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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

4. Does God Always Want Us to Obey Him?

Updated: Apr 8


Sometimes the test is whether we say no.


Parshah Vayeira

TL;DR of the Text

Major Themes

  • Was Sarah right to cast out Abraham's son? 

  • Abraham’s duty to Hagar and Ishmael

  • Does God want us to say yes to everything?

  • When does someone or something become irredeemable? 

  • Why do we sometimes treat the people we’re closest to the worst?

  • Why did God wait until the third generation to start the nation of Israel?


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Genesis 18:1-8*

“Hashem appeared to [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and saw: And behold! Three men were standing over him. He perceived, so he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed toward the ground. And he said, ‘My Lord, if I find favor in Your eyes now, please pass not away from your servant.’

‘Let some water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may sustain yourselves, then go on - inasmuch as you have passed your servant’s way.’ 

They said, ‘Do so, just as you have said.’

So Abraham hastened to the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Hurry! Three se’ahs of meal, fine flour! Knead and make cakes!’ Then Abraham ran to the cattle, took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the youth who hurried to prepare it. He took cream and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed these before them; he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate.”

Tradition holds that Abraham’s defining quality was Chesed (Kindness). He successfully spread the word of God and Judaism’s moral code because he drew people in with his kindness, and they became susceptible to his influence. 


I feel grateful to Judaism for teaching us there are many valid ways to be a good person. Abraham imbued kindness, while Isaac conveyed Gevurah (Strength). 


I feel grateful to Judaism for teaching us there are many valid ways to be a good person.

Genesis 18: 18-25*

“And Hashem said, ‘Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do, now that Abraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation?’...

So Hashem said, ‘Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave, I will descend and see; If they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to Me - then destruction! And if not, I will know.’...

Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked? What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city? Would You still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be like the wicked. It would be sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’”

Good for Abraham. God tested him to see if he dared challenge God on behalf of justice. Abraham succeeded in interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah; God promised not to destroy the town if He found even 10 righteous people in them. 


The beginning stage of building a people, as the Torah shows God doing with humanity, must have been fraught with risk. At what point does a person, a town, or a people become irredeemable? This wasn’t God’s first try at creation, meaning He must have had previous moments where He decided to pull the plug. 


The Flood was Sodom and Gomorrah on a grander scale, but even then, God saved humanity because He found in Noah one person who deserved saving. This means God always intended to save Sodom and Gomorrah if He found righteous people in them, but He wanted to know if Abraham would call Him on it. 


This means God always intended to save Sodom and Gomorrah if He found righteous people in them, but He wanted to know if Abraham would call Him on it.

As a side note, the “outcry” at the beginning of the passage refers to the cry of the Earth, similar to what we saw with Abel’s murder. The land cried out to God about the people’s immorality. 


Genesis 19:4-5*

“[The angels] had not yet lain down when the townspeople, Sodomites, converged upon the house, from young to old, all the people from every quarter. And they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them.’...

“[Lot] said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act wickedly. See, now, I have two daughters who have never known a man. I shall bring them out to you and do to them as you please; but to these men do nothing inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof.’

And they said, ‘Stand back!’ Then they said, ‘This fellow came to sojourn and would act as a judge? Now we will treat you worse than them!’ They pressed exceedingly upon the man, upon Lot, and they approached to break the door.”

What an intense level of immorality for everyone involved. First, we learn the townspeople raped every visitor; second, Lot offered up his daughters as a substitute for raping Lot’s guests, then the townspeople tried to kill him for judging them. Destroy the place, please. 


Somehow, Lot made the cut and escaped the destruction, though he shouldn’t have been spared based on his actions. 


Genesis 20: 1-2*

“Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the south and settled between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar. Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister’; so Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent, and took Sarah.”

Sacrificing women again?! We were on a roll with the whole Sodom and Gomorrah, arguing-on-behalf-of-the-righteous thing. 


Genesis 21:9-10*

“Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. So she said to Abraham, ‘Drive out this slavewoman with her son, for the son of that slavewoman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!’”

Following rabbinical consensus, the Bible uses the word “mocking” to refer to one of Judaism’s three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery, and murder. If Ishmael truly was committing brazen murder, idolatry, and/or adultery, it makes sense for Sarah to want to remove his influence from the household. Parents navigate these impossible decisions all the time. For example, when a child struggles with addiction and all of its attendant behaviors, at what point do you say it’s time to sink or swim?


At what point do you say it’s time to sink or swim?

However, Sarah’s flippant attitude is still inexcusable. Sarah should have wanted to ensure Hagar and Ishmael’s safety even if she needed to remove them from the home. 


Genesis 21:14*

“So Abraham awoke early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them on her shoulder along with the boy, and sent her off. She departed, and strayed in the desert of Beer-sheba.”

Abraham had amassed vast riches by this point and, therefore, had many options to ensure Hagar and Ishmael were cared for properly. Instead, he booted Hagar and his own son into the desert with a loaf of bread and a canteen. 


Genesis 21:15-16*

“When the water of the skin was consumed, [Hagar] cast off the boy beneath one of the trees. She went and sat herself down at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, ‘Let me not see the death of the child.’ And she sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept.” 

The rabbis have no qualms about passing harsh judgment on Hagar’s selfishness. How interesting for them to judge Hagar so easily, yet just two verses before, they ignore Abraham’s callousness. 


Genesis 22:1-2*

“And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he replied, ‘Here I am.’ 

And He said, ‘Please take your son, your only one, whom you love - Isaac - and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.’”

Shia Labeouf clapping. Caption above reads God: Sacrifice your son. Abraham: OK. The caption for Shia clapping is "Rabbis".

God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham did! Or Abraham almost did, and God stopped him at the last minute. 


This story is still upheld as an admirable example of ultimate faith. I beg to differ. 




First things first: Abraham pleaded with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah in this same chapter. Why would Abraham accept his son's death sentence after arguing on behalf of total strangers? The Torah drew a deliberate connection between these two events by placing them within a few paragraphs of each other. 


Why would Abraham accept his son's death sentence after arguing on behalf of total strangers?

In life, we often see examples of people who do great things for humanity - charity work, political activism, etc. - who act cruelly towards the people they’re closest to, such as their family. You know the aphorism: we treat the people we’re closest to the worst? This passage demonstrates the absurdity of that dynamic. 


From God’s perspective, there’s no way He gave Abraham the test of Sodom and Gomorrah hoping Abraham would challenge Him only to provide Abraham with a similar test, this time hoping Abraham would agree. God was probably just as shocked to hear Abraham agree to sacrifice Isaac as we were to read it. Hoping Abraham would change his mind if given enough time, God directed Abraham to travel to a faraway land to accomplish the task. 


During childhood we believe our parents can do no wrong, but part of growing up includes realizing our parents are imperfect and make mistakes like everyone else. God expects us to engage in the same process with Him, and these chapters show Him attempting to teach this concept to Abraham. Abraham succeeded in one instance and failed miserably in the other.   


During childhood we believe our parents can do no wrong, but part of growing up includes realizing our parents are imperfect and make mistakes like everyone else. God expects us to engage in the same process with Him.

When popular culture ridicules this scene, it often depicts Abraham forcing Isaac into the sacrifice and Isaac acting horrified to discover Abraham’s intent. The truth is worse: Abraham was ~140 years old and Isaac was 37 at the time of the attempted sacrifice. They ascended the mountain alone, so it would’ve been impossible for Abraham to bind Isaac by force. Isaac proved himself to be just as much an empty-headed automaton as Abraham. 


 

Here’s a theory on what might have happened behind the scenes:

 

God: Abraham passed the test and defended Sodom and Gomorrah. Let’s make sure he can pass the same test with his family. 

God: Sacrifice your son.

Abraham: OK

God: Wait what?... Okay, we’ll work with it. Let’s give him another chance. 

God: You can’t sacrifice Isaac here - you have to travel for three days to Mount Moriah. 

Abraham: OK. 

God: Shit. 

Abraham, knife in hand: Let’s do this.

God: WAIT WAIT DON’T! 

Abraham: Hmm… OK. I won’t. 

God: Well I guess sometimes you get what you ask for. 


 

Jumping ahead a bit, Israel didn’t become a nation for three generations. In giving Jacob twelve sons, God appointed him the true father of Israel. He didn’t need to delay for such a long time. As a result of Abraham and Isaac failing this extremely basic test, God postponed Israel’s creation until the generation after Isaac. 


As a result of Abraham and Isaac failing this extremely basic test, God postponed Israel’s creation until the generation after Isaac.

If I were Abraham and this were to occur today, I would tell God, “Nope. And the fact that you’re asking me this tells me you aren’t God because no God I believe in would ask or want me to even consider sacrificing my child.”


*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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