Sarah's silence in the Sacrifice of Isaac

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Published: 26th November 2008
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In his Fear and trembling, Kierkegaard tells us about "a man who, when a child, had heard the beautiful Bible story of how God tempted Abraham and how he stood the test, how he maintained his faith and, against his expectations, received his son back again" (Kierkegaard). Like this man, I have known the story of the sacrifice of Isaac since I was a little girl. Again and again I was told about a father who was ready to kill his beloved son in order to prove his faith in God. Back in those days, the whole story seemed to me quite pointless. I believed "our" God would never allow such a terrible thing to take place. As a child I couldn't believe a father would take his son's life just like that. The end, I felt, had to be a happy one.

Although the man in Kierkegaard's tale deeply admired Abraham, with the passing of time "the story grew less and less clear to him" (Kierkegaard). For me too, the protagonists and the plot itself have become much more difficult to grasp. When I was a child the main characters of the story where two: father and son. I must confess that it had never crossed my mind that the character of the mother could be missing. Her absence, however, quite puzzles me as a grownup and a mother of two boys.

In her essay "Sarah's silence: A newly discovered commentary on Genesis 22 by Rashi's sister", Dvora Yanow asks a question I have already asked myself: "Are we to understand that Abraham didn't tell her his plans?" A possible answer could be "Yes". He either kept the secret to himself or simply lied to his wife about his real intentions. The author asserts that there are some who actually think that Sarah is not present in the text because Abraham didn't tell her his plans: maybe "he was embarrassed; he didn't want to provoke a fight; he knew she would object" (Yanow) .

The reader knows that Abraham has lied twice in this story. First, when he "said to his young men, 'stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you'" (Genesis 22). And he lies again when a worried Isaac points at the fire and the wood and asks about the missing lamb for the sacrifice. "And Abraham said, 'My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering'" (Genesis 22). In both cases Abraham is aware he might return alone after killing his own son!

Kierkegaard starts the analysis of "Problem III" in his Fear and Trembling with the following question: "Was Abraham ethically defensible in keeping silent about his purpose before Sarah, before Eleazar, before Isaac?" Before trying to answer this question we need to understand Kierkegaard's distinction between three ways of life: First, the aesthetic (the life of the single individual living out his or her own experience); second, the ethical ( which transcends the personal, and sees as its highest interest the common good of all people, and abandons individual pleasures or desires in favor of the universal) and third, the religious (like the aesthetic, works on the level of the single individual; but here, the individual is in a direct relationship with God). Because the religious life is a personal matter, it cannot be explained or justified on an ethical level. Abraham is a religious man, and the expressions of the ethical are not suited to him. Instead, he remains silent, maintains hope, and follows God's command to the letter.

The main issue in Problem III is that though the ethical calls for Abraham to speak up he could not speak. While it may not be "ethically defensible" for Abraham to conceal his plans, his relation to God brings him above the ethical. God's command to Abraham is unique to him and indicates a private relationship with God. Being unique and private, this command cannot be shared and explained to other people in an understandable way. Moreover, if he were to share his test with someone, it would no longer be a private trial he shares with God. If he said something, he would be making it public and would thus be separating himself in a way from God. Kierkegaard emphasizes Abraham's inability to speak by repeating this idea several times: "Abraham keeps silent - but he cannot speak. Therein lies the distress and anguish [... .] [Abraham] does not dare to offer comfort, for would not Sarah, would not Eleazar, would not Isaac say, ' Why wilt thou do it? Thou canst refrain?' [...] He is unable to speak, he speaks no human language. [... ] As for Abraham there was no one who could understand him". (Kierkegaard).

Where is Sarah in the story of the akedah?! Isn't the victim's mother important for the plot? Why isn't her voice heard? What would she have said? Would she support her husband or oppose him with all her heart? "This silence is troubling: would a mother, knowing that her husband was about to lead their son to the sacrificial altar, not get up in the morning to say goodbye - let alone plead or argue with her husband about the foolishness of such a plan? Not to mention that this particular son was so long in coming, and at such potential cost to the physical health of a 90-year-old woman." (Yanow)

We know that "Sarah is not the silent type, by and large, nor does Abraham hesitate to discuss other matters with her when he is facing trouble or tell her what to do." (Yanow). There are several examples of her active role in the Old Testament. For instance, in Genesis 20 Sarah agrees to be called Abraham's sister in order to save his life; in Genesis 21 we hear her voice say " 'God has made me laugh and all who hear will laugh with me.' She also said, 'who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age'". (Genesis 21: 5-7). Here she expresses her opinion out loud. Later, she even tells her husband to expel Hagar and Ishmael: "'cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac'" (Genesis 21:10).

When commanded to sacrifice Isaac, God says to Abraham:"...take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of" (Genesis 22:2). But, as noted in the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 89, for Abraham this is a questionable statement since he has two boys (Isaac and Ishmael) and he loves them both. "But from Sarah's point of view, this is not a problematic text: she has only one son." (Yanow) Then, where is she at such a critical moment for her beloved son?

Wendy Zierler brings in a Midrashic source from Tanhuma (attributed to Tanhuma Bar Abba - a 4th Century Palestinian rabbi), which "directly addresses these issues and, as such, offers a more overt presentation of rabbinic readerly bias. [...] In an effort to understand how Abraham convinced Sarah to let him take Isaac up the mountain, the rabbis conjure up a conversation that reflects their sense both of what Sarah knew and of what role she, as a woman, played in Abraham's spiritual framework". In this imaginary dialogue between Abraham and Sarah, "he said to her 'prepare us some food and drink, and we'll celebrate today'. She said to him, ' What's the reason for this celebration?' He said to her 'Old people like us give birth to a son - it is incumbent for us to celebrate!' [...] 'This lad is getting older and hasn't been educated. There is a place far away where they educate boys. I'll take him and educate him there.' She said, 'Go in peace'. Without further ado, 'He arose early in the morning.' Why [so early] in the morning? He thought, 'Sarah may change her mind and not let me go. I'll get up early, before she does.'" (Tanhuma - Vayera 22).

According to Zierler, in this Midrash we can perceive a certain tension between maternal and paternal spheres. Abraham lies to Sarah. He tells her that he intends to take Isaac out of the home to be taught the laws of God. "The conversation presupposes that only a father would want to take a child away from home; it does not even consider the possibility that Sarah would initiate a schooling plan for her son [...]. The values expressed in this midrash find echoes in later Jewish attitudes about the responsibility of a father to educate his sons in Torah and about the need to detach a son from the maternal, domestic sphere of influence" (Zierler). In the life of the shtetl - as depicted by Zbrowski and Herzog - the entrance of the little boy into the kheyder could be "a painful experience for the mere baby who is taken away from his mother's familiar presence to spend ten or twelve hours a day at study. The child cries, the mother may be tearful, but wrapped in his father's prayer shawl the boy is carried out of babyhood, out of the home circle, beyond the enveloping warmth of feminine protection. And though the mother may weep, she would never oppose the commandment to teach Torah to a 'big boy who is already three years old'" (Zierler). In a patriarchal society the social roles are thus well defined: the father is responsible for the child's education, the mother - though nurturer - stays at home. Is it easier for the father to separate from his little son by leaving him in the hands of the educators - the rabbis in this case? I don't really know and it doesn't seem to matter, since the boundaries are clear and the roles cannot be changed.

When we look at the word "love" (a.h.v.) in the Bible and ask ourselves where this verb appears for the first time, we might be surprised to discover that it is first mentioned in Genesis 22: 2:

"And He said, take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest ..."

"If Abraham is the first individual to be recorded as loving in the Bible and God asks him to sacrifice his beloved child, then this test appears to be about Abraham's need to declare the priority of his love for God over his love for his son [...]. By the end of Chapter 22, God wins out, but at great cost [...]. Never again does Abraham walk together with Isaac"(Ziegler). In a patriarchal religious cult obedience to God means for Abraham to be ready to kill his own child, as opposed to the matriarchal cult (in the older tradition), where the protection of the family is a priority. The result of the Akedah is that Isaac no longer appears in the text as his father's loved one. Surprisingly, God isn't Abraham's loved one either. "If this began as a story about competing love claims, from which we might have concluded that Abraham's love for God eclipsed his love for Isaac, love as a term has now disappeared from the narrative [...]. [Abraham] now stands in awe and terror before God, to whom he has devoted his life" (Zierler). He has become a fearer rather than a lover of God.

Zierler states that another "theological model" needs to be disclosed if we "want to live and love with our children". Sarah might serve as a model of love rather than fear. It is not a coincidence that the next time the verb love appears in the Bible it is with reference to Sarah. Even after her death, she is the figure who maintains love alive in the story.

In Genesis 24 Abraham sends his servant to bring home a wife for Isaac (he doesn't do it himself, which shows a certain detachment from his son):

"And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah as wife. And he loved her, and Isaac was consoled after his mother's death" (Genesis 24:77).

At this important moment in Isaac's life, when he is about to create a family of his own, the text does not call upon father Abraham but upon mother Sarah, and her legacy of love.

Chapter 23 begins with Sarah's death:

"Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her". (Genesis 23:1-2)

The fact that Sarah dies far away from Abraham is a clear sign of their detachment after the akedah.

The Bible "frequently introduces women characters who support and propagate the patriarchy, but then dismisses or, in this case, buries them when they outlast their narrative usefulness. [...] But in this case, is it true? Does Sarah really disappear as a narrative presence?" (Zierler). I don't think so. In her article, Zierler has done something the modern reader should do: "dig [Sarah] out of her textual burial plot and show how, despite her absence on Mount Moriah and in the specific verses of Genesis 22, she lives and loves on".

When analyzing Sarah's silence and its meaning for the contemporary reader, Dvora Yanow asks why is it that her silence has not attracted attention. And I wonder why it took me as well so long to realize that Isaac's mother was missing in the story. Maybe I had to become a mother myself in order to see the akedah in a much deeper light.





Bibliography



Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling,1843. Trans. Walter Lawrie, 1941.



Yanow, Dvora. "Sarah's Silence: a Newly Discovered Commentary on Genesis 22 by Rashi's sister". Judaism vol. 43, no. 4. Fall 1994.



Zierler, Wendy. "In Search of a Feminist Reading of the Akedah". Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues, 2005



SparkNotes. 2006



Written by Paula Elion - artist and Painter - www.paulaelion.com


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