Light from the Sidra


Genesis 18: 1-22 : 2; Haftarah. 2 Kings 4: 1-37

I’ve been asked more times than I care to remember (actually, it’s not so much a question as a challenge): “If God exists, why doesn’t he reveal himself to me?”

In response, I once asked: “If he did reveal himself, how would you know it was God and not just someone playing a joke on you?”

“Well, I’d expect him to be radiant and glowing?” came the reply.

To which I replied: “How do you know God looks like that?”

Genesis 18 begins with the Hebrew word Vayera, “And he [Yahweh] appeared.” But when Yahweh appeared Abraham, it wasn’t as some glorious, shining, other-worldly being; he turned up as three men. We’ve seen so far in Genesis that God rarely, if ever, conforms to our expectations and demands.

First, when Yahweh appears to Abraham, Abraham sees three men, who he respectfully addresses as “Adonai” or “my Lord” (singular)”. One of the three (or perhaps all, the text doesn’t tell us) speaks as Yahweh, promising Abraham and Sarah a son by the same time the following year and he knows Sarah is giggling in disbelief behind the tent cover. Abraham offers his celestial guest/guests a very unkosher meal of curds and beef, which he/they eat, and by the end of the chapter it is clear to Abraham that the person/persons speaking to him is Yahweh, the “Judge of all the earth”.

In chapter 19:1, the two “men” who have gone down to Sodom are called “angels”, though we should not forget that the Hebrew word malachim simply means “messengers”. In verse four, they are once again “men”, albeit possessing the supernatural power to strike blind a mob of homosexual rapists. Then the text becomes very confusing. The men/angels/Yahweh are going to destroy the city but Lot pleads with them in the same way Abraham pleaded with God for the city. The men/messenger/Yahweh tell him they/he cannot destroy the city until Lot and his family have escaped. In a curious form of words, verse 23 says: “As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, Yahweh rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulphurous fire from Yahweh out of heaven” (Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

From the very first verse of Genesis, it has been evident that God defies all human attempts to place him in a box and figure him out. Yahweh, Adonai, HaShem, “the Lord”, whatever name we use, is far beyond the comprehension of finite minds but it is interesting to notice how often the number three is associated with him. He is Elohim, a plural title; and when he creates man in Genesis 1:27, he does so using a threefold formula: “God created man in His image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”; in Isaiah 6, Yahweh is “Holy, Holy, Holy”; and to Abraham he reveals himself as “three men”.  

A year later, God keeps his word and Sarah gives birth to Isaac. However, no sooner has Isaac grown to young adulthood than God calls Abraham to take his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loves and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of Moriah, perhaps on the very site where Solomon would build the temple a thousand years later.

Isaac was no ordinary child. He was the son of promise, born of divine intervention, the one through whom Abraham’s seed would come to bring blessing to the entire world. Was God reneging on his promise? Was Elohim like the elohim of the nations? Was Yahweh cruel, capricious and heartless?

Under the covenant God cut with Abraham in Genesis 15, he committed himself to Abraham and his people after him. Passing between the dismembered pieces of the sacrificial victims, God had sent a clear message to Abraham: if God failed to give Abraham “seed” and land in which the seed could live, may he be broken as they were. With such a graphic assurance that God would never go back on his word, Abraham was confident that, whatever happened when they reached the top of the hill, God would provide a lamb.

In fact, what God provided was a ram. I’m no country boy but I do know the difference between a lamb and a ram. And so did Abraham, which is why he called the place Yahweh Yireh, “Yahweh provides” and others said afterwards, “On the Mount of Yahweh it will be seen.”

What would become clear? Perhaps a clue is to be found in the midrash on Genesis 56:3: “And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering (XXII, 6)—like one who carries his stake on his shoulder … And they went both of them together (ib.): one to bind and the other to be bound, one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered” (Midrash Rabbah, vol 1, p.493, Soncino Press). A footnote indicates that the “stake” is, “The stake [or cross] on which he is to be executed.”

So willing was Abraham to obey God, that Isaac was as good as dead (some Jewish sages taught Abraham really killed him), therefore his return was a kind of resurrection. The drama of the Akedah (the Binding) and the symbolic death of Abraham’s firstborn, was seen by some as a foreshadowing of the Passover and, to the later prophets of Israel, provided a point of reference from which to understand the Messiah.  

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