Why Didn't Abraham Protest On Behalf of His Children?

He had no problem demanding justice for Sodom. Why not Ishmael and Isaac?

This is the Monday essay from Life is a Sacred Text— the newsletter from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, which you can read about here.

TW: Child Abuse

Last week we saw Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Ishmael get sent away.  But where was Abraham in all of this?  

Today we’ll look more closely at his role--and at his (in)famous other parenting choice, the binding of Isaac, and about how our family legacies can shape us in ways we don’t always realize in the moment. 

To backtrack for a moment: As we saw last week, Sarah had decided that she wanted Hagar and Ishmael out of the household. The Torah tells us that Abraham did not think highly of this plan:

”the thing was very bad in his eyes,”

Genesis 21:11 tells us.  Mind you, he doesn’t say anything, but he sees that it’s a horrific idea.   

But the character of God tells Abraham to heed Sarah nonetheless. And Abraham, at least insofar as the text records for us, is silent.  Where is the man who bravely confronted the Holy One a few short chapters earlier and demanded compassion for the vulnerable?

That Abraham is nowhere to be found. 

Rather, the next verse tells us that he indeed sent away his elder son and the boy's mother, exactly as instructed, without a word.

Abraham woke early the next morning, took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. (Genesis 21:14)

He doesn’t appear to comment on the matter at all. Or even to tell his own son goodbye.

In the next chapter, the character of God makes another demand:  

"Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, who you love... and offer him as a burnt offering." (Genesis 22:2)  

Here, too, Abraham meets God with silence and obedience; the verse following tells us, simply, that he saddled his donkey, took his servants and his son, split the wood for this burnt offering and set out for the place that God had designated.

It’s a perplexing demand, one that has troubled readers for many centuries.  Some read it as what will ultimately be the setup for a polemic against child sacrifice, others as about the necessity of taking a leap of faith.  We might wonder if it might be divine punishment for Abraham’s complicity and Sarah’s heartlessness with regards to Hagar and Ishmael, or a test to see if Abraham is, in a second situation, able to prioritize a son’s well-being over everything else. (If it is, he failed it.)

Met with the chance to bring mercy into justice for the people of Sodom, Abraham is a prophet, offering a clarion call on behalf of the people. 

Met with the chance to demand even simple justice for for his own children, and he is speechless, inert. 

Isaac is saved not by the intercession of his father on his behalf, but by a literal deus ex machina—a call from the heavens not to harm his child, and the convenient appearance of a ram in the thicket to be sacrificed in Isaac’s stead. 

What is the reason for Abraham’s shocking silence? Why is he willing to challenge God on behalf of strangers but, when his own children are at stake, he—already knowing that he can stand up to the divine with success—simply rolls over and complies?  Why does this brave prophet suddenly shut up and do exactly as he's told?  

Where is the demand for mercy on behalf of Isaac and Ishmael?

The answer, I think, goes back to Abraham’s own father, Terach.  We recall the legend (Genesis Rabbah 38:11) in which Abraham was thrown by his father into a fiery furnace, to be burned alive, surviving only through divine intervention. 

This is the abusive model of parenting that Abraham learned—children are disposable, not to be protected.  A child who behaves in a way the parent does not like is not engaged, corrected, or taught. Justice and mercy don't apply to them.  As such, their death may be inevitable.

Even when Abraham set out for a new life, to the Promised Land, he couldn't fully extract himself from the deep, primal patterns he had learned as a child.  He doesn't have a model of fathering that involves love, caring or compassion, and so when asked to behave without mercy to his own sons, he doesn't comprehend that things could go a different way.

In a way, this is true for us all--even when we smash the idols of our youth, in many ways we wind up unconsciously engaging in old patterns and behaviors nonetheless.  There are so many ways that pain gets passed on down the generations, so many ways that our own buttons get installed. 

And even if there isn’t some defining challenge or issue that a person can point to as formative, there are still legacies—the particular psychic mold of your family tree, the norms of the culture in which your parents and grandparents were raised, the ways in which that one thing that happened three generations back continues to imprint your family’s emotional map. 

And sometimes the pain is the result of individual pain or suffering; sometimes that pain is the result of inherited communal trauma—genocide, displacement, enslavement, war, systemic oppression and so many other large-scale harms take their toll. We know that trauma affects epigenetics—that is, that traumatic experiences can be passed on not only psychologically, through the actions and reactions of the traumatized parent, but physically, altering the child’s very DNA and their physiological responses to stress and other things—and that this genetic alteration can continue being handed down over generations.

Of course, for many descendants of people who have suffered historical trauma or cultural genocide, systemic injustice is not merely a thing of the past, and the emotional impacts of both history and the present are all too real. Historical trauma intertwines with systemic oppression today. The pain of then intersects with the pain of now.

Drawing of the binding of Isaac story, with Hebrew words surrounding it
OK, I had to include this one, too. 15th c. France, Sephardi script. If you don’t know Hebrew, it’s basically saying this is the binding of Isaac, etc., which you can clearly see from the drawings.

And, too, the individual and structural intertwine in a myriad of ways; for example, an estimated 90 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system in the United States have experienced childhood trauma (some of which may be related to structural injustices such as poverty and racism); instead of being offered support to heal that trauma, most are incarcerated, only exacerbating existing problems, and causing new ones.

What if we focused our collective social resources on healing trauma and addressing the root causes of trauma? How different we would be.

Dr. Sousan Abadian, a scholar of collective trauma, puts it thusly: 

“If we were to truly recognize the importance of healing collective trauma, it would reframe and transform our approach to everything, including international economic development, diplomacy, and nation-building.”

 Our obligation as individuals and as society is, of course, to work towards justice and repair, to take responsibility for the places we have been complicit in harm and to own the work towards transformation.  

But perhaps our work is also to try to become as clear as possible on the ways in which we may have been thrown in the fire. And to acknowledge that, even if we did get out—we may not be as unscathed as we might think we are. 

In order to do better, dream bigger, offer more to the generations to come after us, we must get clear about what we’re truly carrying.

We must be willing to admit to ourselves how we’ve been burned, and how it’s impacted us. We must be willing to do healing work, for our own selves, our own lives, and for the future—so that we do not pass our pain on, whether to our children, our mentees, or anyone else we’re helping to bring forward into the next chapter of life, work and vision for the future.

After the horrible binding episode, when Isaac is an adult, Abraham asks his servant to journey back to Abraham’s birthplace in order to find Isaac a wife from among his kinfolk. Abraham is adamant that Isaac himself not go back—as though he does not want his son to re-enter the family systems that had so harmed him.  

Was he ready, by then, to look more closely at the way his own story had impacted his children's?  Was this a conscious decision?  Or was it an unconscious protective mechanism?  We can’t know. 

We also can’t know how Isaac regarded his father, after all this.  Was Abraham’s decision to keep him close when it was time to find a spouse redemptive in some way for Isaac?  Did the image of his father standing over him with a knife haunt Isaac’s dreams and color every interaction with Abraham?  Did Abraham ever tell Isaac what his own father had done?  How much did Isaac think about, worry about, Ishmael? How much did Abraham?  There is so much silence in the text—just as there is silence that hangs, heavy, in some families—some truths that never get named out loud, but are just known, that fill the air nonetheless.

There is so much that we don’t know.  But we do know that, after Abraham’s death, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury him. (Genesis 25:9)

Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, a Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation scholar focusing on Indigenous justice, writes, 

“With the knowledge we have today, we believe that each of us can eventually come to an expressed acknowledgement of oneself as victim and then survivor, recognizing our own compassion and strengths. But, surviving is not the end. Instead, it must become the precursor to the next step of integration and wholeness. Then a person can begin the process of reorganizing and celebrating new life and new insight.”

Was duty driving Isaac and Ishmael’s decision to bury their father together? A need for closure? Something else? Did they find their own way of reckoning with everything their father had done and been to them?  Did they find healing?   

We can only guess, imagine, hope.  

And we can each work, through healing, accountability and justice work, to create futures not entirely defined by the harms of the past. 

If you like this kind of thing, there’s more of it—

For free every Monday—sign up at the button just below. And you can get even more as part of a community of rabble rousers going deep into the questions and issues, with even more text and provocation, every Thursday. That includes archives, guided text study, open discussion threads, more musings, Ask The Rabbi threads, guest posts and building community through applying the biggest questions to our own lives Please join us. Or you can subscribe at the paid level if you want to support this work and simply want to enable it to continue.

And please know that nobody will ever be kept out due to lack of funds. Just email lifeisasacredtext@gmail.com for a hookup. And if you’d like to underwrite one of these donated subscriptions, you can do so here.

And if it resonated with you, please share this post: