So much has been written and spoken about the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah. The story, as it appears in the Torah, is so spare, especially of emotion, that its meaning is determined through the experience of the reader.
What do we know from the words in the Torah itself? God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham obeys without any apparent hesitation. When Isaac asks him about the sacrifice, Abraham dodges the question. Isaac does not seem to struggle against his father’s attempts to bind him to the altar.
Abraham expresses zero hesitation through to the very end, to the extent that the angel has to call out his name twice to stop him from slaughtering Isaac.
Finally, according to every indication in the text, Abraham passes this test with flying colors, as indicated by the angel’s blessing of Abraham for having demonstrated his fear of God.
That is the canvas. To create the portrait, we are going to have to apply the paint ourselves.
This morning, I’d like to look at a version that appears in Midrash Tanchuma, which is dated to the early middle ages. The style of the midrash is to quote a section from the Torah, and then to expand on its meaning. In the interest of brevity, I am going to skip over parts of the midrash.
The midrash will feature Abraham and Isaac. It will also bring Sarah into the story. The fourth character appears nowhere in the text. You’ll know when we meet him.
The midrash introduces Abraham as eager to fulfill God’s command, and in full control of his actions. As we jump into the story, Abraham is considering an important issue.
Abraham had asked himself: What shall I do? If I tell Sarah all about it, consider what may happen. After all, a woman’s mind becomes distraught over insignificant matters; how much more disturbed would she become if she heard something as shocking as this! However, if I tell her nothing at all, and simply steal him away from her when she is not looking, she will kill herself.”
What did he do? He said to Sarah: “Prepare some food and drink so that we can eat and rejoice.”
“But why is this day different from other days?” she asked. “What is the nature of our celebration?”
He replied: “When a couple our age has a son, it is fitting, indeed, that they should eat, drink, and rejoice.” Whereupon she prepared the food.
While they were eating, he said to her: “You know, when I was a child of three, I already knew my Creator, yet this child is growing up and still has had no education. There is a place a short distance away where children are being taught, I will take him to be educated there.”
She said to him: “Go in peace.”
[Then the midrash quotes the Torah]: And Abraham arose early in the morning (ibid., v. 3). Why did he arise early in the morning? He had said to himself: Perhaps Sarah will change her mind and not permit me to go; I will arise before she gets up.”…
This is shocking. Abraham flat-out lies to Sarah. He knows how she will react if she finds out what he plans to do with Isaac. The midrash characterizes it, at least in Abraham’s mind, as the weak-mindedness of women, but I detect at least a little bit of guilt on Abraham’s part.
It is a great setup for what comes next. The midrash jumps ahead. Abraham and Isaac are on their journey when they meet a traveler.
Satan appeared before him on the road in the guise of an old man and asked: “Where are you going?”
Abraham replied: “To pray.”
“Does a person going to pray usually carry fire and a knife in his hands, and wood on his shoulders?”
“We may stay there for several days,” said Abraham, “and slaughter an animal and cook it.”
The old man responded: “That is not so; I was there when the Holy Blessed One ordered you to take your son. Why should an old man, who begets a son at the age of a hundred, destroy him? Have you not heard the parable of the man who destroyed his own possessions and then was forced to beg from others? If you believe that you are going to be able to have another son, you are listening to the words of a trickster. And furthermore, if you destroy a soul, you will be held legally accountable for it.”
Abraham answered: “It was not a trickster, but the Holy Blessed One who told me what I must do. I am not going to listen to you.”
There is no indication in this midrash that Abraham knows the true identity of the old man. As far as he is concerned, it’s just another old man, like himself. His first instinct, when asked where he is going, is to lie. When challenged on the lie, he doubles down.
Then, remarkably, the old man suggests that this mission of Abraham’s to sacrifice his son did not actually come from God, but from hamastin, in other words, from Satan himself. Abraham’s response? “No it wasn’t.” I’ve got to say, not a super strong comeback. The midrash goes on.
Satan left him and appeared at Isaac’s right hand in the guise of a youth. He inquired: “Where are you going?”
“To study Torah,” Isaac replied.
“Alive or dead?” he retorted.
“Is it possible for a man to learn Torah after he is dead?” Isaac queried.
He said to him: “Oh, unfortunate son of an unhappy mother, many days your mother fasted before your birth, and now this demented old man is about to sacrifice you.”
Isaac replied: “Even so, I will not disregard the will of my Creator, nor the command of my father.”
He turned to his father and said: “Father, do you hear what this man has told me?”
He replied: “Pay no heed to him, he has come only to wear us down.”…
Apparently, Abraham has been passing off the same lie to Isaac as he had told Sarah. Satan, who is honest throughout this story, tells Isaac the truth. When he asks his father about it, Abraham avoids the question.
Are these the words of someone who is confident that he is doing the right thing?
The midrash goes on to address another problem in the text. The journey to Mt. Moriah is not actually that far. So why does it take them three days to get there?
When Satan realized that they would not pay any attention to him, he went ahead and created a river in their path. When Abraham stepped into the river, it reached his knees.
He said to his servants, “Come after me,” and they did so.
When he reached the middle of the river, the water reached his neck.
Satan seems to be genuinely concerned for Isaac’s welfare. If the truth could not convince Abraham or Isaac to change their course, then maybe he can put an insurmountable obstacle in their path.
Thereupon, Abraham lifted his eyes to heaven and cried out: “Master of the Universe, You chose me; You instructed me; You revealed Yourself to me; You said to me: I am one and You are one, and through you shall my name be made known in My world. You ordered me: Offer Isaac your son as burnt offering to me, and I did not refuse! Now, as I am about to fulfill Your command, these waters endanger my life. If either I or my son, Isaac, should drown, who will fulfill Your decrees, and who will proclaim the Unity of Your Name?”
The Holy Blessed One, responded: “Be assured that through you the Unity of My Name will be made known throughout the world.”
Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, rebuked the source of the water, and caused the river to dry up. Once again, they stood on dry land.
To God, Abraham speaks honestly. It comes across almost like a plot between the two of them. Why does it actually matter whether or not Isaac drowns in the river? He is going to be dead either way, as far as Abraham is aware. God’s unity is certainly not going to be proclaimed through any action on Isaac’s part.
We are left to conclude that it is the sacrifice of Isaac itself which will make God’s unity be known in the world. I admit, I do not understand how that works.
Back to the midrash.
What did Satan do then? He said to Abraham (quoting Job): A word came to me in stealth; My ear caught a whisper of it. (Job 4:12); that is, I heard from behind the heavenly curtain that a lamb will be sacrificed as a burnt offering instead of Isaac.”
Satan spoils the plan! He tells Abraham that God is not going to let him go through with it. At this point in the midrash, how would you expect Abraham to respond?
Whatever your answer is, it’s wrong.
“This is the punishment of the liar.” Abraham responded. “Even when he tells the truth, no one will believe him.”
Such irony! Listen again to Abraham’s response, “This is the punishment of the liar. Even when he tells the truth, no one will believe him.” Who is the liar? Who is telling the truth?
Throughout the story, Satan has said nothing but the truth. Abraham is the liar. He concocts stories. He doubles down when confronted. He does not answer anyone’s questions directly. Notice as well that God (at best) “hides” the truth from Abraham.
There is a moving scene in the midrash when Abraham and Isaac build the altar together. Isaac, by now, knows that he is to be the burnt offering. He asks his father to tie him especially tightly so that he does not twitch in fear and cause Abraham to invalidate the sacrifice by making a blemish. Then he asks that Abraham not tell Sarah about his death while she is standing on the roof or next to a pit. He is worried she might fall and die. He is concerned for his mother.
After all of this, Abraham is ready to slaughter Isaac.
He took the knife to slaughter him until a fourth of a measure of blood should come from his body. [Suddenly,] Satan came, pushed Abraham’s hand aside and knocked the knife down. As he reached out his hand to pick it up, a voice came from heaven and said to him, Do not raise your hand against the boy. And if it had not happened, he would have been slaughtered.
Satan literally saved Isaac’s life! The midrash continues and describes Satan’s final appearance in the story.
At that moment, Satan went to Sarah disguised as Isaac. When she saw him she asked: “What did your father do to you, my son?”
He replied: “My father led me over mountains and through valleys until we finally reached the top of a certain mountain. There he built an altar, arranged the firewood, bound me upon the altar, and took a knife to slaughter me. If the Holy Blessed One had not called out, Do not raise your hand against the boy, I would have been slaughtered.”
He had hardly finished relating what had transpired when she passed away…
It is a remarkable midrash. I will let it speak for itself. The one question to consider is, “Who is Satan in this story?” To Abraham, he appears as an old man and to Isaac, a young man. A plausible reading would be to suggest that they are facing themselves. They are confronted by their own alter-egos.
Abraham knows in his heart that his mission is problematic. Sarah would never let him do it. It would invalidate God’s promise to him. And finally, it is illegal. These are all doubts that any rational man would hold. Nevertheless, he is laser-focused on his mission.
For Isaac, who is identified as a 37 year old man, it is impossible that he does not know what is actually going on. His interlocutor presents him with the truth. Isaac’s concern, however, is only to help his father succeed and to save his mother from too much suffering. He is completely selfless in this story.
To Sarah, the mother, Satan appears as her son, whom she loves more than anyone. He also reveals the truth. And it is this truth which kills her. Ironically, this is exactly what Abraham was worried about in the first place.
I appreciate this midrash for not making any apologies for Abraham. It humanizes all of the characters, revealing them to be conflicted individuals who, even when focused on what they know to be a Divine mission, are filled with self-doubt.
It does not answer any of our questions about the story of the Akeidah, but it paints a moving picture.