This past Rosh Hashanah, as I was sitting in the sanctuary at Congregation Adas Emuno, listening to the Torah portion known as the Akedah or, the binding of Isaac, my thoughts turned to the Avot prayer, and the phrase God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
It occurred to me that the patriarchs constitute a trinity, but we never call them that. We shy away from that word, trinity, no doubt because it is so strongly associated with Christian Trinitarianism, which posits one God taking the form of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Christians do not have a monopoly on divine trinities, however. The Hindu religion also includes a doctrine of three-in-one, in which the divine Godhead is composed of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. And then there is the Triple Goddess, a New Age notion based on ancient polytheistic beliefs, in which the three manifestations of the Goddess are referred to as the Virgin or Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone or Wise Woman, corresponding to three main stages of life.
Apart from religion, we encounter countless other trinities in many different realms, from Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and superego to the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; from Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers to the three little pigs of fairytale fame; from Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici, to the French Revolution’s liberté, egalité, fraternité; from Abraham Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people, for the people, to Kellogg’s Rice Krispies’ Snap! Crackle! Pop! Lists of three are psychologically satisfying, conveying a sense of completion. They are especially quotable and easy to remember: blood, sweat, and tears; sex, lies, and videotape; and stop, look and listen.
The Jewish trinity, especially as expressed as God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, is certainly memorable in being a list of three, and even more so through the poetic technique of rhythmic repetition. Also, from an anthropological perspective, our trinity uses the motif of family to represent relationships between peoples, so that the Children of Israel share a degree of kinship with the other descendants of Abraham via Ishmael, and the other descendants of Isaac via Esau.
Of course, there is another trinity, of Noah, who, like Abraham, hears God’s voice and follows his commands, along with Shem, one of the three sons of Noah and the ancestor of the Semitic peoples, and Arpachshad, the father of the founders of the city of Ur and the ancestor of Abraham. But we don’t invoke that list of three in our prayers.
From a theological perspective, the parallel structure of God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob is interpreted to mean that each of the patriarchs had to form his own individual relationship with God. So, from a purely subjective standpoint, the God of Abraham is not the same God as the God of Isaac, and both are distinct again from the God of Jacob (referring to each person’s own personal conception or perception of the Divine).
So what are the differences? Abraham, who hears God’s voice commanding him to leave home and go forth to a foreign land, is a model of obedience. That is never more true than when he demonstrates his willingness to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son Isaac. A religion that follows Abraham alone would be one of submission. Submission alone, obedience to a higher authority, may include license to kill, without question, in God’s name. That is why a religion of Abraham is incomplete.
Isaac also submits to God’s will, but does so by playing the part of the martyr. The religion of Isaac therefore is one of sacrifice as well as submission. Certainly, Abraham also demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice by offering up his own son, but there is a world of difference between being the one who wields the knife and the one who is the sacrificial lamb.
Sacrifice alone threatens to privilege death over life, and rituals of sacrifice suggest that the appetite for such forms of submission may never be satiated or appeased. That is why a religion of Isaac also is incomplete.
Jacob does not reject submission and sacrifice, but adds the all-important element of struggle. His religion is one that is not only about a voice that commands, but also about a vision that inspires, of a stairway to heaven that suggests the possibility of reaching for a higher state of being. His story is one of laboring for love—he worked for 14 years to earn the right to marry Rachel. And as the patriarch who wrestles with God, he is renamed Israel, becoming the eponymous ancestor of the Israelites, the Jewish people.
Jacob adds the vital third element of struggle, not blind obedience, but questioning, grappling, reasoning, a raising of awareness, of consciousness, and that is what makes the religion of Jacob complete.
The Jewish trinity is an altogether human one, consisting of three different and distinct individuals, not in any way consubstantial, not a three-in-one, but rather three patriarchs who simply are related to one another by direct line of descent. And yet they point to what might be considered a divine trinity in Judaism, what might be thought of as three faces or aspects of God, but more appropriately as three relationships to God: submission to God in the religion of Abraham, sacrifice for God in the religion of Isaac, and struggle with God in the religion of Jacob.
Perhaps, then, there is a message of caution against the varieties of religious experience that include submission and/or sacrifice alone? Without the third person of Jacob, without the struggle, there is no Israel, and Judaism as a religion would not be complete.