An Ancient Justification of the Akedah
The bible’s account of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, opens with the words “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.” The Midrash, assuming that ‘these things’ were not the events recounting in the preceding narrative, wants to know what they were. It presents three alternative scenarios. Each scenario is designed to refute criticisms that, presumably, were being levelled at Judaism at the time that the Midrash was composed.
In the first of the three scenes Abraham is presented as saying “I have rejoiced, and made everyone rejoice, and yet I have not offered even a single bull or ram to God”. God replies “(I have confidence in you) even to the extent that that you would offer your son and not hold back.” Immediately, God tested Abraham.
The second scene, reminiscent of the book of Job, have the angels remonstrating with God. They level the same charge at Abraham as he has previously levelled at himself. “He has rejoiced, and made everyone rejoice, and yet has not offered even a single bull or ram to God. God replies, as before, “(I have confidence in him) even to the extent that that he would offer his son and not hold back.” Immediately, God tested Abraham.
The third scene is different. Isaac and Ishmael are quarrelling. Ishmael says he is more beloved of God because he was circumcised at the age of thirteen. Isaac says he is more beloved because he was circumcised when eight days old. Ishmael retorted that he is more beloved because he was of an age at which he could have objected, but he did not. Isaac replied “if only God would appear and tell me to cut off one of my limbs, I would not delay. Immediately, God tested Abraham.
In the first scene, Abraham yearns for God but exhibits self-doubt, feeling he has not done enough for God. God’s response is to test him, to reassure him that his yearning is reciprocated and he has no need to doubt himself.
In the second, God needs to prove to the world what true faith is. The Hebrew word for a test can also mean a banner. The Midrash is using the word in this latter sense: God holds up Abraham to the world to show what a man of true faith is capable of.
In the third scene it is God’s justice that is in doubt. His test of Abraham seems to be capricious and cruel. Isaac is presented as a willing victim, prepared to be sacrificed in order to demonstrate God’s love for him. But God chooses not to accede to Isaac’s request; he will not order the boy to maim himself. Instead he passes responsibility to Abraham, to teach him the challenges of true faith.
These three scenes each reflect concerns that the Midrash is trying to refute throughout its treatment of the Akedah. We can imagine that in the religious debates of the fourth or fifth centuries, the Akedah story has led to criticism of each of the story’s protagonists. God is accused, by the opponents of Judaism, of needlessly subjecting Abraham to a cruel and unnecessary test of faith. Abraham is accused of being deranged, a zealot who will do whatever his God tells him. And Isaac is a passive and supine victim, an object of sympathy and scorn.
The three scenes that the Midrash produces try to argue, through metaphor, that these criticisms are misplaced. Abraham needs God, God needs Abraham and Isaac was a willing participant.
Of course these days we are probably not impressed by the Midrash’s metaphors nor swayed by its arguments. But we should not misunderstand the role of Midrash in contemporary religious discourse. Midrash is neither to be believed literally, nor approached uncritically. Its role is to generate ideas, spark debate and lead us to address problems from perspectives that might otherwise not occur to our 21st century minds. That is its true value to us today.