Genesis 18:1 to 22:24
Although Torah doesn’t tell us much about Abraham’s early life, we learn much about his later life and total devotion to God. How would this characteristic be regarded in today’s world?
- Birth of his son, Isaac
- Discussion with God about Sodom and Gomorrah
- For a second time, Abraham journeys away from home during a famine. And again, he claims Sarah is his sister and she is taken into the king’s harem.
- Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael.
- God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
It does seem like a lot… In fact this parsha contains more words than any other in Torah – a total of 2,085 Hebrew words. However, the parsha with the most letters is Miketz which comes later in Genesis. (Something to look forward to…) With all these important events, it is difficult to focus on a single event. Torah commentators through the ages may have observed the same situation. Many of them have reduced the major events in Abraham’s life to a list referred to as The Ten Trials or Tests of Abraham by God.
But, when you look at different commentators, they see the list containing different events. Some list events that don’t appear in the Torah, but come from Midrash.
Maimonides includes only events from Torah:
- God tells Abraham to leave his homeland and become a stranger in Canaan. (Gen. 12:1)
- Abraham encounters a famine and leaves his home. (Gen. 12:10)
- The Egyptians capture his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh. (Gen. 12:15)
- Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings. (Gen. 14:14)
- Abraham marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah. (Gen. 16:3)
- God tells Abraham to circumcise himself at an advanced age. (Gen. 17:24)
- The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself. (Gen. 20:20)
- God tells Abraham to send Hagar away after having a child with her. (Gen. 21:12)
- Abraham becomes estranged from his son Ishmael. (Reflected in the above item)
- God tells Abraham to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar. (Gen. 22.2)
A list included in the second century BCE Book of Jubilees has a slightly different listing. Although it only mentions eight items from this list … it adds the event of Abraham purchasing land to bury Sarah.
Umberto Cassuto, a mid-20th century Italian-Israeli scholar formerly of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem added the episode where Lot separates from Abraham’s group and when Abraham rescues Lot. Although the rescue of Lot occurs during the battle of the four and five kings mentioned above, I feel that it should be mentioned because it specifically names Lot.
The fact that Abraham places his life and the well-being of his family in jeopardy in order to complete the commandments of God is a major factor in why Abraham holds the importance in our traditions that he does. In an article which appeared in aish.com, Rabbi Avi Geller states: “Throughout Jewish history, when Jews gave their lives and the lives of their children for the ‘sanctification of God’s name,’ this was only possible because of the act of our patriarch Abraham. He is in our DNA forever!” (Aish.com, February, 2002)
…. However, I ask is it an admirable trait to force one’s family to move away from friends and family? …. Is it admirable to offer your wife to a prominent leader for the purpose of safety? …. Is it admirable to have relations with a woman other than your wife; and then, send her off to die because of family disputes? …. Is it admirable to attempt to kill your own child because of a request (or test) of God?
We see that Abraham is completely committed to God, This has given him a position of great importance in Jewish tradition. But, I see his actions toward his family a negative attribute and one that I find almost impossible to respect and admire. I guess this places me with a minority of Jewish commentators.
In past weeks, I looked at Noah as a person and saw flaws. This week, looking at Abraham, I also see a great man with flaws. If I knew a person today who had the same traits … a strong – almost fanatical devotion – to a religion at the expense of his or her family, I would consider this a flawed individual.
We can now look at two different biblical personalities and compare them to each other … as well as contemporary people: Noah – a person who followed God’s commandments; but, didn’t consider the well-being of others in his community… and Abraham – a person who devoted his every living action to God’s commands, even at the risk of family and close friends.
It will be interesting to compare future personalities from Torah to these two and note what lessons we can take from each.
Painting of “Sacrifice of Isaac” by Matthias Stom (1615-1649)