Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 22, we read of the binding of Isaac. This blog covers a small snippet of
Abravanel’s preface. He asserts that, arguably, this is one of the most defining and dramatic chapters in
the entire Bible. Abravanel’s discourse is precious, and lengthy. For the full discussion, please see
“And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham,
and said unto him, Abraham. And he said, here am I.
And He said, take now your son, your only son, whom you love – even
Isaac – and get you into the land of Moriah. And offer him there for a
burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of.”
Now to some of Abravanel’s opening remarks. The binding of Isaac presents Bible students with a
cornerstone of Jewish faith. On the merit of the event, Hebrews stand in good stead with their Father in
heaven. The story has been told and retold, generation after generation. Jews know it by heart. The
binding of Isaac forms a backbone to Jewish prayer and liturgy. These, then, are compelling reasons to
study the subject intently, more so than other chapters.
When writing his Biblical commentary, not surprisingly, Abravanel did not work in a vacuum. Before he
delved into the binding of Isaac, he first familiarized himself with his predecessors’ and contemporaries’
approaches. What did they say?
Figuratively Abravanel likens himself to a field hand who walks behind other harvesters who dropped
their sheaves. When a stalk pleases him, he picks it up and puts it in his satchel. If a stalk displeases him,
he rejects it, always pushing on with his search for the choicest produce. In this manner, Abravanel
develops and hones his classic essay on the sublime story of a father and son, Abraham and Isaac.
Abravanel offers a prayer to the Maker, asking for insight and eloquence.
As is his wont, Abravanel begins with a sweeping historical overview – and a probing question. What was
the main point of God’s test of Abraham?
Abravanel starts with Adam, the first man. In a word, he failed to thrive in the task given to him by God.
How? Of the two noteworthy trees in the garden of Eden, Adam gravitated to the tree of knowledge.
That tree represented superficiality and focused on things material. The fruit of the tree of knowledge
captivated him. It proved his undoing because God expected more from man than merely the mundane.
The tree of life, symbolizing the Creator’s ethos, held no interest for Adam. Hence, God ushered him and
Eve out of the idyllic environs, to toil the land, and reconsider man’s purpose in the world.
The misstep that tripped Adam, according to Abravanel, has distracted his descendants ever since – day
in and day out. Alas, people have been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. The ethics of the tree of
life, the tree that carries the banner of moderation and maturity, hardly gets any attention. That fruit
urges man to forge a relationship with the Almighty.
Enter the great flood. Divine wisdom saw fit to unleash a deluge. It mopped up a misguided civilization.
Only Noah and his family survived. Shortly, the masses’ embraced hedonism, as if groping in the dark.
Frivolity reigned supreme. Déjà vu.
But then, hope flickered. Abraham emerged. Out of a milieu of moral confusion and chaos, he figured
things out and put his faith in God. Abraham believed and preached Heaven’s message: God is in charge.
He governs the world.
Pure intellect brought him to that conclusion. He had discovered the truth. Abraham, Abravanel teaches,
was the first to apply analytical reasoning to bear, in coming to his revelation. He couldn’t keep his
findings to himself, disseminating the truth about the Almighty to whomever. “And he built there an
altar unto God, and called upon the name of God.” That is, Abraham was the first one who recognized
God’s omnipotence, ruler of all. Determinedly, the fiery prophet introduced God to mankind.
As stated, for Abravanel, Abraham had arrived at the truth through penetrating study and analysis. For
it, the Almighty smiled upon him. Divine wisdom resolved once and for all – Abraham’s seed would
become the Chosen People.
And then the Almighty appeared to Avraham with a request. Characteristically, the prophet didn’t flinch,
as the Bible records. “And he said, here am I.”
In short form, herein is background to the ultimate religious test and quintessential religious response.