The Binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitzhak) plays an integral role in the liturgy of Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance, Rosh Hashanah. The memory of Avraham and Yitzhak’s faithfulness to God serves as a source of merit ever after for their progeny on this Day of Judgement – Yom Hadin, the shofar or ram’s horn intended to be a reminder both to God and to man of the ram which took Yitzhak’s place as Avraham’s sacrifice. Still, there is plenty of room for serious discussion of the religious and moral significance of this story, a process which has gone on in Jewish circles since time immemorial. I would like to suggest, based on an allusion found in rabbinic, that it is possible that this debate is already found in the Tanakh itself.
In an enigmatic statement, Rabbi Yohanan, one of the greatest sages in Eretz Yisrael during the period of the Talmud, proposes an association between the Book of Job and the Akedah:
Said Rabbi Yohanan: Greater praise is accorded to Job than to Avraham. Regarding Avraham, it is written: ‘For now I know that you are a fearer of God’ (Genesis 22:12), whereas of Iyov, it is written: ‘That man was blameless and upright (yashar) and one who feared God and shunned evil. (Job 1:1) (Baba Batra 15b)
Before I discuss the significance of Rabbi Yohanan’s words, I want to say a word or two about these two stories. Both stories are intended as tests of faith. Avraham is tested directly by God while Job is tested by Satan only after Satan has convinced God that Job should be tested. (Is it possible that this introduction of Satan to the storyline in Job is an attempt by the author to remove God’s direct involvement in the test, due to a sense of discomfort at God’s direct involvement in the story of the Akedah.) In addition, Avraham faithfully accedes to his test while Job’s test is involuntary, having him lose everything precious to him despite his righteousness. When Job finally realizes the significance of what has happened to him, unlike Avraham, he does not accept what has happened to him complacently and ultimately challenges God over what has happened.
It is this later distinction which I think stands behind Rabbi Yohanan’s statement. Why does Rabbi Yohanan praise Job over Avraham? On the face of it, Rabbi Yohanan simply compares the descriptions of Avraham and Job. Avraham is a “fearer of God” who carried out God’s will faithfully no matter the cost, while Job is much more. He is also blameless and upright – “Yashar” in Hebrew. “Yashar” can also mean “straight” and, in fact, this might represent Job’s virtue. He confronts God directly, expressing what he sees as divine injustice and for this God approves of Job’s words over that of his fellows who admonished Job and counseled acceptance. (See Job 42:7)
When we contrast the behavior of these two heroes, Avraham (of the Akedah story) and Job, the difference between them could not be more striking. Is it possible that the author of Job is challenging Avraham’s sort of faith?
These two responses to the exigencies of life confront each and every one of us. Should we be accepting or should we be challenging? When is one approach right and the other wrong? These are our everyday questions of faith, when to act like Avraham and when to act like Job. The wonder of the Jewish tradition is its acknowledgement that the answers to the big questions in life are not facile and faith is a matter of trying to choose the right approach to each and every situation we face.