Questioning God, Abraham and ourselves


This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24.

Vayera contains more narrative than almost any other Torah portion and more theologically and morally troubling issues than most. It includes the stories of the angels who promise Isaac’s birth, the argument between God and Abraham over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s rescue, the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, and the Akedah — the binding and attempted sacrifice of Isaac.

The parsha raises serious questions about God’s and Abraham’s behavior. Why is it necessary for God to “test” Abraham? Why does Abraham argue about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but remain mute when commanded to sacrifice his son? Why does he proceed to the sacrifice without telling Sarah, Isaac’s mother? What do we make of the changed relationship between Abraham and Isaac after the Akedah (who depart separately and are never again recorded as speaking together)?

One interpretation, by Jerome M. Segal in “Joseph’s Bones,” offers what some would call a heretical point of view: that Genesis tells the story of the moral development of God. As God experiences humanity, His understanding of morality changes and develops.

At the time of the flood, the text (Genesis 6:5) says that “everything every human being did was evil.” No specifics are given, just that “God saw” how great was the evil. He thought humanity was uniformly evil, without room for individual differentiation, and regretted His creation. After the flood, it seems that God has learned that humanity is diverse. God regrets His action and promises never to repeat it, with the rainbow as a reminder.

God’s regret is troubling to us, because it calls into question His omniscience. Who needs the reminder: humanity or God?

This week, God tips off Abraham of His plans for Sodom. God is portrayed as Abraham’s moral instructor. Ironically, the roles are suddenly reversed: Abraham becomes God’s teacher by famously responding, “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” By arguing that God must act justly, Abraham asserts that moral law is binding upon God. Abraham aims to obtain God’s assent to this principle and by so doing, we see a demonstration of God’s moral development.

On one hand, the Torah is telling us that God’s understanding of morality grows as His understanding of humanity grows, perhaps because of the operation of human free will. God’s collective punishment  at the time of the flood gives way to the concept of individual culpability. On the other hand, if we read the text as a cautionary tale (with humans being expected to imitate God’s actions), we are instructed to be moral ourselves, and to recognize — just as God recognizes — that we are bound to a moral imperative which exists outside of ourselves.

This is a subtle and sublime refutation of the concept of situational ethics and a rejection of the idea that all moral systems are equally valid. Some things are always right, and some things are always wrong, regardless of circumstance, society or faith. The fact that life as we observe it does not follow this rule is a question worth pondering this Shabbat.

Questions for discussion

Why does Abraham argue with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but remain silent when commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac?

If God is all-knowing, why did He feel it necessary to test Abraham’s faith?
Imagine that you are Isaac after the Akedah. What do you feel about the experience? Have your feelings toward your father changed? If so, how?

Gary  Simms is a member of the faculty of Shoresh Hebrew High School and served as executive director at Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations in the Washington area.

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