The Faith of Abraham (Revised 2015)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, known as the Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac), or Akedah in Jewish tradition, has long haunted the imaginations and consciences of Jews and Christians. The Torah recounts in suspenseful, harrowing prose God’s request to Abraham that he slaughter his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice. Abraham famously acquiesces and takes Isaac up Mt. Moriah to a makeshift altar. He is stopped by an angel of God at the last moment. Do not stretch out your hand against the child, the angel says, you have passed the test.

What exactly is the test? How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Are we supposed to applaud Abraham for the seemingly horrifying willingness to kill his own son? In the days of ISIS and other forms of violence across the religious spectrum these questions gain a new urgency. I want to suggest that the point of this story is somewhat different than most of us take it to be, and that there is still something important to learn from it 3,ooo years or so on from the events it purports to describe.

Growing up in a Jewish context I was told that this story has two main points: 1) Abraham’s incredible faith in God; and 2) God’s lesson that Israel was not to sacrifice its children in religious ceremonies, unlike the tribes that Israel would later dispossess in the land of Canaan. I agree that these two points are among the lessons of the story. But they still leave many questions which Jewish and Christian thinkers have struggled with.

Kierkegaard famously opens his masterpiece Fear and Trembling with several re-imaginings of the story. What really happened? In one harrowing version Kierkegaard imagines Abraham indeed carrying Isaac up the mountain but before drawing the knife confessing to Isaac that he, Abraham, is in fact a fraud- an idolater and a violent man, and he intends to sacrifice Isaac to an idol. Better he not believe such a thing true of God and believe me evil instead, Abraham reasons.

In some Jewish versions the Rabbis notice that Abraham is described returning from the mountain but Isaac is not mentioned. He remained alone on the mountain, scarred by what happened and unwilling to descend, say some. Others, more shockingly: Abraham did kill him.

Mainstream Jewish tradition has always affirmed Abraham’s virtuousness in the story, though the horror of it continued to surface in Jewish midrash. As an old man Isaac was blind because His eyes were weakened by the sight of the angel that saved him. Or: His eyes were ruined by tears shed because his father was willing to sacrifice him.

Surely in all of our imaginings the shadow that haunts us is this: how could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice his son, and what kind of faith is this willing to do such a thing? Is this faith actually commendable? Let’s look at the story in more detail.

God calls Abraham personally and unequivocally. Abraham responds: Hineni!, “Here I am!” a phrase which in Hebrew suggests total availability. At this point in his life Abraham has shown himself to have deep faith in God. God has been at times inscrutable and God’s time frame in delivering promises has tested Abraham’s trust, but Abraham has trusted and has thus far followed God’s voice, and his trust has proven trustworthy.

God opens without preamble to a shocking request: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…..God’s wording is strange. Why does he not just say “take Isaac”? God’s wording bears within it explicit reference to the intense meaning of Isaac for Abraham. Isaac is his son (his first son Ishmael is lost to him now). Isaac is his “only one”, his only son, who carries the whole weight of Abraham’s life into the future. Whom you love. Isaac is not just the bearer of Abraham’s legacy; Abraham dearly loves him.

Why does God speak this way? It is as if he is affirming Abraham’s feelings and signalling that He understands them. I think God speaks this way, counter-intuitive as it might at first seem, to evoke Abraham’s trust. In other words, at the moment that supremely tests Abraham’s faith he speaks in such a way as to simultaneously support it. As we shall see, it is essential that Abraham be reminded of what we could call the humane nature of God.

Most amazing is Abraham’s response to the request. Early the next morning Abraham woke up and loaded his donkey. Abraham indeed responds with trust. What, though, is the exact nature of that trust? Does Abraham believe that whatever God ordains is good, and so he must comply? Is Abraham’s trust a simple submission to God’s inscrutable but always authoritative will? That was the way the text was presented to me as a child, and I think it is a very common reading. I also think it is wrong. Is this not the same Abraham who argued with God over the punishment of Sodom? The same Abraham who called out the challenge, will not the judge of the world deal justly?

I believe the text itself tells us the nature of Abraham’s trust in the next harrowing moment in the story, surely one of the most spine tingling in all religious literature.

Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain together alone. Isaac seems to intuit that something strange is going on. Perhaps Abraham’s hand trembles. Perhaps Isaac has heard stories of Canaanites who offer their children as sacrifices. Father? he asks.

Yes, my son?

The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Abraham’s answer holds the key to the whole story. YHVH himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he replies. Adonai yireh, he literally says, God will see to it.

When I was a child I thought this answer was evasive and meant to reassure Isaac. It wasn’t until I read Yoram Hazony’s discussion of it (in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) that the scales fell from my eyes. Hazony argues simply that Abraham is here saying exactly what he means. God will see to it. Abraham does not believe that YHVH will actually require him to sacrifice Isaac. This is likewise why Abraham explicitly tells his servants not just to wait, but says, “we will return to you.”

To believe that YHVH will in the end truly ask that heinous deed of Abraham would contradict everything Abraham believes about Him. Abraham’s trust is not just about trusting in God. It is about trusting in God’s character. The point of the monotheism of Israel is not just that there is one God. It is not a religion finally about the nature of divine authority- about its singularity. Judaism is not a numbers game. Israel’s monotheism is the belief that the universe is ruled by one good God, that any God worth worshipping is a God of love and justice.

The fact that what is central to Abraham’s trust is his trust in God’s character is proven by his reaction when God does indeed send an animal in Isaac’s place. Abraham names the spot to commemorate the wonder of what has happened. He does not name it “test passed.” He names it, “God will see to it (adonai yireh).” God will provide the sacrifice. That is the central meaning of what has happened to Abraham: He, Abraham, was right. Right about God’s character. Right about God’s justice. Right about God’s promises and faithfulness. Right about God’s intelligibility.

The test that YHVH set for Abraham is significantly different than we might have thought. It is not in the final analysis a test of Abraham’s submissiveness. It is a test of Abraham’s faith: its nature and its object. It is as if God is speaking through the test to Abraham, and he is asking the question, Do you know me?

God is not interested in mere submission. What God wants is for Abraham to know His heart. God does not want Abraham just to trust Him, but to trust Him for the right reasons. God wants Abraham to know who He is trusting. In the story of the Akedah God does not just test the nature of Abraham’s faith, He also vindicates and reveals His own character.

Imagine that you wake one night to find your house on fire. You grab your sleeping infant and turn around to find your wife trapped in a part of the room that is becoming engulfed in flames. “Hand me the baby!”, she says.

Your reaction will tell us everything about your opinion of your wife. If you trust her with your life (and the life of your baby) you will hand over the baby to her even though it seems that this is a homicidal act. So you do, and she then passes the baby out the window into the arms of waiting firemen you couldn’t see.

If you believe your wife to be irrational or even delusional you will not pass the baby to her. Your trusting aquiescence, or lack of it, tells us about your understanding of her character and your consequent faith in her (or lack of). This is the meaning of the last line of the story of the Akedah: now I know that you revere YHVH, because you have not withheld your only son from me.

In CS Lewis’ The Final Battle a cunning ape named Shift convinces a gullible, weak donkey named Puzzle to dress up like Aslan the lion, the spiritual ruler and creator of Narnia. The Narnians are well aware that Aslan is “not a tame lion” so when he begins making questionable, even violent requests many Narnians go along with it. Their instincts rebel and they feel sick, but who, after all, can understand the inscrutable Aslan?

Lewis brilliantly depicts the trap of perceiving God as above morality, a God of absolute power beyond good and evil. If God is not “tame”, i.e. does not conform to human demands and expectations, then who are we to judge his actions? In the end God may request anything of us, which means that his “representatives” may request anything of us.

Kierkegaard’s analysis approaches the truth of the story but also obscures it. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard correctly asserts that Abraham surrenders his son, his family obligations, his ethics and even his very self in a transcendent trust of God. His brilliant insight is that Abraham does not do this merely as a “knight of resignation” who acquiesces out of his sense of nothingness before God. Abraham acts as a “knight of faith” who against all rational evidence trusts that since God has promised him Isaac God will deliver- Isaac will somehow be returned to him in this world.

Kierkegaard is right in thinking that the nature of Abraham’s faith transcends normal reasoning and is based in a trust that he will not lose Isaac because God has promised him Isaac and will not himself be unfaithful. He is wrong though in considering this a “suspension of the ethical” or a trust which is entirely irrational or absurd. This line of thinking actually obscures the nature of Abraham’s faith as routed in an apprehension of the supremely ethical nature of God.

The Akedah teaches us about what Abraham believed of God’s character, and what God wanted him to believe. The point is not submission, not obedience beyond reason. Abraham trusts God not just because He is God, but because Abraham knows God. Abraham has seen God’s character and believes in Him as a God of grace and justice. Abraham trusts that God will not ask him to do something unjust, capricious, or immoral. If it appears that that is what God is asking than the reality must be otherwise, and Abraham complies and trusts, waiting to be proven right. God Himself will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, son. And He does. Abraham proves the nature of his faith, and God proves the nature of His faithfulness. The kind of faith that God wants is not simple obedience to pure authority, but a knowing and intelligent trust in His nature as love.

All A Horrible Mistake: The Bible’s Supposed Condemnation of Homosexuality

Moses

Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even things we’ve believed for a long time. The sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. What? But don’t most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don’t they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?

The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it is a misunderstanding.” I myself was unhappily convinced, until a few years ago, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don’t agree. Homosexuality seems to me ethically neutral and grounded in genetic predispositions.

All of this changed when I took a closer look through the lens of some excellent Biblical scholarship basing itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.

When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.

First off, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.

What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.

Friedman and Dolansky (2011) offer a very compelling historical and cross cultural analysis here (For a detailed discussion and defense of their argument see here, what follows is a summary).

They agree with the mainstream Judeo-Christian interpretation the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). The Israelites most likely understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him. Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you’d be wrong.

First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can’t be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that “the misogynists” just didn’t bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals. Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time (Lev 18:18). Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be necessary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females.

A Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically sexual intercourse.

To understand why male homosexual intercourse  would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures. A Babylonian divination text says that being the passive recipient of homosexual anal intercourse brings bad luck. Two Assyrian laws discuss anal penetration: The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated. In other words: being penetrated by another man is degrading, and is a common enough form of male social violence to be mentioned in law. One very important detail: anally raping a social inferior is not punished. The reason for this is simple: the problem is not anal sex per se, it is the socially degrading nature of being the passive recipient. If you are already a social inferior of the one who pentrates you than there is no problem in the eys of the Babylonian law. All of this is relevant to understanding the Biblical law, as we shall see.

Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as weak, cowardly and effeminate. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus a struggle between the gods is decided by who has managed to place his semen inside the other: the implanted god loses. What about famed Greek homosexuality? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.

Plato comments on the practice (with a strong note of misogyny): “Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?” Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”. Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrote, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”

What Leviticus forbids is not what we call homosexuality, but the degradation of another man’s dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, an intent brilliantly showcased by Joshua Berman. As Berman’s book shows masterfully, we mistake the laws of the Hebrew Bible when we see them as primarily about individual morality instead of economic, social and political dynamics (though grounded in a radical concern for individual human dignity). As Berman shows, the laws of the Hebrew Bible prevent the formation of a class structure; put the King under the law with everyone else; undercut the practice of slavery; alleviate poverty; prevent the formation of an inherited aristocracy, and restrain prejudicial treatment of foreigners and non-citizens, among other social justice measures unheard of in contemporaneous middle eastern and mediterranean societies.

Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting equal dignity among men and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. This doesn’t mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still contain inequalities, most notably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn’t change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.

The New Testament

This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul’s time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.

A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who have turned away from God and are overcome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon and others argue that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies. The Evangelical ethicist David Gushee, following others, argues that this text may be a veiled reference to debauched behaviour at the Roman imperial court by the likes of Caligula and Nero. Either way, it cannot be taken refer to committed homosexual romances of the kind we know today.

The Consequences

We simply cannot take the Torah’s condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one might outlaw one man touching the head of another man. In our culture, however, touching another man’s head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.

Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts is incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.

The consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people are free and equal before God.

Works Cited:

Berman, Joshua. Created Equal: How The Bible Broke With Ancient Political Thought. 2008, Oxford University Press.

Cannon, Justin. The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. 2012, Justin R. Cannon (Ebook).

Friedman and Dolansky; The Bible Now. 2011, Oxford University Press.

Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind. 2014, Read The Spirit Books.

What Do We Do With Our Spiritual Chometz?

פסחיס ב: רבי יהודה אומר אין בעור חמץ אלה שרפה וחכמים אומרים אף מפרר וגורה לרוח או מטיל לים.

Mishna Pesachim 2: R’ Yehuda says: Chometz must be destroyed through fire. The Sages say: One can crumble it and release it to the wind or in water.

On the holiday of Pesach (Passover) Jews are forbidden to eat chometz (leaven) or to even possess it. We are approaching Pesah and it is time to contemplate the removal of our chometz, both literal and metaphorical. R’ Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l comments that just as even a little external chometz must be removed from your possession, so even a little spiritual chometz must be given attention. Chometz, or leaven, is a concern for both Jews and Christians. Resonant with Rabbi Carlebach, Paul warns in Galatians 5:9, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump (of dough).”

Such spiritual chometz is the yezer hara (evil inclination- here foolish, destructive desires). Chazal, our sages, call the yezer hara “the chometz in the dough” (T. Bavli; Berakhot 17a). Paul associates chometz with “malice and evil” contrasting it with the “matzah of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthinans 5:8). Jesus seemed to associate chometz with malevolent spiritual pride, as in Mark 8:15 and Matthew 16:6, “Beware of the chometz of the Phrisees and Sadducees”. Chometz here is probably again, however, a watchword for the yetzer hara more generally.

As R’ Carlebach points out (Carlebach Haggadah) even small things can cause great damage- harsh words to our spouse or children, laziness in failing to honour our parents, giving charity to someone on the street without a smile; a habit of being impatient, aversive, or judgemental; apathy or a tendency to be self-deprecating. These behaviours, or whatever is subtly or not so subtly holding us back in our lives, in our avodas Hashem, are rooted in internal middot ra’ot (bad traits) which are rooted in the yezer hara (evil inclination).

Your body and soul are the palace of the Infinite One (the ein sof) where he resides. How do you think the King of the palace feels to find that not only have you allowed the strange god (el zar) of foolish, meaningless desire (yezer hara) to sneak in and set up shop but you the prince of the palace, even make it at home and listen to what it says!

– R’ Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, zt”l, the Piazecne Rebbe, Chovas HaTalmidim

How do we destroy our internal chometz? In the Mishna above Rabbi Yehudah says that it must be burnt. We must destroy it completely and immediately in the fire of our internal scrutiny, our moral passion and commitment to Torah. The Sages disagree, however, giving more nuanced guidance. It may also be crumbled up and dissolved in water, or given to the wind. Our internal chometz can be broken down (deconstructed) through understanding, contemplated and questioned until it becomes less compelling. Once weakened it can be dissolved by immersing in Torah study (water, as the Torah is called “mayim chayim/living waters”) which will fill more and more of the mind with holy thoughts, thus gradually disempowering, thinning out, and dissolving hometzdik thoughts (Likutey Moharan 1:35). As it says in the Gemarra, if you cannot overpower the evil inclination (yezer hara) drag it into the Bet Midrash (house of study). The sages also permit releasing chometz to the wind , which is prayer, as it says kol ha neshama tehalel Yah (let every breath praise God, Tehillim 150:6), which refers to prayer, as Hazal say: prayer is spoken with the breath (neshima) of the mouth (Bereishit Rabbah 14:9), which is also called wind of the mouth (u v’ruach piv– Tehillim 33:6).

As Pesach approaches then it is upon us (aleynu) to search out our internal chometz. What can be burnt, let it be burnt. What is not so easy to get rid of let us dissolve in the light of sechel (intelligence), bringing it into our understanding. Let’s then let it go through Torah study (immersion in truth) and praying for siyata d’shemaya (divine help).