The unintentional test was a better test than the intentional one.
The story of the akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak begins with the statement
וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְבָרִים הָאֵלֶה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם וַיֹאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹאמֶר הִנֵֽנִי
Some time after these things, G”d put Avraham to the test, saying to him “Abraham,” and he answered “Here I am.”
So we’re told from the get-go that this whole scenario is devised by G”d to test Avraham. What is not entirely clear from the rest of the story is whether Avraham passed or failed this particular test. It’s easy, perhaps, to assume he must have gotten a passing grade, because G”d continued to show favor upon Avraham and keep the promises made to him. However, it could just as easily have been that Avraham did not perform as G”d expected, but G”d learned what G”d wanted to learn from the exercise, and decided to go ahead with Avraham despite any disappointment with the result of the test. Since G”d did not make the desired outcome clear, we can only speculate.
One could perhaps bolster the case that Avraham failed, and that G”d stepped in at the last minute to prevent a disaster, in that G”d had set an earlier precedent in choosing Noah, an imperfect and less than ideal choice, but perhaps the best option available at the time. You work with what you’ve got.
It’s a huge leap from there to Avraham assuming that G”d will destroy the people of S’dom and Gomorrah for their evil ways.
I also think it is foolish to divorce the question of passing/failing in the story of the akeidah from the story of Avraham’s argument with G”d over the planned destruction of of S’dom and Gomorrah. The text makes no argument that this was a test by G”d, but it can surely be viewed in that light.
G”d made the conscious (can we apply that verb to G”d?) choice to tell Avraham that he was planning to go check out the wickedness in S’dom and Gomorrah. It should be noted that at no time does G”d say that S’dom and Gomorroah will be destroyed for their sinful ways. Avraham seems to assume that if G”d find S’dom, and Gomorrah to be as sinful as reported, G”d will punish them with death. Ask yourself why Avraham would assume that. So far, the only real punishment that Avraham has seen meted out by G”d are the plagues and affliction G”d affected Pharaoh for messing around with Sarai with when Avraham tried to save his own skin by pretending she was his sister. When Pharaoh figured out the source of the affliction (and we still have no idea how Pharaoh figured it out, which I wrote about last week) and returned Sarai and sent Avram off with gifts and wealth, G”d relented and stop the punishment – no Egyptians were killed as far as we know. So where does Avraham get off assuming G”d is about to destroy the people of S’dom and Gomorrah?
Avraham, of course, has correctly interpreted G”d’s intentions (or has he?) Avraham challenges G”d asking if G”d will sweep away the innocent with the guilty. G”d doesn’t respond to Avraham saying “Why do you assume I will destroy them all?” G”d seems to confirm Avraham’s assumption, and simply accepts Avraham’s first offer to save for fifty good people.
Is it possible that G”d had never actually intended to destroy S’dom and Gomorrah, but merely use some other form of punishment to send them a message? Did Avraham assuming G”d’s intentions actually precipitate G”d making that choice? Did Avraham force G”d’s hand in this instance? It’s an intriguing possibility.
Consider a potential inner dialogue of G”d. “OK, this schmuck, to whom I have promised things beyond imagination wants to argue with me, when he really has no idea what I’m planning. I was just going to bring a plague to the towns, and weed out the wicked. OK, Mr. Wise Guy, be careful what you wish for. Just to make a point, I’ll take your assumption and run with it. Now, argue away, you fool!”
I guess we’ll just overlook the issue of omniscient G”d. Is it fair to bet G”d when G”d knows the results of the wager? Yet G”d lets Avraham try. Toying with him, perhaps?
Because S’dom and Gomorrah were destroyed, we readers assume there weren’t ten good people to be found there. What if G”d had decided to ignore the agreement with Avraham? How would we know? There is also a potential issue of sexism or misogyny here.
Some cite as proof that there were not 10 good people in the town from 19:4
טֶרֶם יִשְכָבוּ וְאַנְשֵי הָעִיר אַנְשֵי סְדֹם נָסַבּוּ עַל־הַבַיִת מִנַעַר וְעַד־זָקֵן כָל־הָעָם מִקָצֶֽה
They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of S’dom., young and old, – all the people to the last man – gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot “where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out, so that we may be intimate with them.
However, if you go back and look at Avraham’s negotiations with G”d, neither party specifies that only men count. They reference only the term “tzaddikim” (righteous people) which in that plural form could refer to men and women.
Avraham may have passed this unintentional test by choosing to argue with G”d to spare the city for the sake of a few righteous people. G”d, however, might have failed to hold up the bargain. S’dom and Gomorrah might have been destroyed even though there might have been at least ten tzaddikim present.
When G”d is the house, maybe it’s not wise to make the bet? I am reminded of these lyrics from the song “Gethsemane” fro JC Superstar: “G”d Thy will is hard, but You hold every card…”
When G”d puts us to the test, it’s hard to know the right answer. When we put G”d to the test, it may be equally hard for us to really know our own desired outcome. (And if G”d is truly omniscient, then free will is a chimera, and our efforts to discern are pointless.) Despite that, it seems to me that the unannounced and unintentional tests may prove a better way of learning about the testee (and the tester.) I know I learn a lot more about G”d and humanity from the story of S’dom and Gomorrah than I do from the akeidah. How about you?
©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayeira 5777 – He’s a Family Guy (?) (Redux and Revised 5769)
Vayeira 5766 – The Price of Giving (Redux/Revised 5766)
Vayeira 5775 – He’s a Family Guy (Revised Redux 5769)
Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)
Vayera 5773 – Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 – Well?
Vayera 5771 – Density
Vayera 5770 – Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 – He’s a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the “Journal of Lot”
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or “Non-Linear Thinking?”)
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties