The rabbis were not shy about wrestling with sacred stories. They often used an ambiguity in the text or a puzzling notion in the tale to dig deeper—to probe what God might have meant beyond what the human authors recorded. This story is that type of midrash.
Its seeds were planted in the mid-90’s when I was teaching fifth grade Sunday School. We came to this lesson, often called “the sacrifice of Isaac.” It’s obviously a tricky story to share with children about the age of Isaac himself. Worse, the discussion questions provided by the curriculum included a phrase along these lines, “God rarely (?!) asks such great sacrifices of us …” I could not teach that lesson. I made an initial faltering attempt to put the story into a better relationship with a gracious God. In these pages I continue that work.
Asenath is indeed identified in the Bible as Joseph’s wife, given to him by Pharaoh. Benjamin was Joseph’s younger brother; they shared Rachel as their mother. And child sacrifice was common in the area where Abraham and Sara dwelt. Beyond these things, this story is a fanciful and feminist-inspired re-truing of the more familiar tale sometimes known as “the binding of Isaac.”
The Unbinding of Isaac
David R. Weiss
copyright 2008 – David R. Weiss
Asenath gathered her granddaughters close around her on the floor. Her hair had long ago been transformed by the alchemy of aging from pitch black to pure silver, and her face was crisscrossed by weathered lines that etched out in delicate dignity her many years. To her teenage granddaughters she was the epitome of beauty; not beauty once held and now lost, but beauty in full bloom. Her Egyptian lineage gave her an added aura of mystery in the eyes of her Hebrew family. And her gentle warm and generous wisdom made the floor in her house—in her presence—a favorite place to be on any occasion. And this was not just any occasion.
“Daughters,” she said, “this is now the fifth time I have told this tale. Each time one of my granddaughters has come of age I have gathered her and her elder sisters to my feet to hear these words. I believe it is the most important story among the many that are told of our family. And I tell it to you because someday you will have granddaughters of your own to whom you must pass it on.”
Elizabeth glanced at her older sisters, eyes aflame with anticipation. She was the one new to the circle this time, carried here by the warm rush of womanhood newly upon her.
“You have often heard this tale, but tonight, Elizabeth, you will hear it for the first time. Listen well, all of you, for the day will come when we must help others to hear it, too.”
Asenath leaned forward and handed Miriam, the eldest, a long taper and invited her with a wordless nod to bring a flame from the lamp on the wall to light to oil lamp on the floor in the middle of their gathered selves. Now, with the warm light drawing them in further, Asenath began her story.
“Daughters, you know that I was not born into the family of Abraham. I was given to my husband, Joseph, by Pharaoh himself, years after his brothers had sold him into slavery. I grew up here in Egypt, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, knowing well the great gods of this land. When I came into Joseph’s house I first considered his God—his one God—a paltry bit of divinity compared to the glory of my people’s many gods. He could show me his God only in prayers and in stories, while I could see my gods in our great pyramids and in our many statues. But he was my husband, and so I dwelt with his God, though only as a polite foreigner dwells in a city altogether strange to her.
“Still, this was not difficult, for though his God had no great monuments, Joseph told me that it was his God who taught him the language of dreams, and that it was his God who lifted him up from slavery and from prison to become the trusted steward of all of Pharaoh’s wealth. And he said that it was his God who taught his heart kindness—and he was surely very good to me. And, pyramids or not, these are no small things for a God to do.
“You have heard, many times over, how it was that Joseph’s father and brothers came to live here in Egypt as a land of refuge in the great famine that came when my hair was still the color of night and when my skin still reflected the moonlight like the still surface of a palace pool. They came. And then I dwelt not just with Joseph’s God but with his family as well. It was then that I heard this story.
“Your grandfather Jacob had four wives, four mothers to his children. My husband Joseph shared the same mother as his younger brother, Benjamin. So when the whole of Joseph’s family came down to Egypt it was among Benjamin’s family that I was most warmly welcomed. And it was Benjamin’s wife, Susanna, who was especially delighted to discover in me a new sister. We spent many days together learning about each other’s lives and each other’s cultures. Daughters, it was from Susanna that I learned to love Joseph’s God. For it was Susanna who told me this tale.
“Susanna learned it from her grandmother, Rebekah. And Rebekah heard it from her husband, Isaac. You know, daughters, that it is our tradition to tell and retell the stories that define our family around the fire at end of the day. Yet Rebekah said that Isaac never spoke of these things around the fire. The memories weighed too heavily upon him, both the wonder and the fear. So he kept his silence while others told their versions of this story to those circled against the darkness. And although Isaac knew otherwise, he allowed the story to go its own way. But to Rebekah, in those moments of trust and tenderness that can pass between a husband and wife, as when the dew appears on the ground, he told these things. And she decided, with her own granddaughters, to preserve this story and to pass it on, not by the campfire, but by this candlelight.
“Our grandfather Abraham, many many years ago, felt a tug on his heart. Although he did not yet know this tug as God, it was a powerful urging, and after a whole moon of sleepless nights he decided that it was indeed the voice of a Spirit speaking deep within his heart. He told his wife, Sara, that they would journey to a distant land. He told her that while walking on sandy hills and while looking up at the starry sky he had heard, both from the sand below and the stars above, the whispered promise of a great family if only he followed the Voice beckoning to him in his heart. And so they went. Sara neither believed nor disbelieved; that was not her choice. Her choice was simply to go.
“Well, they walked entire days for many moons more than the one moon of nights Abraham had spent sleepless. They walked across so much sand and beneath so many stars that even Abraham began to wonder whether this promise was not some foolish hope generated by his own imagination. For in all their years of walking Sara’s womb never swelled like the sand dunes they climbed. No child was born to them. Their flocks multiplied and they became welcomed and respected sojourners in the land where they lived, but no heir appeared.
“Then, at last, Isaac was born. And the old promise took on new life, bouncing on Abraham’s knee and suckling at Sara’s breast. Indeed, his own name—Isaac—spoke the laughter they now knew. But all those years of wandering had taken their toll. For during those years God had kept Abraham and Sara company … in relative silence. In the flourishing of their flocks, yes. In the safety of their travels, yes. But still, the absence of an heir becomes a loud silence after a while.
“And during those long years, while Abraham sat with his neighbors around their campfires he had heard the stories of their gods—and what these deities regularly required of those who worshipped them.
“So, when Isaac was born Abraham and Sara rejoiced. They prayed in thanksgiving. They feasted. And then they waited with eager expectation for more children to come. But they didn’t come. For seven long years, while Isaac grew, they waited to see the flowering of a family, but Isaac alone shared their tent.
“And slowly, without ever saying it aloud, both Abraham and Sara came to know what must be done. If this strangely quiet God who had led them here was anything like the gods of their neighbors, then surely this God had closed Sara’s womb and was waiting for them to prove their loyalty … by giving Isaac back to God as an offering to insure that the great family promised to them so long ago would indeed be granted.
“The stories of such things had been told again and again. Many, maybe most of the families that lived in the land had offered a first child back to their gods.
“And so, when Isaac was eight years old Abraham and Sara spent the longest night of their life in the tent, listening to the quiet trust-full breathing of their only child, the child whom they loved so much, the child whom Abraham would leave with in the morning to give back to God through blood and fire.”
Asenath looked slowly around the candlelit circle. All the girls were wrapped in a blanket of silence, sitting right at the edge of sorrow. Elizabeth, who alone did not know how this tale would end, was wrapped in a blanket fringed as well with fear.
“Daughters,” she said firmly, the tone of her voice almost stern, but still softened with a grandmother’s warmth, “this is what you must understand, even though Abraham and Sara did not understand it at the time. Even though this is not the way the story is told around the campfire. God did not ask this of Abraham and Sara. They heard it in the stories of their neighbors’ gods. They did not yet fully fathom the sheer goodness of their God. They were desperate to receive the family God had promised them. So they thought they heard the voice of God asking for Isaac’s life. And they made plans to return him to God.
“In the morning Abraham loaded the food Sara had packed for them. He loaded the wood that Isaac had happily collected himself. And he packed the knife that he had sharpened the night before with a painful love that hoped only to do what must be done as swiftly and painlessly as possible.
“For three days they journeyed toward the mountain. Isaac was full of wonder and mischief—this was a grand adventure for an eight-year-old boy—though he was puzzled that his father seemed almost pained by the fun he was having. He decided that perhaps trips to make sacrifices were to be made with great seriousness, but at age eight what he decided and what he did were two different things. He continued to enjoy himself. At one point, spying a herd of wild sheep on the rocks in the distance, he asked, ‘Papa, we have everything we need to make a sacrifice—except the sacrifice—that’s kind of silly, don’t you think?’ Abraham replied, with more confidence than he could bear, ‘Isaac, my child, God who has given us so much has already seen to the sacrifice. You will see that soon enough.’ And Isaac let it go at that.
“Daughters,” Asenath again interrupted the story to leave nothing to chance. “Isaac told Rebekah years later that, after everything was done, he overheard his father, Abraham, describe to Sara how every step they took toward the mountain he had felt the familiar tug in his heart, and felt it unusually strong. Sobbing in Sara’s arms, overcome with grief at what he had nearly done, Abraham told her how he had felt the tug pulling him back, telling him to quit this nonsense. But, at the time, in his anguish and confusion, his heart covered over by the ashes of his neighbor’s campfires, he had decided that it was his fear that pulled him back and whispered such things, and that the urging was indeed pulling him toward the mountain. After all, who ever heard of a God who made promises freely?
“So on they walked until they reached the mountaintop. Once there Abraham’s mood darkened yet more as together he and Isaac piled rocks into an altar in silence. Isaac assumed his father was disturbed that they had journeyed all the way to this place expecting an animal to be nearby, and now here they were with no living creature in sight. But his father was so overwrought—Isaac thought he saw tears in the man’s eyes—that he dared not ask about the absent animal.
“After the rocks came the wood. Abraham’s hands trembled as he arranged it to burn with an updraft to carry the offering well on its way heavenward. Isaac watched his father’s trembling hands and felt sorry for him. When Abraham turned to his son, opened his arms, and said, ‘Come, child,’ Isaac was only too willing to comfort his father.”
Asenath saw ten moistened eyes circled around her. She could feel the tears on her own cheeks, too, the sorrow growing with each turn of the tale and now glistening in the candlelight. It must be told, she thought to herself. The terror of our mistakes must not be hid from us. So she continued leading them all deeper into the darkness.
“Isaac stepped into his father’s embrace. ‘Papa, it’s okay,’ he began. He meant to go on to say, ‘I’m sure if we just wait for a bit an animal will come along.’ But the words had no time to come out.
“Instead Isaac felt himself held more tightly than his father had ever held him. Painfully, frightfully tight. And then the burning of rope wrapped and pulled taut around his wrists quick as the echo of thunder in a valley. He knew where the animal was now, but it was too late to do or wish for anything.
“Isaac was speechless, his tongue held tight by terror while his body was bound tight by rope. Abraham, however, talked his terror. Over and over he said to Isaac, ‘You are my child, given to me by God, and I love you.’ The words whipped against Isaac’s heart like the desert wind. They were Abraham’s best effort to console his child and himself in this moment of madness, but they seemed only to deepen it for both of them.
“Abraham lifted Isaac, now bound, but frozen as much by fear as by the rope, and laid him on the wood. He felt the tug ripping at his heart, screaming inside him, but he was sure that it was only fear, and he was determined to fight it off. He felt his hand close on the knife, and for a moment he was certain that Something had tried to tear the blade from his hand, but he called it fear and forced himself to raise the blade above his son. He closed his eyes, wet with tears and stung by the wash of salt, and cried out to God, ‘Here, O God, is my beloved son, in whom I take much delight. See, I give him back to you that you might bless me with many more.’
“And in that moment Isaac was changed forever. For God, who seldom steps so directly into this world, seized the voice of an eight-year-old child and called out to Abraham not with a inner urging but with audible words. ‘Abraham,’ Isaac heard himself say—but no child would dare speak to his father by his given name—whose Voice was this borrowing his own breath? ‘Abraham, this child is a gift. Do not harm him. Your love for me, now and always, is not measured by what you sacrifice back to me but by the faith in which you receive all things freely from me. I am not a God of blood and fire, but a God of life. Set down the knife and worship me by unbinding the child.’
“It was all over in little more than an instant, but it would define the rest of their lifetimes. Abraham dropped the knife like it was hot iron and collapsed in tears upon his son. After unbinding him they hugged for a long time. But then began what Isaac later called the testing of his father.
“Listen, my daughters. For all that you have heard so far, this is where the real terror began for Abraham. Against the witness he had heard about every other god, against everything he had assumed to be true of interactions with the divine, he and Isaac walked down the mountain without making any sacrifice. This was madness! Whatever the anguish that had accompanied him up the mountain, nothing in his life had prepared him for the terror that stalked him all the way down. With every step Abraham heard sneering voices inside himself calling him a crazy old fool, telling him he had just invited the anger of God and that whatever life he had gained for Isaac would be a curse upon the future of his family. The voices told him he had forever cancelled the Promise by daring to question the power of sacrifice. Meanwhile, Isaac walked beside him in silence, too relieved—and too scared—to say anything.
“Near the bottom of the mountain it happened. At a place where a wildlife trail crossed their route they watched in wonder as a gazelle delicately made its way across, just yards in front of them. And this was the sign they saw, this was their epiphany of grace: across the neck of the gazelle was a jagged scar now healed. It, too, had once been marked for sacrifice and had somehow found its freedom. As it moved off into the brush Isaac looked at his father and knew that it was for this moment alone—not his birth—that he had been named. So he laughed, filling his lungs with fresh air and letting it escape again colored with joy. He laughed not because anything was funny, but because he was alive—and the Promise was indeed still good—they had just seen it walk across the path front of them. He laughed because at 8 years old he knew more about God than many a sage will ever fathom. And Abraham, for the first time in weeks, laughed, too.
“When they returned home there was more laughter. Sara could not believe her eyes at first. She, too, felt a rush of terror that this was surely an offense against God to have held back the child. But as they told the tale, repeated the words that Isaac had spoken on the wood, and recounted the scarred gazelle, she, too, allowed herself to believe.”
Looking over to Elizabeth, Asenath saw the wide-eyed wonder that always accompanied the first hearing. It seasoned and deepened with time, as the older girls found themselves relishing what today swallowed up Elizabeth like an unexpected sandstorm. It always took a while to dig one’s way out from beneath the first telling..
“But this is what happened,” she continued. “The neighboring folk did not laugh. In fact, they begin to regard Abraham and Sara with mistrust. Although they had never announced their intent to sacrifice Isaac, certain things were carried from one camp to the next by the wind whether you wished them to be or not. The departure of the two, a father and a first-born son, with a donkey carrying wood and no animal in tow, had not gone unnoticed. And now the others in the land were certain that Abraham would bring down the wrath of heaven upon them all.
“Once or twice Abraham tried to explain what had transpired on the mountain, but it could not be grasped by minds melded to other notions of god. So the three of them and their household lived in peaceful silence about it. It would not have been proper to speak of such things to the servants.
“Eventually, however, the stories began among the servants themselves. Tales of Abraham being tested by God. Tales in which the command was placed on God’s own lips. Tales in which a ram was offered as a substitute sacrifice instead. It did not happen thus, my daughters. But these are the stories that crept from the servants’ fire to the family’s fire years later. Abraham and Sara were long since dead by then. And while Isaac overheard bits and pieces of these tales—though seldom did anyone dare recount it knowingly in his presence—he never tried to correct them. He told only his wife, no one else. And she chose to set this story safely within our keeping.
“I do not claim to understand why Isaac never raised his voice. But I can tell you this. Joseph told me that when he would read dreams with the help of God he felt himself reduced almost to the edge of nothing. He told me that such an immediate presence of God is a warmth indescribably delicious, but one which the human body can scarcely abide for long. I cannot even begin to imagine what it would mean for an eight-year-old child, bound in terror, to find his own mouth fashioning the words of God. Had Isaac chosen to fall silent for the rest of his life, I could not blame him.
“But now this tale is ours, my daughters. The tale belongs to us. And one day it will be ours—or our granddaughter’s granddaughters—to tell out loud. We will know when. Until that time, it is simply ours to pass from one generation to the next.”
“Grandmother,” Elizabeth asked. She did not want to ask the question, but she knew if she did not ask it now, it would never come out, “How can you be sure it’s true? It happened so many years ago. How can you know which tale to trust?”
“Because child,” Asenath replied kindly—the same question was put to her each year, “one never trusts a tale. One trusts only God. But this tale tells the truth of the God I trust. And that marks it true enough for me.
“I did not grow up with the other tale. I grew up with the gods of Egypt. But there is little enough new in the other tale. Egypt had its own stories of heroes who had been tested by the gods. Egypt had its own requirements for sacrifice. But the day that Susanna told me this tale, on that day I heard something wholly new. I heard the story of a God I had never met before. And on that day, Joseph’s prayers, and his quiet success in Egypt, and his kindness to me, on that day they all made sense. Only a God like this is worthy of our love and not our fear. My daughters, the world itself is sufficiently full of fear, especially for a woman. We ought to know better than to settle for fear in heaven. So I have come to love this God. And no other tale makes sense of that, except this one.”
* * *
Author’s note: Asenath is indeed identified in the Bible as Joseph’s wife, given to him by Pharaoh. Benjamin was Joseph’s younger brother; they shared Rachel as their mother. And child sacrifice was common in the area where Abraham and Sara dwelt. Beyond these things, this story is a fanciful re-truing of the more familiar tale known as “the binding of Isaac.”