Genesis Means Origins

The first book of the Bible tells of the origins of the world and of a very interesting family eventually known as the children of Israel.

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God's first words to Abram (his name when we first meet him) are "Lekh lekha (Go forth)." Thus the first of the Patriarchs is sent out into a hostile world with the message that there is only one Deity. God gives an aging Abram and Sarai a son, a token of the promise to make Abram's seed as numerous as the stars in the sky. Yet neither as Abram nor as Abraham is the Patriarch a docile servant of the Almighty. Rather, when God resolves to destroy the cities on the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues unbendingly for their salvation and, only after he is unable to find even ten righteous men and women within them does he wearily accede to God's decision.

Abraham/Abram is not presented as a perfect man. None of the Patriarchs are. His behavior in the matter of his concubine Hagar and her son by him, Ishmael, whom he sends into the desert at Sarah's behest, is clearly wrong. If it were not, why would the messenger of God save Hagar and Ishmael when they are dying of thirst in the wilder­ness, an unstated but clear rebuke to Abraham's expulsion other?

And, in light of his resistance to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham seems all too willing to follow orders and sacri­fice Isaac, his son, on Mount Moriah. And yet ...the storv of the akeidah (the binding) of Isaac is a good example of how complicated the undercurrents and outcome of biblical narrative can be, of why it is dangerous to jump to seemingly obvious conclusions based on a con­temporary understanding of an ancient text.

Perhaps Abraham trusts in God, trusts that the Almighty will not let his son die. God has promised to make Abraham's descendants a great nation; Abraham must believe in the covenant and surely God will not take Isaac. If this is to be a test of faith, then the test goes both ways. God tests Abraham's willingness to follow a divine commandment to the very brink. Abraham tests God's willingness to avert further shed­ding of human blood—this time innocent blood—and to keep the covenant.

Isaac is the least defined, the most passive of the Patriarchs. In his key moments in Bereshit—the Akeidah and Jacob's deception leading to his receiving the blessing meant for his older brother—he is acted upon, not active. Alone among the Patriarchs, Isaac doesn't even choose his own wife; his father's servant does it for him. We know more about Rebekah, his wife, her desire for children, the pain of her childbirth, her favoring of the younger of her twin sons, Jacob, over the elder, Esau. Isaac seems to exist primarily to be deceived by Jacob into giving over the blessing owed the firstborn.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.