Some time afterward, God put Sarah to the test. God said to her, “Sarah,” and she answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your only one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will show you.”
And Sarah, who loved God for the miraculous gift of a son, was puzzled. She looked at God and said, “Who are You?”
God was confused. “What do you mean ‘Who am I? I am God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the one who molded Adam from the earth and who breathed life into that first earthling. I am the one who caused Adam to sleep and then who split Adam into both man and woman. You know Me, Sarah, I’ve spoken to you before.”
Sarah, still radiant in her old age, looked up to God and said, “No, You can’t be that God. The God that I know is the God who tells us to choose life. The God that I know is the one who helps the barren have children and infuses the breath of life into all living things. That’s the God I’ve learned to love. But a God who would have a mother kill her son must be someone else. So, again, I ask you: Who are You?”
God didn’t know how to respond. Unwilling to give up so quickly, God made another stab at persuasion: “Were you there when I made the world? Can you tame Leviathan or overpower Behemoth? Can you silence the thunder or stop the rain? Who are you to question My ways?”
Unperturbed, Sarah simply said, “Out of loyalty to the God I love, I will not do what You require. And You still haven’t answered my question: Who are You?”
This time, God was stunned into silence. No one, after all, had ever spoken to God in this way. Not really knowing what to do, and uncertain that any approach would work with this determined but puzzling mother, God retreated, muttering something about not understanding women. After all, God’s conversations with Eve had been just as puzzling: she had insisted on knowledge, regardless of the price!
Seeking familiar ground, God sought out Abraham. “Abraham,” God called, and Abraham, who feared God for God’s many signs of power, for whom service to God was the highest value, answered, “Here I am.”
“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Without hesitation, Abraham deferred to the divine decree. Early the next morning he saddled the donkey himself (that’s how eager he was to do God’s will). After waking Isaac and two servants, the men walked in silence toward Mt. Moriah.
“Now that’s more like it,” thought God. Still the Holy One couldn’t silence the echo of Sarah’s troubling question: “Who are You?” Turning it over and over, God was at a loss. After all, as the Source of everything, God was entitled to unquestioning obedience. Yet Sarah presented her refusal to obey God as an act of loyalty, not of rebellion!
“Women!” God muttered, although with a tremor of doubt in the thunderous voice. Still, at least his servant Abraham was proving himself to be a resolute and unquestioning servant, which offered at least some comfort.
Toward the beginning of the men’s march toward Moriah, Isaac noticed a striking omission in his father’s preparations.
“Father,” said Isaac.
“Yes, my son,” answered Abraham.
“Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
The aged patriarch looked at his son and could only offer: “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.”
And the two of them walked on together.
After three days of silent togetherness, during which Abraham struggled to stifle the natural pity he felt as a father and to strengthen his sense of joy in fulfilling the will of his Creator, Abraham and his entourage finally made it to Moriah.
In silence, obedient to the divine decree, Abraham prepared the altar, placed the wood on it, bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. This was no small feat, since Isaac was a strapping man of forty, at the full height of his powers. Isaac, too, however, sensed an opportunity to serve God by offering himself as the first martyr for the faith—a great honor indeed! So the younger man assisted the older man to the extent that someone bound could, and he lay as still as possible on the wood so his father could make a clean and kosher cut.
Relying on every bit of his fear of God, Abraham grasped the knife to slay his son, and raised his hand high in the air.
And at that moment, God understood.
“Aha!,” God exclaimed, “I know what she was asking me.”
“Who am I? I am the God who delights in life, whose service constitutes choosing life. I can’t ask my faithful to betray their commitment to life and to each other, since that’s how they serve me most faithfully.”
With a passion for life and for covenant renewed, God realized that Abraham would feel a failure in his own eyes if God wasn’t careful in how the test was called off. Yet, somehow, God had to teach Abraham to serve out of love, to transcend his fear of God with a more mature love of heaven. Meanwhile, Abraham’s knife still gleamed in the air.
Without a second to waste, God called out to Abraham: “Abraham, Abraham!”
“Here I am,” Abraham answered.
And God said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.” Now came Abraham’s test: could he grow from fear to love? Even while placing a substitute sacrifice in the nearby bush, God continued to speak, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” Then God said nothing. Abraham would have to figure out the purpose of the ram for himself. That was the test.
Abraham raised his eyes and saw the ram, created before the Creation of the world, whose one horn was the Shofar used to create the world and whose other horn would announce the coming of the Messiah and the salvation of all the earth. Abraham saw the ram, and his eyes filled with tears—he wouldn’t have to kill his beloved Isaac after all! The God who had given him the boy in the first place made it possible for the boy to live.
Awash in gratitude and in adoration, Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son.
Then Abraham named the site “Adonai Yireh.” He said to Isaac, “I was going to name this place “Yirat Adonai”, the fear of God, because that was the faith that summoned me to sacrifice you. But now I see that our God wants life. And I love that God! So I shall call the place “Adonai Yireh” which means “God sees.” Because God sees that our finest service is motivated by love.
And an angel from heaven, so pleased that the men now shared the angels’ unending love for God, called out the promise: “God will bestow blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore. Because you know to serve God in love, to celebrate and sanctify your relationships of love, I will multiply your relationships till they shine a light that illumines the world, until they cradle your step and guide humanity in its journey. And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you understand what it is that God really wants, because you know who God really is.”
But Sarah never lived to hear that blessing. When God realized the answer to Sarah’s question, God sent an angel to bring her to the heavenly court. There, God placed her on the throne of mercy, and instructed her to plead on her children’s behalf whenever God forgets Sarah’s question: “Who are You?”
And on that day, Sarah and Abraham passed the test.
And so did God.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).