What Did We Miss ?

Today, we are going to talk about one of the richest portions in the entire Torah – VaYera (“And He Appeared”, Gen.18:1-22:24) There are so many things happening in this Portion, that we could discuss them endlessly, so once again, I have to restrain myself.  Years ago I wrote a book based on the events of these chapters – but even after this book, I feel that there is still so much that can be said here! In my book, I looked at the events of this portion mainly through the father’s eyes (the book is even called, “Abraham had two sons”). Today, I want to try to look at these events through the eyes of the mother.

The Annunciation

First of all, VaYera should be of special interest to New Testament readers because the structure of this portion is parallel to the structure of the Gospel of Luke: it begins with the Divine Annunciation of the miraculous birth of the son of the promise and ends with Aqedat Izhak, the sacrifice of this son (called by the Scripture “the only son”).

Genesis 18 begins with a very interesting scene, where 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 the Gospel of Luke: the angel Gabriel appears before Mary and tells her about miraculous birth of her son. The Gospel of Luke (and every other Gospel) ends with Jesus’ sacrifice, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. 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.

A closer analysis of both stories reveals some additional similarities between them. First of all, the fact that both Isaac and Jesus were named before their births is definitely worth mentioning. In the previous chapter, 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)

It’s very interesting to compare the two women. Both to Sarah and to Mary, the miracle seemed incredible and impossible – indeed, it surpassed all 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:

Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”[1]

When the angel announced the birth of Jesus, “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”[2]

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

What Did Sarah See? 

As in the case of Jesus, we know almost nothing about Isaac’s childhood and youth. However, we do have that remarkable scene in Genesis 21 that became a key point in “Isaac and Ishmael” story. At about two or three years old, Isaac had just been weaned and a big party was thrown on this occasion. Probably during the party, or around this time, Sarah sees Ishmael, now a teenager 16 or 17 years old, doing something: “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian … scoffing”.  She is infuriated and immediately says to Abraham: Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely Isaac.”[3]  Why? What did Sarah see?

The Hebrew word, metzahek, used in this verse, has several meanings, and no one knows exactly what it means here. Some commentaries suggest a sexual connotation. After all, this is the same word that we find in Genesis 26, where it refers to Isaac and Rebecca and undoubtedly has a sexual connotation: “Isaac was sporting (metzahek) with Rebecca his wife”[4].  Does it have the same meaning here? Was Ishmael sexually molesting Isaac? And was it because of this sexual abuse that Sarah was so infuriated? Yet, based on the text itself, it isn’t even clear that Ishmael was interacting with Isaac at all when Sarah saw him—Isaac is not even mentioned in this sentence. So, what did Sarah see and why was her reaction so turbulent? An even more important question is: why did God support Sarah?

Why did God support Sarah? Why did He completely back up what seemed to be a very exaggerated reaction of an infuriated and jealous mother? Sarah could have made a mistake; we know she had made mistakes before. We would be only relieved if the whole situation could be explained away solely as an exaggerated reaction of Sarah’s: it’s almost scary to discover how easily and quickly we lose our inner peace when our children are involved. I imagine that if Abraham had thought this terrible request was only an overreaction on Sarah’s part, he would not have been quite so disturbed. However, to Abraham’s great surprise and displeasure, God completely supported Sarah in this request. Why?

Let us turn to Hebrew for the answer. If you know Hebrew letters, you will recognize that the word metzahek, מצחק, has the same root as Itzhak: יצחק.  Therefore, it can be read as a verb formed from the root, “Isaac”. Sarah saw that Ishmael was “Isaacing” – whatever that might mean! Ishmael was probably trying to take Isaac’s place – maybe in Abraham’s family, maybe in God’s plan, maybe in both! In my opinion, this unexpected, and only-in-Hebrew visible explanation, can account, not only for Sarah’s stormy reaction, but also for God’s command to banish Ishmael from Abraham’s camp!

Regardless of what Sarah saw, Ishmael was a natural, man-made son. He had been conceived and born naturally—unlike Isaac, who was the child of a miracle, conceived and born in a totally supernatural way. Ishmael was “Isaacing”, trying to take Isaac’s place – and had the boys continued to live together, nothing would have come of God’s plan to make His own peculiar people from Abraham’s family. God wanted to separate the son who was born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God, from the son who was born in a natural way and was destined to be part of the natural world. For Isaac to grow up in God’s covenant he had to be separated from Ishmael – therefore, Ishmael had to be sent away. Somehow Sarah, with her love for God, understood this. As emotionally involved as Sarah was in this story, it still seems that she wasn’t acting out of her emotions  alone, but out of her prophetic gift as well (as happens again a few chapters later in the story of Esau and Jacob, where it was Rebecca, not Isaac, who understood God’s plan and God’s heart). Although her reaction was very emotional and evidently exaggerated, separating Isaac from Ishmael and leading them both to completely different destinies, was God’s plan.

The Sacrifice

Fast-forward some years, and we arrive at one of the strangest stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of Isaac. To most Christians, Isaac in this scene is seen as a type of Jesus, and Abraham being ready to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, becomes the type of the Father being ready to sacrifice His Son for the world:

Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” [5]

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life[6]

From a New Testament perspective, this parallel is very clear: the father is willing to sacrifice his only son; the son is obedient and willing to lay down his life. Is there anything additional that a Christian reader can learn from the Jewish tradition here – anything that has been missed?

In the Christian tradition, Isaac is always depicted as a child or teenager, and his obedience is perceived as a child’s obedience to his father. Thanks to the simple phrase ַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו – “and the two of them walked on together” – we get a glimpse of an extraordinary unity of the father and the son. We know  that, while Abraham knew only too well the reason for going up this mountain, the son knew nothing and was clearly perplexed, all the time understanding less and less of what was really happening and where “the lamb for burnt offering” was. Nevertheless, he continued to follow his father in perfect obedience and perfect trust. However, was Isaac indeed a boy obediently following his father?

While nothing in the text indicates Isaac’s age, some suggestions have been made by Jewish commentators – and these suggestions might really surprise you.   According to the Jewish midrashim, Isaac – who followed his father in perfect obedience and trust – was already an adult; he was 37 years old. Next time, I will show you the logic and the calculations of Jewish commentaries arriving at this conclusion. Here, as we try to see the parallels between this Torah portion and the Gospel, I will just allow myself a small remark: even though it’s traditionally believed that Jesus was 33 years old when he died, all the striking parallels between this Torah Portion and the gospels might point to a different age. Isaac’s obedience to his father’s will—his freewill consent and selfless readiness to be sacrificed—becomes much more profound when we think of him as a grown man, willingly following his elderly father. Wouldn’t he be a perfect type of 37 year old Jesus?

[1] Gen.18:12

[2] Luk.1:34

[3] Gen.21:9,10

[4] Gen.26:8

[5] Gen.22:2

[6] John 3:16

 

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 this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them   here 

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. julio cesar gutierrez

    que nos perdimos muy educativo muchas gracias, me gustaría leer un cementerio del éxodo.

  2. Nick

    Thanks Julia, for a huge teaching vital to bringing clarity. Were Jesus and Isaac stoically obedient with a stiff upper lip because they were supposed to? No doubt both men were beyond mere obedience.
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      You are so right, Nick, it is such an important point. In Jewish tradition, not only was the Aqedah considered a true sacrifice but precisely because of the freewill consent of Isaac – a unique feature that one doesn’t find in other sacrifices – it became The Sacrifice, with its redemptive benefits lasting forever. In both cases, this freewill consent definitely goes “beyond mere obedience”. That’s why Isaac in this chapter can be seen as a perfect type of Jesus.