There’s a tradition in Jewish studies called, “midrash.” Midrash is a way that
readers engage with biblical texts, reading what’s there but also what’s
missing. A large part of the Talmud is midrash – debating and asking questions
of the text. We preachers often use midrash in our proclamation. A seminary professor of mine, Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney wrote a book of midrash from the standpoint of black women (pictured above).
One biblical text that has particularly captured the interest of readers is from Genesis 22
– the binding of Isaac. We read about Abraham – how Abraham heard God call him
to sacrifice his son. But the Bible doesn’t mention the response of Sarah,
Isaac’s mother, at all.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November wrote a midrash on the text from the viewpoint of
Sarah. It’s Women’s History month, and what better time than do consider the
voices of biblical women.
Imagine Sarah at the end of her life, recounting the experience[i]:
“I remember lying quietly in our tent.
Abraham had fallen asleep beside me. My mind drifted, back to my favorite
memory of the day when three guests came to tell me I’d soon be pregnant. After
so many years! I actually laughed in disbelief until the Source of Life
reassured me it was true. With Isaac, God gave me one of my life’s great joys.
“Suddenly, Abraham began stirring and
called out, ‘Hineini, Here I am.’ He began to talk with God. As I often did, I
pretended to be asleep to listen in.
“At first what I heard made little
sense. Though I could only hear Abraham’s responses, I sensed that God
requested something involving our son Isaac.
“Abraham’s steady voice suddenly
quivered. I thought I heard him say the word, ‘sacrifice.’ Had the Eternal
One just commanded that my husband sacrifice our only son?
“Now why would God, who had given us
Isaac, take this special gift from me now? And without even speaking directly
to me! For a moment I wondered if this was my punishment for our treatment
“Through cracked eyelids, I saw my
husband overcome with sadness. I had never seen him so sad, not even when we
were commanded, lech l’cha, ‘go forth,’ to leave his land and his
father’s house (Gen.
“Strangely, I could see in Abraham’s
face that he truly believed that God wanted him to sacrifice our son. I
wanted to urge Abraham to challenge to God as he had before at Sodom and
18-19). But Abraham’s eyes burned fiercely and for the first time he
excluded me from contemplating God’s message. I felt
powerless to insert myself in what had passed between them. Finally,
Abraham fell back asleep, though fitfully as if struggling with a demon.
“I would give up my life before I
would let Isaac be harmed! ‘I would not offer my first born for sacrifice’. The Merciful One who had blessed us with a
child would not now take him away.
“I needed air. I stepped outside to
think. I walked aimlessly around the camp’s altar and spied Abraham’s special
knife. I trembled as I thought of that knife sliding against Isaac’s throat.
“What was God looking for? Why would
God suddenly seek reassurance of our commitment? I remembered God’s promise that
our offspring would inherit this land and become a great nation (Gen.
12:2). I always assumed that Isaac and his future bride would follow in our
footsteps to lead as heads of the tribe, but I never considered just how they
would inherit our commitment to serving God. Abraham and I were not
getting any younger. If we were to pass on the covenantal responsibility, it would
have to be soon. Perhaps God was hinting that it was time for a journey
together, to meet God on a mountaintop and begin the transition of spiritual
leadership to the next generation?
“My heart began to pound as I realized
Abraham had misunderstood. God was commanding an offering to help
transmit leadership to Isaac. A sacrifice of the finest of our flocks was
called for, not a sacrifice of Isaac. I realized then, that the future of our
people depended upon me. I had to prevent a nonsensical death, and ensure our
continued covenant with God. It was on me.
“I hoped Abraham would figure this out
himself. But in case he did not, I had to intervene. So I went back to bed and
with my eyes closed, I planned my next step.
“Abraham got up early, gathered his
supplies, and took off with Isaac. He didn’t even try to wake me. No
explanation; not even a kiss goodbye.
“As soon as they were gone, I gathered
my supplies and took our finest ram. I followed carefully, hiding in the
shadows. At dawn on the third day, as they slept, I hurried up the
mountain, releasing the ram into the bushes.
“The rest happened so quickly. Abraham
was holding the knife, about to sacrifice Isaac. He seemed to be in a trance.
So in my voice that he often called ‘angelic,’ I called out, ‘Avraham,
“That broke the trance. Realizing what
he was about to do, he dropped the knife. He looked up, saw the ram that I
brought for him to sacrifice instead, and stepped toward it. Relieved at having
saved my son’s life, and grateful at having ensured the survival of our people,
I was exhausted. I cried and cried.
“Then I lay down on the ground for
what I sensed would be a long, long sleep.”