“Now I know”—“What? Didn’t You Know Before?”
Nowadays, this week’s Torah reading justly troubles a great many readers. It contains the famous account of God’s command to Abraham to kill his own son, sacrificing him like some animal on an altar. From Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan, people have wondered how a just God could issue such a horrible order to anyone, even if it was, as the Torah says, only a “test” (Gen 22:1), one that God never intended to be carried out. Equally troubling, people rightly ask how any father could actually set out to obey such an order—what does this say about Abraham himself?
Interestingly, however, neither of these questions was what most troubled ancient Jewish interpreters of the Torah. Their question, rather, was: Why did God have to test Abraham in the first place? Surely He must have known how the test would turn out, so why put Abraham through this ordeal?
God certainly knew how it would turn out for two reasons. First, interpreters knew from the preceding chapters in Genesis that Abraham had already undergone a series of hardships in his life—his departure from Ur of the Chaldeans and his journey all the way to Canaan; the famine that had struck the land at the time of his arrival; the trip to Egypt to find food, which led to Sarah’s being taken from him; and so on and so forth. These difficulties were themselves understood to be divinely initiated tests, so that the Mishnah could assert flatly: “Our father Abraham underwent ten tests” (Avot, 5:3). Thus, long before the commandment to sacrifice Isaac was given, Abraham was held to have proven his mettle over and over.
Along with this was the whole matter of divine foreknowledge. Surely, interpreters reasoned, the God who “announces the generations in advance” (Isa 41:4) must have known beforehand how this trial would turn out: Abraham would once again prove his faithfulness. If so, why should God have put Abraham through a cruel and utterly needless ordeal?
The answer to both questions was held to lie in the opening words of the story, “And so it was after these things…” The word for “things” in Hebrew is, as is well known, devarim, which can also mean “words.” If understood as “words,” this sentence could be hinting that certain words that were spoken, words which then led God to put Abraham to the test.
What exactly these words were the subject of some speculation. The book of Jubilees, an ancient (ca. 200 BCE) and expansive retelling of some of the stories in Genesis, recounts that these were words in praise of Abraham—presumably spoken by the heavenly angels—to the effect that he was “faithful in everything that we have told him.” Hearing this, Satan (he is actually called the “Angel of Animosity” in Jubilees) challenges God to put Abraham to the most difficult of tests, sacrificing his own son; “[Only] then will you know if he is indeed faithful in every way in which you test him.” Of course God knew Abraham would pass this test as he had the others; but He nonetheless went through with it in order to prove to Satan Abraham’s absolute obedience and faithfulness to God.
Another midrashic tradition (preserved in theTalmud, Sanhedrin 89b) holds that the “words” were negative. At the time of the great celebration of Isaac’s weaning, Satan had said to God: “Abraham made this whole celebration and did not think to offer up a single bull or ram as a sacrifice to You?!” God responded: “Abraham holds nothing dearer than his own son, yet if I were to say to him, ‘Sacrifice him to Me,’ he would not refuse.”
One way or another, these two traditions provide the same basic answer: God certainly knew that Abraham was His faithful servant long before this episode, and being God, He also knew how the test would turn out before it took place. It was only as a response to Satan’s challenge—which, come to think of it, was very much like Satan’s challenge to God concerning Job (Job 1:11)—that God agreed to put Abraham to this test, precisely because He knew how it would turn out.
And yet… There was one problem with such an explanation. After Abraham had tied up Isaac and placed him on the altar to be sacrificed, a voice called out from heaven: “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to harm him, because now I know that you are someone who fears God, since you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.” The words now I know seemed to imply: “I didn’t know before.” But if so, these words contradicted the whole supposition of divine foreknowledge.
Two explanations of this matter have come down from ancient times. The first focuses on the word yada‘ti, “I know.” The Torah was of course given without those little dots and dashes that nowadays indicate the accepted pronunciation of the consonantal text. Without them, the word yada‘ti could be pronounced slightly differently, as yidda‘ti; this would mean, “I have made known,” “I have informed.” If so, God could be saying at the conclusion of this test, “Now I have made known”—to Satan, indeed, to the whole world—“that you fear God.”
The second explanation highlighted the fact that the words of this verse were not actually spoken by God at all. It was an angel who called out, “Do not lift up your hand against the boy or do anything to harm him, because now I know that you are someone who fears God.” God is omniscient, but angels are not. Of course, God had told the angel what to say, but the angel could not help inserting that little word “now” into his version of God’s order: “Don’t hurt the boy, because I know—in fact, I [the angel] just now found out—that you are one who fears God…” But God had known this all along.