Abraham's Readiness to Imagine Persevering -Once Again -Without Isaac: Notes toward a Non-Literal Reading of Genesis 22 - [PDF Document] (2024)

Appeared in Jonathan Cohen, editor, Languages and Literatures in Jewish Education: Studies in Honor of Michael Rosenak (Jerusalem, Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2006)

Abraham's Readiness to Imagine Persevering - Once Again - Without Isaac: Notes toward a Non-Literal Reading of Genesis 22

Steven Copeland

"Keep your students from higayon" (Berachot 28b) - that is, from interpreting a verse according to its external form.

Rabbi Nathan ben Yechiel1

Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know the metaphor in its

strength and its weakness. You don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe [in everyday life;] you are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.

Robert Frost2

[How to live] faithfully in an uncertain reality [is modeled by Abraham in his last trial].3

Michael Rosenak

Fateful stakes in our reading decisions

That fateful consequences are at stake in the way we read our sacred texts was given especially

concentrated expression in Gersonides' choice of title for his philosophic magnum opus – The Wars of the

Lord.4 And following the heart of Maimonides' project, the navigating between literal versus figurative

understandings of religious language as received in sacred narrative and the precise delineation of what

meanings that imagery should properly be experienced as conveying is what Gersonides saw as his

battle on behalf of Torah. This medieval Jewish philosophic realization – then transposed into committed

בעריכת יצחק – ספר זכרון להרב דוד אוקס ז"ל –מכתם לדוד בקובץ מאמרים: –"'מנעו בניכם מן ההגיון'" מרדכי ברויאר, 1

.243 עמ' 1711אילן, תשל"ח /-גן: אוניברסיטת בר-גילת ואליעזר שטרן, רמת 2 Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry" in Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrence Thompson, editors, Robert Frost:

Poetry and Prose (New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972), p. 334. 3 Michael Rosenak, Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge: Conversations with the Torah (Boulder, Colorado, Westview

Press, 2001), p. 66. 4 For a review of various printed editions, manuscripts and translations see the introduction to Seymour Feldman's

translation – Levi Ben Gershom (Gersonides), The Wars of the Lord – Book One – Immortality of the Soul, Volume One (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1984). Numbers 21:14 refers to a book with this title. Probably more suggestive, First Samuel 18:17 & 25:28 refers to David fighting the wars of the Lord. But the Rabbis took up the image warring on behalf of/over the Torah in reference to their interpretive struggle over the meaning possibilities of the sacred text – in relation to their boldly insistent dialogue with it. See, for instance, Sanhedrin 42a.


educational project – that it is not so much the contents of tradition which matter as much as their

experienced – that is their interpreted – meanings or understandings can be seen to find a striking parallel

in John Dewey's argument that, perhaps for more even than any other profession it is the "responsibility"

of the educator "to see in what direction an experience is heading. [For] the central problem of an

education based on experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and

creatively in subsequent experiences."5 When viewed in the context of a religious tradition this critical

concern with the repercussions of an educational experience translates as critical concern for that

tradition's "language", namely its sacred texts and dramatic symbolic acts conventionally called "rituals",

its narrative images and defining assumptions expressed in brief formulaic terms and phrases and

behaviors. In what directions will they, might they lead? In what directions are those experiences liable to

lead when not properly understood? A clarification of the specific moods and meanings educators seek

as the terrain of consciousness that ought to accompany the various instances of the Jewish tradition;

what religious and ethical, psychological and aesthetic, economic and political tendencies should be

inwardly experienced and outwardly given expression in our individual lives as well as in our societal

interactions – in history – is at once a hermeneutic and an educational imperative of the highest order.

When life appears to literally repeat "literature" – in this case, a dream

A woman has a dream. She has reached the post office with her daughter's application for summer camp

along with a package of clothes - all according to the list the camp has provided; she has reached the

post office just minutes before it closes - the last day the application and the clothes package must be

postmarked. Yet the postal workers say no; they're sorry, but they've already begun to close everything

down. She pleads with them; but they say it's not possible now. Everything needed has been put away.

The mother is in a panic; what will she tell her child? How can she disappoint her? The dream ends; the

woman is awake. That evening she receives a phone call from her daughter - now herself a grown

woman who lives in a different part of the country. The daughter asks if her mother has received the

package she sent her for Mother's Day. No, I haven't received it; you've sent me a package?! -- Isn't this

uncanny, the woman thinks. Here I have just dreamed of a package for my daughter and now she calls

me about a package she has sent me!

5 John Dewey, Experience and Education (London, Collier-Macmillan, 1938), pp. 27-28, 38 & 40


Now, of course, the mother might have forgotten that her daughter actually had, some time ago, told her

about the package she had sent or would be sending. If so, her dream has taken up this bit of

information. But even if that were the case, it doesn't change the meaning of the package. The dream is

using this fact from everyday life - from the history of this woman - for its own purposes; which are the

concerns of "fiction" - not of the external reality of life, but rather the inner world of how we experience this

external reality; what sign, what significance it can signify for us. Because of the coincidental juxtaposition

of the dream that involves a package but is not at all about packages and the phone call from her

daughter that involves and indeed is about a package (though there too it is also about love and/or at

least honor, consideration), an accurate interpretation - namely a figurative decoding - of the dream is

blocked. Rather, she understands it by the slanted light of the Mother's Day package; she thinks it's

somehow about this literal package. I suggest to her that it actually is about her apprehension - indeed

her self-judgement, which might be objectively accurate or inaccurate or a mixture of both; but the dream

reflects her concern that she has not been the best of mothers to her child - or that her daughter might

feel this way somehow, sometimes. And this despite all her best efforts; there were in fact factors - how

real, how factual such factors in our lives can be - which were beyond her control that resulted in her not

being able to fulfill her mothering role as fully - as perfectly - as she had wanted.6

How to read a sign – literally, figuratively, both or one or mostly the other, only one or the other – truly can

involve significant repercussions for the way we live our lives as individuals and for the way we conduct

ourselves in society, in history as groups.

A figurative text for the most part understood literally still has much to be read

The Binding of Isaac – the ending begins before the first words of the story; "The Binding of Isaac" or

"The Sacrifice of Isaac" so-called - a shorthand for the drama already suggesting, as would any

shorthand, a direction toward its meaning. Out of the getting up early and the saddling of the donkey and

the taking up of the requisite equipment and the subsequent journey that this present essay – essay in

Old French as in Hebrew also means a trying, a trial and a testing – feels compelled to follow, a מסה

6 See A. Finkel, "The Pesher of Dreams and Scriptures" in Revue de Qumran, Volume 4 (1963).


different coded byword for Genesis 22 will offer a glimpse of itself come down Moriah with Abraham.

Indeed its presentational depiction gives us precisely this binding, this sacrifice as one of the most

compelling and disturbing images of our sacred literature and in post-biblical consciousness and

commentary it has been understood more or less literally. This is evidenced also in numerous curricular

attempts to engage it – in which students are asked to imagine themselves as Isaac or Abraham and

what they would say when the knife is unsheathed. Such a literal take has to such an extent established

itself as this narrative's meaning that it cannot be characterized as involving genuine interpretation at all;

interpretation being a bridging conversational act which always entails some ironic distance transcending

the merely naive, some difference between what the words say and what they can or might fairly mean.

Though we can see how this general lack of interpretive distance in large part occurred; because Jewish

history turned out to involve repeated persecutions - and into our own days in Israel, recurring losses in

war; ongoing "sacrifices" in juxtaposition to which the dramatic depiction of Abraham's readiness to

relinquish his beloved son has understandably been taken in a literal way.7 When we add to this how lost

the genuinely symbolic language of dream, drama and ritual has long been to even apparently religious

people of the Greco-Roman-European-American materialist life orientation, it is no wonder that we are at

a loss how to recognize the command that we too take our son, our Isaac to the mount that will be shown

7 It is a commonly held assumption that Shalom Spiegel's magisterial survey The Last Trial is a reading of Genesis

22; while, in fact, it is a study of how that Biblical text was understood - almost exclusively - in a literal way, in large part, on account of the all too literal martyrdom of Jews already in the Greco-Roman period and in medieval Christian Europe. See Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice (New York, Behrman House, 1979 - Jewish Lights reprint, 1993). The same phenomenon has occurred in modern Hebrew literature - "Twentieth-century Jewish history has confronted the Hebrew literary imagination with an astonishing reiteration of the biblical drama...." - an apparent reiteration, if that drama is indeed understood

literally! See Ruth Kartun-Blum, "'Where does this wood in my hand come from?' The Binding of Isaac in Modern

Hebrew Poetry" in Prooftexts, September 1988. And what of Erich Auerbach's masterful comparison of Genesis 22 with a passage from The Odyssey? The essay - the first chapter in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature - translated by Willard Trask (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1953) - Chapter 1 - "Odysseus' Scar" - contrasts the dramatically different styles of writing in these two classic works and argues that these styles demand different kinds of reading; each implying different perspectives on meaning and modes of experiencing. But does it really involve a reading of Abraham's last trial - in any explicitly developed manner? Only in a limited way; though what it does specify is significant. Genesis 22 as compared with Odysseus' return home - in book 19 of The Odyssey involves more uncertainty and possibility - both in their narrative dramas and, by implication, in their view of life in general. Professor Auerbach also argues that Odysseus never really undergoes dramatic change as a person. He begins his trials as, among other characterizations, "the resourceful" and he ends them with the same set of appellations. Not so with Abraham, says Professor Auerbach; he is transformed by his experiences. But really the only specific articulation of what Abraham's experience entails is the idea of that experience being "fraught with background." Beyond this, what his trial involves is not really addressed. Nonetheless, Auerbach is highlighting what are, essentially, contradictory

feelings or realities which Abraham bears - apparently to the point of their irreconcilability - within his psyche.


to us – except in ways literal or too closely literal that some of us see as wreaking nothing less than

criminal harm in ways both outer and inner. Yet what is demanded by this text – when understood

figuratively - certainly borders on the criminal in the sense that it is not about conventional health or social

adjustment. The Abrahamic Get you forth is not about success or peace of mind.

The translational conversation that is reading

I say what our religious texts and other contents of our Jewish tradition can - or might - mean because I

see a conversation involved in the act of encountering, thus coming to some understanding of any

element of a religious tradition - as of any phenomenon whatsoever. This is especially demanded of the

educator; perhaps less so, yet necessarily likewise of every reader. I am thinking here of the dialectic

between something usually called the objective, on the one hand, and the subjective, on the other; though

this overly delineated duality seems a less accurate portrayal of what really occurs than Buber's focus on

the inseparable relation that dwells in the "between". Also associated with this process, I have in mind the

inescapable and creative opening out onto authentic understanding - as distinct from mere repetition -

involved in the transitional act of translation from the particularity of a religious tradition's "original"

sources to their understanding in a latter-day "universal" context of meaning (actually likewise yet a

different particularity) that necessarily involves the intervening language of another tradition. This

presently developing tradition or meaning-orientation involves a consciousness both cultural and personal

which becomes implicated in the interpreting encounter with any given part of a tradition that is received

from the past. We seek a reading that, on the one hand, plausibly derives or draws from this part of the

received tradition as it gives witness on its own terms, while on the other, comes out of and thus speaks

to something compelling in our own present experience which might partake of the same kind of reality as

that which is recorded in the sacred testimony before us.8 It is an act of transposition that Levinas refers


8 See Martin Buber's "The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible" in Nahum Glatzer, editor, On the Bible: Eighteen

Studies by Martin Buber (New York, Schocken, 1968) -- as well as Michael Fishbane, "Freedom and Belonging: A Personal Encounter with Judaic Study" in James Sleeper and Alan Mintz, editors, The New Jews (New York, Random House, 1971). And see Annette Aronowicz's introduction to her translation of Emmanuel Levinas' Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990). 9 See, for example, Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other (New York, Columbia University Press,

1998), pp. 63, 71 & 164.


On the one hand, I the reader sacrifice myself – setting out without myself to receive the text in the ways

it is structured, crafted, thundering and whispering in its words and between its words. At the same time,

like Yehuda Halevi in his prayer-meditation – "When I went out towards you, I found You coming towards


– I bring myself to the text; only then can the text respond significantly. My trials are implicated in

my reading of Abraham's. Whoever denies this in his reading – whoever says he has totally left himself at

the bottom of the mount is not being honest, not with Sarah and not with himself; let alone Isaac or the

ram or the One Who Commands us to undergo the test if we can live the Promise again without Isaac.

What meaning, then – it's somewhere between these – on the one hand, are we to, are we intended to,

while on the other, can we, might we, understand in the words that the Divine tested Abraham to sacrifice,

to give up his most beloved son?11

Is it indeed to be understood as a more or less literal event like might

be related in a television or newspaper report? Does it concern itself with teaching that the religious life

demands a commitment and readiness to act that transcends – and can even violate - ethical norms,

including what would otherwise be considered as murder? If we don't read Genesis 22 in this way, we

have to offer an alternative interpretation of what the trial involved; in other words, what faith involves -

the faith Abraham proves is his.

What really matters? What is most real? What is the Bible's chief concern? The fundamentalists among us (for being Jewish, which means Rabbinic, they have been exposed to

something else besides repetition and near-repetition) respond politely, gently yet insistently, upon

hearing a figurative - even allegorical - reading of, for instance, "our text" – Genesis 22. This is fine and

good – as heirs, apparent anyway, of the Rabbinic tradition they can't deny entirely, after all, the place of


In his "Lord, Where Shall I Find You?" – יה, אנא אמצאך – in T. Carmi, editor, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse

(New York, Penguin Books, 1981), p. 338 11

Buber, "The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible", p. 8 ~ "What meaning are we intended to find in the words that God came down in fire, to the sound of thunder and horn, to the mountain that smoked like a furnace, and spoke to His people?" -- and p. 10 - "What meaning are we intended to find in the statement that God created the world in six days?" -- and p. 12 - "How are we to understand the concept that 'in the end of days' everything in the world will be resolved, that the world will be so perfectly redeemed that, as it is written, there will be 'a new heaven and a new earth' (Isaiah 66.22)?" This essay was first delivered as part of lecture series in 1926, three years after the appearance of I and Thou - a work whose central argument undermines the idea that there can be one meaning or understanding

that any phenomenon - including what Divine Revelation "intends [for us] to find." Thus, it is likely that Buber's words in "The Man of Today..." do not ask what is the single and only meaning of this or that biblical text, but rather seeks out a field, a region of plausible, indeed compelling meaning.


even far-ranging interpretation; but, they are adamant: the literal meaning is not effected; the literal

meaning remains as true. Now this, of course, is in many instances what happens in language, in

literature. And the Torah is indeed literature, as Sa'adya Gaon points out. It is indisputably "given in one

of the human languages" and, as such, the more we know concerning how human language and

literature work, the better we will be able to understand (or reach some understanding among the many

possible understandings of) the Torah. Sa'adya goes on to highlight only one particular phenomenon of

language – symbolism. This involves an expression, an image, a depiction whose meaning is not in its

saying, but rather its saying suggests or evokes associations that carry us elsewhere.12

The different truth of the figurative

Compelling events occurring in the unfolding life of the world out of its deepest sources are narrated, are

conveyed to us; along with the root experiences of the nation and the paradigmatic struggles of its

founders and first societies. Yet the events are extraordinarily dramatic – such that we understand this is

more than history, more than ordinary, more than literal. Indeed, maybe not literal at all. At times for sure

not, but instead something else. Something of a different kind of truth than the literal conveys.

Experiences that take root in our imaginations and in our lives – through their telling. And the ways we

understand them. Once upon a time, once upon every time and all time. The universal event. Every

person. Something key and ultimate concerning the human situation is being argued, is being

represented in dramatic terms – in heightened, even extreme intense dreamlike images. A drama, a play,

a parable, an allegory. We understand – if not in so many words – if not consciously; we realize that there

is a contract in this act of storytelling. A contractual understanding that there is here a code – a

transaction involving a play of what we might call an "in other words" that occurs in that realm where

saying is not equivalent to meaning; but, rather - as the Greek roots of metaphor denote – where re-

presentation functions as a "carrier beyond" itself " - from one place to another." This little term אלא- "but

rather" - is one of the most recurring word-ideas in Rabbinic discourse. Metaphoric meaning is not what it

appears to be at first glance, but rather figures for that over there. Figurative saying offers itself only to be

121793יוסף בן דוד קפאח, ירושלים: מוסד הרב קוק, –לקט ותרגם והוסיף מבוא –על התורה פירושי רבנו סעדיה גאון .

Sa'adya's "The Torah is given in one of the human languages" is, of course, a take-off from Rabbi Yishmael's dictum; though Rabbi Yishmael had a rather - though not completely - different intent relative to Rabbi Akiva's drawing meaning from every word and even individual letters of Scripture. See

.ואילך 3עמ' , 1792צין, , לונדון: הוצאת דפוס שונתשל הדורו תורה מן השמיים באספקלריהרהם יהושע השל, אב


interrupted by its own inherent angel that, as in Caravaggio's paintings13

of Genesis 22, substitutionally

points elsewhere; non-literal meaning always involves an alternative difference between the "signifier"

and the "signified."

A saying that means something other than its outer form of depiction or re-presentation

This אלא"but rather" is subversive, unsettling even as it is the greatest guarantor of hope. The meaning,

then, is not this one, but that one over there caught by its two - always more than one, always plural - by

its two horns; caught in that thorny סבך- the "thicket", that two-storied "complex", paradox, contradiction,

not-to-be-resolved dialectic, realm of the between. "Two-storied" - like a two-level building - is a

characterization of a type of religious experience suggested by William James that is very much akin to

the "second naiveté" of Paul Ricoeur - of Akiva Ernst Simon and of Michael Rosenak.14

This is a

consciousness no longer all of one piece, no longer whole. One of the great loyalists of that fracture of the

soul as of the historical moral record – Emily Dickinson – testified to how deeply this "splinter" can enter

"within the brain" so much so that its "swerve" cannot be "put back."15

To such an honesty, a return to that

first naiveté is not possible. However, there is a kind of integrity that holds distant clashing worlds together

fine lace.16

This divided yet integrating perspective has been termed the "second naiveté."


Unlike the later "Isaac & Abraham II" painted in 1603, the 1598 "Isaac & Abraham I" shows the "angel" - the Divine

messenger - not pointing to the ram; but, rather, indicating the substitution by his left hand resting upon it. The eyes of the "angel" - who is the same age as Isaac, "maybe fifteen" - are not aligned; a case of astigmatism "since M [ - Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio - ] hadn't made an incision to align the eyes" - along with "the daring counterplay of shadow" - can be read as further intensifying the already clear character of the scene as in no way involving any kind of harmonious one-dimensional equilibrium. Of course, the terrible clash is resolved with the a lternative offering of the ram. But do Abraham and Isaac really leave their trial without significant "counterplay of shadow" in their lives henceforth? Or do they - and we the story listeners - take with us the lesson that our lives are frequently if not always treading alongside the contradicting abyss; the multiple incommensurate meanings continue to be the background with which our consciousness is fraught. Reading Genesis 22 in this way is consonant with the argument that there is a kind of art, literature, religion most profound in their refusal to represent themselves as able to redeem life's counterplay of shadows. For a compelling investigation of this argument see Leo Bersani's The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1990) - whose epilogue is actually a reading of the

tensions between Abraham and Sarah over Ishmael and Isaac. On Caravaggio's paintings of Genesis 22 see Peter Robb, M - The Man Who Became Caravaggio (New York, Henry Holt & Company, 1998), p. 114.

: ספרית אביב-תל – ?האם עוד יהודים אנחנו, "אז איתם: על התמימות השניה" בקובץ מאמריו: סימון עקיבא ארנסט 14צריך עיון: מסורת ומיכאל רוזנק, –בית המדרש לרבנים באמריקה, תשמ"ג. בשיתוף עם –פועלים והאוניברסיטה העברית

. 119-117י, עמ' ירושלים: מאגנס, תשס"בחינוך היהודי בזמננו, ומודרנה

15 Poem 563 in Franklin's numbering. See, for instance, R. W. Franklin, editor, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: A

Reading Edition (Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) 16

In his שר ובמארב לא –במדרגות הרחבות -- Yehuda Amichai, Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems - A Bilingual

Edition (New York, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1992). The image – "My soul is rent and torn like yours/ But it is


I see "Mike" drawing us on to fill-in one of his blanks at the end of a thought. We can never succeed

because his punch-line is always surprising; always coaxing us toward some conventionally unconsidered

and significantly repercussive alternative - what Harold Bloom calls "a difference that makes a


And this, his bold completion of the sentence - with that impish smile of his in a moment of

Peter Bergerian signaling of the transcendent.18

Even those who see themselves as the most religious are still significantly Greco-Roman-European-American when they read Genesis 22 The insistence - from seemingly religious grounds – on retaining always and at all costs a literal meaning

of a biblical passage actually reflects a Greco-Roman scientific-utilitarian bias; an orientation which in its

prejudicing the superior truth value of the immediate physical, external and literally historical reality fails to

appreciate the genuinely religious character of metaphor in that its concern is the way we experience all

that happens by and to and beyond our agency. Though Maimonides' entire project focuses precisely on

this critical question of literal versus figurative understanding and there are, therefore, many striking

formulations of his perspective, perhaps his most refined is in his Commentary on the Mishnah - in Perek

Chelek of Sanhedrin. In that passage he argues that the metaphoric meaning - what he calls there the

"inner" sense - of depictions whose literal meaning contradict what we know from our studies of "physics

and metaphysics" is their one and only meaning and not their "external/outer" sense.19

beautiful because of that/ Like fine lace." ~ finds one of its inspirations from The Song of Songs 1:5 – "I am black, but beautiful." Julia Kristeva interprets this verse to mean something like: because I am divided and endlessly searching, I am sensitive and richly sovereign. See her essay on The Song of Songs – "A Holy Madness: She and He" in her Tales of Love – translated by Leon Roudiez (New York, Columbia University Press, 1987).


Harold Bloom, The Breaking of the Vessels (University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 34. The larger passage within which this phrase appears: "Even the strongest poems [ - great works of art/literature - ], particularly the strongest poem, costs us too much, but without that cost the poem is only so many words, and not human action. [... In strong criticism/interpretation] only a difference that makes a difference matters. Poems matter only if we [the interpreters] matter, and so there is no true criticism that is not experiential criticism, and poem must rely upon such criticism.... There are no texts [in and of themselves], so that it makes little difference to affirm that there is nothing outside the text. Rather, there are configurations, richly perverse interlockings of a multiplicity of strong texts and a few scattered handfuls of strong readers. Poetry happens within those configurations, within those ratios of revision that adjust the intricate balances of psychic warfare between and within texts and readers." 18

Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (New York, Doubleday,


והוסיף מבוא פי כתב היד המקורי -ירגם מערבית עלת -, סנהדרין נזיקין--נשיםסדר –בן מימון שהרבינו מ פירוש עם משנה 17

קלז.-וסד הרב קוק, תשכ"ח, עמ, קלומ ירושלים:יוסף בכה"ר דוד קפאח, –והערות

For an English translation, see Arnold Wolf's - in Isadore Twersky, editor, A Maimonides Reader (New York, Behrman House, 1972), pp. 407-410.


Literal- versus figurative-mindedness ~ a way of experiencing – a form of consciousness

Abraham Joshua Heschel has compellingly argued - in what might indeed be his masterwork - that this

struggle over whether such images function solely in their figurative sense is the key issue throughout

Jewish intellectual history already among the Tanna'im, most notably between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi

Yishmael - and their accompanying schools of thought.20

Neither does this question begin with the

Rabbis; what is at issue is the way in which the hearers of Biblical narratives in Biblical times understood

those stories. Certainly they did not consciously distinguish between the literal sense and its symbolic

import, but they might indeed have experienced the latter as what the literal depiction in its import – in its

significance – was really "all about." This is what Susanne Langer called "figurative-mindedness" - as

distinct from a figurative understanding by which we are intellectually aware that this represents that,

rather than actually experiencing the figurative import of "things."21

Moreover, literal-mindedness can be

אספקלריה של הדורותתורה מן השמים באברהם יהושע השל, 20first two volumes: London and New York, Soncino Press, 1962; third volume: Jerusalem, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1990. Most of the work has just appeared in an English translation by Gordon Tucker – Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations (New York and London, Continuum, 2005). 21

Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1942). The first part of the present paper involves a revisiting of my "From Outer Form to Inner Meaning and Back Again: The Metaphoric Imagination in Jewish Learning" - in Janet Aviad, editor, Studies in Jewish Education, Volume 4 (Jerusalem, Hebrew University Press, 1989). I understand that this is an essay recently selected by Jonathan Cohen for close reading in a seminar he taught for the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows. A lighthouse argument for that paper is that of H. and H. A. Frankfort, "Myth and Reality" in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (also issued by Penguin under the title Before Philosophy, without William Irwin's essay on the Hebrews) (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1946) - critical in regard to my claim here, that the major motive or source (unawares) for insisting always and at any cost on every biblical text's retention of literal meaning is the defense of what is actually the secular scientific view/experience of reality and value. Another motive (regarding which there is, presumably, some awareness) is the concern that identifying the peshat of some biblical texts as a symbolic reading of them - in other words, whereby their external sayings are conveyers "only" of their symbolic possibilities - might lead to the undermining of the concrete behavioral - i.e., external - performance of the commandments and their comprehensive legal accompaniments; a direction taken-up by those Jews who became the pioneers of emerging Christianity. See Louis Ginzberg, "Allegorical Interpretations of Scripture" in his On Jewish Law and Lore (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1955). -- While observance of the law does entail a literal dimension - insofar as it involves external behavior according to detailed, often exacting, requirements, the role of the non-literal in the way midrash halachah works should not be overlooked. For the ways

the Rabbis "read"(!) biblical law and via this "reading" arrive at their acts of legislation involve a dramatic difference

between the more than apparent sense of Scripture and its meaning(s) as revealed in Rabbinic interpretation. It must be highlighted, however, that while Christianity adopted this allegorical-of-sorts attitude - which completely jettisoned the forms that carried the potential of symbolic meaning - toward the expansive and elaborated mansion of Jewish legal practice, the forces that won the day as to Christianity's developing character, ironically, were very literal-minded when it came to its sacred narrative images and "beliefs." For a fascinating look at the secret, non-canonical Gospel of Thomas with its figurative-minded experience of the nascent religion's "good news" - which I read as a case-study on figurative versus literal exegesis, stunning in relation to my present argument - see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York, Random House, 2003).


seen to be related to some lack of irony – which involves a sense of distance resulting from questions and

contradictions of which one becomes aware; as well as to an inability to withstand - meaning to live with -

the vagaries of the unpredictable.22

Rosenzweig and Buber saw faith as involving just this unpredictability;

the instability of genuinely being in relationship and, thus, openness to risk. Kafka identifies the facing of

irreducible diversity with Abraham - who

falls victim to the following illusion: he cannot stand the uniformity of this world.

Now the world is known, however, to be uncommonly various, which can be

verified at any time by taking a handful of world and looking at it closely. Thus

this complaint at the uniformity of the world is really a complaint at not having

been mixed profoundly enough with the diversity of the world.23

Here is another strong example of a literary passage which to be understood requires a sense of the

figurative. What sounds like a criticism of Abraham is actually a tongue-in-cheek affirmation of his ever

searching character. His "falling victim" to the diverse, even contradictory character of reality is really

Abraham's heroism - that he allows himself this vulnerability, which is nothing less than the bravest

honesty. No, he will not give in to the security of the mystic obliteration of difference; rich, even as it is

persistently inconvenient and unsettling. Since it refuses to give us the wholeness, the harmony, the one

and the same that would be so comforting; however false. Abraham, Abraham - be sure to regularly

unsettle yourself for yourself and for That Which Is Always Beyond And Other than yourself as reached at

this or that juncture, at this or that turning, at this or that river before which as a Hebrew עברי you must

always be ready to pick up camp and crossover – traverse.

As in reading Kafka, so too in reading Robert Frost and William Blake Probing, searching out our text of Abraham's proving, testing himself - a bizarre and terrible drama

presenting many difficulties in understanding what kind of reality is being depicted, Sophocles' Oedipus

the King comes to mind. What is this play about? What is any narrative about? Is Robert Frost's "The


On these possible intersections – metaphor, literal-mindedness, irony, the ability to be open to what is

unpredictable, and the interpretation of religious language – and more (!) see Mark Haddon's novel "about"(!) fifteen

year old autistic protagonist who sets out to solve The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (New York,

Random House, 2002). 23

Franz Kafka, Paradoxes and Parables (New York, Schocken, 1946)


Road Not Taken" about roads in New Hampshire - or is it really about, say, life choices? Are William

Blake's poems "The Tyger" and "The Lamb" about the dread of tigers and the mildness of lambs - or are

they really about "the fearful symmetry" which we come to recognize in this life of ours; namely, that both

delightful mildness and deadly terrors come from the same Source and thus must both elicit blessing as

well as what William James called a two-storied consciousness? And what does it mean - that "YHVH as

you know the Divine is a devouring fire" (Deuteronomy 4:24) - "being that "He/It is not a fire"?!24

And the Splitting of the Sea?

Then there's the Splitting of the Sea. Is it about how the sea physically split like in a Cecil B. DeMille

movie? After all, some earthquake or volcano or especially strong winds that, you know, can occur in that

area could have accomplished that! Or is it about the Sea that confronted, that blocked - that still at times

confronts and blocks our way; how there we are with Pharaoh's Army at our backs and the Sea in front?

For thus we do sometimes know ourselves as being trapped; think ourselves, anyway, dead-ended for

sure. There is no way backward, no way forward. Ah, what to do? We moved on from what was behind - it

was awful. But at least it was familiar, at least it wasn't where we find ourselves in this transitional place

in-between. But we can't go back; also can't go forward. Our hope is lost. Obviously we can't go forward

into the Sea. But sometimes that barrier before us impassable takes us by surprise - if, as the midrash

has it - we have the courage to go forward despite the apparent impossibility of that.25

And when we

indeed proceed against all odds, sometimes a path opens up - or a ram appears caught in the thicket -

where it seemed to us that none could; no way, no how. A narrative depicts these characters, these

events; it is not about those persons, those happenings. By way of depicting them, the narrative is about

some question or argument concerning the meaning of our human existence. What the narrative depicts

is not what it is really about. What the narrative says is not what it means; more accurately, what it can


Oedipus understood figuratively – Is there nothing clear and defined we can depend on?!

Is Sophocles' play about Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother or even about wanting to see


Hilchot Yesodey HaTorah - Chapter 2, Halachah 4 25

Midrash Exodus Rabbah 21


his father dead and his mother in bed with him? Or is it, rather - or so much the more so - through

hyperbole, through seizingly dramatic images - indeed, bizarre events that, yes, "capture the imagination"

- about how our human situation is such that we can be guilty and innocent at the same time? How our

true origins, the most telling facts concerning us can be unknown to our very own selves as we go on in

life unaware of who we really are - even long unaware that there is a riddle about ourselves; then when

coming to re-cognize that indeed there is a riddle - how it is so difficult for us to figure it out. What is

clearer than the defining roles and relations of family? If they can be unclear - even if only in the imagined

inventions of a story, a "fiction" that can explore the heaviest truths of being human – if the clarities of

kinship can be confused, then perhaps all the clarities that comfort our fragilities, as Emily Dickinson put it,

are really not so clear. How to make our way in such a world where the sighted can't really see and the

blind are the prophets – because the deepest truths are not the external ones – not even our kinship

identities; but something else are those realities that have to do with the quality of our inward experience;

what we carry inside us - what honesty and courage about ourselves out of which we then, yes, come to

all that we meet and face outside us – and how we do so; all manner of chaos and contradiction, love and


Professor Rosenak on Genesis 22 – "Precarious faithfulness … in [life's] uncertain reality"

Professor Rosenak addresses Genesis 22 directly over the course of twelve pages in his Tree of Life,

Tree of Knowledge.27

On the one hand, he - apparently - accepts the imagery of the drama as literally

true. Together with his own son, he asks how a "moral and merciful" God could ask of Abraham - indeed,

command him to carry out - such an ethical absurdity. He draws a parallel between this trial of Abraham

and the terrible fate of the Ten Sages Martyred by the Romans; yet he distinguishes, considers anyway a

possible difference between them – pointing out that the martyrs tortured by the Romans had no choice,

while Abraham might have refused God's command. Professor Rosenak also asks why Abraham didn't

argue with God - as he did concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah - against the loss of

innocent life. And returning to the martyred sages, he struggles with his son's asking how God could have


J. Hillis Miller, "Narrative" - and see Thomas McLaughlin, "Figurative Language" in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, editors, Critical Terms for Literary Study [Second Edition] (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1990/1995) 27

Michael Rosenak, Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge - op. cit., pp. 66-77


allowed the Holocaust to happen. Nowhere in this engagement does the question of literal versus

figurative understanding come up – not explicitly.

The direction of Professor Rosenak's response, however - the contours of religious experience that he

delineates - usher us away – if not as vigorously or completely as in my reading – from the literal sense of

Abraham's last trial; still gently yet confidently accompanying us for the most part into the realm of

figurative understanding, such that the drama of Abraham is a challenging figure for our own experience.

And this experience - this human situation of ours - that Professor Rosenak so beautifully articulates here

has nothing to do with Divine commands of violating what is clearly demanded by the ethical; rather, what

is confronted with his characteristic "honesty of asking the hard questions" is "the pain of precarious

faithfulness, of tender-mindedness in a world in which the divine itself appears as the arena of the


It seems to me that the argument here is actually not that there is anything absurd about the

Divine itself; what is being addressed is the absurdity of trying to orient our lives in relation to the Divine in

a world that does not guarantee "protect[ion]...from tragedy and despair and death."29

How we might yet

know ourselves to be "alive, every one to this day" in the face of "the tribulations of the righteous" who

must live "in the midst of chaos"30

- in the "uncertain reality"31

that is the human situation; and that being

our condition, one that is indeed ordained by the Divine as the life in which we are to live and strive to

learn what we can.

Nietzsche's key literary-philosophic expressions have been all too often misread Nietzsche's writing (which, significantly for my approach to classical Jewish texts, blurs conventional

distinctions between philosophy and literature) has also been all too often understood literally; in large part

because of juxtapositions between, on the one hand, his key psychological and philosophic ideas - the

shorthand expressions by which he referred to them, such as the "overman," the "will to power" and the


Ibid., p. 71 29

Ibid., p. 72 30

Ibid., pp. 72 & 75 31

Ibid., p. 66


"eternal return" – and, on the other, the all too real phenomena of Nazism as well as the pervasiveness of

scientific explorations of cosmology.

Exceeding – even countering – whatever is "naturally" or merely given

Ah, yes, the superman - the master race, with all that goes with that according to these National

Socialists, so Orwellian double-speaking they called themselves. But if we actually read Nietzsche, his

examples of the overman are Mozart and Beethoven, for they reached the heights of going beyond our

given nature as merely biological instinctual creatures. That is what the human must do to become

human, to become himself; each person must strive to become what he or she is - but not innately in any

determined sense. To transcend the determined and the totalitarian totalizingly conformist mold is to be

an übermensch. But the juxtaposition of an instance - a racist program of superiority - that could not be

more literal and that involves a perspective that could not be more antithetical to Nietzsche's metaphoric

image of the over-person blocks the figurative reading that is indeed called for. Father Abraham, how

heroically have you smashed the idols of your familiar security, sacrificing societal and even familial

givens for the unknown journey toward the disrupting command of the monotheistic Beyond!32

And yet there's a quality of the givenness of our situation that it is heroic to accept and live out precisely as is! The looking backward upon the events that our few choices have effected - more by the repercussive power of their own logic than by the initial choice that began the chain of occurrences, quite apart from

any intentions and anticipations on our part, engages the challenge of the eternal recurrence or return.

This image-idea in Nietzsche's philosophical lyricism - the eternal return - has also been widely

understood in a literal way, as though it involves some kind of cosmological claim.


On monotheism as a qualitative - rather than a quantitative - incommensurate difference, see Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism - translated by Simon Kaplan (Atlanta, Scholars Press, copyright 1995 - The American Academy of Religion; first published in Germany, 1919), Chapter 1 - "God's Uniqueness"; Thomas Mann, "Homage [to Franz Kafka]" as part of an introduction to Franz Kafka, The Castle (New York, Schocken Books, 1930 & numerous reprintings and renewals through 1982). Also see George Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1971), pp. 35-46 -- where Mr. Steiner writes: "What we must recapture to mind, as nakedly as we can, is the singularity, the brain-hammering strangeness, of the monotheistic idea. [...] The exaction [of the monotheistic challenge]...hammers at human consciousness, demanding that it transcend itself, that it reach out into a light of understanding so pure that is itself blinding." -- Monotheism constitutes the ultimate drive par excellence against the surface understanding of literalism in all its forms. This inhuman command insists that meaning is not what any surface shows, but rather what exteriorities symptomatically indicate dwells invisibly within and elsewhere.


In fact, it is very difficult to find any clear references to cosmology in Nietzsche's

published discussions of the recurrence. At one point he praises "the ideal of the

most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come

to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to

have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo"

(Beyond Good and Evil, p. 56). But all that is involved here is the desire that "what

was and is" be [as it were] eternally repeated.[...] "My formula for greatness for a human

being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not

in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it - all idealism

is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary - but love it" (Ecce hom*o, II, p. 10).33

This reading of Nietzsche's eternal return coincides with the key developmental challenge Erikson sees in

old age: the struggle between "integrity versus despair" - a struggle out of which "wisdom" can be wrested.

Looking back at "the one and only life cycle permitted" to us, can we accept with integrity the irreversibility

of the life we have lived - with all the losses and failings, disappointments and defeats necessarily

adherent to the achievements any human life? -- Abraham, Abraham! Now that you have Isaac and

through him the resolution of the defining contradiction of your life, can you see yourself once more

without him; thus returning to the precariousness - indeed, the absurdity - of the life that has been yours?

Could you love that life that has been yours even more than the source of your finally leaving it behind?34

Ethics isn't everything – How about the drama of the religious – the character, the quality of how we experience what happens to and with inside us?!

And then there's Nietzsche's argument for a perspective "beyond good and evil." Here, too, a literal

understanding of this campaign generally prevails; although he himself writes that "It goes without saying

that I do not deny […] that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many


Here, as throughout, I am especially drawing from the reading of Alexander Nehamas in his Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1985) - this citation is on pp. 145-146. See Professor Nehamas' own note on the texts and translations from which he draws. 34

Erik Erikson, "Reflections on Dr. Borg's Life Cycle" in a Spring 1976 issue of Daedalus on Adulthood. Noteworthy

for our present paper is Professor Erikson's recognition that "we certainly do not postulate the achievement of a total victory of Integrity over Despair.... 'Versus' is an interesting little word, because it can mean a reciprocal antagonism carried further in 'vice versa.' Developmentally, it suggests a dialectic dynamics, in that the final strength postulated could not emerge without either of the contending qualities.... There would be neither conviction nor efficacy in an overall hopefulness without a (conscious and unconscious) struggle with a persistent temptation to succumb to hopelessness. Dr. Borg's [ - of Ingmar Bergman's motion picture Wild Strawberries - ] initial condition illustrates how unconvincing a sense of integrity can be if it does not remain answerable to some existential despair...." p. 23.


called moral ought to be done and encouraged - but I think the one should be encouraged and the other

avoided for other reasons than hitherto."35

It is true that Nietzsche does argue for a transcending of the

categories of good and evil as the most defining criteria for the in-depth life. Instead he sees the

development of an honestly authentic individuality as the supreme quest and this, by definition, cannot be

dictated by any one set of norms. All values must be "transvalued" in the sense that they must be arrived

at - more accurately, recognized and accepted - by each individual according to his or her unique struggle

at becoming what he or she most honestly is; though this creative transposing is not a self-sufficient kind

of process, the inter-relation of everything and everyone - of "all eternity" - being a critical assumption for

Nietzsche. More significant, however, than ethical values - though they are more or less included (an

instance of something like the principle of "necessary but not sufficient") - for the development of the in-

depth personality are aesthetic ones; though here the "aesthetic" involves what is beautiful in the

personality of the ever maturing and unique individual.

"The feeling generated by sin is not a moral sensation; the moral sense in man is not such a powerful

force. The feeling of sin which drags a person to repentance is an aesthetic sensation, or, more correctly,

a negative aesthetic reaction. The sinner feels disgust at the defilement of sin."36

While Nietzsche's

project calls for the substitution of negative judgment of what is with positive decision vis-à-vis what

genuinely exists and cannot be otherwise, Rabbi Soloveitchik's focus on the "aesthetic" is not only in

relation to our behavioral failings. Most characteristic of his religious commitment is a concern with the

complex of inward movements of experience - the nuanced contents of consciousness, such as the

motives and moods - that ought to accompany the external performance of halakhic practices which are

inextricably related to our encounter with the events which necessarily define the human situation

universally. This transcending of good and evil - namely, of the ethical - is the keynote in Kierkegaard's

work; which has nothing to do with a rejection of the ethical per se, but rather with the preferencing of the

special realm of the religious.


See Nehamas, op. cit., p. 203.


Pinchas Peli, Soloveitchik on Repentance (New York, Paulist Press, 1984), p. 197.


According to the approach I'm exploring here, the religious life includes reference to the ethical and

implications for that realm of relation, but it does not quintessentially concern itself with the ethical; the

ethical, after all, is what concerns itself with the ethical! If the principal focus of the religious were to be

the ethical, then it would be redundant; it would not be contributing anything different. The religious

involves a going beyond good and evil - a transcending of the ethical - in the sense that it is not most

interested in this necessary field of concern; at least not in and of itself, for itself, by itself. Rather, the

religious addresses the quality of the inner secret workings of the spirit as it is tested by life's events and

as it tests itself in the face of all that passes by and over it. This is what Kierkegaard refers to as the

"subjective." This in-depth self might – according to some approaches must – then engage others exterior

to its being. But when it – as a he or she – does so, key to that encounter will be its effect(s) or what

Emmanuel Levinas calls the trace of which the relating individual will be most religiously aware.

This is critical for Maimonides – that the ethical, in and of itself anyway is not really the domain of the

religious. It is a necessity for human beings in organizing their relations to nature and to their fellow

humans in society so as to meet their varied needs and aspirations. The Torah certainly includes

commandments as well as narratives that address the ethical. But that is not to say that the ethical

constitutes any part of religiosity, spirituality itself; rather it is a prerequisite, a necessary means for the

pursuit of the religious life - which, continues Maimonides, is the intellectual knowledge of the acts of the

Divine. This, as best we can understand. Then, via such knowledge there might be the possibility of

reaching some however partial relation with or eavesdropping onto something of the Completely

Actualized Potential Mind of the Divine.37


See The Guide, Part 1, Chapters 2 & 48. And see Warren Zev Harvey, "Ethics and Meta-Ethics, Aesthetics and

Meta-Aesthetics in Maimonides" - as well as Shlomo Pines, "The Philosophical Purport of Maimonides' Halachic Works and the Purport of The Guide of the Perplexed" in Shlomo Pines and Yirmiyahu Yovel, editors, Maimonides and Philosophy (Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986). And see Shlomo Pines' introduction to his translation of The Guide, op. cit.: "When all is said and done [Maimonides]...held [the theoretical - intellectual-

contemplative as religious] way of life to be the supreme achievement possible to man.... [The view] that Maimonides at the end adopted the quasi Kantian idea that the ordinary moral virtues and moral actions are of greater importance and value than [or even of equal value to] intellectual virtues and the theoretical way of life...is completely false." (pp. cxxi-cxxii) In his instrumental view of ethics - that the ethical is not what the religious life is about; but rather functions as a necessary means to our being able to turn our attention to what the genuinely religious involves, which is our relation with the Divine as played out in the inner contents of our mind-spirits -- in this regard, Maimonides is in agreement with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Though, obviously, what the inner contents of our consciousness comprise - whether something mainly intellectual or emotional, say, and in what ways - such inner contents in relation to the Divine - or to the acts of the Divine, if indeed only some relation to Its acts are possible – are also different among these three greats.


Life tests us – and the accompaniment of a special teacher – who might walk with us for part of the journey, part of the trial even – can be a beautiful gift This is Maimonides' view; a compelling reading of it, anyway. For us, we might indeed broaden what we

see as the religious - to include, indeed to center on, the character of our inner experience, our

consciousness; the geography, the terrain of the inward workshop of the soul in relation to all that it will

have to encounter - in relation to all that will test how nuanced and complex in noble ways it can become

in the face of the challenges and contradictions – often "cruel" ones – with which life presents us. And

then however great the distance can be – the silence or the near silence – between individuals as they

journey together – and both of them went together – there is the ethical as religious ground.38

This brings

us before our friends, but also before those who are our strangers; certainly face to face with our parents

and with our teachers. As Professor Rosenak focuses his engagement: how the parent and the teacher

might hold the hands of the child, of the student - as they, as we together try to face the trials with which

life tests us; offering an accompaniment of "trust [and] tender-mindedness" even upon these too often

very tough grounds of ours here such as they are.

Seeking our own way between the literal and the figurative, between the tradition received and the tradition lived this day as our own in the face of what and who faces us, what and who we face

When is a literal understanding, when also with that a figurative understanding, and when solely a

figurative sense is likely signaled by the form and feel of a religious text, image, expression? How are we

to evaluate these distinctions - in our individual lives and in our collective acts in history? -- "Why did He

take him away from me?!" the woman screams over the grave markers, across the cemetery hills and

trees and skies. How - over time, gently yet confidently - to help her know that the Divine is not a "He" who

singles us out in any human-like way such as this suffering and death of her beloved husband.39



I have been very taken in recent years by the perspective of Emmanuel Levinas that can be characterized as a

kind of religious ethicism. that involves responsibility for the strangely, foreign, disturbingly other who is in need – as the most (indeed the only genuinely) revelatory ground of religious encounter. See my book(s) review-essay "That Law which Calls us Away from Mystifying Rapture to Religious Responsibility" in The Journal of Law and Religion

(Volume 17, Numbers 1 & 2, 2002), pp. 111-119. Levinas's religious ethicism notwithstanding, Genesis 22 might indeed give us the topography of a largely if not thoroughly different kind of religious obsession; if acts of that intensity of disciplined restraint and channeling of spirit be obsessions rather than, say, matters of nobility or devotion or – serious religiosity. 39

On Maimonides' understanding/experience of Divine "providence" - an "unfortunate"(!) translation that's become

the conventional one for see Alfred Ivry, "Providence, Divine Omniscience, and Possibility: The Case of


helping to bring her back to a kind of religious naiveté that knows the reality of the Divine and our relation

with It; even as - ”after the hard questions have been asked" unflinchingly - we know what It is not; this a

"second naiveté" - or, as I've said, what William James calls "a two stories deep" or "heterogeneous"


Of course, there are elements and turns, assumptions and directions in my approach that might indeed be

different from those of my teacher. It seems to me, however, that such differing directions do not depart

from this teaching of his: that each of us must struggle out of his or her certainly not solitary yet

Maimonides" in Joseph Buijs, editor, Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). And see

אהבה", ירושלים: אקדמון, תשמ"ב-השגה-השגחה-דגחה" – אמונה, היסטוריה וערכיםעיהו לבוביץ, ישFor an English translation, see Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State - "Divine

Governance: A Maimonidean View" (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1992). Also of significance: David Hartman, "The Celebration of Finitude" - Chapter 11 in David Hartman's A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (New York, The Free Press, 1985). This essay by Rabbi Hartman - transposed into the concerns of this our present paper - celebrates a less metaphoric experience of the world, of the world we find ourselves in - this human condition of ours. This indeed is in the spirit of Maimonides who repeats throughout The Guide that

coming to know "reality as it actually is" and not as we want it to be - suited to our convenience and our habits of feeling - is key in the work of religious maturity. There can be something beautiful, touching, indeed religious in such an experience that minimizes our overlaying it with metaphor, as much as this is possible for us. Mark Haddon's literal-minded autistic narrator in his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gives us a moving

picture of both the impoverishment and the sensitivity that seeing things just as they are can involve; the latter being

related to .See, for instance, in The Curious Incident... , op. cit., pp. 32-34 about the dead being with God in heaven & pp. 88-90 on fairies. See Maimonides The Guide, Part Two, Chapter 6 - on "angels" being the natural and psychic forces in the

world as it is. My own view-experience of the Divinity's incommensurately inhuman difference is probably somewhat less personal - in a way - than Professor Rosenak's understanding-relation. Though the distance between us on this question does not seem to me to be all that great. He and I will have to continue our conversations and considerations - and see. 40

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1985 - first edition

published in 1902), pp. 154-156 - part of Lecture VIII on "The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification." James' key examples for this mode of religiosity are John Bunyan and Leo Tolstoy. Though there is a "hue of resolution" reached in this variety of religious experience, it is indeed "just" that - a "hue" - "the full flood of ecstatic liberation" is not reached. "Neither Bunyan nor Tolstoy could become what we have called healthy-minded.... [Rather] their redemption is into a universe two stories deep. But each of them realized a good which broke the effective edge of his sadness; yet the sadness was preserved as a minor ingredient in the heart of the faith by which it was overcome." James speaks of this experience as involving "a certain discordancy or heterogeneity" and observes that its "consequences may be inconvenient in the extreme." (pp. 140-141) -- Considering these passages in James alongside Erikson's view that "There would be neither conviction nor efficacy in an overall hopefulness without a (conscious and unconscious) struggle with a persistent temptation to succumb to hopelessness. Dr. Borg's [ - of Ingmar Bergman's motion picture Wild Strawberries - ] initial condition illustrates how unconvincing a sense of integrity can be if it does not remain answerable to some existential despair." See my footnote 14 here above. And now place these alongside Hegel's developmental stage of the "alienated consciousness" - which he identifies with Abraham! See a discussion of the irresolution that the Hegelian dialectic can be understood to involve - in my

"The Educational Conversation and Its Dialectic Spirit" in Religious Education, Winter 1991. Still further: it is striking to see Rabbi Soloveitchik's Lonely Man of Faith considered alongside James, Erikson and this reading of Hegel: "Since the dialectical role has been assigned to man by God, it is God who wants the man of faith to oscillate between the faith community and the community of majesty, between being confronted by God in the cosmos and the intimate, immediate apprehension of God through the covenant, and who therefore willed that complete human redemption be unattainable." p. 86 in The Lonely Man of Faith (New York, Doubleday, 1992 - first appeared in Tradition, Summer 1965.


significantly personal conversation which is the transition from "language" to "literature." "Language" here

refers to the contents of the tradition as given, as passed down to us, as received; while "literature"

involves the interpretations and significations that effect its application in our lives so that it comes to

make sense to us.41

Each of us comes to his or her own transposition of the tradition, all the while

appreciating that our reading is just that – a reading, not "what Judaism really is." At best, if we've made of

bridging with the tradition and some of its finest teachers – past and present; that results in one reading

that will undergo change – a small part of what the living tradition might be, can be.42

Certainly we are

implicated in our readings. Anyone who knows me, as this teacher of mine certainly does, recognizes in

the argument of this paper concerning the literal versus the figurative and then the application of this to my

reading of Genesis 22, the trials I have found myself facing and the commands - indeed, often

contradictory to one another - I've heard variously thundered and whispered, laughed and wept and

gently, calmly chanted out to me. As I've said: I don't say that this reading of mine is the reading, the

meaning of this text, these texts that confront us for deciphering - Genesis 22 and the experiences we

encounter in life. The text always exceeds any particular meaning. But I don't see how these texts can

speak for and by themselves without responsible translation, interpretation: a conversation which our

teacher has modeled for all of us who have been privileged to be his students - and then sent us out on

the "roads to the palace" which he faithfully knows must in some ways be our own.43

Still, I see the better

part of my reading and sense of Genesis 22, in its method as in its ethos – as with everything I try to know

and be/come – to be nothing more than a slight elaboration or small further development of what I've

learned from Mike's teaching.


See Michael Rosenak, Roads to the Palace: Jewish Texts and Teaching (Providence and Oxford, Berghahn Books, 1995) pp. 19-22; and in Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge, op. cit., pp. 4-5. 42

Michael Rosenak, Commandments and Concerns - op. cit., p. 172. And see

תל , המקרא ואנחנו –סימון כן ע"י פרופ'-וריאל סימון, "משמעותם הדתית של הפשטות המתחדשים" בקובץ הנערך גםא1717, גן ע"י הוצאת דביר-רמת –זמננו -אביב: המכון ליהדות ולמחשבה בת

And see Professor Rosenak's reference to this essay in his

.103-109יץ, תשס"ג, עמ' ירושלים: מאגנס ומכללת ליפש, נוך היהודי בזמננוצריך עיון: מסורת ומודרנה בחי 43

See the formulation of Michael Fishbane - another of my teachers: "In [the] process of listening and response lies the intensely personal and essential nature of midrash, which demands that no synthesis be static, and welcomes the subtle anxiety of each dynamic encounter. [...] Every teacher who makes his historical study contemporary with himself is a meeting point of text and life. He authenticates the materials for himself and others by their meeting in his own being. [...] Every teacher [...] by his private response to the materials [...] becomes the realization and model of a possibility [that there can be points of contact between the texts of tradition and the present life of each person who encounters those texts in responsible dialogue]." -- in The New Jews, op. cit.


The source, the cause of Abraham's restless wandering – now with the birth of Isaac – is over; precisely because of that, his rest must be challenged – tried – this one more, last(ing) time

"Now/then it happened after all these telling-events..." -- Who was Abraham before this last trial?

Disquiet, questioning, hearkening and seeking, wrestling for God, a bitterly sceptical

labouring over the true and the just, the whence and the whither, his own nature, the

true meaning of the Highest [...]. Unrest and dignity: that is the sign of the spirit [...].

Why did he live like an Ishmaelite of Bedouin, in tents outside the town, in the open

country […]. Thus it must be, because one served a God whose nature was not repose

and abiding comfort, but a God of designs for the future, in whose will inscrutable, great,

far-reaching things were in process of becoming, who [...] was Himself only in process

of becoming, and thus was a God of unrest, a God of cares, who must be sought for, for

whom one must at all times keep oneself free, mobile and in readiness.

In a word, it was the spirit [...] who forbade Jacob [as it first forbade his grandfather

Abraham] to live a settled life in towns [...]. As for me, [...] I will not conceal my native

and comprehensive understanding of the old man's restless unease and dislike of any

fixed habitation. For do I not know the feeling? [...] The story-teller's star - is it not the

moon, lord of the road, the wanderer, who moves in his stations, one after another,

freeing himself from each? For the story-teller makes many a station, roving and

relating, but pauses only tentwise, awaiting further directions, and soon feels his heart

beating high [...] as a sign that he must take the road, towards fresh adventures which

are to be painstakingly lived through, down to their remotest details, according to the

restless spirit's will.44

Thus Thomas Mann. The imagery of the Patriarchs as unsettled bedouin wanderers functions as the

literary device of externalization; the physical depiction is a figure for the inner open-oriented ethos of a

certain kind of existential agitation.45

Professor Rosenak cites Maimonides' representation of Abraham -

at the beginning of Hilchot Avodah Zarah.46

But Moses Hyamson's 1962 translation of this passage from


Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers (London, Sphere Books, 1968) - translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter, pp. 53-55 - Section 10 of The Prelude to Volume 1, The Tales of Jacob 45

I have in mind here a positive type of continuing process of "fermentation" - reflected in the Hebrew term ;though frequently, as we've already seen William James point out, involving "extremely inconvenient" repercussions. When I say "existential" here I am not referring to the specific modern school of thought, but rather that inner consciousness of ours - how we inwardly experience what we encounter in our day to day human situation. Again I

have a contemporary Hebrew word-idea in mind - the realm of the - our existence as we come

to know it in the workshops and more hidden back rooms of our souls. 46

Michael Rosenak, Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge - op. cit., pp. 30-32


the Mishneh Torah is relied upon; an idiomatic translation rather than one attuned to the careful poetry of

the original. Especially in the context of our present essay, Maimonides' choice of words - representing

Abraham as - and the glossing over of their power by Professor Hyamson's loose

rendering as Abraham's "reflecting" should be noted. Maimonide's Hebrew wording sees Abraham as

"wandering/roving-about/trying-to-navigate-this-way-and-that in his mind"; a phrase repeated several

times in this halachah. I'm privileged to have heard Rabbi Soloveitchik - in one of his motzi'ey shabbat

talks at the Maimonides School here in Boston - teach this passage of the Maimonides. Of course, "the

Rav" saw in this figure the kind of creative restlessness of the authentic spiritual seeker; indeed, he

related the image to the child who cannot sit still - a symptom of a lack realized out of a religious

sensitivity - which can, in part, be rectified. But, on account of the incommensurate modes of orienting

ourselves in the world which naturally reside within us, this restlessness cannot find its complete


Indeed, because "the dialectical role has been assigned to man by God, it is God who therefore […] willed

that complete human redemption be unattainable."47

The sensitive human being can never really be at

home – can never completely resolve the tension between the Promise and the Present Given Reality

That Contradicts it; the former is to be the father of a great nation and the latter is that he doesn't yet have

even one son to begin that adventure. When he has Isaac though, will he be willing to return once again

to that contradiction – and still live out, live within the relationship, the commitment; even if it be absurd,

even if it be what Emmanuel Levinas characterizes as a "one-way movement" without any assurance?

This involves a type of tremendous transcendence of self-interest, what Levinas sees as a kind of radical

patience that is, as Jill Robbins explains, "given over to the future, absolutely toward the future […].

Levinas also will call it 'liturgy,' in the sense of 'a profitless investment.' Not to be confused with the time of

personal immortality, to be [so] patient, 'to be for a time that would be without me,' […demands] 'passage

to the time of the other'" and thus necessitates a continuous interruption of self-complacency, a perpetual

expulsion from rest.48


Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York, Doubleday, 1965), p. 86. 48

Jill Robbins, Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 21-23. And see Emmanuel Levinas directly – in his "The Trace of the Other" – as translated by A. Lingis – in Mark Taylor,


What had become very clear to him [...] was that he would be able to take along:

nothing. Precisely nothing [...] He would have to leave [...] all behind, here, in this world,

which had come to fit him like his own skin. Soon enough, in due time, perhaps in no

time at all, he would have to step out beyond the boundaries of his life, move where

there is no place to move, grope in the blinding light, toward a goal he could be sure of

never reaching.49

Not unlike Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha become The Ferryman,50

Abraham was - is - the perpetual

Hebrew; "the one who passes over" rivers as referring not only to his first crossing of the Tigris and

Euphrates, but rather as a characterization of Abraham's personality. Whenever his spiritual situation

becomes overly familiar to him, he knows he is stagnating; he re-cognizes that he has to find another

"river to cross" - he has to make a transition to yet somewhere else.

editor, Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 345-359. 49

Stephen Mitchell, Parables and Portraits (New York, Harper & Row, 1990) - "Abraham" - p. 60 50

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha - translated by Hilda Rosner (New York, New Directions, 1951), pp. 112-114. The major difference between Abraham's way and Siddhartha's, of course, involves this very ethos of a kind of restless journeying that knows no complete resolution. The intersection I am pointing out here is the literary one - that the characterization of Siddhartha as the Ferryman is like Abraham's being called a Hebrew; the appellation is not only about a one time physical crossing, but rather says something about the existential personality of these spiritual greats - the paideia each reflects. See Maurice Blanchot on "Being Jewish" in Michael Holland, editor, The Blanchot Reader (Oxford, Blackwell, 1995): "Being Jewish [signifies] by showing that, at whatever time, one must be ready to set out, because to go out (to step outside) is the exigency from which one cannot escape if one wants to maintain the possibility of a just relation. The exigency of uprooting; the affirmation of nomadic truth. In this Judaism stands in contrast to paganism (all paganism). To be pagan is to be fixed, to plant oneself in the earth, as it were, to establish oneself through a pact with the permanence that authorizes sojourn and is certified by certainty in the land. […] The Hebrew passes from one world […] to something that is 'not yet a world' and is none the less this world here below; a ferryman, the Hebrew Abraham invites us not only to pass from one shore to the other, but also to carry ourselves to wherever there is a passage to be made […]." (pp. 230-231) This philosophy of being – more accurately, of becoming – in the world can indeed be understood as standing in opposition to any Zionist ethos; but this is not necessarily so. There can be a nomadic, questioning, searching consciousness that is nonetheless grounded in the always to be self-unsettling settled life of the people living on its land; committed to trying to live out the life of the spirit concretely – which necessarily means, in every way, politically. Yet, again, in a way that is at least significantly nomadic; let us say, Abrahamic. "Every landed-citizen in Israel shall dwell in the nomadic-ethos-of-the-sukkah!" (Leviticus 23:42) Levinas argues that the "spirit of the absolute" must be "heedful of the diversity of circ*mstances and the necessities of place and time to which politics belongs […which alone ensures that] it not be regarded abstractly [and thus…] points to an order in which a spirit is in relation with the Other which brings to the spirit more than it is capable of alone. An order in which limits are surpassed, but an order which, by this very fact, exposes itself to risks." (pp. 178-179) See Emmanuel Levinas, "The State of Caesar and the State of David" in Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readers and Lectures – translated by Gary Mole (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994). Levinas continues with a compelling figure from Berachot 3b for the grounded, land-situated nation that yet questioningly wanders in its ongoing refusals of any type of complacency – that of "King David [who] wages war and rules during the day, and at night, when men are resting, he devotes himself to the [arresting] Law: a double life in order to remake the unity of life. The political action of each passing day begins in an eternal midnight and derives from a nocturnal contact with the Absolute." (p. 181)


Identifying the life of contradiction and impossible outcome with religious relationship

The major source - or, more accurately, metaphoric emblem - of Abraham's unsettled wandering spirit is

his lacking even one heir who will make possible the promise that he will become the founder of a great

nation; a nation, we should remind ourselves, devoted most of all to the doing of צדקה ומשפט(Genesis


This is the awful - absurd - contradiction in Abraham's life: on the one hand, there is the promise

- the ideal, the telos/tachlit - that he will indeed be the founder of a great covenantal community; while, on

the other hand, there is his present given situation - that he doesn't even have one heir! What is he to

do in the face of such incommensurates? He could walk away from the special relationship into which he

has entered with the God of this patently impossible-to-realize promise. Instead he chooses to lives the

contradiction nobly and calmly - like Esther's courageously sober-minded ר אבדתי אבדתי וכאש (Esther

4:16) and like aerialist Phillipe Petit's high-wire walking's simultaneous "separating of mountains and

bringing them together" - which he sees as a metaphor of the living of life with measured dignity in the

face of chaos; right here and always "treading on edges of being where the drop is abyss...beckoning [us

to]...go down, get up, find what is there, [...] throw [a] bridge across the fetid air."52

-- All this changes,

however, with the birth of Isaac.

What to do? – מפניו גלינוחטאינמארצנוונתרחקנו מעל אדמתינו But when I was still living in Israel and

would visit "the States", American Jews always asked me the same question in precisely the same words

- as though they had all met somehow and rehearsed it together: Do you enjoy living in Israel? - My

response from the first was always: I wouldn't call living in Israel enjoyable. Cape Cod or Florida is

"enjoyable"; but it can be boring there. In Israel it's never boring. But it is significant. I feel that I am right in

the Jewish center of things and that in my own modest way I am contributing to the direction in which the


I have in mind Professor Rosenak's active role in the work of the forum Oz V'Shalom which, among other sources, led to the founding of Netivot Shalom. How an ethos which affirmingly recognizes the contradictory claims on our spirits and the endless commitment to negotiating honestly between and among them translates into the nuanced heterogeneity of an ethical-political approach that can develop somewhere left of center, so-called, is a critical question - for another paper. Though, obviously, left-wing approaches can be as one-dimensionally simple-minded as most right-wing perspectives. 52

Phillipe Petit, "On the High Wire" in Paul Auster - editor & translator, Translations (New York, Marsilio Publishers, 1997). And see Charles Olson, The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems - edited by George Butterick (University of California Press, 1997), p. 342.


Jewish people and Judaism are strugglingly – if battlingly and often disappointingly – heading,

backwarding, maybe heading again… At least it is for real.

With the birth of Isaac53

the defining contradiction of Abraham's life arrives at its resolution; at least with

his birth there's the possibility that it might yet be resolved. Perhaps the ultimate outcome will never be

known for sure; but at least, then, Abraham knows there is a chance. His restless wandering, therefore

the two stories deep character of his windswept spirit, recedes; can become the major archived theme of

an earlier but now closed chapter of his life. He can retire with peace-of-mind to Cape Cod or Florida! It

is precisely then that he knows he must face one more commanding test.

The commandment as confronting realization, attaining of a truth, a re-cognition

How does Abraham come to know himself to be thus commanded to undergo this last trial? It is not via a

Cecil B. DeMille external voice - loud or whispering, while Abraham is awake or passively asleep. Rather,

prophecy involves the attaining of a truth; a realization that we are commanded, obligated, drawn into a

compelling relationship with the Commanding Other which necessarily requires something of us, makes

demands upon us. For that's what otherness involves. Indeed, the testing - the trial we must undergo - is

a challenge that, likewise, we come to know we must face if we are to go on living the authentic, honest

and responsible life whose path we have necessarily long ago set out upon - even as it has set itself

under our feet and before us. The "God awful" truth seizes us, stops us in our unreflective way; we

recognize that we must meet this trial and learn from it - or lose our genuine maturing ability to "stare at

length at the face of God."54

or even catch a glimpse of God's back and the knot, the binding of His tefillin


On laughter's relation to our experience of contradiction and chaos, see Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels, op. cit. --as well as my Humor and Coincidence in Megillat Esther & Purim - a curriculum model for teaching the Jewish holidays; sponsored by the Joint Program for Jewish Education, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Melton Centre, and the World Zionist Organization, Department for Education and Culture in the Diaspora. This was part of the "Jewish values" curriculum project which Professor Rosenak was so instrumental in inspiring. And see Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, "After Such Knowledge, What Laughter" in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1 (2001). 54

"What we hope for at the School of Dreams is the strength both to deal and to receive the axe's blow, to look straight at the face of God, which is none other than my own face, but seen naked, the face of my soul. The face of "God" is the unveiling, the staggering vision of the construction we are, the tiny and great lies, the small nontruths we must have incessantly woven to be able to prepare our brothers' dinner and cook for our children. An unveiling that only happens by surprise, by accident, and with a brutality that shatters: under the blow of the truth, the eggshell we are breaks. Right in the middle of life's path: the apocalypse; we lose a life." - Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 63

For a Maimonidean approach to prophecy - as the intellectual-religious grasping, to the degree that is possible for mortal humanity, of a truth of "physics and/or metaphysics" - see Giuseppi Sermoneta, "Prophecy in the Writings of


there at the nape of His neck.55

-- Professor Cassuto's observation in regard to all acts the Bible attributes

to the Divine can be understood to include Its commanding and testing.

As for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, we must bear in mind [...] if we wish to

understand the purport of the passages properly [... that] in early Hebrew diction, it is

customary to attribute every phenomenon to the direct action of God. Of a barren woman

it is said that "the Lord had shut up her womb" (First Samuel 1:5); of an accident in which

one person kills another unintentionally, it is said that "God brought it opportunely into his

hand" (Exodus 21:13), and the like. Every happening has a number of causes, and these

causes, in turn, have other causes, and so on ad infinitum; according to the Israelite

conception, the cause of all causes was the will of God, the Creator and Ruler of the

world. Now the philosopher examines the long and complex chain of causation, whereas

the ordinary person jumps instantly from the last effect to the first cause, and attributes

the former directly to God. This, now, is how the Torah, which employs human idioms,

expresses itself. Consequently, the expression "but I will harden his heart" is, in the final

analysis, the same as if it were worded: but his heart will be hard. In the continuation of

the narrative, sentences like "And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (9:12, et al.)

alternate with others like "And Pharaoh's heart was hardened" (7:13, et al.); they can be

interchanged because their essential meaning is identical.56

The trial, the testing as a heroically imaginative act of self-honesty, of self-clarification

"The need for testing --" writes Avivah Zornberg in the fabulous manner of all her writing on the

Bible, "whose idea is it really? The skepticism that drives Abraham to confirm new depths of

himself -- is this divine or demonic?"57

Yosef Ibn Kaspi's Maimonidean reading focuses on

Abraham's own recognition that his relation to the Divine demands that he now require of himself

an act of ultimate clarification involving both affirmation and renunciation - to be achieved on the

stage of his own mind-spirit; a test that the storyteller depicts via the metaphoric vehicle of

dramatic externalization.

R. Yehuda Romano" in Isadore Twersky, editor, Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, Volume 2 (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1984). 55

Berachot 7a 56

Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Exodus - translated by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem, Hebrew University Press, 1974) 57

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (New York, Doubleday, 1995), p. 115


Reference to the Divinity's "testing" or "knowing" is true in the sense of its being the

original but distant cause of which Abraham was the immediate and actual cause and

thus "And the Divinity tested Abraham" can be read as allegorically hinting at this,

namely at Abraham himself or more precisely at his imaginative capacity. [...] Indeed, all

qualities and all eventualities can sometimes be expressed as existing and occurring [in

material reality]. In other words, when in fact occurring in thought alone, a possibility [ -

considered eventuality or idea - ] can be expressed as though it occurred in deed; for

what exists in the mind alone is sometimes expressed as though it were [happening]

external to the mind, just as what exists in external [ - uttered - ] speech may be

perceived as actually occurring [in physical reality] outside the self/the mind/the soul [ -

when really it denotes an act of thinking/imagining internally, in the mind, alone].58

But what is the test that Abraham realizes is now demanded of him?59

E. A. Speiser is certainly a seeker

after Scripture's peshat - its straightforward meaning as meant by the biblical writers, as understood by

biblical hearers of its narratives and laws. And yet see how philosophical - how existential - even he

becomes before this trying text! Really though, we should say: see how, as Maimonides, Speiser

understands that the figurative force60

of this drama is its peshat.


Basil Herring, Joseph Ibn Kaspi's Gevia' Kesef: A Study in Medieval Jewish Philosophic Bible Commentary (New

York, Ktav Publishing House, 1982), in Hebrew: pp. 18-19/ This is my translation; for Rabbi/Dr. Herring's

translation see pp. 255-257. The passage is in chapter 18 of Gevia' Kesef.That Maimonides read Genesis 22 in a thoroughly figurative way; that he understood its depiction of Abraham's trek with Isaac as a test imagined in his mind can be argued without difficulty; indeed, his understanding can be more plausibly understood in this way. For an articulation of this reading of Maimonides' reading, see James Arthur Diamond, Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment: Deciphering Scripture and Midrash in The Guide of the Perplexed (State University of New York Press, 2002). "I would agree with those scholars who argue that Maimonides did not appreciate the 'aqedah as an actual historical event but rather perceived it as a prophetic

parable.... It is Abraham's 'consideration of the truth of his command' that propels him to act. That truth is signified by the content of the command, which simply cannot be the literal slaughter of his son.... Abraham's successful passage of this trial manifests itself in the world of the mind and cognition and not in the world of tangible phenomena." (p. 147) -- See A. Nuriel, "Maimonides on Parables Not Explicitly Defined as Such" (in Hebrew) - in Da'at 25 (1990) -- and O. Leaman, "Maimonides, Imagination, and the Objectivity of Prophecy" in Religion 18 (1988). 59

For an argument that there can be a kind of thinking, realizing, recognizing that is not merely from our own isolated self - a Cartesian "I think therefore I am" - see Martin Heidegger, "What Calls for Thinking?" - translated by Fred Wieck and J. Glenn Gray. The translators include in the essay this rendering: "'What is it that calls on us to think?' What makes a call upon us that we should think and, by thinking, be who we are?" in his Basic Writings - edited by David Farrell Krell (New York, HarperCollins, 1977/1993) 60

I say "figurative force" of the drama or narrative in part because I have in mind Roland Barthes' idea-phenomenon

of the "third meaning" by which he refers to the fact that what he calls the "second meaning" – the figurative or symbolic meaning – does not exhaust the literal depiction, the literal imagery in all its details. There is a power to that "first meaning" which cannot be translated, transposed into words. We are moved by its compelling quality – that it speaks to something profoundly true concerning our human experience. And yet – strangely, paradoxically – we understand it is not its literal meaning that is the profound truth that makes its images so telling. Roland Barthes, "The Third Meaning" in Susan Sontag, editor, Barthes: Selected Writings (Great Britain, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1982).


Isaac was to Abraham more than a child of his old age, so fervently hoped for yet so long

denied. Isaac was also [...] the only link with the far-off goal to which Abraham's life was

dedicated. To sacrifice Isaac, as God demanded, was to forego at the same time the

long-range objective itself.[...] What is the meaning of this shattering ordeal? In this

infinitely sensitive account the author has left so much unsaid that there is now the

danger of one's reading into it too much - or too little. Certainly, the object of the story

had to be something other than a protest against human sacrifice in general, or child

sacrifice in particular - an explanation that is often advanced.[...] Was it, then, the aim of

the story to extol obedience to God as a general principle? Abraham had already proved

himself on that count by heeding the call to leave Mesopotamia and make a fresh start in

an unknown land. The meaning of the present narrative, therefore, would have to be

something more specific.[...] The sole heir to the spiritual heritage concerned cannot but

focus attention on the future. The process that Abraham set in motion was not to be

accomplished in a single generation. It sprang from a vision that would have to be tested

and validated over an incalculable span of time, a vision that could be pursued only with

single-mindedness of purpose and absolute faith - an ideal that could not be perpetuated

unless one was ready to die for it, or had the strength to see it snuffed out. The object of

the ordeal, then, was to discover how firm was the patriarch's faith in the ultimate divine

purpose. It was one thing to start out resolutely for the Promised Land, but it was a very

different thing to maintain confidence in the promise when all appeared lost.61

If the test is about Abraham's violating his ethical sense because the demands of the Supreme Being

supercede all else - even the most supreme of ethical norms, why, argues Professor Speiser, doesn't

Abraham challenge the Divine in regard to this terrible command; just as he did when confronted with the

fate of the innocents of Sodom and Gomorrah? As we've seen, Professor Rosenak asks this question as


E. A. Speiser - introduction, translation, and notes by - on The Anchor Bible volume on Genesis (New York, Doubleday, 1985), pp. 164-166. Leo Strauss indeed engages Abraham's last trial on pp. 161-162 in his essay "Jerusalem and Athens" - in his Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1983). It seems to me that Professor Strauss alternates between very literal and very figurative understandings. Most decisive for me is his highlighting Isaac's birth as working "against all reasonable expectations" and thus the command to sacrifice him as further driving home this theme; and his emphasis on how the "command contradicted...the divine promise" - though he understands literally the demand to shed Isaac's innocent blood. Abraham does not argue with God "for the preservation of Isaac" - as he did over the destruction of innocents at Sodom and Gomorrah - "because [Abraham] loved God, and not himself or his most cherished hope, with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his might. The same concern with God's righteousness that had induced him to plead with God for the preservation of Sodom if ten just men should be found in that city, induced him not to plead for the preservation of Isaac, for God rightfully demands that He alone be loved unqualifiedly...." This might be understood figuratively - existentially - in the way that Derrida does: namely, that every call to our responsibility necessarily demands that we betray some other claim upon our responsibility. See Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death - translated by David Wills (University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 53 & following. As for

Strauss, he also focuses on how "God's actions cannot be predicted, unless He Himself predicted them, i.e., promised them. But as is shown precisely by the account of Abraham's binding of Isaac, the way in which He fulfills His promises cannot be known in advance."


well. We didn't mention that he suggests such a questioning might be too modern a way of feeling. But,

then, why wouldn't challenging, interrogating the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah's innocents not also be

anachronistically modern?

There is a possibility of which Professor Speiser appears not even to be aware; which is strange since his

pursuit indeed aims to understand the biblical text in its ancient Israelite context. The difference between

Abraham's challenging the ethics of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction, on the one hand, and the

sacrifice of Isaac, on the other, might indeed be that the latter was actually not considered at all unethical -

rather to the contrary; this, in Abraham's milieu as in his own mind-spirit - as in God's!62 In this particular

instance, God does not require that Abraham actually go through with the sacrifice; but this is not because

He wants to teach that it is wrong - that from now on it is not desired by Him, but rather forbidden. This

makes sense because if indeed Elohim wants to teach this new ethic - if this is what the test is, in large

part anyway, "about" - then we would expect from our acquaintance with the biblical style that the drama

end with a commandment or a kerygmatic formulation, at least, to that effect. But no; not a word. On the

contrary, Abraham is told that God now knows that he has not withheld his son - that he was indeed ready

to kill him on the altar. There is no doubt that the Epic of Gilgamesh - whose title is, of course, its first line:

"He who Saw the Abyss" - functions as some of the primeval threads in the textile of the Noah drama.

Likewise, an acceptance that should the Divine require from us the sacrifice of our sons, then we are

ready to give them up is certainly one of the primeval chords emitting some kind of background sonority in

our text.

Notwithstanding this possibility, however, I don't see the ancient Israelites' listening in rapt suspense to

the storyteller's drama of Abraham's last trial as deriving really from that literal sense. Rather, the dramatic


This is indeed Jon Levenson's argument in his The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993). As for Kierkegaard's reading of our text, Professor Levenson in short order dismisses it as being of barely limited value; this, on account of Kierkegaard's being a "Lutheran...[ - thus] replicat[ing] the most basic paradigm movement in the theology of his own tradition, the Pauline paradigm...that affirms faith in contradistinction to deeds as the supreme and defining element in spiritual authenticity. Abraham is not rewarded so much for his act of slaughtering his beloved son - an act halted only after he has gone so far as to pick up the knife - as for his faith in the promise that Isaac shall live. The main point about Abraham's preparations for the slaughter is not that he acts in obedience to God's commandments, but rather that he demonstrates his trust in God's prevenient and gracious word of promise...." (pp. 125-126 & see p. 103) Needless to say, my own reading - both of Genesis 22 and of Kierkegaard's reading of that chapter's terrible demand - differs from Professor Levenson's. See my footnote 21 above.


force of its meaning resides precisely in the listener's experience of something akin to that concerning

which I have given ex-pression here in these pages. though his/her understanding - an experience, really -

would hesitate, perhaps hover, over the border where the conscious slopes down into the unconscious

and, therefore, would be largely unable to articulate what the story's plot actually expresses symbolically.63

Both in the first and the last of the revelations, God - the as yet unknown God in the first,

and the familiar one in the last - sends Abraham out with the same command: "Go for

yourself..." (22:2). This phrase occurs only on these two occasions in the entire Bible. In

the one instance the demand, at the beginning of his trials, is that he separate himself

from the past, from the world of the Fathers; in the second instance, at the end of his

trials, that he separate himself, despite the promise given him by that same God, from

the future, from the world of the sons. Both times God does not tell the man where He is

sending him. Later, while he is on the road, God will show him the land that is his goal,

will tell him the name of the mountain that is his goal. Out of the life of memory, God

sends man into uncertainty, out of the life of expectation, into uncertainty; except that the

man knows, in the first instance, that he is going into fulfillment of the promise, and, in

the second instance, that he is going into what is, as far as he can see, the cancellation

of the promise and this, moreover, by his own act, the inhuman act he must accomplish

at the Lord's bidding.64


Again I refer to the narrative's dramatic "force" – I mentioned above because I have in mind the ongoing power of the literal meaning that no symbolic articulation can exhaust. In addition, in referring to the narrative's "force," I'm thinking of the largely unconscious understanding of the drama's figurative, even allegorical moods and meanings. But I also say "over the border" between the conscious and unconscious - at the border-crossing of these realms; say that the biblical listeners would be "largely" unable to articulate how the story conveyed its symbolic meaning(s) in their innermost experience because I have in mind the evidence that both children and our ancient ancestors occasionally were able to reflect in conscious expression what nonetheless resided for the most part in their unconscious understanding - that, for instance, this bird is not the soul, but rather is a representation of the soul; a distinction between a symbol and what it represents - between a signifier and its signified - that, for sure, is rare in the younger of our children and the more ancient of our forebears. See Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1975); Ellen Winner, Invented Worlds: The Psychology of the Arts - Part Four (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1982); H. and H. A. Frankfort, "Myth and Reality" in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man - op. cit.; and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion - especially Chapter 5 - "The Problem of Symbols" (Oxford University Press, 1956). I recall a beautifully illustrated edition of Cinderella - for children - that I gave the very young daughter of a friend many years ago. She was so taken by it that she wanted me to read it over and over again. I assumed it was mainly because of the pictures. But one day she said: "Read that part again, about ima - I mean about the wicked stepmother." -- Here was a rare moment when unconscious figurative-mindedness of the child - like what Evans-Pritchard reports concerning the Nuer - evidences its "understanding" of symbols! As children we feel both these

attitudes/experiences toward our parents - fairy godparents and wicked stepparents; at times this, at times that - as well as a mixture all at once. That part of the story - or different parts - over the period when that little girl wanted it repeated was not - at least not mainly - because of the illustrations, nor was it because of my brilliant story reading talent; but rather because there were parts of it that figured for feelings she was knowing precisely in those days. 64

Martin Buber, "Abraham the Seer" in Nahum Glatzer, editor, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies by Martin Buber, op. cit., p. 41. In this essay Buber says: "Scripture does not state its doctrine as doctrine but by telling a story." In "The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible" he argues a method for "bridging the chasm between [these]" - "If I did/do not feel creation as well as redemption happening to myself, I could never understand what creation and redemption are.... It is only when this is true that a man of today can find the approach to biblical reality....


Genesis' argument regarding the religious life is to be driven home one more time through this last trial that Abraham submits himself to in his religious imagination Now that Abraham can indeed retire to Cape Cod or to Florida; now that the defining cruel contradiction of

his life - that the promise of his being the founder of a great nation is impossible without even one heir - is

now resolved, it is just now that the drama must drive home to Abraham - and to us listening in on the

story -- in this one last crescendo-ing way that the in-depth life of religious engagement is not the life of

calm resolution, peace-of-mind, one dimensional harmony; but the withstanding of contradiction, the

embrace of double plural nuanced movements of the soul caught in the thicket, in the complexes of the

sensitive spirit. Abraham realizes the commanding test he must now meet. He must imagine his life once

again without Isaac - without its surety; he must hurl the assured script now in his hand - finally in his

clenched controlling hand; fling it to the wind, into the abyss. He must be ready to do so and see - will I be

able to live the contradiction again? Continue his relationship to the Divine and how that expresses itself in

his relationship to all - especially to what is other, especially threateningly other; only because it is

beautiful, only because it is true.65

Even though, perhaps because - it is hopeless; because - how un-

American - there's no "success" in it. No "gain"; but plenty of "inconvenience."

The uniform, the simple and harmonious must be split at least in two – made diverse, complex and dialectic!

Rabbi Chiyya bar Yossi in the name of Rabbi Meyasha and he taught/repeated it in the

name of Rabbi Benaiah: As reward for - as consequence of - in relation to the two

Sometimes we have a personal experience related to those recorded as revelations and capable of opening the way for them." (pp. 1-13) 65

See Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter 10 and The Guide of the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 24 - Abraham "after his having lost hope"... "gives up all his hopes" - this is how Maimonides sees the test of Genesis 22: whether Abraham will - like Job - be able to rise to the highest achievement - of disinterested love; a love that does not seek to be loved, that has no interest - "[no} hope of a reward or fear of punishment" but only to love - as The Book of Job puts it - "for nothing, for no reason." Jacques Derrida also sees Abraham's love as of a radically transcending kind. He understands Abraham's readiness to sacrifice Isaac as some manner of detachment from the binding of familial connection – some recognition that he must overcome, in some sense, that love - with all its biological and societal force of the natural; thereby "forgoing the hearth, the home, every residence, every at-home sedentariness.... Through his infinite opposition, he reaches that thought of the infinite the Greek lacks." There is no question that Derrida understands Genesis 22 as most powerfully conveying this not in any literal signification, but rather as a compelling figure – if not allegory. See his Glas -

translated by John Leavey, Jr. and Richard Rand (Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 1986), pp. 40a-45a.


splittings/dividings that our Father - our Teacher - Abraham split in regard to woods of

offering, the sea was privileged to be split before the Children of Israel as it is said: 'And

he split woods for an offering' (Genesis 22:3). Therefore it is said further on 'And the

waters were split/divided' (Exodus 14:21)!66

Rabbi Ya'akov Moshe Ashkenazi in his commentary Yidey Moshe interprets: "This means that from one

piece-of-wood two were made such that on account of this the Splitting of the Sea was merited, namely

that the [one] Sea divided into two." -- What a proliferation of rabbis - "Rabbi Chiyya bar Yossi in the name

of Rabbi Meyasha - and he taught/repeated it in the name of Rabbi Benaiah"! To such an extent is the

plural celebrated! The monolithic - one column, one tower - is broken-up, divided, split, diversified – if

not alienated – at least two-stories deep. What a wonderful magic trick! How one can be made into two;

the one-dimensional, the one-sided, into two, both sides of the river, "both these and those are the words

of the living God" (Eruvin 13b)! The "Egyptian" Army is at our backs and "the Sea" is in front - no escape;

caught in the complication, the impossibility. Dead end.

Enter Kierkegaard as guide – but he also is too often misunderstood – by an essentially literal reading Alright, then; but we are resolved in the irresolution of our situation that we won't "lose it." Instead we'll get

up early in the morning, saddle the donkey, cut the wood, take the fire; everything calmly, one step at a

time. As though we are not caught in the סבך thicket, in the complex(ity). "All" we can do is live the

uncertainty, the contradiction; that can even become cruel, inhuman – as it were. "As it were," I say,

because such is our human situation. Precisely this is the test; in this we are tested. -- A difficult text -

Genesis 22; then Kierkegaard offers some help; oh good, a guide at last. But we discover that further

difficulty is added to the one we already face; we need a guide to this guide! Thanks a lot, Johannes de

Silentio - holding your cards so close! Your keys for decoding this figurative text are themselves

figurative; themselves let us in only if we learn how they require us to decipher their signs with almost as

absurd subtlety as Genesis 22 represents its drama. A drama not so much transpiring in the ascent to

Mount Moriah - as much as it is in the not at all simple terrain in the thicket of Abraham's richly, nobly

fraught mind-spirit.


Midrash Genesis Rabbah, Section 55, end of Passage 8


One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he

who expected the impossible became the greatest of all. [...] What does it mean to be

God's chosen? Is it to be denied in youth one's youthful desire in order to have it fulfilled

with great difficulty in one's old age? [...] It is great to give up one's desire, but it is

greater to hold fast to it after having given it up; it is great to lay hold of the eternal, but it

is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up. [...] Now everything would

be lost! [...] The promise [...] rendered meaningless [...]! Yet Abraham had faith, and

had faith for this life. [...] He believed the preposterous. [...] You needed 100 years to get

the son of your old age against all expectancy [... and then] you had to draw the knife

before you kept Isaac. [...]

In the external world, everything belongs to the possessor. It is subject to the law of

indifference, and the spirit of the ring obeys the one who has the ring [...] and he who has

the wealth of the world has it regardless of how he got it.

It is different in the world of the spirit. Here [...] only the one who was in anxiety finds rest

[...], only the one who descends into the lower world rescue the beloved [...], only the one

who draws the knife gets Isaac. [...]

It will be judged according to the result. [...] Those who talk this way are a numerous type

whom I shall designate under the common name of [...] professors with their detached

objectivity, their pontifical evaluations of the past, and their lifetime appointments. With

security in life [...] they have a permanent position and a secure future. [...] They have

hundreds, yes, even thousands of years between them and the earthquakes of

existence. [...]

Faith is the paradox that interiority is higher than exteriority, or [... that] the uneven

number is higher than the even. [...] He receives Isaac - then once again he has to be

tested [... because otherwise] he [...] would have found rest therein.67

Our teacher's dialectical religious philosophy for a life committed to the everyday work of education in all its lived out forms of unscripted relationship Thus is the alternative experience of faith I've suggested here - a commitment to live the paradoxical

dimensions and demands of life - at times cruelly paradoxical. Such an engaging of contradiction, nuance

and complexity is, in the experience of this one among his students, what most characterizes Michael

Rosenak's teaching. "The soul does have one place," observed Franz Rosenzweig - one of Professor


I've selected passages from the whole of Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling: Dialectical Lyric - edited &

translated, with introduction & notes by Howard Hong & Edna Hong (Princeton University Press, 1983) to suggest that its musical-like reiterations are themselves one indication of the figurative character of Kierkegaard's argument.


Rosenak's most influential teachers - "only it is not a place to which the finger can point, but rather an in-


Here is one of our teacher's most challenging expressions of a dialectical religiosity

articulated in educational parameters:

[...] explicit and implicit religiosity are themselves partial and must be brought into

confrontation in order for a comprehensive theology of education to be constructed [...]

and even an integrated theology of education is only partially capable of answering by

itself the questions that arise in educational theory, and [...] both sociology and

psychology can only partially deal with this lacuna [...]

Theories that are only implicit-psychological, or only explicit-sociological, or, for that

matter, only based on a theological conception of subject matter or a sociological

conception of the environment or a psychological conception of the learner attempt to

reduce the complexity of experience to manageable proportions. They seem to make the

claim, whether scientifically or theologically, that one can know the whole truth - at least

in principle - and package it educationally. [...]

In religious education, no social conception and no personality theory is the blueprint for

education, because religious educators insist that sociology and psychology be used in a

way that is responsible to theological principle. But religious educational theory cannot

restrict itself to a given theology either; religious experience testifies that a theology that

explains everything and contains everything impedes the service of God and the search

for meaning. [...]

[The ironic perspective, fourth stage of human development according to Kieran Egan69


should emerge from the eventual understanding of learners (cultivated by the gentle

prodding of teachers) that no general scheme can adequately reflect the richness or

complexity of reality. [...]

Egan's perspective is not specifically religious. But if theology of education is as

dialectical as we have suggested, and if the theories that are useful to religious education

are as variegated (and as problematic!) as we have indicated, then religious education

too requires a conception of accumulating knowledge that does not outgrow the Torah of

yesteryear but, in commenting, elaborating, and innovating, re-affirms its truth by

retaining its accessibility, which is never final. In such an ironic religious theory, one is

the knowledge of God. And one never wholly 'has' it.70


Franz Rosenzweig, as cited in Barbara Ellen Galli, Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators (Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995), p. 224 69

Kieran Egan, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding (Chicago, The University of

Chicago Press, 1997) 70

Michael Rosenak, Commandments and Concerns: Jewish Religious Education in Secular Society (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 1987), pp. 247-249. See Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, with Continual


Every perspective and ideal is partial and, therefore, needs to be complemented by another - even

opposing - orientation.71

To assume otherwise is idolatry; only the Divine (we can hear Maimonides' voice

in this perspective) is complete and always singular in that It is endlessly different from what we can know

in our mortality.

Doubly and dialectically beautiful among human beings

Our faith is not based only or even mostly on the sacredly imagined past. We know there was and is Sinai

- when we engage in Torah learning. We know there has been and is Creation when we arrive at a new

interpretation and through the process of teshuvah or nevu'ah recreate, re-cognize ourselves in ever

more true perspectives. We know of these realities as we know there is Abraham when we are met by the

"tender-minded" hand and the strong ironic smile of our teacher both showing us the way, the converse-

ation; modeling the way and "just plain" sharing it - journeying his own journey - with us. He wants us to

know him as "Mike" - accompanying us on our way toward the altar and the thicket; up the mountain

where we might look into the faces of God - or some reflection thereof. Might search with our own faces

that you, dear Mike, have so religiously challenged and - in our efforts of response, such as they are -

affirmed by your continuing to engage us in carefully demanding and loving conversation. Truly, the

Psalmist had your spirit in mind when he identified the heroically beautiful with the dialectically inclusive

and continuously wrestling with life's irresolvable contradictions - as it is written (Psalm 45:3) : יפיפית מבני

"!"You are doubly/dialectically beautiful from among human beings everyoneאדם

Reference to Socrates - edited and translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1989). 71

If you're still reading, perhaps you'll want to see my "The Educational Conversation and Its Dialectic Spirit" in Religious Education, Winter 1991. When I say "my" essay, however, this is not really accurate; since not only this

present writing draws most of its spirit from Professor Rosenak's teaching - as I have understood it.

Abraham's Readiness to Imagine Persevering -Once Again -Without Isaac: Notes toward a Non-Literal Reading of Genesis 22 - [PDF Document] (2024)


What does Genesis chapter 22 teach us? ›

Here, God reveals seven lessons on true faith. True faith is: (1) tested so you can trust it; (2) responsive to God's calling; (3) submits to His will; (4) trusts in His Word; (5) obeys Him; (6) perfected through Christ's sacrifice; and (7) rewarded by Christ in heaven and here on Earth.

What is the moral lesson of Genesis 22:1-19? ›

God wants us to trust Him and let Him accomplish His will for us. We can only do that if we practice yielding to Him every day. The enemy of our souls would like to minimize the importance of obedience to God — especially prompt obedience. However, God loves and rewards one who is determined to follow Him at any cost.

How many wives did Abraham have? ›

According to one view, Abraham remarried after the death of Sarah and had a total of three wives: Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah. Another tradition identifies Keturah with Hagar, and thus Abraham married only twice. Each of these views finds Scriptural support for its position: the three-wife opinion relies on Gen.

What is the summary of the story of Abraham and Isaac? ›

Although Sarah was past the age of childbearing, God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son, and Isaac was born. Later, to test Abraham's obedience, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the boy. Abraham made all the preparations for the ritual sacrifice, but God spared Isaac at the last moment.

What does Genesis 21 22 teach us? ›

Genesis 21:22–34 describes a covenant treaty between Abraham and Abimelech, king of Gerar. Abimelech had previously given Abraham land to occupy. Now the king wishes to formalize their relationship. Abraham swears not to deceive Abimelech or his offspring again, and to deal kindly with all in the land.

What is the moral lesson of the story Abraham and Isaac verse? ›

Moral of the Story

As mentioned in the story, Isaac the son of Abraham was saved by God himself. Another important lesson that we can learn from the story is that oftentimes when we are faced with adverse circ*mstances, we must try and believe in doing good as God will show kindness to those who believe in him.

What does Genesis 1 21 teach us? ›

This verse also specifies that all of these brand new creatures were made "according to their kind." From the very beginning, God divided created life into categories: kinds of plants, kinds of fish, kinds of birds. Built into each creature was the ability, the necessity, to reproduce their own kind.

What is the reflection of Genesis 22 1? ›

Genesis 22:1 describes it as a test, signaling to the reader that God had no intention of going through with it. The messenger of the Lord stays Abraham's hand, preventing him from killing his son. God never wanted child sacrifice after all. Rather, he wanted Abraham to face his own conflicted and divided loyalties.

What lessons can we learn from Genesis? ›

God blesses the humans—a key theme in this book—and gives them a garden from which they can begin their task of building the world. It is important to note that these humans have a choice as to how they are going to build this world, represented neatly in the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

How many wives did Noah have? ›

Noah's wife is one of the four wives aboard Noah's Ark. While nameless in the Bible (Genesis 4:22; Gen. 7:7), apocryphal literature lists 103 variations of her name and personality.

How many wives did Adam have? ›

Lilith and Eve - wives of Adam.

Did David have many wives? ›

David then took wives in Hebron, according to 2 Samuel 3; they were Ahinoam the Yizre'elite; Abigail, the widow of Nabal the Carmelite; Maacah, the daughter of Talmay, king of Geshur; Haggith; Abital; and Eglah.

What is the meaning of Genesis 22? ›

Genesis 22. , the ram goes in place of Isaac. This points to the greater exchange that happens at the cross, the Son of God in place of humanity. In Jesus, God brings his own promised Son into death and through it. Just like God spares Isaac, God spares humanity because he takes the cross on himself.

What did God promise Abraham about Isaac? ›

Then God said, "Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers.

What is the main point of the story of Abraham? ›

What is Abraham best known for? Abraham is best known for the depth of his faith. In the book of Genesis he obeys unquestioningly the commands of God and is ready to follow God's order to sacrifice Isaac, a test of his faith, though in the end God substitutes a ram for his son.

Why did God swear by himself in Genesis 22? ›

The Lord begins by saying that because Abraham has not withheld his only son from the Lord, the Lord has sworn "by Himself" to do what is named in the following verses. This is the only time God swears an oath to do something in the stories of the patriarchs.

What does the Book of Genesis teach us today? ›

The main message of the Book of Genesis is the creation of the universe and the Israelite people. Throughout the text, the themes of creation and covenant demonstrate the connection between the Israelites and God/Yahweh as well as the fact that humans are unrighteous and deceptive.

What is the kids lesson in Genesis 22? ›

Read Genesis 22:1-14 aloud to the children. This is the story of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham was willing to do this because he trusted God and put Him first in his life. In the end, God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac.

Why does God ask his people to do difficult things? ›

God allows for struggling to build our inner strength and faith. Without struggle and resistance, a person would be weak and unable to sustain themselves when confronted by the challenges of experience in life.


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