The Inheritance of Abraham

Rabbi Steven I. Rein
September 8, 2011
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From the time of the New Testament and onward the Akedah became a battleground for answering the question ‘Who inherits the legacy of Abraham?’ The New Testament and Church Fathers were relentless in their reading of the binding of Isaac as a prefiguration of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. You can probably guess that much has been written on equating Isaac being bound to the alter and Jesus being bound to the cross.

Christians are not alone in their reading of the Akedah through a particularistic lens. The prophet Muhammad received, among many revelations from the angel Gabriel, a specific teaching about the binding of Abraham’s son. In this teaching, however, Gabriel neglects to mention the name of the son who was bound. It is probably of no surprise that Muslim commentators presumed the bound son to be Ishmael, the ancestor of Islam. Just as in the case of Christianity, the Muslim assumption seems to be that identification with the bound son authenticates that religious tradition as the inheritor of Abraham. If it was Ishmael who endured with Abraham, than Islam is the beloved son.

The 9th century midrash, Pirkei Rabbi Eleazer, zeroes in on the two nameless characters – Abraham’s servants. The author of the midrash identifies these servants as the only other males in Abraham’s household: Ishmael (representing Islam) and Eliezer(representing Christianity). With Isaac bound to the alter, our author imagines a dispute between Ishmael and Eliezer. Ishmael says to Eliezer: “Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac and I am his first born son; therefore, I will inherit the legacy of Abraham”. Eliezer retorts: “he has already thrown you out of his house; whereas I am his faithful servant. Therefore, I will inherit the legacy of Abraham”. Suddenly the ruah hakodesh – the divine spirit – announces: “you shall not inherit and you shall not inherit”.

What extreme faith our midrash has! Amidst wars between Islam and Christianity, this 9thcentury rabbi imagines God sending a message of faith declaring the continuity of Jewish history. Only Isaac shall inherit the legacy of Abraham. Despite this faith, the midrashist is aware of the harsh reality that must still be endured. Remember, the knife will soon be at Isaac’s throat. Judaism, like Isaac, will endure a near death experience before it will be restored to life.

There will always be moments in our lives where all hope seems to be lost, when we are bound upon the alter of crisis, stress, and adversity. In the words of Thomas Paine, “these are the times that try men’s souls”. We must stand up and face adversity while keeping our hearts and faith with God. There will be moments in each of our lives when we are faced with our own Akedah. Let us pray that when these times come the ruah hakodesh will step in front of our adversities, allowing us to recover from our own near sacrifice.

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