The Promise of Isaac's Birth

18:1 On the third day after his circumcision, the 15th of Nisan, 2047,1 God appeared to Abraham to pay a visit to the sick. This occurred in the Plains of Mamre; God revealed Himself to Abraham in Mamre's territory as a reward to him for having advised Abraham to follow God's commandment to circumcise himself. Abraham was sitting at the entrance of the tent, looking out for travelers to host, but God had made the heat of the day unnaturally intense so that no one would venture out on the roads, thus giving Abraham a chance to rest and recover. Abraham started to stand up in deference to God's presence, but God said, "You remain seated and I will stand. You will thus serve as a precedent for your descendants: even though I will manifest My presence at every court case, I will not require all those present to stand in respect; the judges may remain seated."

2 God intended to send three angels to Abraham, each with a separate mission, after visiting him. When He noted that Abraham was disappointed by the absence of guests, He sent these angels in the guise of mortal men for Abraham to host.2 Although they were not really mortals, the Torah calls them "men," rather than "angels," in order (a) to contrast their limited powers with God's omnipotence, and (b) to indicate that, even had they revealed themselves to Abraham as angels, he would have been just as unfazed as if they had indeed been mortals, since he was accustomed to visits from angels.3

While Abraham was changing his bandages, he looked up and behold, three men were standing before him. He took note that they hesitated to approach him because he was in obvious discomfort. Therefore, after asking God to wait while he attended them, he ran towards them from the entrance of the tent, and prostrated himself on the ground.

3 In accordance with proper etiquette, Abraham addressed his invitation to the group's leader (in the singular). But in order not to slight the other two, he first said to all three, "My masters!" and only then proceeded to address the leader:4 "If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass me, your servant, by."

4 Abraham thought that these wayfarers were pagans who worship the dirt of their feet; as he did not want an object of idolatry in his home, he said to them, "Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and recline under the tree.

5 I will bring a piece of bread so that you can gather strength—for bread staves off hunger longer than any type of other food—and only then will you continue on your way. After all, you have paid me, your servant, a visit, and it would dishonor me if you would take your leave before I have served you a meal." God noted that, although Abraham sent someone else to bring the water, he himself brought the food personally; therefore, in like measure, when it came time for Him to sustain Abraham's descendants after the Exodus from Egypt, He provided them personally5 with food but with water through Moses.6 The angels did not refuse Abraham's offer of hospitality, since he was a highly-respected individual and they wanted to demonstrate that it is improper to refuse an invitation from a person of high social stature.7 As soon as the angels arrived, the first one healed Abraham. (God Himself visited Abraham even though He was in any case going to send an angel to heal him, in order to demonstrate that one should visit the sick even if it is not sure that the visit will actually make the sick person feel better.)8

6 Now that his wound was healed, Abraham could move about quickly. Abraham hastened to the tent, to Sarah, and said, "Hurry! Take three se'ah (about 24 kg or 53 pounds) of flour and sift it; use some of the coarse flour to scrape the scum off the pot and use the fine flour to bake. Knead the fine flour and make three loaves of bread."

7 Abraham then ran to the cattle, took three calves—one tender and choice calf for each guest—gave them to his son, Ishmael, the youth whom Abraham was training in the ways of hospitality, and instructed him to prepare a tongue spiced with mustard for each guest. Ishmael hurried to prepare it.

8 Abraham served the guests the various dishes as they became ready. He first brought some cream and milk, and when the calf that Ishmael had prepared for each guest was ready, he placed it before them. He stood over them under the tree, attending to their needs. Since they were angels, they could not really eat, but they feigned eating nonetheless, so it should appear as though they ate. They did this in order to demonstrate proper etiquette, i.e., that a guest should always conduct himself in accordance with the customs of his host. While Abraham was serving them, the angels demurely9 inquired of Sarah as to her husband's well-being, in order to once again demonstrate proper etiquette.

9 All three angels then asked him, "Where is Sarah, your wife?" In posing this question, the first angel was inquiring of Abraham as to his wife's well-being; the second angel intended to endear Sarah to Abraham by pointing out that she had retired modestly to her tent; and the third angel wanted to send Sarah some of the wine over which they had recited the grace after meals. (Abraham could not give Sarah any of his wine, for he himself had not eaten and therefore had not recited the grace after meals; he had been too busy hosting the angels.10 Although the angels only feigned eating, they had to recite grace or else it would have been clear that they were only pretending to eat.) Sarah perceived by the guests' conduct that they were pious people; she therefore understood that receiving the wine they sent her in no way violated the principles of modesty.11

Abraham replied, "Here, in the tent."

10 The second angel said: "I have come to deliver a message from God to Sarah: I will surely return to you at this exact time next year, and behold, Sarah, your wife, will have a son that day." And Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, behind him.

11 Now Abraham and Sarah were already old and had lived out their natural life spans.12 All their lives they deeply internalized their experiences.13 Therefore, the fact that Sarah had ceased having a woman's cycle was not an incidental event for her; it represented a profound emotional and mental transition affecting her entire life.

12 She therefore did not believe that the angel's words could come true. She laughed at herself, saying, "Now that I am withered, shall my skin become smooth?! Shall my womb carry a child?; shall my breasts fill with milk? Besides, my husband is too old to sire a child!" At that very moment, as she was preparing the bread she had baked, her body miraculously became youthful again and fit for childbearing. She menstruated, and therefore the bread was rendered ritually impure. Abraham therefore had no bread to serve the guests.14

13 Sarah's laughter and words were inaudible outside the tent. God said to Abraham, "Your wife laughed! Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really give birth, though I am old?'" God did not mention the fact that Sarah had also referred to Abraham's advanced age, in order to not upset their domestic harmony.

14 God continued, "Is anything too wondrous for God?" God made a scratch in the wall of the tent and said, "If anyone will doubt that the son that will be born to you is really yours, let this scratch attest to the miraculous circumstances of his birth:15 At the exact designated time, when the sunrays again touch this mark16 at this time next year, I will return, as this messenger has informed you, and Sarah will have a son that day."

Second Reading
Hearing God's accusation, Sarah denied it and said, "I did not laugh," for she was afraid, but He said to her, "No, you did laugh." In any case, Sarah's doubts were quelled as soon as she (a) heard directly from God that she was going to bear a son and (b) saw that she miraculously regained her youth.17

16 The angel who had announced that Sarah would have a son, having carried out his mission, departed.18 The other two "men" rose from there and looked out over Sodom, directing their attention to their next mission, which was to destroy the Cities of the Plain and rescue Lot from the destruction. In the twenty-four years that had elapsed since Lot had moved to Sodom,19 he had not succeeded in reforming its inhabitants or the inhabitants of its neighboring cities. In fact, they had formalized their perversions of justice by giving them force of law. For example, they had made it illegal to feed the poor and the hungry, reasoning that it was unfair for those who toiled at earning a living to share with those who did not. Once, a young girl gave a poor man some bread; when her "crime" was discovered, they covered her body with honey and she was stung to death by bees. As she was dying, she cried out to God. Lot could not even rehabilitate his Sodomite wife from her ingrained inhospitableness. Once, when he asked her to give some salt to their guests, she chided him for his request, which she perceived as evil behavior. Lot did not succeed in reforming his neighbors because, despite the lip service he paid to Abraham's lofty ideals, he inwardly tolerated their behavior and even admired it.20 Therefore, even though he himself did not participate in their misdeeds, God nevertheless held him culpable for them.21

Once the "men" delivered God's message to him—and God affirmed their message—Abraham no longer thought they were pagans. But he still thought they were human beings, so when they left, Abraham walked with them to escort them.

Abraham Argues with God

17 God said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do to the inhabitants of the Cities of the Plain? They are part of the land that I promised him, so I should inform him of My plans. Furthermore, I have made him their 'father';22 shall I destroy the children without telling the father?

18 How can I keep My plans secret from him, seeing that I love Abraham so much that I have promised him that he will surely become a great and mighty nation, and through him all the nations of the world will be blessed?

19 I have promised him these blessings for I cherish him, and I cherish him because he instructs his children and his household after him to keep God's ways by acting with righteousness and justice so that they will earn My blessings. In fact, when he instructs them to follow My teachings, he adds explicitly, 'so God will be able to bring about for Abraham everything He said concerning him.' "

20 So, as He said he would, God said to Abraham, "Because the outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and their sin is very grave,

21 I will descend—as I did before the Dispersion,23 in order to demonstrate that a judge should not render a verdict until first carefully examining the evidence—and see: if their deeds have matched the outcry that has come before Me—if they are indeed as depraved as the outcry that I have heard against their misdeeds would indicate (such as the cry of the girl they covered with honey24), and they have not yet repented—I will annihilate them. If not, then I will know what less-severe punishment to impose on them."

22 But Abraham knew full well that the inhabitants of the Cities of the Plain were corrupt. The men he was escorting turned from the place to which Abraham had accompanied them and headed toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before God, listening to His words. Abraham understood that these men were on their way to destroy Sodom.

23 He figuratively "came forward," i.e., prepared himself emotionally to confront God—to argue sternly with Him, to appease Him, and to pray to Him. Seeing that there was very little time left, he began by arguing with God,25 and said, "Would You in your anger blot out the righteous along with the wicked?!

24 There are five cities in this plain. What if there were fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom and its four neighboring cities? Ten people constitute a communal entity; their collective merit should suffice for You to redeem one city; the collective merit of five such groups should suffice to redeem all five cities. But even if their merit is not sufficient to redeem the rest of the people, what about the righteous individuals themselves?26 Would You still wipe out the place and not spare it for the sake of the fifty righteous people that are within it?"

When the angels perceived that Abraham was pleading the case of the Cities of the Plain, they began to walk at a slower pace in order to give him more time to plead his case.27

25 Abraham then began to appease God, saying, "Furthermore, it would be sacrilegious for You to do such a thing—to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked fare alike. It will look like You are acting unjustly! Do you want people to think that You also punished the generations of the Flood and the Dispersion unjustly?" To this God replied, "If you wish, I will review the cases you just mentioned in your presence, and you can tell Me if I acted justly or not." Abraham answered, "No, that would also be sacrilegious to You! You do not need to justify your actions to any creature—neither in this world nor in the afterlife, when our perspective will be broader than it is in this life. Notwithstanding, in this case, do you mean to punish the righteous along with the wicked? Shall the Judge of the whole world not judge fairly?!"

26 God said, "I will not hesitate to destroy a city even though doing so will bring about the deaths of righteous individuals who also live there—and this is not being unjust. Their failure to sway the others away from their wicked behavior proves that their righteousness is only partial; they are thus implicated in the wrongdoings of the majority. However, I agree to recognize the collective merit of ten righteous individuals, as you have requested. Therefore, if I find in Sodom and its four neighboring cities fifty righteous people within them, I will spare the entire area for their sake." So God examined the inhabitants of the five cities, but did not find fifty righteous people among them.

27 So Abraham responded and said, this time couching his request in the form of a prayer, "I have begun to speak to my Lord on behalf of these people, because I myself have enjoyed Your beneficent mercy: I would have been reduced to dust by the alliance of kings and to ashes by Nimrod were it not for You!

28 What if there were five missing from the fifty righteous people? That would still leave nine for each city, and You could count Yourself as the tenth. Would You destroy the entire city and its four neighboring cities because of the lack of five people?"

And He replied, "I will not destroy the region if I find forty-five righteous people living there." But God examined the cities again and did not find forty-five righteous people among them.

29 So Abraham spoke to Him again and said, "What if forty were to be found there, ten for each of the four cities? You could spare four and destroy only one."

And He said, "I will not take action against the four cities, for the sake of the forty righteous people living therein." But upon reexamining the cities, God did not find even forty righteous people among the inhabitants. Abraham then asked God to save four cities for the sake of thirty-six righteous people, counting God as the tenth for each city. God agreed, but thirty-six righteous people could not be found, either.

30 Then Abraham said, "Let not my God be angry, but let me speak. What if thirty were to be found there? You could spare three cities."

And He said, "I will not act against the three cities if I find thirty righteous people there." But upon examining the cities once again, God did not find thirty righteous people living therein. Abraham then asked God to save three cities for the sake of twenty-seven righteous people, counting God as the tenth for each city. God agreed, but twenty-seven righteous people could not be found, either.

31 Again, Abraham said, "I would like to speak further to my God on their behalf! What if twenty were to be found there? You could spare two cities."

And He said, "I will not destroy the two cities, for the sake of the twenty righteous people living in them." But still, God could not find twenty righteous people among them. Abraham then asked God to save two cities for the sake of eighteen righteous people, counting God as the tenth for both cities. God once again agreed, but eighteen righteous people could not be found, either.

32 Abraham then said, "Let not my God be angry, but I will speak just this one last time. What if ten were to be found there? You could spare one city."

And He said, "I will not destroy it, for the sake of the ten." But ten righteous people living in the cities could not be found, either. Abraham then asked God to save one city for the sake of nine righteous people, counting God as the tenth. God agreed, but nine righteous people could not be found, either. Abraham did not ask God to save a city for the sake of eight righteous people, knowing that Noah, his sons, and their wives had totaled eight righteous people, and yet their combined merit was not sufficient to save their generation. So Abraham stopped pleading on their behalf.

33 Seeing that the "defending attorney" had finished his plea, God, the "judge," figuratively departed from the "courtroom" when He had finished speaking to Abraham. Abraham returned to his home.

The Destruction of the Cities of the Plain

Third Reading
19:1 The two angels were
walking so slowly28 that they arrived in Sodom only in the evening. The Torah here refers to the angels as "angels," rather than as "men," because (a) God does not speak in this part of the narrative, and because (b) Lot was not as accustomed to being visited by angels as was Abraham.29 Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom; he had been appointed on that very day as their chief judge, and the court was located at the gate of the city;30 furthermore, he was on the lookout for guests, as Abraham had trained him in the ways of hospitality. Although Lot was neither one of the founders of Sodom nor a member of its elite, its inhabitants recognized that, being a relative of Abraham, he would be the most likely to render impartial judgments.31 Lot saw them and rose to greet them, and prostrated himself on the ground.

2 He said, "Please, my lords, be aware that this city is inhospitable to guests, and its inhabitants will harm anyone they see lodging wayfarers. Therefore, turn aside and take a circuitous route to your servant's house so no one will notice you entering it. Spend the night, bathe your feet, and then wake up early and continue on your way. Please do not refuse me, for now that we have met, it would be an insult to me if you did not lodge at my house." Unlike Abraham,32 Lot was not concerned that the guests might be dirt-worshipping pagans who might bring an object of idol worship into his home. Furthermore, he actually wanted their feet to remain dirty in order that, were he to be discovered and accused of having hosted them for several days, it would at least appear that they had just arrived.

They replied, "No, we will spend the night in the city square instead." They had no hesitations about refusing Lot's invitation, because his social status was not as high as Abraham's.33

3 He pleaded with them strongly, so in the end they acceded to his request. They turned his way and entered his house via a circuitous route, as he had requested. He made a feast for them and because it was Passover, and he had learned from Abraham to observe the commandments that would in the future be given to the Jewish people; he baked matzos for them, and they ate.

4 The angels asked Lot about the people of Sodom and of the other four cities. Lot replied truthfully that they were wicked people, but at the same time tried to offer excuses for their behavior.34 They had not yet gone to bed when the townspeople, the wicked men of Sodom, surrounded the house—led by the young and followed by the old,35 all the people from every quarter. Even though it was clear that the people who had converged on Lot's house had come with the intention of doing evil to the guests, no one in the whole city protested.

5 They called out to Lot and said to him, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may know them carnally!"

6 Lot went out to them, to the entrance, and closed the door behind him.

7 He said, "I beg you, my brothers, do not commit such a wrong!

8 Here, I have two daughters who have never known a man carnally. I will bring them out to you, and do with them as you please; but do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof and I am therefore responsible for their safety."

9 But they said to Lot, "Get out of the way! We are not interested in your daughters; we want the guests!" Then they said to each other, "Look! He wants to protect the strangers. But he himself is a stranger! This one came here as a sojourner, and now he sets himself up as a judge to reprove us?!" They turned to him and said, "Now we will deal with you worse than with them!" They pressed hard against the man, against Lot, and moved forward to break down the door.

10 So the men inside stretched out their hands and pulled Lot towards themselves into the house, and closed the door.

11 They miraculously struck the people who were at the entrance of the house with blindness, beginning with the young—for they were the instigators36and followed by the old, and they tried to find the entrance but in vain.

12 The men inside said to Lot, "Can you excuse their behavior anymore? Whom else do you have here besides your wife and two daughters? A son-in-law, or your grandsons and granddaughters, or anyone you may have in the city—get them out of here,

13 because we are about to destroy this place, for the people's outcry before God has grown great, and God has sent us to destroy it."

14 Lot had two married daughters who lived elsewhere in the city and two engaged-to-be-married37 daughters who lived at home. He went out and spoke to his sons-in-law and his daughters' fiancés, and said, "Get up and leave this place, for God is about to destroy the city!" but in the eyes of his sons-in-law and daughters' fiancés he appeared to be joking.

15 Although they had arrived the previous evening, the angels waited until morning to rescue Lot and overturn the city, since it would be unsafe for Lot to travel at night.38 As dawn was breaking, the angels urged Lot on, saying, "Arise! Take your wife and two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away on account of the city's sinfulness!"

16 Yet he lingered in order to salvage whatever he could of his belongings. So, out of God's compassion for him, the men grasped him and his wife and two daughters by the hand; they led them out, and left them on the outskirts of the city.

17 When they had led them out, the angel who was charged with the mission of saving him and his family said, "Forget about your belongings; run for your life! Do not look back nor stop anywhere in the plain, for you are just as deserving of annihilation as they.39 It is only in Abraham's merit that you are being saved,40 so it would not be proper for you to witness their destruction. Flee to Abraham, who is living in the hills, lest you be swept away!"

18 Lot said to them, "O God, no!

19 Your servant has found favor in Your eyes, and in the abounding kindness You have shown me You have saved my life. But I cannot escape to the mountain where Abraham lives, lest an evil stigma cling to me and I be judged worthy to die. I was considered righteous relative to the inhabitants of Sodom, but I would be considered sinful relative to Abraham.

20 Please, there is this town called Bela here nearby that I can escape to; it is small. It was founded fifty-one years ago—a year after the other four cities of the plain—and therefore its sins are slightly less numerous than those of the other four cities. Let me flee there—its culpability is relatively minor compared to that of the other cities—and survive."

Fourth Reading
The angel replied to him, "In this matter, too, I have showed you favor: Not only will I rescue you; I will not overturn the town of which you spoke.

22 But hurry! Escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there." Because the angel had ascribed the ability to overturn the city to himself,41 which could be construed as a display of arrogance, he was forced at this point to admit that he could not act without God's consent.

The town of Bela was therefore called Tzoar ["small"] from then on.

23 The sun had already risen over the earth when Lot reached Tzoar.

24 Here, too,42 God deferentially consulted with His heavenly court and made sulfur and fire rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah—from God, out of the sky. It initially descended as actual rain, to afford them a final chance to repent. When they refused to repent, it became a downpour of sulfur and fire.43

25 In the early morning, God overturned those four44 cities and the entire plain, together with all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground. They were all situated on one section of the earth's crust, so God simply lifted up that sheet of rock and flipped it over. Had He waited until later on in the day, when the moon is no longer shining, the moon-worshippers among them would have been able to claim that they would have been spared had the moon been out. Had He destroyed them by night, the sun-worshippers among them would have been able to claim that they would have been spared had the sun been out. God therefore destroyed them in the early morning, when both the sun and the moon are shining. The inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah acted wickedly toward both their fellow human beings and toward God, whereas the inhabitants of the cities of Admah and Tzevoyim acted only wickedly toward God and not toward their fellow human beings.45 Since antisocial conduct subverts the whole purpose of creation, Sodom and Gomorrah were burned to ashes in addition to being overturned, while Admah and Tzevoyim were only overturned.46

26 Lot's wife turned around, looked behind him at the destruction, and she became a pillar of salt in retribution for having denied salt to her guests.47

27 Abraham woke up early in the morning, for he had instituted the practice of daily morning prayer,48 and went to the place where he had stood before God.

28 He gazed upon Sodom and Gomorrah and over the whole area of the plain, and he saw smoke rising from the earth, like the smoke of a limekiln.

29 And so it was, that when God destroyed the Cities of the Plain, God was mindful of how Lot had protected Abraham in Egypt by going along with his pretense that Sarah was his sister,49 and in recompense, He sent forth Lot from the midst of the upheaval when He overturned the towns in which Lot had been living even though he deserved, by all rights, to perish together with them.

Lot's Incest

30 Even though God had granted his request to spare Tzoar, Lot went up from Tzoar and settled on the nearby deserted mountain together with his two daughters, since he was afraid to remain in Tzoar because of its proximity to Sodom, and he and his two daughters lived in a cave. By Divine providence, there were casks of wine in this cave.

31 Lot's two daughters thought that the whole world had been destroyed except for them and their father, similar to what had happened in the Flood. The older daughter said to the younger, "Our father is old and will soon be unable to father children or will die, and there is no man in the world to marry us in the usual manner.

32 Come, let us give our father wine to drink, and sleep with him, and thus produce offspring from our father."

33 That night, they gave their father wine to drink. The older girl went and slept with her father, but he was so drunk that he was not aware that it was she when she lay down next to him. But afterwards, when she arose, he was sober enough to realize that it was she, but he pretended not to know.50

34 The next day, the older daughter said to the younger, "Last night it was I who slept with my father. Tonight, too, let us give him wine to drink, and you go and sleep with him, and we will produce offspring through our father."

35 That night, they again gave their father wine to drink. Even though Lot was aware of what had transpired with his daughter the previous night, he did not refuse to drink from the wine again the next night, because of his inner allurement to illicit relations. This time, the younger daughter got up and slept with him, but again, he was so drunk that he was not aware that she had lain down or arisen.

36 Thus, Lot's two daughters conceived from their father. Although they were both guilty of committing incest, the older daughter was the instigator; the younger one had simply followed her lead.

37 The older daughter gave birth to a son and named him Moab ["from father"]; he is the ancestor of the people of Moab until the present day.

38 The younger daughter also gave birth to a son and named him Ben-Ami ["son of my kindred"]; he is the ancestor of the people of Ammon until the present day. The older daughter was not embarrassed by her behavior and therefore gave her son a name that explicitly publicized her act. In contrast, the younger daughter was embarrassed and thus tried to obscure her sin in a less blatant name for her son.

Abraham in Philistia

20:1 After the Cities of the Plain were destroyed, travelers no longer had reason to pass through Hebron. In addition, Lot fell into disrepute once his daughters' pregnancies became evident, because it was obvious he had committed incest with them. For both these reasons, Abraham journeyed from there in that same year to the Negev and then settled between Kadesh and Shur, coming to finally sojourn in the Philistine city of Gerar (see Figure 21).

2 As he had been in Egypt,51 Abraham was again asked about Sarah, because her youthful beauty had been restored to her and she was not yet pregnant.52 Abraham said of Sarah, his wife—without asking her permission—"She is my sister." Abraham did not ask Sarah's permission to say she was his sister this time, for he was sure she would refuse in light of her unpleasant experience in Egypt. So Avimelech, king of Gerar, sent messengers and had Sarah brought to him. But when he tried to molest Sarah, an angel prevented him from touching her. Furthermore, at Sarah's request,53 God blocked all the secretionary channels of the bodies of the king and his entire household (i.e., of the excretory and reproductive organs, as well as of the ears and the nostrils).54

3 God came to Avimelech in a nocturnal dream, saying, "You are going to die from this affliction on account of the woman you took, for she is a married woman and you will be guilty of adultery if you have relations with her."

4 Since Avimelech had not come near her, he said, "O God, would You put to death even an innocent nation? Am I to conclude that You also causelessly wiped out the generation of the Flood and punished the generation of the Dispersion as well?

5 Did her husband not say to me, 'She is my sister'? And she herself also said, 'He is my brother.' And everyone else I asked—her servants, her camel-drivers, and her donkey-drivers—also replied that they were brother and sister. I did so, i.e., took her for myself, with an innocent heart, with no intent to sin. And I am with blameless hands, for I have not touched her."

6 God said to him in the dream, "I, too, knew that you did this with an innocent heart, but you cannot claim that your hands are blameless, for I Myself spared you from sinning against Me by sending an angel to keep you away from her. It is precisely because I knew that you did not intend to do anything wrong that I did not allow you to touch her.

7 Now, return the man's wife. Do not fear that he will not want to accept her back or that he will hold your actions against you and not pray for you, for he is a prophet and therefore knows that you did not defile her and that you are innocent. He will therefore pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, be assured that you will die—you and all that are yours."

8 Avimelech got up early in the morning. He called for all his servants and discreetly told them all these things, and the men were terrified.

9 Avimelech summoned Abraham and said to him, "What have you done to us? What wrong have I done you, that you should bring such great guilt upon my kingdom and me? You have brought upon me things that do not normally happen! Such an affliction is unheard of!"

10 Avimelech then asked Abraham, "What did you see that made you do this thing?"

11 Abraham replied, "Look, when a traveler arrives in a city, people usually ask him what he would like to eat or drink, and not whether his female companion is his wife or his sister! I therefore said to myself, 'There is simply no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me on account of my wife if I disclose her true identity.'

12 In any case, she really can be considered my sister: she is the granddaughter of my father, and a person's grandchildren are considered his own children. But she is not the granddaughter of my mother, so, since we are related through my father and not through my mother,55 it was permissible for us to marry,56 and she became my wife.

13 When God made me wander from my father's house, and I knew we would pass through lands inhabited by wicked people, I said to her, 'There is a favor that you can do for me. Wherever we go, say about me: "He is my brother." ' "

14 Having lost the argument, Avimelech realized that he needed to make amends for his behavior.57 He took flocks and cattle, servants and handmaids, and gave them to Abraham to placate him, so that he would pray for him, and returned Sarah, his wife, to him.

15 Avimelech said, "My land is here before you. You may settle wherever you please. Do not be afraid of my subjects, for they are moral people and will not molest your wife."

16 To Sarah he said, "As a token of my esteem for you, I have now given your 'brother' a thousand pieces of silver. Let this gift and gesture of respect serve you figuratively as a cover over the eyes of all those with you who would look askance at you because of this incident, preventing them from doing so. The fact that I had to go to such expense to mollify you shows that I did not abuse and discard you, but rather that I was forced by Divine intervention to give you up. And for anyone who may, in the future, cast aspersions on your behavior in this episode, it will serve as proof of your innocence."

17 Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelech and the members of his household of their secretionary blockages, including his wife and bondwomen, so that they relieved themselves,

18 for God had blocked every orifice of the members of Avimelech's household, because of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and at her behest.58

The Birth of Isaac

21:1 But before God healed Avimelech and the members of his household, God had already remembered Sarah as He had said to Abraham that he would:59 she became pregnant. This is indeed the rule: when someone needs something and prays for that same thing for someone else, God provides his needs first. And God did for Sarah as He had spoken to Abraham:60 she bore a son.

2 Thus, Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken,61 the 15th of Nisan, 2048.62 There were scoffers who did not believe that the child was Abraham and Sarah's. Some accused Abraham and Sarah of adopting a child and claiming it was their own. Others assumed Avimelech to be the father, pointing out that although Abraham and Sarah had been married for years, Sarah only conceived and gave birth after having been abducted by Avimelech. To silence these ugly claims, God gave three proofs that the baby was indeed theirs. First, he was born on the exact date God had promised; second, God provided Sarah with an abundance of milk, proving she had given birth, as will be recounted presently; and third, the baby looked exactly like Abraham.63

3 Abraham named the son who had been born to him—whom Sarah had borne him—Isaac,

4 and Abraham circumcised his son, Isaac, on the eighth day after his birth, as God had commanded him.

Fifth Reading
5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

6 Sarah applied the meaning of Isaac's name—"laughter"64—to her own experiences surrounding his birth. She said, "God has brought me happiness; whoever hears will be happy for me and happy with me." And so it was: many previously-barren women gave birth at the same time as Sarah, many sick people were healed that day, and many prayers were answered that day; thus many people were happy along with her. Among the numerous miracles that accompanied Isaac's birth was that Abraham retained his potency after this until the end of his life.65

7 Abraham held a feast to celebrate Isaac's birth. In order to demonstrate that Sarah had indeed given birth, Abraham instructed all the mothers of infants among the guests to bring their babies without their wet nurses, and Sarah nursed them all.66 In recognition of this miracle, she said, "Who is He who said to Abraham, 'Sarah will nurse many children'? Only Almighty God could have made this promise and fulfilled it, too! For I have given birth to a son in his old age!"

8 The child grew up and at the end of two years was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. All the esteemed leaders of the generation attended, including Shem, Ever, and Avimelech.

Abraham Banishes Hagar and Ishmael

9 Despite Abraham's efforts at educating Ishmael to be moral and upright, Ishmael was drawn to the very same depraved behavior that Abraham was trying to uproot. But Abraham kept hoping optimistically that Ishmael would mature and mend his ways. At one point, Ishmael and Isaac got into an argument about who would succeed Abraham. Isaac insisted that he was Abraham's sole heir, while Ishmael insisted that they would both succeed him, and since Ishmael was the firstborn, he deserved a double portion of the inheritance. When they were in the field, Ishmael shot arrows at Isaac. Sarah saw all this, and also saw that Ishmael, the son whom Hagar, the Egyptian, had borne to Abraham had also fallen into idol worship, illicit sexual relations, and even murder.

10 Reporting on the argument between the two boys, she said to Abraham, "Cast out this bondwoman and her son, for the son of this bondwoman will not inherit together with my son, Isaac! He would be unfit to inherit along with any son of mine, even if my own son had no other merits of his own. And he would be unfit to inherit along with as fine a boy as Isaac, even if he were not my son. All the more so is he not fit to inherit along with he who is both my son and Isaac!"

11 The matter of Ishmael's wicked behavior greatly distressed Abraham. He was grieved over the idea of sending his son away.

12 God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed about the boy and your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, for her prophetic insight is superior to yours. She has foreseen correctly, for, as I have already told you,67 it is through Isaac that you will have descendants who will be considered yours with respect to receiving the blessings I have promised you.

13 But I will also make the son of the bondwoman into a nation, as I have also told you,68 for he is also your offspring."

14 Abraham rose early in the morning, took bread and a leather flask of water, and gave them to Hagar. He did not give them expensive vessels, for he resented his son for having betrayed him. Sarah's disparaging report of Ishmael's wicked behavior aroused God's attribute of justice against him (this is called "casting an evil eye on someone"), and he became sick and could not walk by himself. Abraham placed the food on Hagar's shoulder together with the child, and sent her away. In sending her away, Abraham granted her her freedom, so she no longer had the legal status of a servant.69 She left and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. Dejected over being banished from the household of Abraham, she gradually reverted to the idolatrous beliefs with which she was raised.

15 Because Ishmael was sick, he drank more water than usual. When the water from the leather flask was used up, she cast the child under one of the bushes.

16 She then walked away and sat down at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, "Let me not look on as the child dies." When the child became deathly ill, she sat at a further distance and wept aloud. Ishmael also prayed for mercy.

17 God heard the boy's voice, rather than his mother's, for the prayer of a sick person is more efficacious than the prayers others offer up on his behalf. But the ministering angels protested God's intention to answer Ishmael's prayer, arguing that it was not fair to rescue him from death by thirst when his own descendants would, in the future, cruelly kill Jews by thirst.70 God answered them that since Ishmael's suffering has already atoned for his sins, he is therefore deemed presently righteous and must be judged in accordance with his present status. So an angel of God called to Hagar from Heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the boy's voice, considering only where he is presently on the scale of moral merit, not according to his future deeds.

18 Rise, lift up the boy, and grasp him by the hand, for I will make of him a great nation."

19 God then opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the leather flask with water, and gave the boy to drink.

20 God was with the boy and he grew up; he lived in the desert and became an archer, living in the desert and robbing travelers, as God had said he would.71

21 He settled in the Paran Desert, and his mother took him a wife from among the girls of her homeland, Egypt (see Figure 22).

Abraham in Beersheba

Sixth Reading
22 At that time,
after Sarah gave birth, Avimelech, accompanied by Pikol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, "God is with you in all that you do. Besides having a child in your old age, you survived the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, and even prior to that, you vanquished Kedarlaomer's confederacy of kings.

23 So now, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my grandson." (His concern did not extend any further in time than two generations.) "The same kindness that I have shown you, welcoming you in my land, you shall show to me and to the people of the land in which you have sojourned."

24 Abraham replied, "I will swear."

25 Abraham then disputed with Avimelech over the well of water that Avimelech's servants had seized.

26 Avimelech said, "I do not know who did this thing, nor did you tell me, nor did I hear about it until today." In order to determine who dug the well, they decided that they would each approach it separately; the one before whom the water would rise would be assumed to be the one who dug the well. The water rose before Abraham.

27 Abraham took flocks and cattle and gave them to Avimelech, and the two of them made a treaty.

28 Abraham then set aside seven ewes of the flock.

29 Avimelech asked Abraham, "What are these seven ewes that you have set aside by themselves?"

30 He replied, "You are to accept these seven ewes from my hand, as your acknowledgment that the test we performed is conclusive evidence that I dug this well."

31 That place was therefore called Beersheba ["Well of the Oath"], for there the two of them made an oath.

32 When they had made this treaty in Beersheba, Avimelech and Pikol, chief of his troops, departed and returned to Philistia.

33 Abraham opened an inn in Beersheba. He also planted an orchard in Beersheba in order to provide him with fruit to serve his guests. There he proclaimed the name of God, God of the Universe. He also induced others to proclaim the name of God. After eating a fine, free meal at Abraham's inn, Abraham's guests would rise to thank and bless their host. Abraham would respond: "Have you eaten my food? You have eaten of that which belongs to the Master of the World. Thank, praise, and bless Him who spoke and the world came into existence!" If anyone refused to praise God, Abraham would reply, "If you insist that you have eaten my food, then you owe me the full price of the meal." This was quite high, since he had served them delicacies that were hard to come by in the middle of the desert. In most cases, these guests then capitulated and praised God.

34 And Abraham sojourned in Philistia for one year more than he had lived in Hebron, i.e., for twenty-six years (2047-2073). After this, he moved back to Hebron (see Figure 23).

The Binding of Isaac

Seventh Reading
Although Abraham was constantly spending his time and money on preparing meals for his guests in order to induce them to recognize the existence of God and their obligation to serve Him, he had not offered an actual sacrifice to God since moving to Hebron during the first year he settled in the Land of Israel. Satan, the accusing angel of the Heavenly Court, denounced Abraham before God for this apparent lack of piety.72 God replied, "Everything Abraham does is for the sake of spreading the awareness of Divinity in the world, and the most critical element in his program for accomplishing this goal is passing on this mission to his son. Yet his devotion is so complete that, were I to ask him to sacrifice his son to Me, he would not refuse."

In the meantime, Ishmael had repented somewhat of his evil ways73 and had moved back to Hebron to be near his father, Abraham.74 Nevertheless, he still tenaciously clung to his claim that he was more worthy of succeeding their father. He boasted to Isaac that he had willingly submitted to the pain of circumcision at the age of thirteen. To this, Isaac retorted, "Don't try to win this argument by telling me about your willingness to suffer pain for God's sake in one limb of your body! If God were to order me to offer my whole body to him, I would not refuse!"

It was after all these words75—both God's to Satan and Isaac's to Ishmael—that, in the year 2085, God tested Abraham in exactly this way. He said to him, "Abraham!" and he replied devotedly, "Here I am. I am ready to do Your bidding."

2 He said, "Please pass this ultimate test, so that no one will think that your devotion to Me is limited. Take your son." Abraham answered, "I have two sons." God said, "I mean your only one." Abraham said, "They are both only sons: Ishmael is the only son of Hagar, and Isaac is the only son of Sarah." God said, "I mean the one you love." Abraham said, "I love them both!" God said, "I mean Isaac." God deliberately spoke ambiguously at first (a) in order to give Abraham time to realize the weightiness of His words and not agree too hastily, thereby forfeiting the merit of full, willful consent, and (b) in order to make the command more impressive and grant him reward for each expression He used. God continued, "Take him and go away to the land of Mount Moriah. Mount Moriah is to be the site of the future Temple,76 from where Divine instruction [hora'ah] will issue to the world. The Temple is also to be the locus of Divine service, the most intense form of which will be the incense-offering, a key ingredient of which will be the myrrh [mor].77 It is therefore fitting for you to undergo and pass this test on Mount Moriah, for your precedent will inspire future generations to follow My teachings and serve Me with pure devotion. Take him up there and prepare him as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I will designate to you." God did not explicitly tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac—although that is what Abraham thought He meant—since He merely intended to see if he would be willing to do so. Also, He did not immediately tell him on which mountain to perform the sacrifice, so that he would earn the reward of trusting God implicitly, just as had been the case with His initial command to go to the Land of Israel.78

3 Abraham did not hesitate for an instant, although he was puzzled how this command fit into God's larger plan for him and for the world.79 In his eagerness to fulfill God's command, he got up early in the morning and, out of his extreme love for God, saddled his donkey himself, rather than having one of his servants do so, even though no one actually rode upon the donkey; it was used only to carry the wood and tools.80 He took his two young men with him, Eliezer and Ishmael, together with Isaac, his son, because a person of significant social stature should always be accompanied by at least two attendants, so that if one of them needs to be excused to relieve himself, the other is still there to attend to him. At this point, Abraham only told Isaac that God had told him to offer a sacrifice to Him, without mentioning that he was to be the sacrifice. Abraham chopped wood for the offering, and rose and set out for the place that God had told him.

4 From Hebron to Mount Moriah is less than a day's journey, but it was only on the third day of the journey that Abraham raised his eyes and saw a cloud hovering over the mountain and understood that he was seeing the appointed place from afar. Here again, God did not show Abraham the place immediately in order that no one would be able later on to accuse him of having made a hasty decision.

5 Abraham said to his young men, "You stay here with the donkey, while I and Isaac, the young man, go a short distance over there." To himself, Abraham said, "When I get there, I will see how God intends for me to fulfill my mission without an heir or successor." He continued to Eliezer and Ishmael, "We will prostrate ourselves in prayer and then return to you." In using the plural, he unwittingly prophesied that he and Isaac would both return.

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt-offering and placed it on his son, Isaac. He took the fire and knife in his hand, and the two of them walked together, with equal enthusiasm to perform God's commandment, even though Abraham knew he was on his way to sacrifice Isaac but Isaac as yet had no inkling of this.

7 Isaac said to Abraham, his father, "My father!" and he replied, "Here I am, my son."

And Isaac said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the offering?"

8 Abraham replied, "God will see to a lamb for a burnt-offering, and if He does not, then you, my son, will be the offering." Even though Isaac now understood that he was to be sacrificed, he, too, did not question God, and thus the two of them walked on together, father and son with equal enthusiasm.

9 When they came to the place that God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He then bound Isaac, his son, tying his hands and feet behind him, and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood.

10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. At that moment, the heavens opened, the ministering angels saw this heartrending scene, and cried. Their tears fell into Isaac's eyes, and this later impaired his vision.81

11 An angel of God then called to him from heaven and said affectionately, "Abraham! Abraham!" and he replied, "Here I am."

12 The angel said, "Do not raise your hand against the young man to slaughter him!" When he heard this, Abraham thought he finally understood God's contradictory statements: first, God had promised him that Isaac was to be the one to continue his lineage; then He told him to kill Isaac. When the angel instructed him not to slaughter Isaac, Abraham thought that God never really intended him to kill Isaac, but merely to draw some blood from him. So Abraham said to the angel, "Very well; I shall only wound him and draw a small amount of blood." But to this, the angel replied, "No, do nothing to him!" Hearing this, Abraham thought he had failed the test and been deemed unworthy of sacrificing Isaac. So, God said to him through the angel,82 "I never intended you to sacrifice Isaac nor draw any blood from him; it was merely a test. For now that you have passed this test and I know that you fear God—since you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me—I have a fitting response for Satan and for all those who wonder why I display so much love to you."

13 Abraham was not content to have simply passed the test; he also wanted God to seal the blessings he earned with the force of an oath. He knew that this called for a sacrifice, just as had been the case with Noah after the flood.83 Abraham raised his eyes, looking for an animal to sacrifice,84 and he caught sight of a ram running toward him. This very ram had been designated to be offered in Isaac's stead ever since the six days of Creation, but Satan, frustrated by the fact that Abraham had passed this test, caused the ram to become entangled by its horns in a thicket. Undaunted, Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt-offering in his son's stead. In order to ensure that this offering would influence God to seal the blessings he had earned by passing the test, Abraham asked God that the status of a sacrifice not be transferred from Isaac to the ram, but rather that the offering of the ram confer the status of a sacrifice on Isaac: the ram was not to be Isaac's replacement but his proxy.85 Before every act that he performed on the ram—slaughtering it, flaying its skin, burning it—Abraham prayed: "May it be God's will that this act be considered as if it was done to my son." This conferred upon Isaac the quasi-legal status of an ascent-offering;86 the implications of this status were to become clear later on in his life.87

God set aside the horn of this ram to blow when He gave the Torah at Mount Sinai.88

14 Abraham named that site HaShem Yireh ["God will see"], praying, "May God select this place as the site of the Temple, where His presence on earth will dwell and where He will manifest Himself to His people." Since God indeed had designated this mountain for this purpose, it is said to this day, "On God's Mountain, Mount Moriah, He can be seen." He further prayed, "May God always see and remember the binding of Isaac and consider its merit sufficient to atone for the Jewish people's sins and to save them from punishment, so that it be said in all generations, 'to this day, it is as if Isaac's ashes can be seen on the altar that Abraham built on God's mountain,' serving as atonement for the Jewish people."89

15 After the sacrifice, the angel of God called to Abraham from heaven a second time,

16 and said, "God declares, 'I have acceded to your request to seal the successful conclusion of this test with an oath. By Myself I swear: Because you did this thing, and did not withhold your son, your only one,

17 I will bless you and bless your son, and greatly increase your offspring: they will be so numerous that you will not be able to count them, just as it is impossible to count the stars of the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore,90 and your descendants shall take possession of their enemies' cities.

18 All the nations of the world shall be blessed through your descendants—because you heeded My voice.' "

19 Abraham returned to his young men, and together they set out and went to Beersheba. Abraham remained for a short time in Beersheba.

20 Abraham said to himself: "If I had slaughtered Isaac, he would have died childless. It is time for me to marry him off. I will search for a wife for him from among the daughters of my confederates,91 Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre." It was after these words of Abraham's that Abraham was told by God: "There is no need to search for a wife for Isaac from among the daughters of your confederates, for just as you will have twelve great-grandchildren who will be the progenitors of the chosen people, eight from their father's wives and four from his wives' servants, Milkah, too, has borne eight sons to your brother, Nachor:

21 Utz, his firstborn; Buz, his brother; Kemuel, the father of Aram;

22 Kesed; Chazo; Pildash; Yidlaf; and Bethuel.

23 And Bethuel has a daughter, Rebecca. She is worthy and fit to be Isaac's wife. Milkah bore these eight sons to Nachor, Abraham's brother.

24 And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore children: Tevach, Gacham, Tachash, and Ma'achah (see Figure 24)." When Abraham heard from God that Rebecca had been born, he cancelled his search for a wife for Isaac.