Maybe it wasn’t G-d who asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: Parshat Vayera

The Akedah story is disturbing and raises many questions.

  1. How could G-d even think of making such a request of Abraham, after having promised him Isaac in his old age, and assuring him that the Jewish People will be the progeny of this miraculous birth?
  2. How could Abraham have acceded to such a request in light of G-d’s promises and covenants; not to mention how Abraham’s discovery of G-d was in diametric opposition to a prevailing culture of child sacrifice? Surely if there was any test here it was to verify that Abraham would say “No” thereby proving his fealty to Elohim.
  3. Why did Abraham not first consult with Sarah before hastening to do the deed? After all, G-d had told him to listen to Sarah and to do as she tells him.
  4. Why, when Abraham passed the test, did G-d send an angel to stop him? After all, if it is G-d who is testing Abraham, it should be G-d who stops him, not an angel. Indeed, why would Abraham obey an angel after having received a direct order from Elohim Himself?
  1. After the Akedah why did Abraham return to his waiting servants alone? Where was Isaac?

These questions have been asked countless times, and there is no shortage of answers and explanations that have been offered over the millennia. Yet all of the commentators, to the best of my knowledge, have accepted as axiomatic that it was G-d Himself who was testing Abraham by requesting the Akedah.

This essay will focus on Questions 1 and 4, as they are connected.

Regarding how G-d could even think of making such a request of Abraham, I would like to suggest than He couldn’t and He didn’t. Indeed, it was not
G-d who initiated this test of Abraham, but rather it was some other, lesser, deity who was trying to preempt G-d and cause Abraham to destroy any possible future for G-d’s chosen People.

From the Torah itself it is apparent that other deities in fact existed. The Ten Commandments does not say there is no other god. Rather, it forbids the Jewish People from having any other god. לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, עַל-פָּנָי. You shall have no other gods before me. Yes, there are other gods, but we Jews should have none of them before Him.

There is no shortage of outright references to the existence of other gods, the gods of other nations. מי כמוך באלהים ה’ is not the rejection of the existence of other gods. Rather it declares that י-הוה אלהים is the ne plus ultra of deities.

In such a constellation one can easily understand why a lesser god would be jealous of י-הוה אלהים and of His relationship with Abraham. And why such a lesser god might seek to destroy G-d’s plans by tricking Abraham into sacrificing the very son without whom there can be no future for G-d’s Chosen People.

It is entirely conceivable that such a god would appear to Abraham posing very convincingly as י-הוה אלהים and trick him into sacrificing Isaac. Furthermore, it is fairly certain that as part of such a ruse, this god would instruct Abraham to not consult with Sarah, but rather to hasten to do the deed – as Abraham did; rising early and hurrying off to do what he erroneously thought was G-d’s bidding. In fact, such a god would urge all due haste in order to create a fait accompli before י-הוה אלהים catches on to what is happening.

The moment Abraham is about to slaughter Isaac he is stopped, but not by G-d Himself who never requested this atrocity in the first place.

At this point G-d is conflicted. On the one hand, He is disappointed with Abraham for even thinking of doing the deed. On the other hand, He is impressed by Abraham’s zeal and readiness to obey Him no matter what, even if Abraham was mistaken in thinking that G-d could ever request something like this. Hence, an angel is dispatched to stop the sacrifice (assuming it wasn’t already too late, but this is another topic entirely and relates to question #5).

If one accepts the idea of there having been other gods, my essential thesis should be simple common sense. Yes, it is inconceivable, not to mention unnecessary, for G-d to make such a request of Abraham. However, it is not inconceivable that Abraham would obey such a request from an impostor, owing to his blind obedience and absolute faith. It is also quite reasonable to picture a lesser and jealous god attempting to upstage י-הוה אלהים and nip His masterplan in the bud.

Yet common sense alone is insufficient, if only because we are living atop a 3,000 year tradition of believing that the deity who was testing Abraham was indeed י-הוה אלהים .

Now let us look at the text itself.

In Bereishit 21, when G-d instructs Abraham to obey Sarah by banishing Hagar and Ishmael it is Elohim who instructs Avraham:

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, אַל-יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל-הַנַּעַר וְעַל-אֲמָתֶךָ—כֹּלאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ:  כִּי בְיִצְחָק, יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע

But when it comes to ordering the Akedah it is not Elohim who gives the order, but ha-elohim.

א  וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.

ג. וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ, וְאֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ; וַיְבַקַּע, עֲצֵי עֹלָה, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים

.ח.וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו

ט. וַיָּבֹאוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ

Notice how in each instance where Abraham is receiving instructions (Bereishit. 22:1, 2 and 9), these directions are not coming from Elohim but rather from ha-elohim. “Elohim” appears only in verse 8 where it is Abraham speaking in his mistaken belief that Elohim was the one who ordered the sacrifice.

When the word Elohim אלהים appears by itself in the Torah, (unless CLEARLY specified otherwise, as in the Ten Commandments) it means Hashem Elohim / י-הוה אלהים .

The word הָאֱלֹהִים (Ha-Elohim, ha-elohim) appears over 30 times In the Torah, in every book except Vayikra. In most instances it is clearly referring to Ha-Elohim i.e. The G-d. But not always. In some instances, the term is ambiguous. However, in one case (Bereishit. 6:4) it is definitely not referring to The G-d, but rather to ‘the god’, a nameless lesser deity:

הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי-כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם

The traditional Jewish understanding of this verse is: The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of the nobles would come to the daughters of man, and they would bear for them; they are the mighty men, who were of old, the men of renown.

The words בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים are not translated as ‘the sons of the god(s)’ but as ‘the sons of the nobles’ or ‘the sons of the mighty men’. Obviously, at some point in the development of Jewish belief – as the concept of ethical monotheism took root – the idea of there being other gods fell out of favor, despite there being every evidence to the contrary in the Torah itself.

Indeed, I would argue that בנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים  are very much the sons of the (lesser) gods as they are juxtaposed here with the ‘daughters of man’. And, in the same vein, of course, the ‘ha-elohim’ of the Akedah story is a clear indication that it was not Elohim who ordered the sacrifice but rather some garden variety deity, i.e. ‘the god’ who was messing with Abraham’s head and sabotaging  G-d’s grand plan.

If we understand that it was not י-הוה אלהים  who ordered the Akedah, the entire story makes a great deal more sense. G-d would never request such a thing. Abraham, on the other hand, was only human. Precisely because of his tremendous faith, he was easily misled by an impostor god. At the very last moment, torn between disgust and admiration, G-d chooses to send an angel rather than appearing Himself, lest it appear as if He was indeed the one who had requested the sacrifice of Isaac in the first place.

Finally, having realized his mistake, Abraham names the location י-הוה  יִרְאֶ֑ה. (22:14) Because his vision has been restored, and now everything is manifestly י-הוה:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אַבְרָהָ֛ם שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא יְ-הֹוָ֣ה | יִרְאֶ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֣ר הַיּ֔וֹם בְּהַ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה יֵֽרָאֶֽה:

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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