This most significant of religious stories is at the center of Jewish religious life, yet in terms of length and detail it is miniscule – a mere 19 sentences. The very fact that the story is laconic lends itself to the process of midrash. In addition, since this story is described at its beginning as a test for Abraham. it raises a flag (pun intended, as you will see) for us as readers. How are we to understand this test? What is its purpose? What does God intend to gain from such a test? One can ask a plethora of questions. Also, somehow always lurking in the background, we continue to be concerned with the ever present question concerning Abraham’s worthiness for the job that God has assigned him.
Alas, the task is large and the time is short. We will study together only one or two midrashim. Even the greatest hits of the midrashic tradition on this story would take up more than a course. What I propose to do with you is to examine the evolution of the opening midrash on the Akedah as it is found in Bereishit Rabbah and then to see how the same midrash is treated three centuries later in a midrashic collection known as Tanhuma, but first the story as it is found in the Torah.
Read through the entire story (It is short!), even though we will only be concerned for our purposes with the first sentence and in the first sentence we will only be concerned with a single word.
Notes and Questions
1. In the 1st verse, we are told that God “did prove” – ” ניסה ” Abraham. This is translated in the NJPS translation as “God put Abraham to the test” and, in fact, a ” ניסיון ” is a test.
2. What do you make of the nature of this test? What is it supposed to prove?
2. Midrash 1
Here we have another midrash from Bereishit Rabbah. Ths midrash is a peticha. As we noted in a previous lesson, this midrash opens with a verse from elsewhere in the Tanach, interprets it and winds its way back to the verse from the beginning of the Torah reading. Notice how every part of the verse from Psalms is interpreted in this midrash.
Questions and Comments
- The peticha verse for this midrash comes from the book of Psalms.
Notice here that the word “nes” – banner and “lehitnoses” to display sound like the word “nisayon “. The connection between the opening verse of the parashah and the verse from this psalm is based on the homonymic similarity between these words.
Take note of how this literary playfulness can be transformed into a powerful message.
- What point is this midrash trying to make about testing Abraham? What is the purpose of the test?
- Who does the test ultimately justify?
- What is Abraham’s purpose in this test?
- Is Abraham intended to be someone to emulate in this test?
3. Midrash 2
Midrash Tanhuma was composed in Eretz Yisrael probably around the seventh century – some three centuries after the above midrash. This midrash is based on the earlier midrash that we have just seen.
I have underlined (in the Hebrew) and put in bold print (in the English) those elements which are new. Our task will be to determine what the later author intended to say through these additions that was not already said in the earlier midrash.
Questions and Comments
The Tanhuma uses the first midrash as its framework but makes three dramatic additions.
- In 1. in the midrash it is making a very interesting religious statement about the Akedah. See if you can explain what it is doing.
- In 2., the Tanhuma is making an important switch from the message of the first midrash to create its own message. What is the change and what is the new message?
- For 3., it is necessary to read the first chapter of the book of Daniel. Why did the Tanhuma choose Daniel as its hero. Compare and contrast him with Abraham. What is Daniel’s advantage over Abraham?
- What is the Tanhuma’s message? How is it different from the message in Bereishit Rabbah? Speculate as to the reason for this changed message.
I see that the midrashim on the Akedah - the binding of Isaac presented some difficulties but I saw in the responses to this midrashim some very clear thinking. The two midrashim that I presented represent how two different generations played the same midrash.
In the first midrash from Bereishit Rabbah, the author used a verse from Psalms which had a word that sounded similar to the key word in the story of the Akedah “nisa” test. The word in the psalm is “nes” flag. Who is the flag in the midrash? Abraham! What is the purpose of the test? To prove to the world that God’s choices are just. Every time Abraham “passed” a test, God was justified in the world. The ultimate test, where Abraham was willing to risk everything, namely, all of the promises made to him by God, trusting that God would come through for him, proved how worthy a “man of faith” Abraham really was and as a result how just God truly was.
Not everyone can be the “poster boy” for God that Abraham proved to be. None of us would want to be tested the way he was tested. Consequently, while it may have been necessary to justify God’s choice of Abraham in the time of Bereishit Rabbah, this was not an issue in the time of the second midrash. In addition, the first midrash has a theological message but it does not have a homiletic message which would have meaning for a larger audience. This, however, seems to have been important to the author of the “retake” of the midrash in the Tanhuma. The later author transforms the midrash for his own purposes. There are a number of things going on in this midrash. I will name a couple of the “biggies”.
- The play of the word “nisa” and “manos” refuge. This little vignette shows the Akedah in a way which most of us have not seen it before. This midrash seems to want to use the Akedah to say to the “neighbors” that we Jews are not in need of “another” refuge from the netherworld because the Akedah already serves as a refuge for us from that fate. I hope you understand what I am talking about here!
- The major innovation of this midrash though is in replacing the Abraham model with the Daniel model. Why? Many of you caught it. Daniel is a more human size model. He does the kind of stuff we can do. He is a man of faith on our plain. His life also speaks to the issues that are a part of our lives. Loyalty to God in the face of assimilation. With Daniel as a model each and every one of us is turned into an Abraham who can through our loyalty to God prove that God made the “right “choice” in choosing the Jewish people.