Rabbi Pete Tobias – 26 October 2018
This week’s parashah contains many episodes from the life of Abraham – any one of them could be a topic for consideration. It starts with the arrival of the angels, the promise of Isaac and Sarah laughing at that prospect. Then comes Abraham’s challenge to God over the intended destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That happens anyway, and is followed by the casting out of Hagar and Abraham’s other son, Ishmael.
But it’s the final episode, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, that I would like to focus on. It’s a well-known story – indeed it’s the selected reading for Rosh Hashanah morning. It’s a story that baffles: why would God demand such a sacrifice from Abraham? Why would Abraham obey without raising a protest? At what point did Isaac say to his father on the three-day journey home ‘So when were you planning to tell me what that was all about, dad?’
But for me, a different approach to the story provides a clearer understanding of its purpose. It is clear from archaeological and extra-biblical evidence that the sacrifice of first-born children was a well-established feature of Canaanite society. It is also clear that the Israelites were quite keen to follow this Canaanite practice. It was specifically prohibited in the book of Leviticus (20:1-5) and Jeremiah also makes reference to the practice (32:35). The question for the sages and teachers of our ancient ancestors was how to dissuade them from this abominable practice.
So they came up with the idea of telling them a story about it. They cleverly chose the patriarch Abraham as the ‘hero’ of the story. The early Israelite audience would listen to the story, enjoying the skilfully woven narrative that took them on the journey with Abraham and Isaac to the top of the mountain, right up until the point where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son…
Then, of course, Isaac was saved, Abraham sacrificed a ram in his place and they all lived happily ever after (except for Isaac’s mother, Sarah, who dies in the next chapter – probably because of the trauma she suffered in response to her son’s excited report on his return home ‘Mum – you’ll never guess what dad tried to do to me…’)
The choice of Abraham was a stroke of genius. Because the more astute members of the audience would work out that if Isaac had been sacrificed, there would have been no Jacob. If Jacob (who changed his name to Israel) had not existed, then nor would any of his descendants who were listening to the story being told. So the message was simple. If Abraham had sacrificed Isaac, none of you would be here today. So therefore – ‘do not sacrifice your children.’ Rather than being an enigmatic story open to a whole range of unsatisfactory interpretations, what we actually have here, perhaps, is an early example of a biblical parable: a story with a specific message for its audience.
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