Parashat Vayera – Gen 18:1 – 22:24

B’resheet/Genesis 22:5   Stay by yourselves here with the donkey, but I and the lad will walk up yonder; then we will worship, and we will return to you.

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These are Avraham’s words spoken to his attendants when he and Yitz’khak have reached the base of Mt. Moriah whence he has been summoned to sacrifice Yitz’khak, his only son, whom he loves. After a three day journey, Avraham can see the place from afar and leaving his servants with the donkey, he and Yitz’khak will journey on together from here. The words are neatly split in two by the atnakh accent under the word כּׂה, ‘yonder’; the first half is clearly instructions to his retainers or servants: “Stay by yourselves here with the donkey, but I and the lad will walk up yonder” (B’resheet 22:5).

Rashi comments that “up yonder” is “a short way, to the place which lies before us.” The
Sforno suggests that Avraham deliberately leaves the retainers at the bottom of the mountain “so that they should not prevent him or interfere with him in bringing this sacrifice”.

It is the second half of Avraham’s instructions that cause interest among the commentators. Reading the words of the narrator, we know what Avraham knows – and the retainers do not – that if Avraham carries out the instructions he believers he has heard from HaShem and nothing else happens – and at this stage there is no indication that anything else will happen – then he will be coming back on his own.

Ibn Ezra rather bleakly says that, “Avraham may have meant that he would return with Yitz’khak’s bones; or he was dissembling so that the young men and Yitz’khak would not realise his intention.” Nahum Sarna agrees, explaining Avaham’s word choice: “use of the plural form conceals the true purpose of the journey from Yitz’khak.” The early sages say that it was through Avraham’s own words that HaShem told Avraham what was going to happen: “He thus informed him that he [Yitz’khak] would return safely from Mount Moriah” (B’resheet Rabbah 56:2), while Rashi goes a little further, commenting that Avraham “prophesied that both of them would return, since it says ‘we will return’ rather than ‘I will return.'”

The verb וְנִשׁתּחֲוֶה is the Hitpa’el affix 1cp form of the root שָׁחַה, “to bow, stoop down”, with a vav-reversive to give a future tense; in the Hitp’ael stem it has the meaning “to bow down, prostrate; to worship” (Davidson), so here “and we will worship.” The early sages thought this was so important that Rabbi Yitz’khak [1] said, “Everything happened as a reward for worshipping. Avraham returned in peace from Mount Moriah only as a reward for worshipping, as its says: ‘And we will worship and we will come back to you’. Israel were redeemed only as a reward for worshipping: ‘And the people believed … they bowed their heads and worshiped’ (Shemot 4:31, ESV). The Torah was given only as a reward for worshipping: ‘Come up … and worship from afar’ (Shemot 24:1, ESV). Hannah was remembered only as a reward for worshipping: ‘They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the L-RD’ (1 Samuel 1:19, ESV). The exiles will be reassembled only as a reward for worshipping: ‘And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost … and those who were driven out … will come and worship the L-RD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 27:13, ESV). The Temple was built only as a reward for worshipping: ‘Exalt the L-rd our G-d, and worship at His holy mountain’ (Psalm 99:9, ESV). The dead will come to life again only as a reward for worshipping: ‘Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the L-RD, our Maker!’ (Psalm 95:6, ESV)” (B’resheet Rabbah 56:2).

The Baal HaTurim notices a masoretic note ‘ו’ in the margin by the second verb – וְנָשׁוּבָה , the Qal affix 1cp form from the root שׁוּב, to return, also with a vav-reversive to indicate the future tense: “and we will return” and explains that this means that this word appears six times in the Tanach: (i) here; (ii) “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (B’Midbar 14:4, ESV); (iii) “Come, let us return” (1 Samuel 9:5, NKJV); (iv) “Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the L-RD>” (Lamentations 3:40, JPS); (v) “Take us back, O L-RD, to Yourself, and let us come back” (5:21, JPS); and (vi) “Come, let us return to the L-RD” (Hosea 6:1, ESV). “In the merit of Avraham,” the Tur said, “who said, ‘We will worship and we will return’, Israel merited to repent (3,4,5). And in his merit, the exiles will be gathered in (6). All of this comes in the merit of Avraham.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that these words go far beyond burnt offerings or animal sacrifices; these are but enabling tokens: “וְנִשׁתּחֲוֶה , we will bow ourselves down, is what Avraham says his intention is in bringing his offering. He does not offer the animal but himself, his life, his forces, his eye, his breast, his hand, his foot, his whole living self does he lay symbolically by the animal on the altar of G-d; himself does he throw completely down before G-d, by his offerings. The Jew lays himself with all his strength on his offering; for it is he himself which, in an offering, he gives over the the fire with the resolution, henceforth to let his whole being be fuel to keep the fires of godliness burning on earth.”

It seems that Rabbi Hirsch agrees with Rav Sha’ul, who says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of G-d, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to G-d, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1, ESV). He doesn’t, of course, mean that we should attempt to sacrifice parts or all of our bodies, but that we offer ourselves wholly to G-d as a living and complete sacrifice. We serve both as the sanctuary, the priesthood and the sacrifice: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to G-d through Yeshua the Messiah” (1 Peter 2:5, ESV). Sha’ul says that because we were dead through sin but are not alive to G-d in Messiah Yeshua, we “offer yourselves to G-d as people alive from the dead, and your various parts to G-d as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13, CJB).

Let’s go back to Avraham and Rashi’s assertion that he prophesied that he would return with Yitz’khak. Rashi is right – even though Avraham did not know what was going to happen, could not know, his words were prophetic. The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way: “By faith Avraham, when he was tested, offered up Yitz’khak, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Yitz’khak shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that G-d was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19, ESV). By the time they reached Mt. Moriah, Yitz’khak was as good as dead, because Avraham had heard from G-d and was going to do as he had been asked; indeed he was within a few seconds of completing the act when he was stopped by the Angel of the L-rd. So Avraham did get his son back from the dead.

But here’s the kernel, right in the middle: Avraham had received a promise that his offspring, his seed, the fulfillment of G-d’s promises, was to be through Yitz’khak: “through Yitz’khak shall your offspring be named” (B’resheet 21:12, ESV). G-d’s current instructions appear to make fulfillment of the promise impossible, but Avraham chooses to trust in the promise anyway: even though this makes no sense, he trusts that G-d has a way to make it come out alright. Raising Yitz’khak from the dead – really, physically – was definitely something that G-d could do, and did do with His own Son, Yeshua after He was crucified and gave up His life on the cross. That isn’t, of course, the only way that G-d could sort the problem out – He had lots of options that He could have used – and, as we read in the narrative, that wasn’t actually what He did. But the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Avraham had faith that, if it came to it, G-d could do that and, figuratively, that is what happened even though the events on the route didn’t follow that exact path.

So the object lesson for us that we need to have faith that G-d keeps His promises, that He knows what He is doing and that He isn’t limited by our imaginations. If G-d has said He is going to do something, then He will do it. We may need to wait for the right time – when G-d’s timing and purposes intersect – just holding on in faith until it arrives, but arrive it most certainly will. G-d stretches our faith so that we can believe for bigger and bigger things as time goes by. If necessary, we may sometimes even have to surrender a promise back to G-d and let it appear to die so that He can bring it to its proper life and form. This takes great faith, but G-d is the one who gives us His faith, based on the faithfulness of Messiah Yeshua. And as the Scripture says, “the One who began a good work in you will go on completing it until the Day of Yeshua the Messiah comes” (Philippians 1:6, NJB).

[1] – Rabbi Yitz’khak was a 4th generation Tanna and a contemporary of Rabbi Judah the Prince. He is often mentioned in the a Melkhilta and in Sifre to B’Midbar.

Further Study: 1 Corinthians 1:4-8; Hebrews 13:14-15

Application: Can you trust G-d to keep the promises He has made in your life, or are you always trying to fix them up yourself? Faith and obedience are the keys for seeing promises fulfilled so ask the Promise Maker for more faith today!