Once I happened to visit a fishing village in the Andaman Sea, west of the Malay Peninsula in the Indian Ocean. Unlike typical fishing villages, this one was not situated on shore, but floated in the sea. Its houses were built on rafts that were anchored side by side and connected with ropes and wooden walkways.
The village rocked tranquilly upon the waves, up and down, creating a strange sensation. In general, when you go from a boat to a dock, you feel at once the reassuring solidity of the shore, whereas here I went from one rocking to another.
The villagers were Muslims, Malay fishermen. I walked among their houses until I came upon a half-opened door beyond which sat a thin, wiry man. We exchanged glances and the man smiled and invited me in with a wave of his hand. We drank tea. On the wall were a photograph and a drawing. The photo was some sort of European landscape—green valleys, reddish brown cows, waterfalls, snow-covered mountains. The drawing was readily identifiable: a young lad lying upon an altar, an old man brandishing a knife over him, an angel hovering overhead, and in the background, the ram, its horns caught in the bush.
For a moment I thought I had stumbled upon one of the Ten Lost Tribes, and in my mind began to compose letters to the Chief Rabbinate and the Jewish Agency, urging that they be airlifted to Israel. But before throwing my arms around my long-lost brother, I asked him what was depicted in the drawing. The man pointed at the old man with the knife and pronounced, with an unfamiliar lilt: “Ibrahim.” He then pointed to the lad and said: “Isma’il.” I knew differently, yet said nothing. When I got back to Jerusalem, I checked and discovered that indeed, according to some interpreters of the Quran, it was Ishmael and not Isaac whom God had ordered Abraham to sacrifice. I report this with a degree of embarrassment. I should have known this all along.
Instead of the requisite amazement I felt sorrow. The Israeli-Arab conflict, I realized, isn’t only about land or holy places. It’s a dispute over something more difficult: love. Specifically, a father’s love. And to make things even more complicated, this is not love that is expressed in the gift of a coat of many colors, or by a better blessing, but rather in the very worst act to be found in the book of Genesis—the binding of Isaac. It is written in the Bible: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love,” and offer him as a burnt offering. It’s a bit hard for the descendants of Ishmael to see the name Isaac attached to the words “your favorite son, whom you love.”
Ishmael and Isaac themselves, by the way, were not rivals. Certainly not like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The real rivalry in the family was between the two mothers, Sarah and her maidservant Hagar. The fact that two separate religions would someday spring from Ishmael and Isaac was as yet unknown. But when God said “your favored one, whom you love” about Isaac—Ishmael and his mother having been banished from Abraham’s house—the emotional basis for the problem that afflicts us to this day was set in place.
But there’s more: This “whom you love” is the first appearance of love in the Bible. Two points are of interest. First, that this is the love of a man for his son, not his wife. That will come second, in the love of Isaac for Rebecca. Moreover, here we have a father’s love, not a mother’s. The first case of motherly love will be the third instance in the Bible—the love of Rebecca for her son Jacob. Then too, there is discrimination between brothers: Rebecca loves Jacob, Isaac loves Esau.
Two oddities: From a literary and societal point of view, and a legal standpoint as well, a mother’s love is thought to be greater than a father’s. As for love between man and wife, modern literature ranks it higher than the love of parents for their children, and indeed in the natural order of things it comes first—for without it, there’d be no children to love them in return. But the Bible favors the family, and in this case, the family that will become a nation. Thus Abraham’s love for Isaac is put in first place. The love of a parent for a daughter, incidentally, is never mentioned in the Bible at all.
Adah and Zillah
Did Adam love Eve? Did Eve love Adam? Maybe so, but their relationship is not described by the word “love,” which is too bad. A romantic reader would be happy to encounter the word “love” in this case in particular, for Adam and Eve were a unique couple, not merely owing to their pleasant life in the Garden of Eden, or their intimate proximity to God, but because they were the only couple in the whole world. They genuinely experienced, for quite a while, what only a few lucky couples feel on rare and fleeting occasions. Yet the Bible does not speak of any love that prevailed between the first man and the first woman. It mentions such things as shame, knowledge, labor, sadness, domination, and procreation. It informs the reader that Eve will desire Adam and he will rule over her—but says nary a word about their love. Maybe love is unnecessary when there’s no other man or woman in the world.
And so, without love, Adam “knew” Eve and Eve gave birth to Cain. Cain knew his wife—her name is unknown—and she gave birth to Enoch. Enoch begot a son named Irad, and Irad begot Mehujael and Mehujahel begot Methusael and Methusael begot Lamech. So it is written: begot, yalad in Hebrew. In general the man sires—molid—and the woman gives birth—yoledet—but here the text uses the latter verb form for men. (Maybe that’s how it was, in the distant past.) In any event—there were men and women, and children were born, but love still went unmentioned.
Neither is it written that Lamech loved, but his wives, unlike the other women of those generations, did have names, and Lamech even sang them a song that he, I imagine, considered charming:
Adah and Zillah, hear my voice, O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech, I have slain a man for wounding me, And a lad for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.
The words “sing” and “song” do not appear, but the rhythm and the Hebrew rhymes speak for themselves, and thus Lamech is the first person in the Bible to produce a bit of creative writing. Alas, this was not a love poem, but an ode to belligerence. If Lamech loved anyone, it was himself.
According to Genesis 5, Lamech was the father of Noah, he of the flood and the ark, who also had a wife. The Bible says nothing about her, though I’ve no doubt that she adored Noah. As usual in the Bible, here too the man is the hero of the story. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his day; he spoke with God, built the ark. But it was Noah’s wife, while he devoted himself to his new obsession, who handled the family’s day-to-day affairs.
Nowhere is it written, but Noah’s wife was a very loving woman, surely the most patient of all the patient women in the Bible. First she silently suffered the building of the ark, then the prolonged stay within it, a crowded and foul-smelling craft, filthy and noisy, with animals and birds inside and a raging flood outdoors, and not only hundreds of creatures but also one husband, three sons and three daughters-in-law. No escape, no privacy—if it were up to me, I’d name the ark for her, and the whole story too. Not Noah’s Ark but Noah’s Wife’s Ark, as she too, just like her love, is never called by name.
The Bible does not describe the hard life inside the ark. But one may gauge the situation in light of the long recovery period thereafter. When the flood was over and the earth dried off and everybody emerged from the ark, God reminded Noah and his family of the responsibility of the human species to fructify and multiply. Yet it took two years for a son to be born to Shem, the son of Noah. It thus turns out that in the ark everyone practiced absolute abstinence, which continued for another year! It would appear that the crowded, claustrophobic conditions stimulated a yearning for monkish solitude, which took a good while to get over.
A son of Shem was called Arpachshad. Arpachshad begot Shelah, and Shelah begot Eber, and Eber begot Peleg, and Peleg begot Reu, and Reu begot Serug, and Serug begot Nahor and Nahor begot Terah, and Terah begot Nahor and Haran and Abram, the Abram who would later be renamed Abraham and be known as “Our Father,” and would take for a wife Sarai, who would be renamed Sarah and give birth to his son Isaac.
Sarai was a “beautiful woman,” and since I am speaking of firsts, let me point out that she is the first beautiful woman in the Bible. Nevertheless, even though at last we have a man with such a beautiful wife, we are still without love. Generation upon generation has passed, and we have been fruitful and multiplied and gotten angry and killed, we have sinned and been punished, we built a city and a tower and an ark, we got drunk and cried, we banished and were banished, and laughed and made others laugh, and lied and feared, we planted vines and a tamarisk tree, and dug wells—but have still not found love. All these Hebrew verbs have appeared, but not yet this one—alef, bet, heh, which spells love.
And then—a surprise, a terrible surprise: “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.”
The conventional wisdom has it that the story of the binding of Isaac—the akedah in Hebrew—was meant to clarify that the God of Israel is opposed to human sacrifice, a commonplace ritual back in those days, as documented in scripture. Mesha the king of Moab, for instance, sacrificed his first-born son to his god as he faced defeat by the army of Israel. But such horrors transpired in our midst as well. Of King Ahaz of Judah it is written, “He even consigned his son to the fire, in the abhorrent fashion of the nations,” and the best-known, most traumatic case is that of the daughter of Jephthah. Her father, the judge Jephthah the Gileadite, vowed that if he were victorious in battle he would sacrifice whomever was first to greet him upon his return. His daughter came out dancing with her tambourine to welcome him home, and he kept his word. The rabbis of the Talmud made sure to explain that Jephthah, had he been better versed in Torah law, could have extracted himself from his vow, but I shall not belabor the story. The reader may find it at the end of chapter 11 of the Book of Judges and discover that in certain respects, the story of Jephthah and his daughter is even worse than the story of Abraham and Isaac. As for the akedah itself, I don’t think the story is intended to combat the practice of human sacrifice, but rather to demonstrate how the obedience of the Bible’s most obedient believer may lead into the darkest of alleys.
Either way, in the same verse that God orders the sacrifice of Isaac, love shows up in the Bible for the first time. It makes a dim, almost imperceptible debut due to its proximity to the horrific akedah, but this is no reason to ignore it. Here it is, and apart from being the love of a father for a son, it is intriguing for another reason: It appears not in the words of the narrator, nor those of Abraham. It’s not Abraham who tells Isaac that he loves him, nor does the author tell the reader that Abraham loves his son, but God is the one who says it to Abraham, as if informing not only us, but also the first lover himself.
In effect, God returns here to His hallowed habit from the days of Creation—assigning names. This may be helpful to all those who have wondered since time immemorial: “What is love?” In my humble opinion, it’s an indulgence, since everybody knows what love is, especially when it fills the heart and also when it is absent. I would wager that Shakespeare, who coined the question “What is love?” could identify it coming and going, though even he had a hard time putting the answer into words.
Nice of God to have had this habit of giving names. Here’s how He explains love to us, upon its very first appearance. God called light “day,” and darkness he called “night,” dry land was “earth” and the waters “the seas” and the heavens “sky,” and this, He tells Abraham, what you are feeling for your son, is called “love.” And now that I have given a name to your love, take your son whom you love and sacrifice him to Me as a burnt offering.
The Two Together
This is how the first love story in the Bible begins: “Early in the morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, and split the wood for the burnt offering, and set out for the place of which God had told him.”
The loving father is industrious and organized. His activity soothes him, eases his mind. He is first to appear, for he is the main character, and the only one who knows where they are going and why. Next are mentioned one donkey and two young men, and these three know nothing beyond their own tasks—to carry and serve. After them appears Isaac, the story’s supporting actor, who also doesn’t know the truth, and finally the props of the play: first the firewood, mute and puzzling and intimidating, and later the fire and the butcher knife will make their entrance. At the end God will dispatch the ram and the angel, who in His opinion will solve the whole problem, but will in fact raise other difficulties that will not, in any way, be resolved.
And Sarah? Where is she? Has she understood what’s happening? Did she say goodbye to her son? Apparently not. Sarah has demonstrated in the past her ability to impose her will on Abraham, and also proven that she is capable of casting doubt upon God’s word. If she is silent, this indicates that she knows nothing. Abraham obviously made up some story, and even she, who forced him to banish his first-born son Ishmael into the desert, could never imagine such a monstrous possibility as this one—the sacrifice of their son as a burnt offering.
Three days they walked together, the loving father and the beloved son, without exchanging a single word. On the third day Abraham recognized the appointed place and told the servants to wait with the donkey, and “the boy and I will go up there, we will worship and will return to you.”
Here Abraham’s lie is twofold. He speaks of worshipping God and not of making a burnt offering, and he promises to return in the plural “we”; he and his son together. If he were to mention the sacrifice, the servants would ask now what Isaac will ask later: “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” If he were to say “I will return” in the singular and not plural, the servants would realize that something is about to happen to Isaac. Who knows? Maybe this is same thing he told Sarah: you sit here in the tent, and the boy and I will go worship God. We’ll go and come back to you, don’t worry, Sarah.
“And the two of them walked together.” The loving father and his son. At this point the two new participants, unrevealed in the first act, arrive onstage—the knife and the firestone—the designated implements that were hidden heretofore and now remove all doubt and confirm every fear.
“And the two of them walked together.” The loving father carried the tools: a knife to slaughter his son and fire to roast his flesh. The beloved son carried the raw materials: the wood and himself. Who knows, maybe Abraham produced the knife and flint in order to make clear to Isaac what was about to happen, and give him a chance to run for his life? Even if so, Isaac went along with him. Maybe he didn’t flee because he didn’t understand, or maybe he did understand and stayed anyway. But now, with the servants left behind, he dared to express what he had suspected deep inside all along.
“My father,” the beloved son addressed his loving father, as if trying to confirm that the man with the knife is actually his father and not some stranger who wants to kill him. “My father”—and this is the first word they have exchanged, after three days of walking.
“Here I am, my son,” answered the loving father, as if trying to confirm that their family bond is intact.
“Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
He can’t bring himself to mention the knife, but it is there too, in his father’s hand.
“God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.”
Thus answered Abraham, and the reader doesn’t know how to parse these last words. Should the comma between “offering” and “my son” be read like a colon? Is it “God will provide the offering, my son,” or “God will provide the offering: my son”? In other words, is “my son” an appellation of Isaac, or a definition of the sacrifice?
But apart from this, as readers will discern—and Abraham and Isaac too, albeit many years later—the words “my son” are the last that will ever be spoken between the two, not only in the here and now of the akedah, but from this moment on. They will continue to walk in silence to the appointed spot. The father will build an altar without saying a word to the son. He will tie him up without speaking, and he will wield the knife over him in the same absolute silence.
And Isaac too will not say a word or even cry out. Not as his father binds him with ropes and not when he brandishes a butcher knife over his neck. This defeatist passivity is astonishing. The text doesn’t tell us how old he was; the word na’ar or “lad” does not denote any specific age in biblical Hebrew. But it is clear that Isaac was not a small, weak child. He traveled on foot for three days and then climbed to the mountaintop with firewood on his back. For his part, Abraham was already well past his hundredth birthday.
According to the rabbis of the Talmud, Isaac at the time was thirty-seven years old. If he had wanted to, he could have run away from his father or fought him and easily saved his own life. But it appears that from the moment he realized what was happening, he was struck dumb with terror, and perhaps it was something deeper: that not just Abraham was on trial, his son Isaac was too. In any case, this story has not only protagonists but an author, who like other biblical authors has a purpose in mind, and from the outset this author only assigned Isaac one role, that of victim in the theatre of the akedah.
Moreover, the author carries to an extreme the usual method of biblical writers, who describe actions in detail but thoughts and feelings minimally. It has often been observed that the thoughts of Abraham and Isaac are not described here at all, and their talk is doled out in snippets.
I said earlier that the words “my son” would be the last ever to be uttered between the two. But this is not just for fear of confrontation, or because the father and son stopped speaking to one another, but because from that time on they simply never saw each other again. The Bible never states this outright, but it’s possible to derive it from the text. When Isaac and Abraham took leave of the two servants, it is written: “And the two of them walked together.” But after the akedah it says: “Abraham then returned to his servants.” And where is Isaac? And what happened to “together?” From now on, the word “together” will apply to Abraham’s walking off with the servants: “And they departed together for Beersheba.” From this we may conclude that Isaac did not return with his father, but left the place alone.
In the ensuing chapters it becomes clear that from the day of the akedah until Abraham’s death, a period of many years, the two are not to be found “together” even once. It’s possible to understand Isaac. After experiencing a father who hides the truth from you, ties you up on an altar, and waves a steak knife over your neck, you might not want any more of that “togetherness.” From this point on, Isaac avoided his father until the latter’s death, at which time he buried him, together with Ishmael, whom the same father had cast out into the desert. It is not made clear to the reader whether the brothers came to pay their last respects or to make sure he was dead and buried.
Here one should note that the akedah drove a wedge not merely between father and son. We will no longer find Sarah at Abraham’s side either. After the akedah, Abraham settled immediately in Beersheba, whereas she, at the start of the next chapter, perhaps upon hearing the news about her son, died in Kiryat Arba. The Bible tells us: “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” If so, it means he has not been with her. He came from Beersheba to Hebron, to bury her in the Cave of Machpelah.
In any event, the akedah and the resultant fissures in the family also have a broader (if less theatrical) significance, for they illustrate what may well befall other families similar to Abraham’s: the families of revolutionaries, military commanders, intellectuals and other leaders, who are devoted with all their heart and might to a vision, an idea, to art, society, science, to radical reform. In this regard, the binding of Isaac is not just a theological parable but an example of what can happen to close family members of such notables. They are forced to pay the price for ideals that were imposed upon them, revolutions they did not choose.
But the akedah led to another disconnection too—between Abraham and his God. Earlier, the two spoke and met quite often. God told Abraham to “go forth” from Haran, promised him the Land on several occasions, revealed Himself to him amid the pieces of hacked-up animals, changed his name, and demanded that he circumcise himself; He had lunch at his tent, where for a second time He promised that a son called Isaac would be born to him, discussed with him the number of righteous men in Sodom, told him to obey Sarah and banish Ishmael and Hagar, and ordered him to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.
All this came to an end. From the akedah onward there is no further mention of meetings or conversations between Abraham and his God. Abraham passed the test, but it would seem that the two now prefer not to see each other anymore, as though the akedah was a breaking point for both of them. God did not reveal himself or his word to Abraham again, nor did Abraham turn to Him and seek His presence. The death of his wife and estrangement of his son showed him how high a price his family had been forced to pay. And who knows, perhaps God too had second thoughts. Maybe He repented for what He had done, or maybe He was no longer interested in this sort of faith or believer.
And He Took Her as His Wife and He Loved Her
Time passed, but did not, as is commonly hoped and supposed, heal all wounds or lessen their pain. The mother has died, and the beloved son is forty years old and still alone, without a wife. The father knows how this came about, and also knows he won’t be able to talk to him about it, or anything else, from the akedah onward.
Talking is impossible, but taking action is not. Abraham, whose relationships with his sons ended up with the expulsion of the first and the binding of the second, decided to do something more. Until now, in compliance with God’s will and intent, he was the father of a people, of a multitude, “our father Abraham.” Now, on his own initiative, he will be the father of Isaac alone. The damage has been done, but Abraham will be able to repair it, just a little.
At last, after long years of obedient acquiescence, Abraham did something of personal significance without getting instructions from his God or his wife. As opposed to the two horrors he perpetrated at their command, banishing Ishmael and binding Isaac, this deed was a good deed: Abraham sent his servant to Haran, to find and bring a wife for his son. A wife who will make his life easier, comfort him, fill his heart with love. The rift between the father and the son was so deep and absolute that Abraham couldn’t send Isaac himself there, the way Rebecca would send Jacob in the next generation. He couldn’t even tell him about it. The servant went on his mission unbeknownst to Isaac.
And so a small caravan arrived in Haran, Abraham’s home town in the land of Aram: A few men, headed by Abraham’s servant, and ten camels, laden with provisions and valuable gifts. The servant parked the caravan near the well outside of the city, let his weary camels kneel and rest, and asked God for a sign. He suggested to the Almighty that he would ask the maidens who draw water from the well for a drink. The one who replies, “Drink, and I will also water your camels,” will be the one that God has intended for the son of the servant’s master Abraham.
It should be noted that this servant was not necessarily Abraham’s majordomo Eliezer, as is commonly held, but there is no doubt that he was a smart and serious person. The sign he thought up was not just any sign, but one that served both his immediate needs and his greater goal. A maiden who would say, “Drink, and I will also water your camels,” would make a good wife for Isaac—generous, resourceful, strong, kind, self-confident. And indeed Rebecca the daughter of Bethuel, granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came to the well with her jug on her shoulder. The servant asked her for water. She said: “Drink, my lord,” and gave him some, adding: “I will also draw water for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Her words were not identical to those stipulated by the servant, but the words were less important than the readiness and good character that stood behind them.
Again and again she drew from the well and emptied the jug into the trough, until all the camels had drunk. This entailed a lot of heavy lifting. Ten camels drink a great deal of water after a long journey. Abraham’s servant was thrilled. He gave her a nose-ring and bracelets made of gold, and she hurried home to tell her family about him. Her brother, Laban by name, the same Laban who will later cheat Jacob, was very excited by the sight of the expensive gifts. He ran to the well and invited the visitor to his home, along with his camels and men.
The twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis is one of the most detailed narrative passages in the Bible. The most interesting thing about the writing is the way the author repeats the events—once in the third person, describing the journey of the servant to Haran and the encounter with Rebecca and her family, and again in the first person, as the servant tells the family the same story about himself.
I won’t go into all the details, many of which are related with relish by the skilled and seasoned author, but it should be emphasized that the sign that the servant designated was indeed significant. Rebecca was revealed as a young lady not only generous and virtuous, but also independent and decisive. Her family members were well aware of this, and when the servant declared his wish to leave right away and take her with him, they replied in words seldom heard in the Bible: “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.”
“They called Rebecca and said to her: èWill you go with this man?’ And she said: ‘I will go.'”
She and her maidservants mounted the camels and rode after the servant, who brought her straightaway to Isaac, who then dwelt in the Negev desert, near Be’er Lahai-Roi.
“Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening,” as the author describes the scene. Isaac, it will be recalled, is forty and still a bachelor, a situation that even today arouses the attention of readers, friends, and family, and all the more so in the days of the Bible. His evening stroll testifies to his loneliness and solitude, to free personal time, fixed habits, comforting routines. All this will suddenly be undone by the appearance of Rebecca, and the Bible’s description of their first meeting is so beautiful that I will quote it in full:
And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening And, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. She alighted from her camel and said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, And he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, And thus found comfort after his mother’s death.
“He loved her” in biblical Hebrew is expressed in a single word: vaye’ehaveha, an elegant condensation of feeling, time, man, and woman. Here we finally arrive at the first love of a man for a woman in the Bible. Isaac’s love for Rebecca.
And Abraham Took Another Wife
Let us return to Abraham. Even now, after his plan had been realized, and Isaac married Rebecca and was consoled over his mother’s death, the father and son did not live together. The split between them had not healed. One may assume that Isaac knew that Abraham had orchestrated his marriage to Rebecca. The slave had told him “all the things that he had done”, and obviously servants do not pick up and travel to far-off lands and bring women from there for the sons of their masters on their own account. Still, the connection between Isaac and his father was not restored.
To Abraham’s credit it may be said that he chose a good and proper way to help his son. He had also obviously hoped to draw him closer. But even if he was disappointed, he didn’t express it. He also did the right thing by not insisting that Isaac pay him back with a renewal of relations or expressions of gratitude. It was enough to know that he had benefited him, and the reader soon realizes that he benefited himself as well.
Indeed, immediately after Isaac took Rebecca for a wife and loved her, Abraham took himself a wife as well, a much younger woman named Keturah. And even as his son and daughter-in-law waited twenty years for their first pregnancy, the old man speedily sired many sons by his new wife.
Do not take this lightly. When he was a hundred years old, Abraham doubted his ability to beget Isaac. Now, at the age of more than a hundred and forty, and minus the visitations of angels and tidings or promises from God, he fathered six sons by Keturah, one after the next: “She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.”
The old father’s marriage, so closely following that of his son, and his astonishing fertility, so much greater than the latter’s, and the cute rhyming names of the little boys that trip merrily off the reader’s tongue, represent a joyful flowering. Indeed, there is little doubt that Abraham has changed for the better. The akedah distanced him from his son but released him from the demanding omnipresence of his God and his wife, the two figures who ran his life with a heavy hand and made him commit such dreadful deeds as banishing his first-born son and offering the other as a sacrifice.
Now, with God silent and Sarah dead, and Isaac comforted by his love for Rebecca, Abraham finally found time for himself. He became a highly active and productive senior citizen. Apart from Keturah, he had concubines who also bore him children. The Bible emphasizes, of course, that Isaac was and remained the favorite son, to whom Abraham bequeathed all that he owned, and that Abraham sent away the sons of the concubines to the land of the East, lest they compete with the son of Sarah. But this is not what’s important. The big story is Abraham’s metamorphosis at such a ripe old age. He finally shed his role of father of a nation and a faith, quit being a symbol and turned into a private person. Again he undergoes a great transformation, which is more personal and happier and lovelier than the national and religious metamorphoses that preceded it, than the trek from country to country, the change of name and the circumcision.
Indeed, not only Abraham but his traumatized organ ceased serving as a symbol, and returned to its normal, pleasant function. It was no longer obligated to fly the flag of the covenant and supply the seed for the whole Jewish people. Now it becomes simply the happy flourishing organ of a man freed from his demanding God and difficult wife. And instead of a tied-up son and a deported one, who would fight from time immemorial until this very day over his love, Abraham sires ordinary kids, and instead of being the “father of a multitude of nations” he is the master of many concubines and father of a flock of children.
Abraham dies in ripe old age. “Old and contented,” as the Bible has it, and the reader senses that at last he is satisfied, relaxed, even blissful. Ishmael, the son he expelled from his home on his wife’s orders, and Isaac, the son he bound on the altar at his Lord’s command, buried him together. I said earlier that maybe they showed up to make sure he was dead, but now it seems clear to me that Abraham’s fine old age has a healthy effect on the reader too, and on the way he or she understands the story. Now I sense forgiveness for the father on the part of the sons, maybe even remorse that they didn’t reconnect with him while he was alive.
The two buried Abraham alongside Sarah, nemesis of one of them and mother of the other, in the Cave of Machpelah, which many centuries later would also become a locus of discord. But it’s doubtful that Abraham knew this, and even if he did, it’s doubtful he would have cared. He lived well during his last good years, with his new wife and concubines and children. Now, after his death, he again finds himself alongside Sarah, who barely recognizes him, so good does he look.