Scholarship

Avraham’s Test of Loyalty

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Mark Glass

I.

Akeidat Yitzchak is often read through a moral lens, drawing the focus onto Avraham’s willingness to murder his son and God’s demand that Avraham do so. But there are other ways to read the akeidah, treating not theoretical, philosophical questions but matters relating to Avraham’s trajectory in the context of the rest of his life as told in Genesis. From this perspective, the akeidah serves a purpose often overlooked, as Avraham is offered an opportunity to finally prove his loyalty to God.

Such an idea may seem, at first, an overreach. Where lies Avraham’s disloyalty? This is, after all, the Avraham who follows God into the unknown (Gen. 12:1, 4); who looks only to God as his source of wealth (14:22–23); and circumcises himself at God’s behest (17:24). But there are hints of another Avraham: An Avraham whose faith in God’s promise is lackluster (cf. Ramban to 12:10); whose faith in God’s protection is weak (12:11–16); and who questions God’s ability to bring him a son (15:2). Avraham’s most questionable act is his interpretation of a divine command that leads him to send his son and concubine off to die in the desert (21:1–21). This final situation casts a sharp light on Avraham’s loyalty and leads God to test him with the akeidah.

II.

The story of sending away Hagar, merely twenty-one verses long, is easy to misread as an example of Avraham’s loyalty to God. Following Yitzchak’s birth, Sarah grows enraged by Yishmael’s presence and demands that Avraham cast out Yishmael and Hagar, his son and concubine, insisting that Yishmael not share in Yitzchak’s inheritance:

She [Sarah] said to Avraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Yitzchak.” (21:10, trans. NJPS)

Disturbed by this demand and the thought of losing a son – “the matter greatly distressed Avraham” (v. 11) – Avraham nonetheless agrees following God’s intervention: “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…” (v. 12). Thus, the next morning Avraham sends Hagar and Yishmael off with some supplies. It seems clear from the verses themselves that, though Avraham is hesitant to follow Sarah’s demand that he send Hagar and Yishmael away, God’s instruction to do so sways him. In other words, Avraham sends Hagar and Yishmael away, not motivated by Sarah, but by God’s command.

The details, however, paint a more complex and questionable image. One thing that is clear from the Avraham story is his vast wealth, implied at many points in the narrative and explicitly noted in 13:2. It is also clear that he possesses the resources to send someone comfortably on a long journey to another country, as seen when he sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak in chapter 24. And so, as Avraham sends off Hagar and Yishmael, it is worth considering the route not taken. Why would Avraham only give Hagar such meager provisions, “some bread and a skin of water” (21:14), when he could so easily give more? As noted by Jon D. Levenson, it is highly unlikely “that one skin of water will suffice a young woman and her child lost in the desert” (p. 75). Avraham isn’t sending Hagar and Yishmael away, he is sending them off to die! This intention is reinforced by God’s miraculous saving of Hagar and Yishmael when Yishmael is on the cusp of death in the very next verses (vv. 15–19). Though this is not the first time Avraham has shown cruel indifference towards Hagar, (cf. 16:6), his active participation in their death is striking. That Avraham never sees neither Hagar nor Yishmael again underscores that the reader should assume that Avraham thinks them dead. [Indeed, the midrash (Gen. Rabbah 61) that claims that Keturah, Avraham’s wife following Sarah, is Hagar blunts the horror of chapter 21, because it ensures Avraham was reunited with a woman he had thought dead at his own hands.]

All this is to say that, though a simple reading of this story shows an Avraham who is only following God’s command – “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says” (21:12) – a closer look reveals his follow-through to be not only cold-hearted but also based on a particular interpretation of God’s instruction. God does not demand that Avraham treat Hagar and Yishmael with such cruelty. Why doesn’t Avraham send them with, at minimum, enough provisions to make it somewhere? Why, instead, does Avraham send them off to die? This is what motivates God’s test. Avraham has a hand in Hagar and Yishmael’s near-death, a death not commanded by God. God now must clarify if Avraham’s motivations were pure.

III.

There is another Biblical story that, when viewed through a particular lens, illuminates God’s purpose with the akeidah: Shaul’s slaughter of all but one of the Amalekites (I Samuel 15). Despite being commanded by God to slaughter all of Amalekites in response to their attacking of the Jewish people as they left Egypt (Exodus 17:8–14), Shaul spares Agag, king of Amalek, and takes of the booty, flouting God’s command (I Sam. 15:9). The issue, claims R. Aharon Lichtenstein, is not in God’s order to commit genocide per se – however hard that may be to stomach – but in Shaul’s selective observance of the command (By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God, p. 126):

The only justification [to killing the Amalekites] lies in it being a response to an unequivocal divine command. Therefore, if Shaul had been motivated in his actions purely by fear of God, by obedience to the tzav, then he should have followed the command to the letter. … Now, if he didn’t kill Agag but killed everyone else, what does that indicate? It indicates that what motivated him in killing the others was not the tzav of God, but rather some baser impulse, some instinctive violence. And the proof is that he killed everyone, but spared his peer, his royal comrade. … He killed [the Amalekites] not purely due to a divine command (which is the only thing that can overcome the moral consideration), but rather out of military, diplomatic or political considerations.

A clear, unequivocal, divine command when followed faithfully can trump morality’s governance – so claims R. Lichtenstein. But, Shaul’s selective observance of that command indicated a different motivation: not the victory of divine command over morality but the using of a divine command to excuse morality and justify horror, the genocide of Amalek. Once Shaul is ignoring God, each Amalekite death is unjustified, a murderous, morally objectionable act done for mere diplomatic reasons. Shaul’s sin lies in his disloyalty; his deviation from God’s instruction renders these horrific actions his own.

Such a concern lies at the heart of Avraham’s banishment of Hagar and Yishmael. By giving Hagar neither enough provisions nor any resources for her and Yishmael to survive their exile, one question demands an answer: where do Avraham’s loyalties lie? Were his actions purely due to a divine command – as a simple reading of the story indicates – or motivated out of other considerations, such as sharing Sarah’s cruelty? This question not only haunts the reader but also God, as it were. Does Avraham’s mercilessness in sending Hagar and Yishmael off reveal an Avraham using God’s command to justify horror? How can God know that Avraham was following Him?

The very ambiguity of Sarah’s demand amplifies the question. She uses the word garesh to demand Hagar and Yishmael’s exile (21:10). But the word has ambiguous connotations. Though translated as “drive out,” several other occurrences of the word imply a darker meaning. When God says that He will “drive out” the other nations from the Land of Israel (Ex. 34:11), for example, it is hard to imagine this statement implying anything other than destruction and death. Is this what Sarah means, using polite language to mask an ugly request? Her history with Hagar makes it likely. But it cannot be that this is what God endorses, given that God saves Yishmael’s life (Gen. 21:17–21).

And so, when Avraham sends Hagar and Yishmael off to die in the desert, whose command is he following, Sarah’s or God’s? Does he use God’s instruction to justify his (attempted) murder of his concubine and son, revealing a selective loyalty to God? Or does he truly believe God wants him to kill Hagar and Yishmael? This is not outside the realm of possibility – Avraham has already considered the possibility that God would desire Yishmael’s death (17:18), fearing “God will kill Avraham’s older son to make room for the younger one who is to be the true ancestor of the covenanted people” (Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 51). Though God then assures Avraham that Yishmael will still live (v. 20), Avraham might think that God’s agreement with Sarah is a change of mind – after all, Avraham believes God can change His mind, as he makes clear in the story of Sodom (18:23–33).

Thus the question of Avraham’s loyalty. There is no clear way to process what motivates Avraham from his actions thus far. But there is a way to discover where his loyalty truly lies: a test. A replication of the same situation with similar conditions where the only command is divine and there can be no ulterior motive to Avraham’s actions. Avraham must be willing to do to Yitzchak what he did to Yishmael. If he fails, his (almost) murder of Yishmael was an act of cruelty in which he used God’s command as justification for a baser violence. But, if Avraham is willing to sacrifice Yitzchak, it shows his loyalty lies only with God.

IV.

There is no need to keep up any suspense. Every reader of chapter 22 sees clearly that Avraham passes this test and thus his motivations for sending Hagar and Yishmael off to die emerge only out of God’s command and no other. What often goes unnoticed is how strongly the chapter reinforces the link between the akeidah and Avraham’s banishment of Hagar and Yishmael, showing it to be a clear replication of the previous chapter. But it also invokes Avraham’s loyalty by calling back to his first act of obedience: God’s initial call of lekh lekha and his response, in a mirror formulation that is remarkably similar. Not only does the phrase occur only twice – in this chapter (v. 2) and in 12:1 – but both verses contain three terms of increasing specificity and the demand that he travel to an unknown location to be revealed at a later point (Canaan and Mount Moriah). Avraham’s first act of loyalty has God tell him to leave me-artzekha, umi-moladtekha, umi-beit avikha – from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house (12:1) – while his test of loyalty has him sacrifice et binkha, et yehidekha asher ahavta, et Yitzchak – your son, the favored one you love, Yitzchak (22:2). Chapter 22’s opening verses can thus be read either as the beginning of the test – until this point, Avraham has followed God’s instruction, beginning with lekh lekha; now, he must prove that he still does by following a new lekh lekha – or as a reminder to the reader of his unquestionable loyalty that will be reaffirmed by the end of the chapter. Either way, that the Torah introduces this new call with the words “some time afterward” implies a direct connection to the preceding narrative and thus the prompt of the test, the sending off of Hagar and Yishmael.[1]

From this point on the Torah continually recalls to Avraham’s sending off of Hagar and Yishmael both in its language and imagery.[2] Following both divine commands Avraham rises early in the morning (21:14, 22:3). In both situations Avraham takes (va-yikkah) the object that will cause the death – the minimal water that will bring Yishmael’s dehydration and the wood upon which Yitzchak will be burned – and places it (sam al/va-yasem al) upon the victim (21:14, 22:6). Avraham is thus repeating every stage of his sending off of Hagar and Yishmael with Yitzchak. Just as he could have changed his plans for Hagar and Yishmael at various junctures but did not, so too does he have an opportunity to change his mind about sacrificing Yitzchak. The choices he must continue to make during Akeidat Yitzchak are the same choices he made when sending Hagar and Yishmael off to die.

The stories are resolved in similar ways, too. Both victims are spared by angelic intervention at the behest of God (21:17, 22:11) with the angel referring to both children not by name but as na‘ar, a “youth” (21:18, 22:12). Both deaths are averted by the sudden noticing of a solution. Hagar is shown a well, while Avraham sees the ram to replace Yitzchak (21:19, 22:13). That God should save Yitzchak from Avraham in a manner similar to how He saved Yishmael from Avraham’s actions emphasizes that Akeidat Yitzchak is a replaying of Avraham’s sending off of Hagar and Yishmael, underscored by the Torah’s reference to both Yitzchak and Yishmael as an anonymous na‘ar: both ne‘arim who need God’s intervention following Avraham’s actions.

The akeidah should thus not be read as a distinct narrative but as a continuation and resolution to what comes before. Having so willingly sacrificed Yishmael, Avraham repeats the same act with Yitzchak and, in so doing, reveal the motivation behind his earlier action. This also explains why God’s intervention only happens at the very moment Avraham is about to slaughter Yitzchak (22:10–11). Only when Avraham is truly willing to repeat what he did to Yishmael can his test be deemed a success. Likewise, this explains why God learns something from the akeidah, that He “now knows” that Avraham truly fears God (22:12), a term replete with connotations of loyalty.[3] Until the very moment Avraham is willing to kill Yitzchak his loyalty is uncertain. Only when he fully shows his previous action – his sending off of Hagar and Yishmael – to have been motivated solely by divine command does God learn that Avraham’s previous actions were also solely predicated upon the divine command.

When read together, chapters 21 and 22 present both the question and resolution of Avraham’s loyalty. Though Avraham shows a willingness to kill Hagar and Yishmael, the akeidah story clarifies that his actions were motivated solely by God’s command. Reading the akeidah not as a philosophical story but as a true test of Avraham’s faith and a clarification of his motivations allows for a rich understanding of these two stories.


[1] Though there is a narrative between the two episodes (Gen. 21:22–34) in which Avraham makes a pact with Avimelekh, the story of Avraham’s banishment of Hagar and Yishmael is the narrative that shares a clear linguistic link with the akeidah, as seen below.

[2] Many of these comparisons are drawn from Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham, 75–84.

[3] Cf. Jon. D. Levenson, The Love of God (Princeton University Press, 2016) 29–36.