New Testament Reflections: Vayerah

From Annunciation to Sacrifice

To Christians our today’s portion, VaYerah, undoubtedly presents a special interest, because its structure is similar to the structure of the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke: this portion begins with the Divine Annunciation of the miraculous birth of the son of the promise, and ends with Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of this miraculously born son. In Genesis 18, God comes to Abraham in the form of three Heavenly Guests. One of the main objects of this visit was the annunciation – the announcement of the miraculous birth of Isaac. We see a very similar announcement at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Luke tells us that “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth” to a virgin named Mary, announcing the miraculous birth of Jesus. VaYerah ends with Genesis 22, Abraham being ready to sacrifice his son and Isaac laying on the altar. The Gospel of Luke (as every other Gospel) ends with Jesus’ sacrifice—with His crucifixion and resurrection. In this sense, the starting and the ending point of our portion today, and the starting and the ending point of the Gospel of Luke are very similar, indeed.

A closer analysis of both scenes of annunciation reveals additional similarities between them. Among the other parallels, the fact that both Isaac and Jesus were named before their births is definitely worth mentioning. In Genesis 17, Abraham was told that Sarah was going to have a son and that they were to name him Isaac. It’s the same with Jesus: not only does the angel reveal His name to Mary in the Gospel of Luke, but also, in the Gospel of Matthew, the angel said to Joseph: “you shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins”  (Mt.1:21).

As for the women – It’s very interesting to watch these women of faith. Both to Sarah and to Mary, the miracle first seemed incredible and impossible—indeed it surpassed all the human understanding and imagination. Therefore, their first reaction was that of disbelief and doubt. In Genesis 18, when the Lord announced the birth of Isaac, Sarah laughed with that famous laughter within herself:

12 Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (Gen.18:12)

When the angel announced the birth of Jesus, “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34)

And yet, both of them acted in faith and obedience – and the history of humanity was changed because of their faith and obedience.

11 By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised (Heb.11:11).

38 Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Guest or Guests?

According to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance before Abraham’s tent in chapter 18. Abraham wasn’t even completely recovered from his circumcision at the end of chapter 17. Although the Torah doesn’t mention it, if we read the text in Hebrew we do find something amazing and unexpected here – something that reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his previous encounter with God in chapter 17. The well-known beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests. The very first word of Abraham’s speech here is “Adonai” (אדוני) – and there is controversy over whether Adonai here should be read as a sacred singular word, “My Lord”, or as a regular plural word, “lords”. It sounds as if Abraham himself was not sure exactly who he saw, as if the Torah reflects Abraham’s initial uncertainty over whether the visitors were human or divine—whether they were mere men, or represented God.

In the following verses, the Hebrew sentences are couched alternatively in singular and plural: in verse 3, there are only singular forms, while verses 4 and 5 use the plural. Abraham is saying: “do not pass on” in singular, and then “wash your feet”, and “refresh your hearts” in plural. I believe that here, at the beginning of this crucial portion and right after chapter 17 with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between natural and supernatural: whether he could and wanted to believe the supernatural promise of chapter 17.

Elohim and Adonai

We all know that the story of Genesis 22—the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, Aqedat Itzhak found in this chapter—symbolizes the center and the culmination of Abraham’s life, his unprecedented and inimitable obedience and faith. But have you ever paid attention to the names of God in this chapter?

The difference in the names of God used at the beginning and end of this story is very clear. When the test begins, it is Elohim that commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Now it came to pass after these things that God (Elohim) tested Abraham…[1]

Elohim ( (אלוהים– “God” or “gods” – is the generic term for God that we find in the Bible. It can be used as a plural noun if applied to the gods of other nations, or a singular noun when it refers to Israel’s God. The command of Elohim is one that other ‘elohim’, other gods, could make and did make: the practice of human sacrifice was well-known to Israel’s neighbors. However, it was the Lord, Adonai, who stopped Abraham’s hand in the end: But the Angel of the Lord (Adonai) called to him from heaven…[2]  Adonai יהוה)) is the absolutely unique and personal name of the God of Israel—the name most frequently used in the Bible.

The Jewish tradition interprets the names Elohim and Adonai as the explanation of the two sides of the nature of God: His Justice and His mercy. This understanding of the different names of God is also used in order to explain the two different accounts of creation – Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: The Midrash says that the world was originally created by God as Elohim (Gen. 1), but that afterward He is called Adonai Elohim (Gen. 2), because He saw that without His mercy His creation would not survive. The different names of God used at the beginning and end of Genesis 22, reflect two sides of God’s nature —Elohim and Adonai.

 

[1] Gen. 22:1

[2] Gen. 22:11

I  would like to remind you, dear friends that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, where you can learn from Parashot Shavua commentaries along with their New Testament interpretation. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information! 

Excerpts from my  books are included in many  posts on this blog, you  can get  my books  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/  Also,  my last book “Unlocking the Scriptures”, with the Hebrew insights into the Torah and  Jewish Background insights   into NT,  is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Lois

    I always love your articles, Julia! I was glad and interested to see you point out that human sacrifice was familiar to the times of Abraham. I personally have concluded that, while his obedience was essential to his righteousness before God, that God was also here revealing the difference between His character and the gods of surrounding culture. For later in Scripture He says through the prophet , never did such a thing come into my mind! (Jeremiah 19:5) The moment that The call from heaven came to stay his hand from sacrificing Isaac was a revelatory moment in God’ s revelation of Himself to Abraham. What do you think?

  2. Anthony Bradshaw

    Minister Julia,i am always excited to read your blog,I’ve learned so much,I hardly reply but I must encourage you to continue with the great work you are doing.someone said three wise men came to see Jesus but the bible never said how many wise men came.I had to stop studies for awhile but i will resume soon in the new year.Have a blessed Christmas and a prosperous and productive new year.

  3. Jørgen Salomonsen

    There were 3 angels that came to Abraham
    and
    there were 3 wisemen who came to Maria and Joseph when Jesus was born.

    I attended one of your courses. I am still student 607623.

    1. Julia Blum

      Great Jorgen, I am always delighted when my students find the parallels and allusions in the Scriptures!

  4. Troy McClure

    Julia, in your previous message about the two Yods, I have question. I know nothing about Hebrew so this might seem a bit off the wall. Is it possible the two Yods could represent Adam and Eve and their coming “inclination” to one another when they become one in marriage?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Troy, definitely,two Yods might be interpreted in different ways. For instance, in the book of Exodus there are several places where the extra Yod, I believe, represents God’s intervention (for example, when Pharaoh awakes from his dreams, the Hebrew verb has an extra Yod). In this sense, your interpretation referring To Adam and Eve, though not traditional, is as valid in my eyes as many other interpretations – our sages teach that the Torah has 70 faces!

  5. Nick

    Thanks Julia! There is much to contemplate here: miraculous origins, domination of the spiritual over physical reality, the importance of our choices as humans right in the middle of it all!!
    Nick