Abraham – The Binding of Isaac, week 1 (Readings)

Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter XXIV

The account of Abraham our father binding his son includes two great ideas or principles of our faith. First, it shows us the extent and limit of the fear of God. Abraham is commanded to perform a certain act, which is not equaled by any surrender of property or by any sacrifice of life, for it surpasses everything that can be done, and belongs to the class of actions which are believed to be contrary to human feelings. He had been without child, and had been longing for a child; he had great riches and was expecting that a nation should spring from his seed. After all hope of a son had already been given up, a son was born unto him. How great must have been his delight in the child! How intensely must he have loved him! And yet because he feared God, and loved to do what God commanded, he thought little of that beloved child, set aside all his hopes concerning him, and consented to kill him after a journey of three days. If the act by which he showed his readiness to kill his son had taken place immediately when he received the commandment, it might have been the result of confusion and not of consideration. But the fact that he performed it three days after he had received the commandment proves the presence of thought, proper consideration, and careful examination of what is due to the Divine command and what is in accordance with the love and fear of God. There is no necessity to look for the presence of any other idea or of anything that might have affected his emotions. For Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man’s duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment. We have repeatedly explained this. The angel, therefore, says to him, “For now I know,” etc. (ibid. ver. 12), that is, from this action, for which you deserve to be truly called a God-fearing man, all people shall learn how far we must go in the fear of God. This idea is confirmed in Scripture: it is distinctly stated that one sole thing, fear of God, is the object of the whole Law with its affirmative and negative precepts, its promises and its historical examples, for it is said, “If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this Law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God,” etc. (Deut. xxviii. 58). This is one of the two purposes of the ‘akedah (sacrifice or binding of Isaac).

The second purpose is to show how the prophets believed in the truth of that which came to them from God by way of inspiration. We shall not think that what the prophets heard or saw in allegorical figures may at times have included incorrect or doubtful elements, since the Divine communication was made to them, as we have shown, in a dream or a vision and through the imaginative faculty. Scripture thus tells us that whatever the Prophet perceives in a prophetic vision, he considers as true and correct and not open to any doubt; it is in his eyes like all other things perceived by the senses or by the intellect. This is proved by the consent of Abraham to slay “his only son whom he loved,” as he was commanded, although the commandment was received in a dream or a vision. If the Prophets had any doubt or suspicion as regards the truth of what they saw in a prophetic dream or perceived in a prophetic vision, they would not have consented to do what is unnatural, and Abraham would not have found in his soul strength enough to perform that act, if he had any doubt [as regards the truth of the commandment]. It was just the right thing that this lesson derived from the akedah (“sacrifice”) should be taught through Abraham and a man like Isaac. For Abraham was the first to teach the Unity of God, to establish the faith (in Him], to cause it to remain among coming generations, and to win his fellow-men for his doctrine; as Scripture says of him: “I know him, that he will command,” etc. (Gen. viii. 19). In the same manner as he was followed by others in his true and valuable opinions when they were heard from him, so also the principles should be accepted that may be learnt from his actions; especially from the act by which he confirmed the principle of the truth of prophecy, and showed how far we must go in the fear and the love of God.

This is the way how we have to understand the accounts of trials; we must not think that God desires to examine us and to try us in order to know what He did not know before. Far is this from Him; He is far above that which ignorant and foolish people imagine concerning Him, in the evil of their thoughts. Note this.

Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 89b

And it came to pass after these words, that God did tempt Abraham. What is meant by ‘after’? — R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Jose b. Zimra: After ‘the words of Satan, as it is written, And the child grew and was weaned: [and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned]. Thereupon Satan said to the Almighty; ‘Sovereign of the Universe! To this old man Thou didst graciously vouchsafe the fruit of the womb at the age of a hundred, yet of all that banquet which he prepared, he did not have one turtle-dove or pigeon to sacrifice before thee! Hath he done aught but in honor of his son!’ Replied He, ‘Yet were I to say to him, “Sacrifice thy son before Me”, he would do so without hesitation.’ Straightway, God did tempt Abraham … And he said, Take, I pray thee [na] thy son. R. Simeon b. Abba said; ‘na’ can only denote entreaty. This may be compared to a king of flesh and blood who was confronted by many wars, which he won by the aid of a great warrior. Subsequently, he was faced with a severe battle. Thereupon he said to him, ‘I pray thee, assist me in battle, that people may not say, there was no reality in the earlier ones.’ So also did the Holy One, blessed be He, say unto Abraham, ‘I have tested thee with many trials and thou didst withstand all. Now, be firm, for My sake in this trial, that men may not say, there was no reality in the earlier ones.

Thy son.

[But] I have two sons!

Thine only one.

Each is the only one of his mother!

Whom thou lovest.

I love them both


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