Wow, we’re getting busy here at the blog!
Actually, I’ve been sitting on the topic for this post for a while; well, not a while, but for a little over a week. But it was in the mental background on some of the other recent posts.
I’ve written before on the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 that purports to tell of Abraham’s near-slaughter of Isaac because Yahweh said so. (On a related note, we really should be careful of what we think is happening when we hear voices in our heads.) Last week, Rabbi Hannah Dresner wrote a post at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the Akedah; the post is titled, “God Likes a Counter-Offer,” and views the story of the Akedah as acquitting Abraham of his near-sacrifice of Isaac because he makes a counter-offer in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.
I don’t think the plain sense of the narrative there supports this view. It extends the version of events Rashi and other commentators provide about Abraham forestalling Yahweh’s overtures to sacrifice Isaac by “playing dumb.” It’s a midrashic approach–and that’s fine. But let’s admit that the text doesn’t quite portray that episode as a negotiation.
Here, in the next Torah portion–Chayyei Sarah–we do have a negotiation: between Abraham and the Hittites for a site to bury Sarah. And it’s not the first negotiation in the narrative of Abraham–remember, Abraham is portrayed as negotiating for Sodom and Gomorrah (“How about if there are forty good people”?).
And let’s be clear: Chayyei Sarah does show us a negotiation. As Professor James Kugel notes in his Traditions of the Bible, this is a story about the “niceties” of land negotiations and, perhaps, social status in the ancient Middle East.
We don’t get much lead-up; the text tells us that Sarah dies, and Abraham comes to bury her and mourn her. He looks to find a burial site (Gen. 23:8-16; the translation is mine, and focuses more on the literary sense of things than a literal translation):
Then Abraham arose from where his deceased relative was, and spoke to the Hittites: “I am a stranger, a squatter among you. Give me an interest in a grave among you so that I may bury my dead relative.” The Hittites answered Abraham; they said to him, “Hear us: My Lord, you are a prince of god among us. Bury your deceased relative in any of your choice of our graves. No man among us will withhold his grave from you for the purpose of burying your deceased.”
But Abraham arose and bowed to the people of the land–the Hittites–and spoke with them. “If you are willing to let my relative be buried, then hear me: meet on my behalf with Efron, son of Tzohar, so that he will give me the Cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him–it is within his fields. Let him sell it to me for its full value, so that it will be among you as a burial plot.”
As it happened, Efron was sitting among the Hittites. And Efron the Hittite answered Abraham so that all the Hittites could hear, for the benefit of all those who were coming to the gate of the city: “No, my lord, hear me: I am giving you the field, and the cave that is in it is yours–I am giving it to you. As far as all my people are concerned, I am giving it to you; bury your dead.”
Yet Abraham bowed before the people of the land, and spoke to Efron so that all the people of the land could hear: “No, you must listen to me: I will give you the value of the field. Take it from home, and then I will bury my dead there.” Then Efron answered Abraham, saying to him, “My lord, hear me: What is four hundred shekels of silver between you and me?Now, bury your dead.”
Finally, Abraham heeded Efron. So Abraham weighed out for Efron the price that he had specified to the Hittites–four hundred shekels of silver, the price of exchange for the transaction.
For the biblical authors, it’s clear that Abraham is understood as being able to negotiate. He does so here for the purchase of a cave. (Note that I’m interested in this as a literary text at the moment. We will leave to the side the historical question of whether the price the narrative claims Abraham paid was excessive, whether this is good-faith negotiation on either side, and what exactly Abraham can have been viewed to have purchased–let alone whether any of this matters to Israeli claims to Hebron in our own time!) He does so in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode for the preservation of the lives of the good and the bad.
There is no negotiation in the Akedah. Compliance in that story is simply assumed.
What kind of man, one wonders, negotiates for others’ lives, negotiates for a place to bury his wife, but won’t negotiate for the life of his child? There are a few different ways to look at this.
One is that Abraham isn’t portrayed as negotiating in the Akedah because it’s futile. Note that in the story, it’s no skin off Yahweh’s nose to allow negotiation over Sodom and Gomorrah because the negotiation would come to nothing anyway–there aren’t ten righteous people to save Sodom and Gomorrah. So one could do a d’rash that shows that Abraham knows where the limits are on negotiating with Yahweh; he can test a little when it doesn’t matter like in Sodom and Gomorrah, but when it does matter, Abraham falls in line.
You can do a different d’rash, which shows Abraham stalling. That’s the approach preserved in Rashi’s commentary, which pastes together a number of individual texts (various bits of Talmud and classic midrashic collections). It’s a bit more like a negotiation than the plain sense of the text or of the other midrashic approach I mentioned.
The most consistent way of viewing these series of transactions–Sodom and Gomorrah, the Akedah, and the negotiation for Machpelah–is simply to view them as what they are: myths in the classic sense, origin stories that do not on their face convey any actual facts.
Doing this has a significant benefit: it gets us past the need to idealize literary figures. We needn’t twist ourselves in knots to redeem Abraham’s conduct toward Isaac. And we needn’t twist ourselves in knots in a continual effort to renegotiate the meaning of the past for our own time in an effort to preserve some idealized morality that isn’t really in the texts and events we’re trying to save.
Sometimes literary figures are portrayed as acting badly. Sometimes ethical conduct is negotiable. But that doesn’t mean we need to leave our ethics hostage to the text.
The value of the text? That’s negotiable, too.