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B'resheet/Genesis 22:2 And He said, "Take, please, your son ..."
Nahum Sarna writes that "the particle added to the imperative usually softens the command to an entreaty". The dictionaries offer two principle translations: 'now' or 'please', depending on the context. One clearly strengthens the imperative nature of the command, the other lessens the tone to little more than a plea or an invitation. The former can be seen when Moshe addresses the people in some anger before striking - rather than speaking to - a rock to bring forth water: - "Listen now, you rebels ..." (B'Midbar 20:10, NASB); you can almost hear the air crackle! An example of the latter whispers through the lips of Samson after he has been blinded and chained up in the temple of the Philistines: - "please remember me and strengthen me this once" (Judges 16:28).
The Sages project a conversation betweenHaShem and Avraham in the following words of this verse; the words in capital letters are the biblical text: "Said He to him: TAKE, I PRAY THEE - I beg thee - THY SON. 'Which son?' he asked. THINE ONLY SON, replied He. 'But each is the only one of his mother?' - WHOM THOU LOVEST. - 'Is there a limit to the affections?' EVEN YITZCHAK, said He" (B'resheet Rabbah 15:7 from b. Sanhedrin 89b). The conversation highlights the gentleness with which G-d makes the request of Avraham; this is no harsh command that must be obeyed without question, simply at G-d's whim because He demands it. This is a reasoned request, with which HaShem needs Avraham's willing co-operation if the right outcome is to be obtained, for Avraham, Yitzchak and the Jewish people yet to come. Rashi comments, "Why did He not reveal to him [that it was Yitzchak] from the start? In order to make the commandment more precious to him and to give him reward for each and every statement." It is as if HaShem wants to encourage Avraham to think through the request, to engage with it and to accept and surrender each step to His will. A number of commentators go as far as suggesting that the request should start, "It would be good for you if you could take your son".
The writer to the Hebrews offers a snapshot on Avraham's thought process: "By faith Avraham, when he was tested, offered up Yitzchak; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, 'In Yitzchak your descendants shall be called.' He considered that G-d is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type" (Hebrews 11:17-19, NASB). Avraham is here visualised as being prepared to completely surrender Yitzchak, because his faith assured him that G-d had promised that Yitzchak would have descendants to realise the promise Avraham had been given. No matter what happened in the short term, even if it came to killing Yitzchak, Avraham knew that G-d would work it some way, raising Yitzchak back to life if necessary. By being obedient, then, Avraham's faith was challenged and strengthened, his character grew and he could be rewarded for his faithfulness. It was indeed good for him.
The three synoptic gospels all relate a strikingly similar event in Yeshua's ministry. They record how a certain young man who was both wealthy and a leader among the people came to him because he felt unsure about his relationship with G-d. "One of the leaders asked him, 'Good rabbi, what should I do to obtain eternal life?'" (Luke 18:18, CJB). Like many people today, the man was trying to make sure that he had done everything he needed to do and was canvassing Yeshua's opinion - as a rabbi who taught with authority - on the matter. Yeshua's response was startling: "Why are you calling Me good? No one is good but G-d! You know the mitzvot - 'Don't commit adultery, don't murder, don't steal, don't give false testimony, honor your father and mother, ...'" (v. 19-20, CJB). Yeshua starts by making it clear that giving Him a title or compliment is wasted, because He doesn't set the rules: it is G-d alone who is the standard of righteousness and He must be recognised as such; then He points to the basic commandments - all to be found in the Ten Words in either Shemot 20 or D'varim 5 - how else is a Jew to be sure of G-d's favour other than by obeying His commandments? The man is taken aback by the simplicity of the reply: "I have kept all these since I was a boy" (v. 21, CJB); this I have already done - implying the secondary question: are You sure that is all I have to do, it seems so simple? "On hearing this Yeshua said to him, 'There is one thing you still lack. Sell whatever you have, distribute the proceeds to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow Me!" (v. 22, CJB). Hear what Yeshua is saying here; He is not advocating poverty and subsistence living among all His followers - He is challenging the young man in exactly the same way as Avraham was challenged: are you prepared to give up what is closest to you - your money, your wealth - in order to guarantee your relationship with G-d, putting Him first above all else. It is not that obeying the commandments is wrong, on the contrary, but that obedience to a covenant can only be meaningful when there is a covenant; in this case, the covenant is established by putting G-d first and having no other gods before Him.
Yeshua is inviting the young man to take a step of faith for his own benefit: it would be good for you to sell everything and give it to the poor. Who benefits the most from the transaction? We know from Yeshua's comments elsewhere that although that particular gift of money might bring immediate relief to some poor people, it would not solve the problem of poverty: "For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good" (Mark 14:7, NASB). Similarly, Yeshua was not seeking followers for His own sake, but in order to lead and disciple them in serving G-d; the "follow follow Me" was not an instruction to put Yeshua before Father G-d, but an invitation to join Yeshua's group of disciples learning how to put into practice Yeshua's own summary of the Torah: "'You shall love the L-RD your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37-39, NASB).
We have been given great and powerful promises by G-d but no matter how great and powerful the promises are, G-d Himself and our relationship with Him must still come before any of the promises. We must be prepared to trust Him for the execution of those promises in His time and His way, all the while holding the promises lightly and making sure that we always surrender them to Him. Without Him the promises are worthless; without Him their fulfillment, however gratifying it might appear to be in the short term, would be but dust and ashes and of no lasting pleasure of benefit.
Further Study: Romans 4:19-21; Psalm 27:4-5
Application: Have you been able to keep G-d first in your life, or have His promises and blessings started to come between you? Why not search your heart today and ask Him the question: which is more important to me, You or Your promises. Like most of us, you might find that an attitude adjustment is required!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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