Physical survival, and the continuity of the chosen family, form the heart of this week’s reading, leading up to the story of the Akedah/Binding of Isaac. Time and again, the characters in this part of Genesis are imperiled, with some of them surviving and others not. To be sure, promises of birth (of a son to the elderly couple, Avraham and Sara) and predictions of destruction (of the wicked cities, Sedom and
Amora) are sometimes ignored or misunderstood. As a result, some of the characters die–notably, Lot’s sons-in-law and his wife, while others, namely his daughters, erroneously thinking that their father is the only man left alive, commit incest so as to continue the family line.
There is no such fogginess in the climactic story of the parashah, Avraham’s near-sacrifice of Yitzhak. Here, the man who, while nominally trusting God, had questioned him at every turn regarding his promises of descendants and land, and regarding his administration of justice in the world, utters not a whisper or a whimper when he is told to take his beloved son and “offer him up as an offering-up,” as if he is a sheep or a goat. Yet Avraham, more than any other character in this narrative, understands full well what he is being asked to do, and how that will impact survival and continuity True, he has another son, Yishmael, but Yitzhak has clearly been designated by God as the chosen one, so as Avraham’s hand raises his knife on the mountain top, God’s great experiment of creating a people that is exhorted to “keep the way of YHWH, / to do what is right and just,” (Gen. 18:19) seems about to perish along with his son.
The theme of continuity, or in this case, discontinuity, in fact plays a major role, not only in the stories about Avraham, but in the book of Genesis in general. Time and again, characters, and even the entire world in the Flood story, are threatened with extinction, only to be saved by either a small remnant (Noah, his family, and the ark-bound animals) or a miraculous last-minute rescue, as in the Akedah. This hanging of the world and the family by a thread creates tremendous tension in these stories, to be fully resolved only at the very end of the book. In the last sections, Yosef, the almost-murdered brother who also endures prison time for a crime of seduction that he didn’t commit, unexpectedly rises to become Vizier of Egypt, enabling him to save his family, and the Egyptian nation, from famine. More importantly, in the book’s very last verses, he and his brothers reconcile and are blessed by their dying father Yaakov, ensuring that as the story of Israel moves forward into Exodus, there is a unity of experience and purpose.
What could be at the root of such stories of near-discontinuity? One answer, from history, might be that Genesis reflects a background featuring the frightening Assyrian Empire some centuries later. In this scenario, the anxiety felt by two relatively small kingdoms, Israel (north) and Judah (south), in the face of the Near East’s greatest empire up to that time, impacted the telling and retelling of many biblical tales. The desperate straits in which the characters of Genesis find themselves would thus represent a strong undercurrent in the real-world experience of the Bible.
Another answer, freed of its historical moorings and drawing on later tradition, is to sense the underlying precariousness of Jewish existence down through the ages. The Jewish victims of the Crusades, for instance, literally acted this out, committing mass suicide so as not to have to convert–and quoted the Akedah as they did so.
What Genesis 22 thus comes to represent, then, along with other Genesis stories, is not just a terrifying family story, but the potential cutting off of Jewish survival. Through the text, we are reminded that, as a people, we live on a knife edge, no matter how comfortable we feel at any one moment or generation. This has become abundantly clear in the past few years, even in “safe” America. Rereading these stories raises the question of how to ensure Jewish continuity. Is the hope for a happy ending enough? Or does it all rather depend on the raising of shared Jewish consciousness, heightened by absorbing the literature and experience of the past?