Thoughts on Parashat Vayeira

This week’s parasha, Vayeira, Genesis 18:1 – 22:24,[i] ends with one of the most confusing narratives of the Tanakh, and at the same time, continues to give us insights into the intense faith of our first patriarch. The parasha begins with the promise of a son, Isaac, who will be the one to continue the lineage and promised blessings of Abraham (18.10-14). In chapter 21, the promised son is born and he is the joy of his aged parents (21.1-6). Then, the proverbial “other shoe” falls, and Hashem apparently tests Abraham through the Akedah, and if I might, tests Sarah’s resolve as well. Concerning this testing the Ramban writes,

Know further that G-d trieth the righteous for knowing that the righteous will do His will, He desires to make him even more upright, and so He commands him to undertake a test, but He does not try the wicked, who would not obey. Thus, all trials in the Torah are for the good of the one who is being tried.[ii]

The beginning of Psalm 11.5 is what brings the Ramban (Nachmanides) to this conclusion. In English, we read, “The LORD seeks out the righteous man” (JPS, 1985); “Adonai examines the righteous” (TLV, 2015); “The LORD tests the righteous” (ESV, 2016). Regardless of the verbiage, seeks out, examines, or tests, Abraham seems to be between a rock and a hard place. At the same time, we can hear echoes of the writing of Rav Shaul in Nachmanides comment.

No temptation (trial or test) has taken hold of you except what is common to mankind. But God is faithful—He will not allow you to be tempted (tested) beyond what you can handle. But with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, so you will be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10.13)

Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son… (Romans 8.28-29a)

It would appear, that even though we might not understand why, the LORD knows exactly what He is doing in our lives and why, and will provide whatever means necessary to see us, like Abraham, through to the other side victoriously. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Accepting the Yoke of Heaven gives us a further explanation of Abraham’s actions – or maybe lack thereof.

Indeed, the command, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac…,” was as if God had taken Abraham’s soul – and not only in the terms of the relationship of the father to his only son whom he loved, but also in the terms of the annulling of specific Divine promises that had been made to him, something which one would have imagined should have undermined his faith in God. The Midrash points out that Abraham could have offered an extremely strong argument: “Yesterday You told me, ‘In Isaac shall your seed be called’ (Bereishit 21.12), and today You say to me, ‘offer him there for a burnt offering’ (22.2).” Even further: from the case of Sodom and Gomorra, we see that Abraham was able to argue with God, and had no fear doing so (Bereishit 18.25 – “Far be it from you…”). But just here, where this affects the depths of his spiritual existence, he remains silent. The Midrash regards this silence as the highest level of faith which Abraham attained. … Here though, when Abraham is commanded, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac…,” it is a question of the perfection of faith – and Abraham does not debate that issue. He remains silent, rises early in the morning, saddles his ass and goes on his way.[iii]

Nahum M. Sarna, in his commentary on Genesis agrees with Leibowitz as he comments,

Beyond its connection with the foregoing chapter (Genesis 21), the Akeda brings to a close Abraham’s spiritual odyssey that began with God’s call at Haran. The curtain rises and falls on the patriarch as he receives a divine word that demands agonizing decisions. The first time God bids him to take leave of his father and to cut himself off from his past; now in this last theophany that he is to receive, God asks that he sacrifice his beloved, longed-for son and thereby abandon all hope of posterity. On both occasions Abraham responds with unquestioning obedience and steadfast loyalty.[iv]

As with the Ramban’s explanation, Sarna acknowledges that Abraham exemplifies unquestioning obedience and steadfast loyalty. But it has been said that instead of this being a show of Abraham’s unwavering faith in the promises of Hashem, it was in fact his greatest failing as a father. For the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham interceded with the LORD, pleading for their deliverance. But for Isaac, not a word was uttered. In fact, in Genesis 22.3 it says, and Abraham rose early in the morning, “there is no response in words on the part of Abraham, His answer is in his deeds. He lost no time in obeying the will of God.”[v]

Could it be, and this is just my rambling now, that Abraham’s silence is in fact a challenge and encouragement for us as we walk with the LORD. There may be times, when we hear from the LORD about something (such as the coming judgment or discipline on another), and we know that without our intercession, the situation could cause great harm. Perhaps, with covering, restorative prayer, the situation might be restored with minimal damage. However, there are other times, when the LORD speaks to us, and we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the LORD has spoken and will carry out what He has said or requested, and there is no argument or discussion – just faithful obedience – even through tears. Abraham had been learning of the character and the promises of Hashem, that He could be trusted. In the Akedah that trust was tested to the infinite limit. Abraham saw the faithfulness of Hashem in the ram that was caught in the thicket. Isaac was saved. However, in the “roll call” of faith found in Hebrews 11, there are numerous who did not see their deliverance, but in faith suffered and even died (11.35-39). This is not because of unfaithfulness on Hashem’s part, but because, for whatever reason, the plan of the Almighty did not include deliverance, rather grace and strength through the situations. In the book of Job, his wife chastises him, suggesting that he should “curse God and die” (2.9). Job’s response establishes his view of theodicy and his submission to Hashem, “… Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?…” (2.10).  The same is reflected in the second paragraph of the Barachu, which is drawn from Isaiah 45.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all.

The biblical text states

…that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45.6-7)

We have an option. We can either deny that a good, gracious God, allows things to happen that are beyond our own ethical and moral understanding, or we can assume that Abraham was mistaken, and some other deity besides Hashem asked him to take Isaac to the mountain, or, for that matter, that a gracious loving Father allowed His only Son to be beaten and hung on a tree for the sake of the world. Do we trust in the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob in all situations or in only those which are good and beneficial for us, or that we understand? Do we fully trust in the One, who allowed His only Son to suffer and bare the shame of being hung on a tree, to care for us – even when that care leads us into situations we otherwise would flee from? It is said, that He is not Lord of all, unless He is in fact LORD of all – every situation, every occurrence. As the Southern Kingdom of Judah was preparing to go into exile, the prophet Jeremiah penned these words,

“For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29.10-11)

May we, like Abraham and like Israel, even in the midst of discipline, trust in Him and the plans He has for us.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Charles B. Chavel, trans., Ramban (Nachmanides) Commentary on the Torah, Translated and Annotated, New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1971, p 275.

[iii] Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven: Commentary on the Weekly Torah Portion, 2nd ed., Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2002, p 25-26.

[iv] Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Commentary Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, Commentary, Philadelphia: JPS, 1989, p 150.

[v] . J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary, 2nd ed., London: Soncino Press, 1996, p 74.

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Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.