Lost In Translation: Gospel In Genesis
By Julia BlumOctober 27, 2021No comments
I wrote already on these pages that Torah Portion VaYerah presented a special interest to Christians: its structure is similar to the structure of the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke. This portion begins with the Divine Annunciation of the miraculous birth of the son of the promise, and ends with Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of this miraculously born son. In Genesis 18, God comes to Abraham in the form of three Heavenly Guests. One of the main objects of this visit was the annunciation – the announcement of the miraculous birth of Isaac. We see a very similar announcement at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Luke tells us that “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth” to a virgin named Mary, announcing the miraculous birth of Jesus. VaYerah ends with Genesis 22, Abraham being ready to sacrifice his son and Isaac laying on the altar. The Gospel of Luke (as every other gospel) ends with Jesus’ sacrifice—with His crucifixion and resurrection. In this sense, there is a striking resemblance between the starting and the ending point of our portion today, and the starting and the ending point of the Gospel of Luke. There are so many things that we can say about this amazing portion – however, since this year’s comments on Parashot Shavua go under the title “Lost in translation”, I want to show you how many additional details we can see in these starting and ending points of Vayera when we read it in Hebrew.
Our portion opens with a famous scene in Genesis 18 where God comes to Abraham in the form of three Heavenly Guests. Some context would be helpful here: right before that, in chapter 17, God spoke to Abraham after 13 years of silence. First, God told Abraham that He was making a covenant with him and with his descendants forever: “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Then, all of a sudden, came the breaking news of Genesis 17:16: Abraham would have another son! Honestly, I don’t think it came as very good news to Abraham. At least, not in the way we are used to reading it: Look, finally, Isaac is coming! No, Abraham had a son already. He was perfectly happy with this son; his heart was full of Ishmael, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted another son. He was an old man, after all, and he was not sure he would have room in his life for another son. He knew the magnificent promises of God to his descendants and he naturally thought—and was absolutely happy to think—that all those promises referred to Ishmael. Certainly, he was obedient to the Lord, as always, and did not argue with Him when He announced His will, but I don’t think he was especially thrilled about the news of this new baby. In a sense, the breaking news of Genesis 17:16 was an unexpected and almost unwelcome change in Abraham’s world.
Now, we can better understand the beginning of Chapter 18. According to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance before Abraham’s tent in chapter 18. Abraham wasn’t even completely recovered from his circumcision at the end of chapter 17. The well-known beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests. If we read this text in Hebrew, we find something strange and unexpected here, something that reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his previous encounter with God in chapter 17 – and something that is completely lost in translation. The Hebrew sentences of this conversation are couched alternatively in singular and plural. The very first word of Abraham’s speech here is “Adonai” (אדוני) – and there is controversy over whether Adonai here should be read as a sacred singular word, “My Lord”, or as a regular plural word, “lords”. In the following verses, we find both singular and plural: in verse 3, there are only singular forms, while verses 4 and 5 use the plural. First, Abraham is saying: “do not pass on” in singular, and then “wash your feet”, and “refresh your hearts” in plural. It sounds as if Abraham himself was not sure exactly who he saw – as if the Torah reflects Abraham’s initial uncertainty over whether the visitors were human or divine, whether they were mere men, or represented God. I believe that here, at the beginning of this crucial portion and right after chapter 17 with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between natural and supernatural: whether he could and wanted to believe the supernatural promise of chapter 17.
The Mystery of Sonship
Fast-forward some years (37 according to Jewish commentaries) and we arrive to one of the most dramatic stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of Isaac. As Isaac is being led to the mountain by his father, he asks Abraham, ‘Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham’s answer is astounding in its depth and prophetic meaning: ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’
This conversation between Abraham and Isaac is full of the details that you see in Hebrew only. In Hebrew ( אלוהים יראה-לו השה לעלה בני), these words sound even more profound, even more ambiguous, lending themselves to multiple interpretations. A traditional reading will place a comma in this sentence before the last word בני (my son), such as in the NIV, for instance: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ Some versions, such as the NKJV we are using here, even move these words to the beginning of the sentence: ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’ In the original Hebrew text of the Tenach, however, there were no punctuation marks and therefore it is perfectly allowable to divide this sentence in a way other than how the English translations render it. When doing so, a completely different text emerges:
אלוהים יראה-לו… השה לעלה בני
In English, this would sound approximately as follows: “God will provide (for Himself); the lamb for the burnt offering is my son.” Naturally, our ears are much better tuned to the translation of Abraham’s answer we find in our English Bibles, and therefore the traditional reading tends to appear a more valid rendition. Yet, there is nothing substantial that would incline us to support one reading above the other in the original sentence. Moreover, the fact that Abraham named the place The-LORD-Will-Provide – יהוה יראה – seems to me another weighty argument in favor of the alternative reading of this sentence as consisting of two very important statements: אלוהים יראה-לו (God will provide for Himself) and השה לעלה בני (the lamb for the burnt offering is my son).
With such a reading, the story of the Akedah is revealed as a powerful illustration of God’s invisible mystery concealed within the words of Abraham. It unseals, uncovers His mystery of sonship: God will provide Himself a lamb for the burnt offering. God will provide Himself a lamb in His son. השה לעלה בני. If we remember that God calls Israel His son, we would understand the history of Israel in a completely different and much more profound way.