Robert Harris
A Rabbi and Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary

Abraham and Jeremiah

“The Akedah is not in the Torah; it is but one of several rabbinic constructs through which to read the narrative of Genesis 22.”  So I have often remarked, generally to the surprise, if not consternation, of anyone who hears me.  Nonetheless, one of the great themes of Rosh Hashanah is the narrative of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac known almost universally in Judaism as “the Akedah,” or “the Binding of Isaac.”  This reading of Genesis 22 makes Isaac the hero of the story, one whose heroism is expressed through his willingness to self-sacrifice (ultimately, according to a complex midrashic history of interpretation, he undergoes this sacrifice on behalf of the entire Jewish nation; indeed, this midrashic perspective is very close to the theme of the basic Christian interpretation).  The other primary way that the Sages interpreted this biblical drama is as “The Test of Abraham.”  In this reading, Abraham is the hero because he had such great faith in God, and on account of his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, was rewarded with the confirmation of the covenantal blessing.

Frankly, I don’t know which one of these interpretations is more appalling.

To be sure, we live in a society that has at times horrifically mistreated children.  To take but one example, the United States is currently holding prospective immigrant children in prison-like facilities.  To add one other:  we regularly hear that religious institutions of all varieties and denomination have abused the children in its care.  So I freely and unapologetically admit that my perception of the meaning of the biblical narrative has been influenced by the context of our contemporary world.

While I can appreciate the beauty of the biblical Hebrew prose, its laconic yet rich presentation of character, and the power of its stark narrative poetics, I absolutely shudder at most any attempt to incorporate some dimension of these interpretations into any contemporary theology.  Moreover, the one incontrovertible conclusion that all would hope to find in the narrative — that in the end, the fact that Isaac is not slain signals that God does NOT truly desire human sacrifice, and/or that the narrative is about the replacement of human sacrifice with animal sacrifice — does not accord with any plain reading (pshat!) of the biblical narrative, in which such principles are never articulated.

In this context, I would like to share two things.  The first is to call your attention to a wonderful, recently published book entitled, Unbinding Isaac, by Aaron Koller.  While Koller does follow the traditional Jewish practice of calling the narrative of Genesis 22 “the Akedah,” he urges that we reject the popular iterations of such approaches as Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling or any other non-ethically-based reading of the story.  His whole thesis is, in a sense, found in the title he gave his book (Unbinding Isaac), and he states that however clear it is that the biblical God at least initially seemed to desire child sacrifice, in the end it is God’s desire that this not take place that is of greater significance.  In brief, this is the distinction made between two verses of the story:  Genesis 22:2 seems as straightforward as can be.  God commands Abraham:  קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק… וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה, “Take your son, your favored one, the one you love, Isaac…, and offer him as a burnt offering.”  Whereas, when we get to the crucial moment in verse 12, when Abraham is, with knife in hand, poised to slaughter his son, God changes God’s mind and commands Abraham אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.”  The movement between those verses, Koller claims, reflects the eventual shift in Israelite perspective about children away from the general thinking about children in the ancient Near East.  As Koller succinctly puts it, “Ignoring Isaac in the story of the Akedah is monstrous” (p. 99).

For the way in which Koller demonstrates this point (as well as for his excellent review of the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation of this story, from ancient lore through to Kierkegaard and beyond), well, you’ll have to read the book!  (And I highly recommend it.)  But I will share one spoiler alert:  his interpretation hinges on the shift in perspective of what a child is in society:  if a child is essentially the son or daughter of the father, then that child belongs to that father (think of patrias potestas in Roman law), and however dear and precious the child may be s/he can be sacrificed to fulfill the religious commitments of the father.  However, what Koller observes in the Akedah narrative (and what we will see is by far the dominant perspective in the rest of the Bible) is that ancient Israel ultimately came to see a child as a person, “conceptually and legally independent” (p. 147), and therefore child sacrifice was nothing less than murder, plain and simple.  For Koller, the Bible ultimately holds that no individual’s sense of faith “can license the suspension of all ethical considerations” (p. 149), an idea that people all over the world would do well do re-incorporate into their religious, political and cultural perspectives.  As Koller cites the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas, “that [Abraham] obeyed the first voice [i.e., God’s initial command in v. 2] is astonishing; that he had sufficient distance with respect to that obedience to obey the second voice [i.e., God’s second command, in v. 12] is essential” (p. 150).

But I promised you two things that I wanted to share, and in this case the Torah reading is incomplete without its Haftorah!  The Haftorah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is taken from the Book of Jeremiah 31:2–20.  While chapter 31 is more than midway through the book, it likely represents an early prophecy in Jeremiah’s career; much of it is addressed towards the memory of the fallen northern Kingdom of Israel (referenced as Ephraim in the haftorah, after the most powerful tribe in the North).  And it takes place approximately one-hundred years after the destruction of the northern kingdom and the subsequent exile to Assyria (see 2 Kings 17), at a time when those exiles had not yet quite become “the Ten Lost Tribes” and many still hoped for their eventual return to the Land of Israel.  Jeremiah himself lived in a town called Anatot, borderland, between North and South in Benjamin territory, where many of his neighbors were likely descended from Israelite refugees from the Assyrian invasion and destruction of the northern kingdom.

Thus, the haftorah takes place at a time when memory was still rife of a terrible destruction, and the experience of exile and widespread death at the hands of a merciless enemy was still potent.  And what is stunning is that, at least at this stage of his prophetic career, Jeremiah refused to see this destruction as a meaningful indicator of the lack of God’s love.  The haftorah states, אַהֲבַ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ אֲהַבְתִּ֔יךְ עַל־כֵּ֖ן מְשַׁכְתִּ֥יךְ חָֽסֶד, “Eternal love I conceived for you then;/Therefore I yet continue My devotional-loyalty to you” (v. 3).  Jeremiah then consoles those still mourning the death of all those slain by the Assyrians, struck down on the field of battle or in the assault on Israelite cities, and prophesizes about those still held captive in far off lands:  

“…I will bring them in from the northland,/Gather them from the ends of the earth—/The blind and the lame among them,/Those with child and those in labor—/In a vast throng they shall return here./9  They shall come with weeping,/And with compassiond will I guide them./I will lead them to streams of water,/By a level road where they will not stumble.”

And then Jeremiah rises to the haftorah’s first crescendo:  כִּֽי־הָיִ֤יתִי לְיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לְאָ֔ב וְאֶפְרַ֖יִם בְּכֹ֥רִי הֽוּא, “For I am ever a Father to Israel,/Ephraim is My first-born.”

Jeremiah is a prophet who resolutely refuses ever to see anything meaningful in the senseless slaughter of innocent children.  At several points in his life he boldly condemns anyone who would see any religious value in the sacrifice of children.  For example, in Jeremiah 19:3–5 he indicts the various kings who have followed non-Israelite customs in morality and religious practices (pay especial attention to v. 5):

Say: “Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of all who hear about it will tingle. 4 For they and their fathers and the kings of Judah have forsaken Me, and have made this place alien [to Me]; they have sacrificed in it to other gods whom they have not experienced, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. 5 They have built shrines to Baal, to put their children to the fire as burnt offerings to Baal—which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never came to My mind. 

Jeremiah revisits this theme in what is perhaps his most famous speech, that took place in the very Temple itself (7:30–31):

For the people of Judah have done what displeases Me—declares the LORD. They have set up their abominations in the House which is called by My name, and they have defiled it. 31 And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire—which I never commanded, which never came to My mind. 

Jeremiah condemns the parents, from the common folk all the way up to the king himself:  there is not only no religious value in an Akedah, it is instead one of the gravest sins imaginable!  And when he faces a people whose many children, first-born and otherwise, were struck down by a merciless enemy, the only religious meaning he utters about those children is to call them “the first-born of God.”

And those who chose this passage from Jeremiah as our haftorah knew this implicitly, it comes from a prophet who utterly disagreed with the opening command of our Torah reading and instead saw value only in the second call, the one in which God interrupted what Abraham saw as a devotional act and instructed the father to spare the child.  And they saw fit to end the haftorah with Jeremiah’s triumphant conclusion:  despite any sense of abiding guilt about the so-called “wicked ways” of the North that had resulted in its destruction, God still loves and thinks about the fallen kingdom as God’s beloved child:   הֲבֵן֩ יַקִּ֨יר לִ֜י אֶפְרַ֗יִם אִ֚ם יֶ֣לֶד שַׁעֲשֻׁעִ֔ים כִּֽי־מִדֵּ֤י דַבְּרִי֙ בּ֔וֹ זָכֹ֥ר אֶזְכְּרֶ֖נּוּ ע֑וֹד עַל־כֵּ֗ן הָמ֤וּ מֵעַי֙ ל֔וֹ רַחֵ֥ם אֲֽרַחֲמֶ֖נּוּ נְאֻם־ה, “Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me,/A child that is dandled!/Whenever I have turned against him,/My thoughts would dwell on him still./That is why My heart yearns for him;/I will receive him back in love” (31:20).

As I have always tried to teach, any language about God’s nature is at best a poor figure and a good guess; at worse, imagining the wrong thing about God can bring untold misery and death upon the innocent.  At this time and at all times, let us choose — despite all —  to imagine God and God’s ways in the most loving and kindest, non-judgmental way we can, and let us think of ourselves as God’s beloved partners and beloved children.

About the Author
Robert A. Harris is Professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis, and is Chair of the Bible Department. Dr. Harris has written several books, and has published many studies in the history of medieval Biblical exegesis in both American and Israeli journals. He also lectures on biblical narrative and Jewish liturgy in congregations and adult education institutes around the country. Dr. Harris has lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Europe and Israel, and has served as a rabbi in several congregations in the United States and Israel.
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