Sarah and Isaac

Sarah arose early in the morning. She looked out and saw Abraham saddling the donkey as though for a journey. Later he came in and said, “God has commanded me to bring Isaac up to a mountain that he will show me, there to offer a sacrifice.” Sarah watched them ride off together.

She had seen that Abraham brought no lamb for the sacrifice, but she had said nothing.

On the morning of the third day, Sarah looked up and felt the veil of her heart rend in two. She remembered laughing when she had heard the promise, not quite believing that an old man could give pleasure to her withered body so as to make a son. She began as it were to feel once again the pangs of birth—a task, she had thought at the time, meant for younger women.

“I know what Abraham is doing on that mountain,” she said to herself, “but it is nothing that I did not do first. When in the throes of labor I felt myself on the edge of death, I thought it cruel that God would kill the promise with me. I, too, have seen the constellation of generations darken in an instant, feeling the loneliness of the cosmos as if burdened with wood for the altar of my own immolation. At every moment when I thought my capacity to labor was spent, I myself held the knife to Isaac’s throat. And yet on the very verge of death’s triumph over both me and Isaac, the angel of deliverance appeared, and I received my son as though returned from the dead. In his first cries, I heard once again the voice of God: ‘Because you would not withhold from me your only son, you will be a mother of many nations, blessed with children as the stars of the Milky Way. Your children will possess the gates of life, and through them all the earth will be blessed.’” She had laughed once again to think that something so improbable had occurred, and with that laughter she named the promise.

She had treasured these things in her heart, not speaking of them to Abraham. Nor did he speak to her when he returned with Isaac several days later. Without speaking at all, they both knew and were glad not to be alone.

Comments

  1. I was really pleasantly surprised with this post this morning. Thank you! This is Mormon Midrash at its best. The part about Sarah realizing she held a proverbial knife to Isaac’s throat as she felt herself spent during labor and the concluding comment about neither of them speaking to each other about having held Isaac’s life in their hands really resonated with me.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Yes, Midrash is exactly the right concept for what I was trying to do here. Thanks for your kind words!

  3. J. Stapley says:

    John beat me to it. I heartily concur.

  4. danithew says:

    It’s interesting that in the very next chapter, after the chapter where Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, the first two verses are about Sarah’s death:

    Genesis 23:1-2
    1 And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah.
    2 And Sarah died in Kirjath-arba; the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.

    There’s no explanation for her death – it’s just recorded. But it seems to me to go so abruptly from the Akedah to her passing away may be saying that she couldn’t bear the stress of hearing about what happened(?).

  5. Jason K. says:

    That is a very interesting observation indeed–perhaps an opening for a midrash of your own!

    I’ll also admit that I find the story of the Akedah unbearable. This post is one small piece of my attempts to reckon with it.

  6. One man’s midrash is another man’s torah. This is solid stuff, Jason.

  7. Lovely! I remember hearing a different short story dealing with this episode: Sarah loved Abraham, but thought he was a bit eccentric. To save Isaac’s life, Sarah dresses herself as the angel that stops Abraham from going through with the human sacrifice. Abraham comes down from the mountain and soberly tells her of the Lord’s miraculous intervention. She ends the story musing on how God works in mysterious ways.

  8. Jason K. says:

    I love that, Joanne!

    (And thanks, Steve.)

  9. Nice work. I’m glad I found this post.

    I’ve admired Sarah’s story because, as I read it, she dies before Abraham returns. Thus, Isaac (the one we often equate with Christ) is spared, but Sarah is not. This is important because Abraham had been promised many times that he would inherit land in Canaan, but up to this point he was merely a sojourner, a “stranger in a strange land.” Upon Sarah’s death, he purchases—not rents or leases, but owns—a tomb in which to bury her. It’s the first bit of land he ever owns in Canaan and thus the first fulfillment of this part of God’s promise to him and Sarah.

    So, who is more like Christ in this story? The one who escapes death, or the one who dies, is buried in a tomb, and whose death marks the fulfillment of a covenant?

  10. Jason K. says:

    I love that this post is bringing out so many great interpretations of the story. Keep ‘em coming!

  11. Hi Jason. I like your writing style and your version of the story. Very enlightening and well done. However, I’ve always had huge problems with the story itself. I simply don’t believe in a God that wants us to be willing to murder our children and I find the mentioning of the knife at Isaac’s throat really disturbing. I don’t believe in violence being done to children (or anyone else, really) under any circumstances. I believe in the kind Jesus, whose earthly ministry was a legacy of love and caring. That feels more true to me than the angry and vengeful God of the OT. Maybe that means I’m simple-minded and can’t work out the differences in God’s behavior from the OT to the NT; who knows. At any rate, thanks for the story and for your own attempt to come to grips with what, to me, is one of the most disturbing episodes in all of scripture.

  12. Jason K. says:

    JohnnyS: I also have major problems with this story, some of which I’m trying to work through here. You’ll note, though, that I borrowed from Rashi’s reading of the command: God doesn’t command Abraham to kill Isaac; he just commands Abraham to bring Isaac up the hill and offer sacrifice. In this reading, Abraham actually misunderstands God. Just as, in this reading, Abraham is overzealous in a truly frightening way, is it also going too far for a mother to fault herself for things that might go wrong during labor.

  13. Eric Russell says:

    I understand that it’s fairly well established that human sacrifice – and the sacrifice of one’s firstborn in particular – was common among the pre-Israelites. Considering that their children were sacrificed to God, they must have believed that God demanded it. As common as it was, however, we also know that it was not universally observed.

    With these items in mind, I think it’s reasonable to believe that Abraham and his people thought of human sacrifice the way we think of hometeaching. You know deep down you should be doing it, but end up ignoring it anyway and hope that no one notices. Abraham believed that he owed God his firstborn, but given the blessings of posterity he had been promised, he was hoping God would forget.

    But God did not forget. By demanding what was owed to him, God was showing that he could demand it – that he could demand all from us because we owe him all. Thus is God introduced to Israel: great enough to demand the greatest sacrifice, merciful enough to give it all back (and with much more). This also foreshadows the atonement: God is great enough to be able to demand everything for our sins, but merciful enough to forgive us for all. In so doing, we see that God has sacrificed his own firstborn both for and in behalf of us!

  14. God need not mimic false gods of petty desert tribes in demanding a human sacrifice of ignorant people’s firstborn children in order to show his own greatness. Enoch and Melchizedek were able to learn that without sacrificing their children to Moloch.

  15. I’m really glad I read your comments here, Jason – upon my first reading of this post, I was annoyed at the difference between Sarah also being at risk of losing her life, and Abraham’s completely different role, being the one with power through the entire ordeal. (It also reminded me that Sarah did not necessarily feel any pleasure at conception, but being pretty grossed out by old people and/or sex (sorry, I’m a YSA, it’s a coping mechanism), I skipped over that thought). But, these comments, wonderful. I, too, would love to hear more interpretations brought out from this post. And I’ll think more on the parallels, I think they probably are there, once I get over myself.

  16. John (and Eric): it’s worth noting that the Hebrew Scriptures nowhere sanction human sacrifice, except perhaps here (and not even that, if you believe Rashi’s reading). It’s all condemnation of offering children to Moloch. (The story of Jephtha and his daughter plays as tragedy, and the incident in 2 Kings 3:27 is, well, just weird.) Some people present the Abraham and Isaac story as an etiology for a transition from human to animal sacrifice, but the evidence about attitudes toward sacrifice in the E source (as compared to the J source, which shows animal sacrifice with Abel and Noah, or the P source, which has no sacrifice before Sinai) is too slender to support this conclusion.

    missolea: I agree that Abraham has power in a way that Sarah doesn’t, but this story is written in a way that really puts the screws to Abraham. Rashi’s commentary really brings this stuff out. The three days’ journey is all about giving Abraham time to think about the deed, so he can’t perform it rashly. The sequencing in the Hebrew–“take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac”–is frankly kind of cruel, as are the repeated references to the father/son relationship throughout. The story is written to make it hurt. And its point, especially in the Qur’an retelling, isn’t that Abraham has power, but that he submits. Again, I see your point, but Abraham’s position here isn’t exactly enviable.

    As for the old people/sex, I was drawing on Gen. 18:12 (quoted here from the JPS Tanakh): “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?'” Note that the Lord, in reporting this thought to Abraham, spares him from some of its implications, v. 13: “Then the LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'” If you want a good laugh, go read Robert Alter’s note on this passage in The Five Books of Moses.

    (Yes, I’m suggesting that footnotes can be funny, but I’ll cop to having a peculiar sense of humor.)

  17. JohnnyS: The story doesn’t say that God wanted Abraham to “be willing to murder [his son].” It just says that God told him to. Since we view this as a “test,” I think it’s helpful to ask what the possible “answers” were that Abraham could choose from. Importantly, the text doesn’t delineate those choices nor does it say that Abraham chose correctly. It only says what God learned about Abraham: that he fears God.

    So what, am I suggesting that God might have intentionally placed Abraham in a situation where disobedience could have been rewarded and/or viewed as a right decision? Let’s ask what Eve thinks….

  18. john f: I agree in part that “God need not mimic false gods…” with “Enoch and Melchizedek” as examples. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t mimic false gods. Abraham’s background was, as far as we know, quite different from Enoch’s or Melchizedek’s. Could it be that God saw utility in mimicking false gods in a way that was particularly suited to Abraham’s (mis)understanding?

  19. Or,
    Sarah, who’s body was unable to fulfill the covenant, carried a blade within her heart, a blade placed there by God. As a type of Mother Eve, Sarah was tasked with seeding all the nations of the earth with her posterity, but was not given the means to do so. When Abraham agreed to fulfill his part of the covenant with another woman, a second blade was thrust into Sarah’s heart, which then bore the twin tokens of sure rejection. Rejected by God, and rejected by man, forsaken as daughter and wife.

    In her old age, past the time of any physical possibility, an angel appeared to announce the legal fulfillment of the promise, and a child was placed in Sarah’s womb. In joy and laughter, Sarah bore a healthy son, and lived to raise him to maturity.

    When Abraham went to the mount to offer Sarah’s son as a sacrifice to God, Sarah knew what was about to happen. She had often seen that look in her husband’s eyes, that look of intended sacrifice, and it was immediately obvious that Isaac was the one upon whom Abraham’s gaze fell. She who had been barren would be barren once more, all of her posterity snatched away within its first generation. Sarah wept as she watched them leave. She was bound as surely as her son would be; Abraham stood between Sarah and their God, a god who would speak with no one but him. Formerly rejected, and now betrayed, the old tokens within Sarah’s heart ripped asunder and rent the veil of her flesh.

    Abraham sorrowed as he led his son to the slaughter. But he had sworn an oath of obedience, and he must obey, no matter how horrific the command. It never occurred to him that the primary oath of his spiritual youth might be superseded by covenants made farther along his path of progression. Even his crowning covenant, the one which made Sarah part of his own flesh, did not register in his mind as he followed his old childhood rule. Though he had become a man, he had not put away childish things. He allowed for no Law of Sarah. He failed to consider Wisdom. And so he obeyed unquestioningly.

    As Abraham stood with his blade poised over his son’s throat, ready to make the ceremonial cut, a sacrifice to prove his obedience, the heavens opened and an angel appeared. Abraham recognized the same angel who had foretold his son’s birth. The angel angrily blocked the path of the knife as the bleat of a ram cut through the silence.

    “How is it that you did not discuss this decision with Sarah, your covenant wife?” demanded the angel.

    “But I was being obedient…” answered Abraham.

    “Were you not told as a child to avoid the path of the caravan, so that you would not be trampled?” asked the angel. “Now that you are a man and ride upon a camel, do you avoid the caravan?”

    Abraham was confused. “How can I avoid the caravan, when I am a part of it?”

    “Exactly so.” said the angel. He loosed the bonds of the terrified Isaac, who silently vowed that he would never fail to seek the wisdom of his future wife.

    “It is not good for man to be alone.” the angel said to Isaac, as he glared at Abraham. “He does not reason well within himself.”

  20. Jason K. says:

    Great stuff, OldJen. There’s no such thing as the One True Midrash, so I hope that others will follow you in using this space to compose their own.

  21. That really is good, OldJen!

  22. Thanks Jason and John, I appreciate a platform on which to mount my soapbox :).

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