3 Yitro (Exodus 18, 1 – 20, 23) – the parallel between the story of the binding of Isaac and the revelation at Sinai

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There is a parallel relationship between two great stories that stand out in the Hebrew Bible – the story of the binding of Isaac and the story of the great revelation of the ten statements at Mount Sinai (and, the Biblical term is ten statements and not commandments). The parallel is indicated by the Bible itself in that two central religious concepts, test (or trial) and fear of God, appear in each of the stories. Immediately following the revelation of the ten statements when the Israelites request the prophetic mediation of Moses, it is written (Exodus 20, 16-17):

 

And they said to Moses, speak with us and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moses said to the people, fear not; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before your faces, that you sin not.

 

The term test in this passage is the very same term that appears in the story of the binding of Isaac – “And God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22, 1). The parallel is further strengthened by the fact that the ultimate purpose of the tests is fear of God as in the passage here (“His fear”) and in the story of the binding of Isaac when the angel of the Lord exclaims regarding Abraham “for now I know that you are God fearing” (Genesis 22, 12).

 

In order to understand the relationship between the stories of the binding of Isaac and the great revelation at Sinai, I want to distinguish between two different senses of the term fear of God. The term fear of God is an ambiguous religious concept that can be used either in an authoritarian and heteronomous sense of obedience to the external authority of God, or in a humanistic and autonomous sense of an inward, deep feeling of awe and respect toward God.

 

This distinction between fear of God in a humanistic sense and fear of God in an authoritarian sense is the key to understanding the parallel relationship between the story of the ten statements and the story of the binding of Isaac. It is clear that the term fear of God (“His fear”) that appears in the passage that I cited regarding the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 20, 16-17) is being used in an authoritarian and heteronomous sense of religious fear – in contrast to Moses calming the Israelites by telling them to “fear not”, which refers to fear in a non-religious, psychological and emotional sense of being afraid.

 

Moses is telling the Israelites that the essence of the great revelation at Mount Sinai is that God, as the greatest external authority, demands morality. The demands of God are presented as commandments and laws that require obedience to their authority and to the authority of God as the Commander. Thus, Moses calms them (regarding their fear in the emotional sense of being afraid) by telling them that what is most essential in the great revelation is that God, in requiring obedience to God’s commandments and laws, has given them a test in order that they learn to avoid sin by fearing God in an authoritarian and heteronomous sense of religious fear (as distinct from the emotional sense of being afraid). The term fear of God is thus being used in the story of the revelation at Sinai in an authoritarian sense of fear expressing itself in heteronomous obedience to God’s moral will and commandments – and, lending support for this view is the thunder, lightning, sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking accompanying the revelation (Exodus 20, 15).

 

Conversely, the term fear of God in the story of the binding of Isaac is, in my view, being used in a humanistic sense of awe in which Abraham is obedient to God’s moral will because he himself, on the basis of his own reason and conscience, understands God’s harsh demand to offer his son as a sacrifice not to be immoral. Had he understood the command to be immoral, he would have at least asked, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice? (Genesis 18, 25)”.

 

The story of the binding of Isaac is teaching on a historical level that child sacrifice is unacceptable as a form of devotion to God to be replaced by animal sacrifice. However, such a ritual rite of child sacrifice (as well as animal sacrifice) has disappeared in the western culture, and thus if the story is understood only on a literal, historical level, then it has no relevance for a contemporary, western reader. Yet, the story without doubt stands out, beyond its literal, historical meaning and significance, as a truly profound piece of literature, which has exerted an enormous impact not just within the Jewish tradition, but upon the western culture as a whole. Clearly, such a profound and influential piece of literature must have some literary relevance beyond its literal, historical meaning and significance as an attack upon the ancient institution of child sacrifice as a form of ritual worship that has long ago disappeared in the western world.

 

In a literary analysis the focus is the meaning of the text – and, the fundamental assumption is that the text has a meaning and significance that transcends its historical context and meaning relevant to readers living in a different time period or culture than that in which the text was produced. Thus, literary analysis allows one to uncover a meaning of a text beyond the original, historical meaning of the text, and to legitimately attribute such a meaning to what the text is teaching in its plain meaning.

 

Child sacrifice is regarded as an abomination in the Bible when such sacrifice is part of a ritual rite or ceremony. In the story of the binding of Isaac it is only on a literal level that Abraham is on the face of it to offer Isaac as a sacrifice as part of a ritual rite or ceremony. Yet, to understand the story of the binding of Isaac only on a literal level as a story of child sacrifice as part of a ritual rite (rather than on a metaphoric level) is to do a grave injustice to one of the most profound stories in all of literature.

 

There is no necessary reason to assume from a literary point of view that the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice in the story of the binding of Isaac is part of a ritual rite or ceremony, and thus immoral. I want to demonstrate that the actual sacrifice of a child that is not part of a ritual rite is not necessarily immoral by citing a true story that took place in Auschwitz in 1944. The story is told by Rabbi Zvi Meisels, as recorded in the book, The Holocaust and Halacha (Irving Rosenbaum, 1). Rabbi Meisels was himself in Auschwitz at the time and tells of an observant Jew who came to him with a question of Halacha (law). The Nazis had decided to put to death some 1400 boys who were in the meantime imprisoned under the guard of “Kapos”, Jewish guards. The observant Jew who approached Rabbi Meisels explained that he had enough to ransom his son who was among those being held by the Kapos. But, if the Kapos released his son, they would take another boy in his place, as the Nazis would count heads, and demand the exact number that they had designated to die.

 

The father asked Rabbi Meisels, if, according to Halacha (law), he is permitted or forbidden to release his son under such circumstances. Rabbi Meisels replied that he cannot interpret and determine law in such an environment as Auschwitz. He said that he has no books, no other Rabbi to consult with and that he cannot be expected to think clearly in such conditions. Rabbi Meisels thus refused to answer the question, and asked the father to make his own decision simply on the basis of his own conscience. The father demanded a proper Halachic, legal response, arguing that Rabbi Meisels is obligated to answer him, as there is no other Rabbi who he can ask. Rabbi Meisels, though, continued to refuse to answer. Finally, the father said that the refusal of Rabbi Meisels to answer him is a sign that he is not permitted to release his son – for, if he were permitted, Rabbi Meisels would have surely told him so. The father interpreted the refusal of Rabbi Meisels to answer as tantamount to a formal, Halachic legal decision that he is forbidden to ransom his son. He added that he accepts God’s decree with love and joy, and prayed that his act would be acceptable to God as Abraham’s binding of Isaac (and the father himself understood the parallel from a spiritual point of view between the story of the binding of Isaac and his own situation)!

 

The story of the binding of Isaac is teaching, in my view, that there are such situations in life in which we may be tragically thrust, like the true story of Auschwitz, that demand the sacrifice of a child not in violation of moral conscience. Thus, in light of the true story of Auschwitz, it is possible to interpret (on a metaphoric level from a literary point of view) the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice in the story of the binding of Isaac as being in accordance with Abraham’s own reason and conscience. In the true story of Auschwitz, the father did not find himself in a situation where what he understood as the decree of God to sacrifice his son was in conflict with his own conscience.

 

The story of the binding of Isaac is indeed one of obedience to external authority. Abraham is especially singled out for praise because of his obedience to God’s will when the angel of God blesses him saying – “because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22, 18). However, the nature of Abraham’s obedience in the story is unclear. The text tells us only that Abraham is obedient to God’s will, and does not explicitly tell us that the command to sacrifice Isaac violated Abraham’s reason or conscience allowing for a metaphoric understanding beyond the literal level, in which the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice may be understood not as part of a ritual rite, and not as immoral – and not in violation of the reason or conscience of Abraham.

 

In light of the true story of Auschwitz then, it is possible to understand the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on the metaphoric level as a moral command in the eyes of Abraham, and not in violation of Abraham’s reason and conscience. Abraham is being portrayed as a God fearing person in the sense of a person of moral conscience who is willing to make the supreme sacrifice – the sacrifice of his child – if God and morality so demand. In light of the true story of Auschwitz, Abraham is not being portrayed as obedient to God at the expense of his own reason and conscience, but, rather, as obedient in accordance with his reason and conscience.

 

In my view then the story of the binding of Isaac precedes the story of the revelation at Sinai not just chronologically but in terms of importance as well. In my understanding, the relationship between the two stories is that the highest ideal of the Bible as a whole is a humanistic ideal of moral conscience and spiritual autonomy on a personal level, exemplified by Abraham in the story of the binding of Isaac in which the fear of God that Abraham displays is in an autonomous sense in accordance with his own conscience; while the story of the revelation at Sinai presents an authoritarian ideal of heteronomous obedience to the moral will of God for the Israelite people on a communal level for the sake of establishing a well ordered society characterized by peace and tranquility, as a necessary part of a religious life in fulfillment of the moral will of God in which the fear of God expected of the people Israel is in a heteronomous sense of obedience to external authority.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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