big clue: God had announced his interest in the wickedness of two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham in his questioning speaks only of one city, although he does not name it. God, reading Abraham’s mind, will in his next response speak only about Sodom, and by name. As a result, we learn that Abraham’s interest in the fate of Sodom is not disinterested; for Sodom is still the home of his nephew, Lot. The commentators who hear in Abraham’s pleas only a concern for total strangers have forgotten the place and importance of Lot. Abraham, who risked his very life-and with it the divine promise-to rescue Lot in the war of the kings, will certainly not have become indifferent to the fate of his kinsman just because he now has an heir in Ishmael. The presence of Lot among the wicked in Sodom captures Abraham’s attention and engages his passions; and Lot becomes the hook for catching and enlarging Abraham’s concern for justice. Because it would be both ignoble and unjust to engage in special pleading, Abraham cannot make his argument in personal terms; he must make it in terms applicable both to his own and to the strangers alike.
Even leaving aside the question of Lot, Abraham’s point of departure is clearly a concern for personal justice: Is each person getting what he deserves? More precisely, Abraham focuses entirely on the danger of injustice for the righteous: he is not at all arguing that the wicked should be spared out of mercy or compassion, only that the righteous not suffer with the guilty. This concern for personal justice, and especially for the fate of the righteous, is also not disinterested; Abraham surely wants to know whether his own righteousness will be rewarded as promised. If God is capricious or just plain careless with the righteous, he Abraham could suffer unjustly despite his efforts at righteousness; he too could fare much less well than he deserves.
But lurking in these personal concerns are also larger and even more important questions, crucial to Abraham’s relationship to God and to his founding mission. For he desperately needs to know whether divine justice bears a sufficiently close resemblance to our human intuition about justice, namely that the good shall prosper and the wicked (only) shall suffer. Is God’s justice, seen from this human viewpoint, arbitrary or capricious? If so, will it be possible to follow Him wholeheartedly as God commanded? For this reason especially, Abraham insists on learning whether the righteous must suffer with the wicked.
But this question is crucial not only for Abraham and for his need to discover whether God’s justice and human justice are basically congruent. It is crucial also for God and for the main lesson that He wants to teach Abraham and about which Abraham already has his suspicions. For Abraham is dimly aware that there may be a tension between what is just for a city and what is just for individuals. He senses that if the city gets judged as a whole, the results for individual city dwellers will not be just, because some righteous will suffer with and for the guilty. Abraham to begin with rebels at this prospect. Accordingly, he eschews the political perspective (which is concerned with the city) and focuses entirely on the fate of the righteous individuals-and probably for all the reasons mentioned. No wonder he demands to know if the Judge of the whole earth is going to act justly, that is, render to each person exactly and only what is owed.
In contrast with Abraham, God is much more interested not in individuals, the righteous ones, but in the city, and its wickedness. Still, he welcomes Abraham’s insubordination in the name of personal justice in order to educate him. In accepting Abraham’s plea about the fifty righteous, he promises to spare the city if they be found in Sodom, but he subtly tries to get Abraham to think also about the problem of the whole. Where Abraham had asked Him “to forgive the place for the fifty righteous therein” (18:24), God stresses the totality: “I will forgive all the place for their sake” (18:26; emphasis added).
Abraham, when he speaks next, repeats God’s use of “all,” but he clearly hasn’t grasped the point. Looking away from all the city, he wants God to look only at the group of the vulnerable fifty righteous: “Perhaps there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt thou destroy all the city for the lack of five?” (18:28; emphasis added)
God, although again allowing himself to be moved by Abraham’s plea, nonetheless rejects its focus and the terms Abraham had used. Abraham had looked only at the fifty righteous and implied that God might destroy the whole city for a mere lack of five such. God, correcting Abraham’s calculations, promises not to destroy the city if he finds there the positive presence of forty-five righteous men: “I will not destroy it, if I find there forty and five” (18:28).
From now on, accepting God’s correction, Abraham will do the bargaining solely in terms of the size of the saving remnant. Encouraged by God’s answers, he continues to work down the number, making the case for forty, thirty, twenty, and, finally, ten. But, curiously, Abraham voluntarily stops the bargaining at ten. This is strange. On the principle that has driven him from the start, and that has apparently been supported at every turn by God’s response-namely, that the righteous ought not suffer-Abraham might have pressed the case to its logical conclusion: to spare the city for the sake of one righteous man. Why does Abraham break off at ten? Why does he not push all the way to one?
Abraham may have been afraid or ashamed to push to the limit, either out of a gradually increasing fear that God will judge him presumptuous or out of embarrassment at revealing a personal interest in his one kinsman, Lot. But fear and shame aside, Abraham may have broken off the bargaining because he had learned something. Encouraged by God’s accepting of his conditions, but thereby also brought into closer alignment with the divine perspective, Abraham has begun to think about justice for a whole city. He comes to see that to care about justice for a whole city or a whole nation means that one must be willing to overlook, at least to some extent, both the natural preferences for one’s own kin and the demand for absolutely strict justice for each individual. By stopping the bargaining at ten, Abraham (at least tacitly) accepts the possible destruction of Lot, the man he once called “brother,” the man he once looked to as adopted son and possible heir. And he (at least tacitly) accepts that politics-the life of cities-necessarily involves the suffering of at least some innocent and righteous people. If one is to care for the justice of a nation, and especially as its founder, one must be willing not only to moderate the love of one’s family and the love of personal justice; one must even be willing to sacrifice them, at least in part. Political founding and political justice are a sobering business, because political justice is not altogether just.
There is for Abraham, of course, also some very good news: God is indeed moved by every appeal Abraham actually makes. There is no known gap between God’s justice and Abraham’s. God is willing to make accommodations, but apparently only if there is a truly saving remnant, only if there exists a possibility to lift up the city as a whole, that is, only if there are enough righteous men to effect reform. (If not, the innocent and righteous necessarily go down with the guilty-as they do in every wicked city, down to the present day.) By showing Abraham their common ground about the principles of justice, God enables Abraham to gain His perspective on the practice of justice in the political realm. Abraham learns that one must come to care about the righteousness or wickedness of the world, and not only about one’s own kin and one’s own goodness and its rewards. Most important, Abraham learns that one virtuous man does not make, and cannot save, a nation by his own merit alone.
For Abraham, the lesson could not be more pointed: his excessive preoccupation with God’s personal promise, with his own merit and its reward-that is, with personal justice-is in fact at odds with the fulfillment of the purpose of God’s promise that he become a great nation, steeped in righteousness, to become a blessing to all the others. The implication could not be plainer: because a community once founded will stand or fall together, and because one man’s virtue is not sufficient, there is urgent need for education and transmission, beginning with a well-ordered house and with political measures to secure justice in the community. And this lesson could not be more timely. For it is administered to Abraham, via this conversation, just after he has learned that Sarah will bear him the long-awaited son-of-the-covenant within the year. Before Isaac arrives, Abraham is compelled to think less like a natural father, more like a righteous founder, who executes justice and who walks before God. Or, perhaps better, he is compelled to consider that being a righteous father, like being a righteous founder, means to care more for what is right and good than for your own.
The lesson does not end with the conversation. The point is driven home the next morning as Abraham awakens to see smoke rising from the cities and all the land of the Plain, “like the smoke from a furnace” (19:28). The text says not a word about Abraham’s reaction, but we can try to imagine what went through his mind. For sure, God’s evident and mighty power over human life inspired in him awe and dread. But what about the righteous for whom he had bargained? There could have been as many as nine who perished with the guilty-not to speak of innocent newborn babies-as the city went down together. And what of Lot? As Abraham watched, he no doubt concluded that Lot died in the conflagration. With heavy heart, he felt his own responsibility for Lot’s death-not only because he agreed in speech to let any less than ten righteous die with the guilty, but perhaps also because he had earlier failed to educate Lot in justice and (in order to avoid strife) had allowed him many years ago to go off to settle in Sodom. The burdens of the father, the founder, and the judge are heavy indeed. Abraham’s reflection on the deed of the destruction completes and fixes the political lessons of the conversation of the day before.
As if to tell the reader of Abraham’s heavy heart about his “sacrifice” of Lot, the text speaks of smoke ascending like smoke in a furnace, using the words for smoke and ascent connected with the making of burnt offerings. (Indeed, the word used here for ascent, ‘olah, is also the word for burnt offering that we shall meet again soon.) And, in the immediate sequel, we are told “that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt” (19:29). God shows his mercy, saving Lot for Abraham’s sake. But-and this is crucial-He does not tell Abraham that He has done so. There will be time enough later to teach Abraham and his descendants about God’s mercy. For the time being, the painful lessons of the father’s and the founder’s justice must be allowed to sink in without a word of consolation.
We wonder whether something of what he learned as he witnessed the smoke rising from Sodom and Gomorrah may have prepared Abraham for his greatest trial, enabling him to respond without so much as a peep of protest about the suffering of the innocent when God asks him to become not just an accomplice in the death of Lot but an actual killer of his own beloved son.
After the episode with Sodom and Gomorrah, which teaches Abraham both about God’s awesome power and about the need to serve righteousness, and after the (second) wife-sister episode involving Abimelech, which completes Abraham’s education regarding the meaning of wife, Sarah at last conceives and Isaac is wondrously born, when his mother and father are, respectively, ninety and one hundred years old. The circumstances surrounding his birth enable both Abraham and Sarah to see the permanent truth about parenthood: children are not man’s products or creatures, and thus the pride that human beings naturally take in their own children as their own children is vanity and self-delusion. God commands not only the awesome power of executing justice and destruction; He is also the source of the renewal of life through children, who are life’s true answer to mortality.
Abraham, his pride suitably humbled, “circumcise[s] his son Isaac when he [is] eight days old, as God had [earlier] commanded him” (21:4). Isaac, from his birth, is brought within the covenant that commemorates God’s new way and man’s commission to walk wholeheartedly before Him. His mother Sarah rejoices both in God’s beneficence (“God hath made laughter for me”; 21:6) and in this fulfillment of her marriage to Abraham (“For I have borne him a son in his old age”; 21:7). Abraham too is joyous, and makes “a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned” (21:8).
Yet there is still trouble in the house, on account of Ishmael, which must be remedied in order to insure Isaac’s ascendancy. At Sarah’s insistence, Abraham, with heavy heart and great reluctance but with God’s approving endorsement of Sarah’s plan, banishes Ishmael and Hagar, bringing the family for the first time into its proper order and harmony. We readers who are gratified by this result should not underestimate the difficulty Abraham probably had in, as it were, “sacrificing” Ishmael his first-born, the first bearer of his great hope for posterity. Only because of his growing sense of what it might mean to walk wholeheartedly before God and because of the wondrous existence of the long-promised heir in Isaac was Abraham able to lose Ishmael, as he had lost Lot before him. Even so, we should consider the possibility that it was Abraham’s great reluctance to part with Ishmael which made necessary the more horrible test of separation from Isaac, reported in the story that I will soon discuss at length.
His household reordered, Abraham next secures good relations with his neighbors, Abimelech and the Philistines. Imitating God’s practice with him, Abraham enters into a covenant of mutual respect and recognition with Abimelech at Beer-sheba. In gratitude for his new blessed circumstances, “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God. And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days” (21:33-34). Everything appears to be set, ordered, and harmonious: Abraham is ready to be both father and founder of his-and God’s-great nation. Abraham’s course of instruction would appear to have been completed.
As everyone knows, this appearance is deceiving. The hardest and most difficult lesson is yet to come. The story of the binding of Isaac is Abraham’s final test.
No story in Genesis is as terrible, as powerful, as mysterious, as elusive as this one. It defies easy and confident interpretations, and despite all that I shall have to say about it, it continues to baffle me. Indeed, my own approach seems even to me to be too shallow, precisely because I am attempting to be reasonable about this awesome and shocking story.
Let me make clear some assumptions I make in interpreting this tale. First, about its timing: it comes precisely at this time, when all earthly arrangements are apparently set, so that it may clarify Abraham’s relation to God, but-and this is crucial-therefore also his relation to his own and to others: Abraham must show that he understands that one’s spiritual orientation is decisive also for all human relations. Second, Abraham at the beginning would have been incapable of meeting this test; thus, the test must be interpreted in the light of his education. His previous adventures have taught him and readied his soul for this final trial and lesson. He has experienced awe, the religious passion, during the dark vision between the sacrificial pieces; he has enacted the new covenant marked by (self-)circumcision-a symbolic act of “partial sacrifice,” betokening dedication to God’s ways; he has been God’s partner in the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, and in his own heart has accepted responsibility for (what he thought was) the “death” of Lot; he has beheld the wondrous birth of Isaac and endured the banishment of Ishmael. He has witnessed not only God’s dreadful power but also His insight into men’s souls, as well as His solicitude, honesty, justice, restraint, and providence. He has received (from Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the most high God [14:18-20] and from Abimelech [21:22]) the testimony of foreign witnesses to (his own) God’s majesty. And he has known intimately God’s benevolence toward him, in the gift of Isaac. As a result, now at the end of his adventures, Abraham is ready to replace the “reasons” for being a follower of God: originally, he answered the call largely out of a desire for the promised reward; now, in a reversal, he is ready to follow out of awe-fear-reverence for the One Who promises.
The stark story has a stark beginning:
And it came to pass after these things, that God did test Abraham, and said unto him: “Abraham”; and he said: “Here-am-I” (hineni). And He said: “Take, please, thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering (‘olah) upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” (22:1-2; emphasis added)
We are told that this is a test, but we must ourselves decide of what. Generally and safely speaking, we may say, a test of Abraham’s disposition toward God. But of which disposition? Contrary to many interpreters, I do not believe that this is a test either of Abraham’s obedience or of his faith-or-trust in or love of God. For one thing, God does not exactly command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, He requests it of him; as Robert Sacks points out, God says “please.” (Nearly all translators fail to translate the Hebrew particle, na, which accompanies the verb, “take.”) Thus Abraham is in fact free to refuse, as he would not be were he simply commanded to obey. Also, it is hard to see how faith-or-trust is being tested: faith or trust in what? That God will turn this awful deed into some discernible good, or, more shallowly, that He doesn’t really mean it? A hardly plausible reading, for it robs the episode of its true horror. To be sure, those who, following Kierkegaard, see here only irrationality and contradiction-for how can one reconcile God’s earlier promise that Isaac would carry the covenant with God’s current demand for Isaac’s destruction?-and who therefore insist that it is human reason itself whose sacrifice is being called for have no recourse but to explain Abraham’s conduct as a “leap of faith.” But, as I will try to argue, the request is not as “irrational” as it seems if it is considered in the context of Abraham’s earlier education and not looked at only on its own.
But why should we speculate further about this, when the text itself later tells us exactly what is being tested: the depth of Abraham’s awe-fear-reverence before God. When the angel of the Lord later comes to stay Abraham’s hand, he praises him for having demonstrated that he is a God-fearing/God-revering man: “For now I know that thou are a God-fearing-revering man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me” (22:12). Later, perhaps, men can learn to love God, but it is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.
The word translated fear, yare, means more than simple fright. In moral terms, it connotes also awe, dread, reverence; it is the primary religious passion, experienced in recognition of a form of being beyond our comprehension, of a power beyond our control, of a force before which we feel small and toward which we look up. Curiously, awe in acknowledging the gap thereby partly overcomes it: awe or reverence establishes a relationship across the unbridgeable divide. Though a disturbing passion which holds one back from the thing feared, awe also holds one fast, attracted and transfixed before it. Awe-reverence is evoked also by the voice of authority, in which we hear something compelling and powerful that commands our attention but that remains partly hidden and mysterious because we cannot take its full measure. It is thus the primary passion experienced not only before the divine, but also, at least in reverent sons and daughters, before one’s father and mother: in Leviticus, when the Children of Israel are commanded to “fear every man his mother and his father. . . . I am the Lord your God” (19:3), reverence before parents and reverence before God are brought into explicit alignment, as they are in our present story.
Here, then, are two ways to formulate the question being asked of Abraham in this final test: Do you, Abraham, desire to walk reverently before God and to be wholehearted (or blameless or perfect) more than you desire the rewards for such conduct? Do you, Abraham, fear-and-revere God more than you love your son-and, through him, your great nation, great name, and great prosperity-and more even than you desire the covenant with God?
Horrible though it is to say so, the test God devises is perfect: For only if Abraham is willing to do without the covenant (and, indeed, is willing to destroy it himself), out of awe-reverence for the Covenantor, can he demonstrate that he merits the covenant and its promised rewards; only in this way can he demonstrate that he is fit for fatherhood and founding. With fear and trembling, I am suggesting (and hope to show) that, far from being irrational, this test makes pretty good sense, as a test both of the father and of the founder.
But, as Robert Sacks has astutely observed, the test is also risky, and not only on Abraham’s side. Abraham could refuse God’s request, producing a permanent cleavage between them; for in refusing, Abraham would demonstrate his lack of wholeheartedness, and, hence, his ultimate untrustworthiness. If God then, in reaction to such refusal, nullifies the covenant, He would in turn seem, from Abraham’s point of view, to be equally untrustworthy. “In a strange way the present passage speaks more about God’s faith in Abraham than Abraham’s faith in God.”
God’s trust in Abraham is vindicated: Abraham is ready and willing to meet the test. Not hesitating, and without saying a word (not to God, and probably not to Sarah), Abraham “arose early in the morning,” as if he were wholeheartedly in sympathy with the request. But he is no zealot, eager to practice child-sacrifice or insensitive to the horror involved; this we learn from the austere, steady, and dignified way he proceeds, as indicated by the simplicity, compactness, and austerity of the verbs used to recount his actions: he arose, saddled (his ass), took (two youths with him and Isaac his son), cleaved (wood for the burnt-offering), rose up and went. Of what he thought and felt on the three-day journey is left to our imagination; from the text’s point of view the important thing is what he did: he went, and went steadily, to the place of which God had spoken.
Once there, Abraham leaves his youthful servants behind to attend to the ass and his other possessions; among other things, he wishes to spare them the horrible sight. Moreover, he understands that the affair is really only about himself, Isaac, and God, and about their interrelationships. Placing the wood upon Isaac’s shoulders, taking in his own hands the fire and the knife, Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain together: “and they went both of them together” [literally, “unitedly,” yachad, from a root meaning “to be one”] (22:6).
There ensues the momentous conversation between Isaac and Abraham, the only one recorded in the Bible, a conversation that may therefore reveal the core of the relationship between father and son. Isaac breaks the tension of silence, but at the same time increases the tension both by how he speaks and by what he brings forth into articulate consciousness between them.
And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, saying “My-father [avi].” And he said, “Here-am-I, my-son [hineni beni].” (22:7)
The three words spoken poignantly verify the paternal-filial tie; and Abraham’s response means “I am fully present to you, my son”-that is, as the father you summoned. (Abraham had previously answered hineni, “Here I am, fully present to you,” when God called him to the test; 22:1.)
And he [Isaac] said, “Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering.” And Abraham said, “God will provide Himself [literally, “will see-for-Himself”] the lamb for the burnt-offering, my son.” And they went both of them together. (22:7-8)
Isaac asks presumably in childlike wonder; Abraham’s answer gives authoritative, fatherly, and pious reassurance. Speaking better than he knows, Abraham uses Isaac’s trust in his father to encourage his son’s trust in God’s providence. Yet Abraham does not exactly lie: for in Abraham’s eyes Isaac, the sacrificial lamb, had indeed been provided by God, presumably for this purpose. The conversation produces no change in the father-son relationship: they continue to go up the mountain, both of them, united as one.
The story moves toward its climax, Abraham acting with the same simplicity, austerity, and dignity as before: he built (the altar), laid (the wood), bound (Isaac his son), laid (him on the altar, upon the wood), stretched-forth (his hand), took (the knife) to slaughter his son (22:9-10). At the last moment, the angel of the Lord calls out to him, commanding him to desist and to leave the lad untouched. The reason the angel offers for sparing Isaac is the praise of Abraham’s fear-of-the-Lord which we have already discussed. At this very moment, Abraham “lift(s) up his eyes” and sees the ram caught by his horns in the thicket; Abraham takes the providentially-appearing ram and offers it as a burnt-offering in place of his son.
What follows is a new blessing bestowed by the angel upon Abraham, God’s last and best blessing of the patriarch:
”’By Myself have I sworn’ said the Lord, ‘because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou has hearkened to my voice.’” (22:16-18; emphasis added)
The image of innumerable progeny here combines the two previous ones (stars and sand), the lofty and the earthly. Also, for the first time, Abraham is told that his seed shall be victorious in wars with its enemies-which means, of course, that there will be later need for God-fearing men to sacrifice their sons, this time in battle; in the absence of fathers who are willing to pay such a price, God’s way on earth cannot survive in the world against its enemies. Finally, Abraham is told that all the nations (cf. 12:3, “all the families”) will be blessed in his seed. Why? Because he hearkened, in awe-fear-and-reverence, to the voice of the Lord.
In view of this expanded blessing, I feel confident in setting aside a powerful and radically alternative reading of this tale, first suggested to me in conversation by my friend and colleague, Michael Fishbane, professor of Judaica. This interpretation holds that Abraham fails the test, by not refusing God’s command and by yielding instead to the all-too-human predilection for child-sacrifice and slaughter of the innocent, manifested by zealots and religious fanatics, then and now. The only possible textual basis for this reading makes much of the fact that it is an angel rather than God Himself who calls a halt to the sacrifice. God, suggests Fishbane, is so embarrassed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son that He refuses to speak with him directly, but sends his messenger instead. Moreover, God never speaks to Abraham again. But, as already indicated, Abraham at no time shows even a tinge of zeal or wildness; in his dealings with Isaac up to the deed itself, he shows solicitude, steadiness, and calm resolution. More important, Fishbane’s sensitive account, which does justice to our own horror at Abraham’s deed, cannot handle the manifest fact that the angel speaks for God, Who swears by Himself and Who increases Abraham’s blessing as a response to his hearkening to the divine voice. Whether we like what Abraham did or not, we have it on the highest authority that Abraham passed the test.
If God learns about the state of Abraham’s soul, Abraham-and we-learn something equally important about God. It seems that He wants dedication and reverence, not sacrifices. He is not the sort of god who wants human flesh or the sacrifice of innocent life; indeed, He here puts a curb on any such human impulse. More important, God does not finally require that men choose between the love of your own and godliness. Though it took a horrible episode to demonstrate this fact, harmonization is possible between a reverence for God (who loves righteousness) and the love of one’s family or nation, rightly understood. God, the awesome and transcendent power, wants not the transcendence of life but rather its sanctification-in all the mundane activities and relations of everyday life. Thus, God displays Himself to be exactly the sort of god whom one could not only fear-and-revere, but even come to love-“with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
VI. The Meaning of Fatherhood
Abraham, called by God to be the father of a new nation that will carry God’s righteous ways to the rest of the world, is educated by God Himself in the proper roles of father and founder, and proves his readiness in his final test. After this, he has but a few remaining tasks to perform in order to complete his work as father-founder, after which he can quietly leave the scene. He purchases the cave at Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah, a deed simultaneously of familial and political significance; done not least for Isaac’s and his descendants’ sake (Abraham will also be buried here, as will Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah), the ground is consecrated as a memorial, helping to keep alive in memory the deeds of the founding mothers and fathers. Ownership of this small plot of earth will be the Children of Israel’s sole legal claim in the promised land during their four hundred years of exile in Egypt. Not agriculture but burial is the first title to land. The Holy Land is holy first because it is the land where my fathers (and mothers) died.
The land having been sacralized in perpetuity, Abraham next completes the work of perpetuation by arranging an appropriate marriage for Isaac; no father worth his salt can be indifferent to who it is that his children marry. In Rebekah, he found more than any father of sons could ask for, a woman of worth who, even more than her husband, will be responsible for safeguarding the new way into the third generation. At age 175, his work complete, Abraham “expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah. . . . There was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (25:8-11).
Father Abraham, I submit, is the model father, both of his family and of his people-yes, even in his willingness to sacrifice his son-because he reveres God, the source of life and blessing, more than he loves his own. Truth be told, all fathers devote (that is “sacrifice”) their sons to some “god” or other-to Mammon or Molech, to honor or money, pleasure or power, or, worse, to no god at all. True, they do so less visibly and less concentratedly, but they do so willy-nilly, through the things they teach and respect in their own homes; they intend that the entire life of the sons be spent in service to their own ideals or idols, and in this sense they do indeed spend the life of the children. But a true father will devote his son to-and will self-consciously and knowingly initiate him into-only the righteous and godly ways. He will understand that, like Abraham, only a father who feels awe before the true source can deserve the filial awe-and-reverence of his sons (cf. Noah and his sons). By showing his willingness to sacrifice what is his for what is right and good, he also puts his son on the proper road for his own adulthood-the true test of the good father. He will not finally love his son solely because he is his own, but will love only that in his son which is good and which is open to the good, including his son’s own capacity for awe before the divine. In this sense at least, he is ever willing to part with his son as his son, recognizing him-as was Isaac, and as are indeed all children-as a gift and a blessing for God.
Just as Abraham as true father learns the limits on the love of one’s own, so Abraham as the true founder learns the limits of politics and of the founder’s pride. All founders, like all nations, look up to something (cf. Sodom, Babel); a true founder will know from the start that there is something higher than founding and higher than politics, in the light of which one should found. Accordingly, he will strive to devote the nation or the polity to what is truly highest. Righteous politics requires not only a desire for greatness, but a willingness to subordinate that desire to the source of righteousness, in which subordination is true greatness to be found.* Finally, the true founder knows and accepts the fact that his innocent sons will suffer for the sake of the righteous community and that their “sacrifice” is no proof that they are not properly loved as sons. On the contrary, the true founder, like the true father, shows his love for his followers when he teaches them, often by example, that one’s life is not worth living if there is nothing worth dying for.
I am almost at the end. But, I must confess, I have utterly neglected one vexing question: Isaac. I have considered the story solely from Abraham’s point of view. But fatherhood is not fatherhood without “son-ship,” and we must in closing-and in honesty-cast a short look at what Isaac may have felt, and learned, during his ordeal. For it would be a tragic and self-defeating result if Abraham proved himself a worthy father only at the price of his son’s alienation. Is it possible that Abraham (like Noah in his tent) un-fathered himself on Mount Moriah?
On the surface, there is no apparent rupture on the mountain. Isaac does not resist being bound, Isaac does not struggle, Isaac does not even cry out. Isaac, it seems, is complicitous in his own sacrifice. Yet a closer look shows that his relation to his father is indeed broken as a result. Although going up the mountain, as the narrator stressed twice, “they went both of them together,” at the end of the story, the narrator reports pointedly, “Abraham returned unto his youths, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba” (22:19; emphasis added). Isaac does not go down the mountain with his father; Abraham now goes alone, leaving his son to fend for himself. Moreover, Isaac and Abraham will not appear together again (in the text) until Isaac and Ishmael come to bury Abraham. And Isaac is explicitly said to be grieved by the death of his mother, Sarah, not by the death of his father. One might go so far as to suggest that this “trauma” at the hands of his father explains Isaac’s subsequent shortcomings as a father of his own sons, Esau and Jacob, including his preference for the strong, ruddy, earthy, present-centered hunter, Esau (whom Isaac loved, we are told, because he loved to eat of his venison), and his apparent indifference to the paternal work of transmission. Everything points to the fact that Isaac-like so many of us sons-neither understood nor approved of what his father did or stood for; and, you might wish to add, in Isaac’s case for good reason.
But if we are lucky to live long enough, many of us discover that our parents get smarter as we get older, especially if we are blessed with children of our own to rear. They were right, our parents, when they said to us, “Just you wait until you have children! Then you’ll see.” Why we cannot learn by being told and while we live under their rule is a long question; but, for most of us, we must separate ourselves from our parents in order to learn the hard way, before we can, in returning, step up to take their place. This, I believe, happens also to Isaac, albeit late in his life.
It happens at the moment when Isaac discovers that he has been fooled by Jacob into giving him the blessing he had intended for Esau. This revelation suddenly brings Isaac to his senses. Remarkably, he is not angry but rather awe-struck: “And Isaac trembled with an exceedingly great trembling” (27:33), as if he sensed that the blessing had been given through him to the proper son, by powers beyond his control. As he had said, prophetically but unwittingly, when he sent Esau out at the start of this episode, he would eat but his soul would bless (27:4)-and so it happened. Despite himself, something that was living in him and through him gave the blessing to the son for whom it was suited; note that in doing so he metaphorically sacrificed his favorite son! No wonder he trembled: O my God! Is this what my father suffered and understood and felt on Mount Moriah?
In the immediate sequel, Isaac on his own initiative calls, blesses, and, for the first time, commands Jacob-not to take a Canaanite wife but to find one at the ancestral home of his mother, Rebekah. Continuing (and these are the last words and the last deed of Isaac in the Bible), Isaac bestows on Jacob-fully and freely-the Abrahamic blessing, the proper blessing of the sons of the covenant:
”And God Almighty will bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be an assembly of peoples; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be an assembly of peoples; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest possess the land of thy sojournings, which God gave unto Abraham." (28:3-4)
Isaac, stepping forward into the paternal role, at long last fulfills his mission as patriarch. The last word we hear from Isaac’s lips is the name of Abraham, his father and ours.
Leon R. Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought, The University of Chicago, and author of Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs and The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. An earlier version of this two-part essay was delivered as the Joseph Gregory McCarthy Lectures in the Department of Theology at Boston College, September 1993.