November 11, 2006
Annual: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 21:1 – 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 112; Hertz p. 71)
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1 – 37 (Etz Hayim, p. 124; Hertz p. 76)
Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
Summary of the Parashah
Abraham receives three strangers who come to visit, in a way that demonstrate that both he and Sarah are highly solicitous hosts. We imagine that welcoming strangers is a regular event in this household. (The midrash amplifies this feeling by picturing Abraham’s tent as being open on all sides, so that he might readily spot passing travelers and welcome them.)
On this particular day, one of the visitors delivers the unlikely message that in a year’s time, Sarah will bear a son. Abraham and Sarah, by now both advanced in age, are incredulous but happy.
After the strangers depart, God shares with Abraham the plans to destroy Sodom and the neighboring towns. Abraham takes God to task for possibly planning to destroy the righteous along with the wicked. God accepts Abraham’s point. After some negotiation, they agree that if 10 righteous people can be found within Sodom, then the entire city will be spared.
Not only were 10 not found, but we also are shown a sample of the cruel and corrupt behavior of the townspeople. The city definitely is to be destroyed. However, Abraham’s semi-righteous nephew, Lot, and his household are to be saved.
Abraham migrates to the land of the Philistines. Again he refers to Sarah as his sister, and confusion ensues.
Months later, Sarah gives birth to a son, who is named Isaac. She soon becomes concerned about the behavior of Ishmael, the teenage son of Hagar the concubine. Sarah delivers an ultimatum to Abraham: “Cast out that slave-woman and her son.” Abraham, caught in the middle, turns to God for guidance. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah.
Abraham completes a treaty with the Philistine king to resolve a dispute over water rights. God commands Abraham to bind Isaac as a sacrifice upon an altar at a location to which God will guide Abraham. Abraham and Isaac comply. At the last minute, a voice from heaven cancels the command to sacrifice Isaac.
Issue #1: Primogeniture vs. Personal Merit
The Bible displays some ambivalence between respecting the ancient tradition of primogeniture (preferring the first-born consistently) and requiring that children demonstrate their worthiness to lead through their actions.
In Genesis 21:12, God reassures Abraham that protecting the later-born Isaac and dismissing the first-born Ishmael is an appropriate course of action, “… for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.” In commenting on this verse, Rabbi Max Arzt (1897-1975) wrote:
A recurrent theme of the early biblical narratives is the rejection of the older brother (whose claim to distinction is based purely on the accident of primogeniture) in favor of the younger brother. This theme is apparent in the accounts of the preference of Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Reuben, and Ephraim over Manasseh. This can suggest to us that the claim of personal worth is higher than that of prior birth. Justice and Mercy, pp. 130-131
What are the advantages, and what are the disadvantages, of replacing a system based on primogeniture with a system based on personal merit?
Note: This question will be treated most fruitfully as a question of public policy rather than an opportunity to justify your own status as a first-born or later-born child. It should also be obvious that later-born children are not automatically assumed to possess greater merit; their behavior must demonstrate personal merit before they can begin to justify a preferred status.
Issue #2: How old was Isaac at the time of the almost-sacrifice?
Many of us were raised on a version of the story that pictures Isaac as a young child. This picture has been reinforced by countless paintings and other graphic portrayals of the binding of Isaac.
Jewish tradition tells a different story. Although Isaac’s age is not given within this narrative, it is assumed that he was at least 13 years old. If he were not, he would be considered an extension of Abraham. We would like to believe that Isaac, too, earned a share of the credit for obeying God’s difficult command.
The maximum age for Isaac at the time of this incident would be 37. This is derived from the fact that Sarah, who had given birth to Isaac at age 90, dies shortly after the binding of Isaac, at a reported age of 127. Thus, if she died right after the incident, Isaac would have been 37 years old.
How do the possible variations in Isaac’s age affect your understanding of the story?
After reflecting upon the different age-possibilities, which age makes the most sense to you?