Today is our Independence Day and it is my great joy and privilege to congratulate my readers on Israel’s 74th Birthday. Most of my readers, for years or even decades, have been faithfully interceding for the Land and the people – have been standing together with Israel and the God of Israel. Therefore, this is also your joy and your celebration!
Some of you probably know that our Independence Day starts immediately after our Memorial Day. Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, is a national day of mourning – and considering the disproportionately high number of orphaned families, a tally almost impossible to fathom for a country as tiny as ours, one can only imagine how heart-wrenching this day is. Therefore, one of the most peculiar experiences one can have in Israel is this incredibly jarring transition from the most difficult, the most tragic day of the year, to the most joyful and festive day of the year! It is hard enough that these two days follow one another, but if I remind you that in Israel the day starts at sunset, this transition becomes almost surreal. “And there was evening, and there was morning” – Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, the most difficult day in Israel’s year: memories, ceremonies, sirens, tears; and then, once again: And there was evening, and there was morning – and with tears still lingering in the eyes, the country is plunged into the festivities of Independence Day.
Of course, a lot of questions could be asked on these special days, all of them pertaining to the Israel/Arab, or Isaac/Ishmael relationship. Shouldn’t we look for answers in Scripture? Shouldn’t we try to recognize the biblically-based, spiritual reality in the everyday lives of these two different peoples, who are both incredibly close and incredibly hostile at the same time? I have written several times that I believe that God speaks to us, even today, through weekly Torah portions – and sometimes, when the Parashah seems especially important, I feel prompted to talk about it. This is the case with last week’s Torah Portion, Acherey Mot, and it is against the Memorial and Independence days’ background that we approach this portion today.
The mysterious Leviticus 16 discusses the special Yom Kippur service in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. The chapter describes the highlights of this service: the sacrifice of a goat for a sin offering, the High Priest’s confession on behalf of Israel, his entry into the Holy of Holies, and the dispatching of the Azazel Goat. Let us read those verses together:
He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.
Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this ceremony was absolutely unique. Why is this so? As Charles Feinberg wrote, “no more significant truths could possibly engage the mind of the believer than those set forth in this chapter of Leviticus.” So, what is the meaning of this ceremony? And what is the connection between Leviticus 16 and our Independence Day?
There are many commentaries on Leviticus 16 – both Jewish and Christian. Today, however, I want you to see the profound connection that, for some reason, has been overlooked for centuries. Years ago, I was writing a book about Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael – and to my great surprise, in order to unlock the ancient mystery of Abraham and his two sons, God had led me to the scriptural key of Leviticus 16. Before that book, I had spent a lot of time contemplating he sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. However, when I started to write the book, I began to see Genesis 21 side by side with Genesis 22. I started to realize that Abraham had to sacrifice both sons; that there were actually not one, but two sacrifices in the old patriarch’s life; that Genesis 21 – the banishment of Ishmael – was also extremely tortuous and painful for Abraham and was just as much about sacrifice as Genesis 22. Of course, there is no point of comparison; we cannot ask Abraham whether Genesis 21 or 22 was more difficult for him, or which devastated him the most. The two sons of Abraham were chosen for two completely different destinies, and therefore these two chapters are very different. Still, both chapters speak about sacrifice, and nothing makes this more clear and convincing than Leviticus 16!
I was absolutely stunned when I saw the incredible resemblance between Leviticus 16 and Genesis 21 and 22. How perfectly Abraham’s double sacrifice is reflected in the sacrifice of the two goats! Abraham had to sacrifice two sons: one was sent into the wilderness, the other offered as a burnt offering. Likewise, the High Priest had to sacrifice two goats: one was sent into the wilderness, the other, burned as an offering.
How do I know that this connection, between Genesis 21-22 and Leviticus 16, is not just something far-fetched by my imagination? Well, I do have solid proof of this connection. As most of you know, the High Holidays are the crucial points in the Israel calendar year. These days, starting from Rosh HaShanah and ending with Yom Kippur, are very important for almost everybody in Israel – and they are clearly very important to God. Therefore, it’s impossible to ignore the amazing fact that the Rosh Hashanah reading consists of Genesis 21 and 22, while the Yom Kippur reading is Leviticus 16. It does make this connection very clear, doesn’t it?
Leviticus 16 might help us understand better the Isaac-Ishmael dynamic. A scapegoat was sent out alive into the wilderness while another was sacrificed! In this sense, Ishmael should be happy that he is not the one chosen for death. I often think that if Genesis 22 had come before Genesis 21, the whole history of humankind might have been completely different: Instead of envy and jealousy, Ishmael would have had compassion toward his brother and gratitude for his own destiny. The terrible hostility and tension that have marked a large part of the Isaac-Ishmael relationship might not have been there from the outset. However, this is not the case, and we might ask, why? Why are these crucial chapters set in this particular order?
I do believe that this reversed order is part of the mystery the Lord wants to reveal to us here – and you can read my book in order to uncover this mystery. One of the main themes of this book is that of restoring what was broken and making it whole again. That’s why I turn to Scripture: we do need a spiritual X-ray here. Yes, of course, real life is much more complex and multi-faceted than a biblical story, but isn’t that the case with an X-ray as well? A person is much more complex and unique than his or her X-ray shows: we see no personal features on an X-ray; we can’t recognize the individual by his X-ray, – and yet, an X-ray is definitely needed in order to see what must be healed: to see where the fracture is and what should be done to heal it. The broken has to be healed! Abraham had two sons—and the family picture will not be complete until they are both in this picture. These are my thoughts on our Independence Day.
 Leviticus 16:7-10
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The parallel between the two goats in Lev 16 and the fate of Abraham’s two sons in Gen 21 and 22 has been discussed at least twice before. The first was in a letter to Bible Review (BR 15:4, August 1999) by Solomon Golomb, who was an eminent mathematician and electrical engineer. Sol was also a polymath and despite being nonreligious he maintained a strong interest in Judaism and Hebrew Bible since his youth in Baltimore, where he was baal qore of his synagogue. (He was also father of a friend of mine, and I was fortunate to be able to chat with him about Hebrew Bible stuff on multiple occasions.) Sol pointed out the significance of the Torah readings on RH and YK, which bracket the yamim noraim, and suggested that the actions described in Lev 16 are a form of mock reenactment of the aborted sacrifices of Abraham’s two sons, and that reminding God of the fidelity of our ancestor propitiates his dealings with us in the here and now.
The second place, which a friend just recently mentioned to me, is in the final chapter of Mary Douglas’s book, “Leviticus as Literature” (pp. 248-251; first edition November 1999). Douglas takes a somewhat different approach to the scapegoat / Ishmael parallel than did Sol. She contrasts the two goats and views the one sent to Azazel as destined to live, as it is “sent alive into the wilderness…escaping with its life into the open field.” Likewise, she views Ishmael as being “free to roam the wilderness [where he will become] a great prince.”
Sol, on the other hand, views both Ishmael as well as Isaac as intended sacrifices, but for the late and miraculous intervention of God. I am no expert, but Sol’s strikes me as a more compelling interpretation. While God in Gen 21:13 reassures Abraham that he will make Ishmael into a nation, he also says (Gen 21:12) that “in Isaac seed shall be called to you.” So if Abraham is to take God at his word, he should believe that neither Ishmael nor Isaac will perish, as God has promised abundant offspring from each son. Sol’s point was that in both cases Abraham needed to have faith in God in order to carry out God’s harsh directives to expel Ishmael and to take Isaac to Moriah to be sacrificed. Barring diving intervention, sending Ishmael and Hagar into the desert was as much a death sentence as what God bade Abraham to do with Isaac in the following chapter. In both cases, God lets the situation develop to a critical point. In 22:15-16, Hagar and Ishmael have run out of water, and Hagar senses the end is near: “‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him and lifted up her voice and wept.” In Gen 22:10, “Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” In both cases, it is only at the very last moment that God intervenes to make good on his promises and save each of Abraham’s sons.
I think Douglas misses this powerful point. Jewish tradition from a very early point held that the scapegoat was destined to die. Again, in Mishnah Yoma, the scapegoat meets a gruesome end as he is impelled into the wilderness: “And [the one designated to dispatch the scapegoat] pushed the goat backward, and it rolls and descends. And it would not reach halfway down the mountain until it was torn limb from limb.” For what it’s worth, Douglas’ presumption that the goat is destined to wander the desert, alive, is inconsistent with the understanding as expressed in the Mishnah.
Sol’s parallel thus seems more compelling to me. As he wrote, “Abraham, the first patriarch, performed the primeval atonement ritual, with his two sons in the role of the two goats. For his faithfulness in carrying out the Lord’s seemingly horrible instructions, he is specially blessed (Genesis 22:15-18). In the Yom Kippur service, Jews explicitly ask God for forgiveness for there sins on the bases of Abraham’s wholeheartedness in obeying the divine command.”
Profound thoughts Julia. I love the way you are able to link the present with Torah Portions – and then see the connection between Genesis and Leviticus 16. The Word of God is truly a Living Word, but it takes special insight to make these connections..
Thank you for your generous words, Dot! It’s always a blessing, to hear from you!
The unresolved conflict of the two sons of Abraham, as you write, still shapes the present. For many people in Europe, whether believers or not, this conflict is rather abstract and often disconnected from our daily lives and personal experiences.
It was the same for me. Unexpectedly, I met a Palestinian, Iranian, and Pakistani through work. Sometime before, I had “accidentally” found a book whose title seemed very interesting to me: Abraham had two sons…by Julia Blum. In retrospect, it seemed to me like a foreshadowing of what was to come.
This new experience with my (Abrahamic) colleagues became a great enrichment for me personally and changed my understanding and attitude towards the two sons of Abraham.
It is as if a bridge had to be found to reach the other shore.
Abrahams loved his two sons. Although he found that God’s promise to him took a different path than he had understood(1) , something happened that brings us closer to him and his character. He bowed under the hand of the Almighty, indeed deeply bowed his human soul and trusted. After the terrible fall of man in Gan Eden, God already promised the way of repentance through the seed(2), another(3), before Abraham and a son were even born! Would it have been possible to obtain this from one’s own human plans, without God’s plan?
A father is a special person who sets an example for his descendants to follow. So did Abraham’s son Isaac, so did Jacob. Abraham preceded his sons as a father, thereby becoming the father he was destined to be. When Abraham died, his two sons buried him together. His personal desire and longing to be a father was fulfilled in the greater grand design of God. In the New Testament, we read that Jesus said, “Abraham your father rejoiced that he should see my day; then he saw it and rejoiced greatly.”(4) Doesn’t that mean we get a glimpse into Abraham’s heart, that he welcomed what God had promised, namely the everlasting seed, the onother? Abraham is messianic. We do not know how the first son comes to cross the bridge as a free son to reach out to Isaac. But we do know that both children will have their own place in God’s appointed will of salvation.
In the laboratory where my Palestinian colleague and I worked, there was a panoramic relief of Jerusalem on the shelf with the Dome of the Rock in the middle and the churches all around. It was a gift from him when he was on holiday with his family in Samaria. The relief always placed on the shelf. From time to time it would fall over and someone would put it back in the right place. The frame was already cracked and loose in one place. One day I couldn’t stand to see the picture tipped over again, so I took it and glued the loose spot so that the frame was reconnected to the fundamental plate. A few minutes later, a notification tone came from my phone. I read the following message in Telegram (15. Oct. 2020): “The Israeli parliament voted today in favour of the peace treaty with the UAE, with 80 Knesset members in favour and 13 against.” (Israel Today).
Well, I thought, the crack in the relief of Jerusalem is today at least reassembled by my hand. Then I took the relief picture in my hand again. Then I understood that the whole frame would have to be re-glued so that it would be bonded to the base as a foundation at every point. Otherwise, the frame would come off again. Spontaneously I thought: The foundation of Jerusalem is the Temple Mount, on which the Ark of the Covenant with the two stone tablets and the glory of God was present in the Holy of Holies in the First Temple. This is the foundation. Through the new relations with the Arab states, the Jewish people, the people of the Book, will carry this Torah to them, in which the seed ,another, is described and promised, as Jesus taught his disciples after his resurrection from the whole Tanach. Abraham saw the Messiah and rejoiced. May both sons follow their father on this way.
Thank you very much Julia. Your wonderful book has encouraged me a lot. I will be reading it again.
(1) Genesis 17,18+19+20.Heilige Schrift Zunz
(2) Genesis 3,15. Heilige Schrift Zunz
(3) Genesis 4,25. Helige Schrift Zunz
(4) Johannes 8,56. Das jüdische Neue Testament, D.Stern
P.S.: In the meantime, the research project is finished, and the relief picture of Jerusalem is above my desk on a shelf. The relief is not just some souvenir from Israel any longer.
Wow, Patricia! Thank you for your beautiful comment and for this beautiful story, my heart is deeply touched – and I am so happy to hear that my book touched your heart! Blessings!
Thank you so much for answering my comment, Julia.
Amen Julia! May these two “sons” finish their journeys and be whole.