Test of Abraham


The Torah (Genesis 22:1) states that Hashem tested Abraham to offer his beloved son Isaac which raises a number of questions:

Why did Hashem test Abraham and not anyone else in this manner?

How could Hashem ask someone to commit murder?

This article will answer these questions following the investigative method of reporting answering the above questions of:

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. When?
  4. Where?
  5. Why?

This article will follow the pardes method of exposition (i.e. literal meaning, exegesis, hints and allusions, secrets of the Torah) drawing from scripture, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and related commentaries.


The reader may ask, “Why of all biblical figures Abraham was tested in so many different ways and over a period of over 50 years, as calculated in appendix 1. By contrast Job was also tested with several trials but over 1 year. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah) explains that Hashem selected Abraham for these trials because he was:

  • Foundation of world (12:9).
  • Corrector of world (14:6).
  • Most worthy of his generation (56:2).

Foundation of World

This Midrash states that the heavens and earth were created in the merit of Abraham by noting the precise wording and spelling of Genesis 2:4. The verse relates, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created (בהבראם).” When the letters of the word “created” are rearranged they spell the word באברהם. This implies that the verse may be understood as, “The heavens and earth (were created) because of Abraham.” In addition the word בהבראם is spelt in the torah with a small letter he alluding to the change in Abraham’s name from Abram (אברם) to Abraham (אברהם) as in Genesis 17:5.    

Corrector of World

The Midrash raises the question, “Why was Abraham not created before Adam since the former was the foundation of the world?” The Midrash answers that Hashem foresaw that Adam would sin and Abraham would rectify the original sin by overcoming tests through faith and love of Hashem. The Midrash also answers that Abraham supported the generations before and after his life through his great merit. In a similar vein the Mishna (Avot 5:2 in the printed Mishna and 5:3 in the prayer book), “There were 10 generations from Noah to Abraham … who angered Hashem … until Abraham came and received the reward of all of them.”         

Most Worthy

The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 56:2) notes that in addition to Isaac, Abraham was escorted by Eliezer, his most trusted servant, and Ishmael his son (Leviticus Rabbah 26:7). However he does not bring them to the mountain. The Midrash explains that as they approached the mountain, Abraham saw a cloud of glory upon the mountain. He asked them, “What you see?” To which they replied, “Only a mountain.” When he asked Isaac he replied, “A mountain with a cloud of glory.” Abraham then realized that Isaac was spiritually fit for the Akeidah to the exclusion of the two others.   

Based upon these sources we see that Abraham was a unique individual fit for these tests thereby answering the question, “Why did Hashem test Abraham and not anyone else in this manner?


The Torah states (Genesis 22:1) that Hashem tested Abraham by telling him to offer his beloved son Isaac as a human sacrifice. This was not his first test because the Mishna (Avot 5:3 in printed Mishna and 5:4 in prayer book) mentions that Hashem tested Abraham 10 times and he withstood all the tests to show his love for Hashem. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) comments that the Akeidah was the most difficult of the 10 tests because it involved a cruel act without apparent justification.

Since the Mishna does not specify these trials, there are different opinions concerning their identity. For sake of brevity the author will limit the discussion to the following sources:

  • Avot of Rabbi Nathan – Chapter 33.
  • Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer – Chapter 26-29.
  • Rashi on this Mishna.
  • Maimonides on this Mishna.

Avot of Rabbi Nathan

The following table lists the 10 tests with a reference number for comparison purposes, description of the test, and associated verses (where applicable) in Genesis.  

1Thrown into burning furnace11:31 (Allusion)
2Leave his family12:1
3Leave Canaan12:10
4Sarah taken by Pharaoh12:15
5War against the kings14:14-15
6Covenant of the parts15:17
7Circumcision at 9917:24
8Send Hagar away21:10 and 14
9Send Ishmael away21:10 and 14

Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer

This source lists the 10 tests as follows:

1Hid underground from NimrodN/A
2Thrown into burning furnace11:31 (Allusion)
3Leave his family12:1
4Leave Canaan12:10
5Sarah taken by Pharaoh12:15
6War against the kings14:14-15
7Belief in Hashem’s promise15:1
8Circumcision at 9917:24
9Send Hagar and Ishmael away21:10 and 14

Rashi on Mishna

Rashi lists the tests as follows:

1Hid underground from NimrodN/A
2Thrown into burning furnace11:31 (Allusion)
3Leave his family12:1
4Leave Canaan12:10
5Sarah taken by Pharaoh12:15
6War against the kings14:14-15
7Covenant of the parts15:17
8Circumcision at 9917:24
9Send Hagar and Ishmael away21:10 and 14

The lists of Avot of Rabbi Natan, Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, and Rashi are almost identical with the exception that the first source counts the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael as 2 separate tests while the latter sources count them as one. The first source does not count the test of the hiding of Abraham.  The two latter sources disagree on the 7th tests (i.e. Belief in Hashem’s promise or Covenant of the Parts).     

Maimonides on Mishna

By contrast to the previous 3 approaches, Maimonides only considers tests that are explicitly mentioned in scripture and therefore omits tests 1 and 2 of Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer and Rashi.  To complete the list of 10 tests, Maimonides adds the taking of Sarah by Avimelech and considers as 2 tests the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael as does the Avot of Rabbi Natan resulting in the following table.  

1Leave his family12:1
2Leave Canaan12:10
3Sarah taken by Pharaoh12:15
4War against the kings14:14-15
5Marriage to Hagar16:3
6Circumcision at 9917:24
7Sarah taken by Avimelech20:2
8Send Hagar away21:10 and 14
9Send Ishmael away21:10 and 14

Appendix 1 provides a brief description of each of the tests of Abraham. Based upon these lists the section “Why” will explain why Hashem tested Abraham in so many ways.


The reader may ask, “When did the Akeidah occur and what event precipitated this event?” The answers to these questions may lead to an explanation of Hashem’s testing of Abraham. However the Torah does not directly answer these questions and therefore classical Torah commentators differ in their approaches.


The timing of the Akeidah may be resolved by analyzing adjacent texts in the Torah. Although the Torah is not necessarily chronological (Pesachim 6b) here the Torah states (Genesis 22:1) “After these things” which implies a connection to the previous text which speaks of Abraham’s covenant with the Philistines and dwelling with them for many years. In addition one may examine the events that occurred after the Akeidah (i.e. birth of Rebecca and death of Sarah). The following table lists these events, associated verses in Genesis,and the age of Isaac if clearly indicated in the Torah.

Covenant with Philistines21:22-32To be determined
Leaving the Philistines21:34To be determined
Akeidah22:1-19To be determined
Birth of Rebecca22:23To be determined
Death of Sarah23:237

The Torah clearly states that Sarah passed away at the age of 127 (Genesis 23:1). Since Sarah was 90 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17) Isaac was 37 years old at her passing (127-90=37). However the timeline of the other events is a matter of dispute and requires sources from the Talmud and Midrash for clarification. The Torah clearly indicates that Abraham was 100 years old at the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:5).

Covenant with Philistines

Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), grandson of Rashi, on Genesis 22:1 considers the Akeidah as a direct divine punishment for making an unauthorized treaty with the Philistines. However the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 54:2) states that Abraham made this covenant shortly after the birth of Isaac which was many years before the Akeidah as explained in the next paragraph.

Leaving Philistines

Abraham lived for 25 years in Hebron from the time he left his father Terah at the age of 75 (Genesis 12:4), including this year, until the destruction of Sodom at the age of 99. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 54:6) interprets Genesis 21:34, “Abraham dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many days”, implying that his stay with the Philistines was 26 years, one more than the 25 years in Hebron. Hence Abraham was 125 when he left the Philistines (i.e. 99+26=125) meaning that Isaac was 25 years old (125-100=25). If the Akeidah closely follows Abraham’s leaving of the Philistines then Isaac was about 25 or 26 at the Akeidah.

Birth of Rebecca

The Torah records the birth of Rebecca, the future wife of Isaac, after the Akeidah implying a connection between her birth and this event. However the Torah does not indicate the number of years between these two events. There are different approaches to determine the age of Rebecca at her marriage to Isaac either at age 3 or 14, as explained in detail in Appendix 2. Both approaches note that the Torah clearly states that Isaac married Rebecca when he was 40 (Genesis 25:20).

Marriage at 3

This approach assumes that death of Sarah immediately followed the Akeidah as related by Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Vayeira 23). Hence Isaac was 37 years old as explained above. If the birth of Rebecca immediately preceded the passing of Sarah then Rebecca was 3 years old at her marriage (i.e. 40-37=3). However with this approach how could she attend to the camels of Eliezer (Genesis 24:19-20) and be ready for marriage unless she matured quickly?

Marriage at 14

Therefore the Tosafot (Yevamot 61b) opine that Rebecca was 14 at her marriage to Isaac, meaning that the death of Sarah does not immediately follow the Akeidah. In fact according to this view Isaac may have been 26 years old at the Akeidah and birth of Rebecca (40-14=26). 


The following table summarizes the age of Isaac for the two approaches of the age of Rebecca’s marriage (i.e. 3 or 14). The table lists the events, age of Isaac at these events, and related verses in Genesis. According to the first approach the Akeidah, birth of Rebecca, and death of Sarah occur in close proximity supporting the concept of juxtaposition. However Abraham’s leaving of the Philistines and the Akeidah are separated by 12 years. According to the second approach Abraham’s leaving of the Philistines, the Akeidah, and birth of Rebecca occur in close proximity. However the death of Sarah is separated from the Akeidah by 11 years. Hence according to either approach the Torah presents the events in chronological order but with gaps in time. 

EventMarriage at 3Marriage 14Verses (Genesis)
Abraham’s Covenant1121:22-32
Leaving the Philistines252521:34
Birth of Rebecca372622:23
Death of Sarah373723:1

Sources in Oral Tradition

Although the Torah (Genesis 22:1) introduces the topic of the Akeidah by saying, “After these things Hashem tested Abraham” the Torah does not specify these things or even provide a date for the test. The oral Torah through the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) and Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 55:4) explain which event precipitated the Akeidah and provide the following answers:

  • Abraham did not offer anything to Hashem during the feast for Isaac (Genesis 21:8).
  • Argument between Ishmael and Isaac.

Feast for Isaac

The Talmud (ibid.) relates that the Satan complained to Hashem that Abraham did not offer anything to Hashem in the great feast that he made for Isaac (Genesis 21:8). Hashem answered, “If I would tell Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice he would do so immediately and therefore Hashem tested Abraham.” By contrast the Midrash (ibid.) states that Abraham on his own realized that he did not offer anything to Hashem or the heavenly angels complained to Hashem about the lack of offerings at the feast. Similar to the Talmud, Hashem stated that if I ask Abraham to offer his son he would not refuse.

The Midrash (Genesis 53:14) debates whether Isaac was 2 (time of weaning) or 13 years old (age of maturity – weaning from the evil inclination) at this feast. According to either explanation, the Akeidah did not occur shortly after the feast because Isaac was either 26 or 37 years old at the Akeidah. This raises the question, “Why did the Satan wait so long for his accusation or Abraham for his second thoughts?”    

Argument between Ishmael and Isaac

The Talmud (ibid.) relates an argument between Ishmael and Isaac about their circumcision and related righteousness. Ishmael said to Isaac, “I am greater than you in the fulfillment of mitzvoth, as you were circumcised at the age of eight days, without your knowledge and consent. However I was circumcised at the age of thirteen years, with both my knowledge and consent. In addition I could have refused circumcision (Genesis Rabbah ibid.).” Isaac retorted, “Do you provoke me with one organ? If Hashem were to say to me: Sacrifice yourself before Me, I would comply.” Immediately Hashem tried Abraham to confirm that Isaac was sincere in his offer to give his life. As above this argument refers to an event in Isaac’s youth, which raises the question, “Why did Ishmael wait so long for this argument?”


In the opinion of the author, the timing of the Akeidah is dependent upon the chronology of the events recorded in the Torah and the factors from the oral Torah following the verse in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven.”         


The reader may ask, “What is the significance of the location of the Akeidah on the temple mount?” The Talmud (Taanit 16a) and Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 55:7) note that Torah (Genesis 22:2) calls this place “land of Moriah” or in Hebrew ארץ המריה . The word המריה is spelt with an additional letter vav (ו) המוריה in 2 Chronicles 3:1, “Solomon commenced to build the House of Hashem in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah.”Using the additional letter vav these sources expound on the word המוריה by linking to words with similar letters. The following table lists the words in Hebrew, their meaning in English, related concept, and associated verse. Hence the Akeidah sanctified this location in varying ways by the faith and fortitude of Abraham and Isaac.

Word (Hebrew)Meaning (English)ConceptVerse
הוראהTeachingCenter of TorahIsaiah 2:3
מוראReverenceGreatness of JerusalemIsaiah 2:3
מורהThrowingPunishment2 Samuel 22:15
ראויAppropriateLocation of TempleExodus 15:17
מראהShowLocation of Test (Temple)Genesis 22:4
מרותאMasterMaster of the World2 Chronicles 3:1
המורMyrrhIncenseSong of Songs 4:6


Rashi (on the Talmud ibid.) quotes Isaiah 2:3, “From Zion shall the Torah come forth and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem” implying that in the messianic era Jerusalem will be the world center of Torah teaching (הוראה) and prophecy. 


Although Rashi did not quote a verse to link reverence of Israel to the land of Moriah the author suggests the first part of this verse (Isaiah 2:3), “Many nations shall go and say: Let us go up to Hashem’s mount (with implied reverence)… to the house of the G-d of Jacob and let Him teach us of His ways and we will go in His paths.” 


The word המוריה is similar in spelling to מורה which means one who throws or shoots arrows. The Midrash compares Hashem to an archer by judging those who rebel against his word especially with regard to Jerusalem as the center of Torah. Although the Midrash did not quote a verse for archery the author would like to suggest (2 Samuel 22:1), “He (Hashem) sent out arrows and scattered the enemies of Israel.”

Location of Temple

The Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 4:5) states that the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem spiritually corresponds to the Holy of Holies in heaven by quoting Exodus 15:17, “You (Hashem) shall   plant them (Israelites) on the mount of Your heritage, directed (מכון) toward Your habitation.” The Talmud understands that “Your habitation” refers to the spiritual temple and therefore Jerusalem is a fitting (ראוי) location for the temple on earth.

Location of Test (Temple)

The Torah (Genesis 22:4) relates that Abraham saw the place from afar. The Midrash (Genesis 56:1-2) raises the question, “What did Abraham actually see to indicate that Hashem has chosen this place for the Akeidah?” The Midrash answers that Abraham saw a cloud that his servants did not perceive. He then realized that this cloud was sent by Hashem to show (מראה) the location of the Akeidah and by extension of the future temple in Jerusalem.   

Master of the World

The Midrash considers the temple mount as the place where Hashem shows his mastery (מרותא) over the world. Although the commentators on this Midrash cite verses that describe the importance of the temple and Hashem’s mastery over the world these verses do not actually contain the letters of word מרות (in Hebrew) or מרותא (in Aramaic). Consequently the author chose the source verse (Genesis 22:2) which contains the word המריה and 2 Chronicles 3:1 which describes the building of the temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon and spells the word in full המוריה. It is interesting to note that the word המוריה when separated into two words and letters rearranged we obtain ה-ו-ה-י מר which mean Hashem is the master of the world. The author would like to point out that in Genesis 22:2 the word is spelt without the letter vav (ו) indicating that mastery of Hashem was not complete in a tangible form because Abraham only prepared the location for holiness. Since Solomon actually built the temple the word המוריה is spelt in full. In addition the letter vav (ו) which is written in a straight line indicates the connection between heaven and earth.


The Midrash links the word המריה to המור (myrrh) because of similar letters to emphasize that the temple is the place where the priests offer incense. In addition the Midrash quotes Song of Songs 4:6, “I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense (i.e. temple mount in Jerusalem where both of these spices are offered – Keritot 6a)”. Hence the deeds of Abraham and Isaac were as pleasing to Hashem as myrrh to people.    


The reader may ask, “Why does Hashem need to test a person since Hashem knows the future and therefore knows whether the person will pass or fail the test?” In addition the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 55:3) points out an inconsistency between Hashem’s testing of man and man not permitted to test Hashem. The verse states (Deuteronomy 6:16), “You (Israelites) shall not test Hashem as you tested him in Massah.” In Massah the Israelites challenged Hashem when they needed water in the desert and said (Exodus 17:7), “Is Hashem with us or not?” The Midrash answers that Hashem has reasons which may not be readily understood by man. The verse (Ecclesiastes 8:4) states, “Since the King’s (Hashem’s) word is the rule who will say to Him: What are You (divine) doing?” Similarly the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) notes that the Satan attempted to dissuade Abraham from his mission by saying that slaughtering Isaac was both irrational and counterproductive therefore he must have misinterpreted Hashem’s command. It is irrational because the Torah forbids murder (Genesis 9:5-6 and Exodus 20:13). In addition Hashem promised Abraham descendants who would become Israelites through Isaac and not another son (Genesis 21:12).  It is counterproductive because when his followers will hear that he killed his own son they will abandon him and his belief in Hashem.   


The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah Chapter 55) answers that the test is not for Hashem’s benefit but for the benefit of:

  1. The person tested (55:2).
  2. Mankind to know divine justice (55:1).
  3. Society through the merit of passing the test (55:2).

Person Tested

The Midrash (ibid. 55:2) explains that Hashem may test a person for his benefit to convert potential goodness or strength to actual deeds. This Midrash uses the analogy of beating flax to make it stronger and thereby improve its quality. This Midrash quotes Psalms 11:5, “Hashem tests the righteous but hates the wicked and those who love violence” and explains that Hashem will not test the wicked knowing that they will not pass the test and perhaps resort to violence.  Using the above analogy of beating flax, a farmer will not beat flax of inferior quality because it will break underneath the blow.  

The Zohar (1:119b) adds that a test may complete a person’s character. Abraham was legendary for his kindness as the verse attests Micah (7:20), “Ascribe kindness to Abraham.” In addition the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) explains that Abraham was looking for guests to serve after his circumcision at the age of 99 (Genesis 18:1) and later served them himself (ibid. 18:8). Therefore Hashem tested him with a mission of apparent cruelty (i.e. to kill his beloved son) to fulfill the will of Hashem. The Zohar (1:120a) finds an allusion to this transformation in the verse (Genesis 22:11), “An angel of Hashem called to him from heaven: Abraham! Abraham!” The double calling of his name refers to Abraham before the test (i.e. primarily kindness) and Abraham after the test (I.e. combined with strictness).

Of course, Hashem did not intend that Abraham kill his son because that would be in violation of the Torah and the 7 Noahide laws. Rather Hashem wanted Abraham to complete his character by going against his natural tendency of kindness. In fact Hashem only commanded Abraham to bring him up as an offering (Genesis 22:2) which Abraham interpreted as human sacrifice and this answers the question,” How could Hashem ask someone to commit murder?”

Inform Mankind

The Midrash (ibid. 55:1) explains that Hashem may test a righteous individual to show the world this person’s merit after successfully passing the test. In fact the verse (Genesis 22:12) indicates this purpose, “(The angel said to Abraham) now I know that you are a G-d fearing man since you did withhold your son from Me (Hashem).” Since Hashem knows the future the verse that says, “Now I know” means now I have made known to the world (Rashi ibid. based upon Midrash Tanchuma Bechukotai 7). In this manner neither the Satan (representing the strict letter of the law) nor the nations of the world will question Hashem’s selection of Abraham for divine blessing (Rashi quoting Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Vayeira 46 on Genesis 22:12). The Midrash (ibid. 55:2) compares the testing of the righteous to a potter who tests his wares by banging on them thereby showing his customers that his merchandise is durable.

The Midrash (ibid. 55:1) explains that the verb “test” in Hebrew (נסה) has similar letters to the noun “sail” (נס) implying that a test enables a righteous person to spread his message as a tall sail. This Midrash quotes Psalms 60:6, “You (Hashem) have tested those who revere You to be recognized (literally to be tested) for the sake of truth.” Similarly the word (נס) is used as a worldwide symbol of recognition as the verse (Isaiah 18:4), states, “All inhabitants of the world … shall see (Ingathering of the exiles) when a standard upon the mountains is raised.”

Benefit of Society

The Midrash (ibid. 55:2) explains that Hashem may test a righteous individual for the benefit of society meaning that the merit from passing the test may be transferred to mankind in general or the Israelites in particular. The verses after the Akeidah (Genesis 22:17-18) attest to this fact, “I (Hashem) will surely bless you (Abraham) and multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and sand on the seashore. Through your children, all the nations of the world shall be blessed because you hearkened to My (divine) voice (Targum Onkelos and Jonathan ibid.).”

In this vein, Avot of Rabbi Natan 33:2 explains the sequence in Avot chapter 5 as related to the merit of Abraham. The following table lists the number in the Mishna for the printed Mishna and prayer book for themes of 10.

MishnaPrayer bookTheme
34Tests of Abraham
45Plagues in Egypt
45Miracles at Sea of reeds

At a literal level, the redactor of the Mishna in this chapter groups different themes by number (i.e. 10, 7, and 4). However the Avot of Rabbi Natan explains that this sequence is causative. Since Abraham successfully passed 10 tests, his merit protected the Israelites from 10 plagues in Egypt. In addition Hashem worked 10 miracles when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 55:6) mentions that the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, were privileged to secure the offices of the priesthood and royalty, leading to the Messiah, because Abraham passed his tests. In fact the verb for test נסה has the letters of miracle נס meaning that the reward for passing a divine test may lead to miracles in the future.

The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 55:2) records a parable for this situation. A farmer plows his field with a strong cow to obtain a good yield of crop which benefits society. By contrast he would not plow with a weak cow because the yield would be much lower. In the parable the farmer represents Hashem who tests the righteous (i.e. strong cow) to produce merit for the world (i.e. bountiful crop). Hashem will not test the wicked (i.e. weak cow) because there would not be much gain (i.e. poor crop).

Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 3:24) explains that the purpose of the Akeidah was to demonstrate to the world Abraham’s great love of Hashem and faith to slaughter his beloved son under Hashem’s command. Even though no one else was present to witness this test the Torah records the story to teach all those who study the Torah seriously the great conviction of Abraham.    


Appendix 1 – Description of Abraham’s Test

Since there are different ways to count the 10 tests of Abraham, this appendix describes 14 events as listed by the different sources in section “What?”The following table lists these events in the order that they appear in the Torah (or alluded) even though they may not be in chronological order.

Test NumberTest Description
1Hid underground from Nimrod
2Thrown into burning furnace
3Leave his family
4Famine in the land
5Sarah taken by Pharaoh
6War against the kings
7Belief in Hashem’s protection and promises
8Covenant of the parts   
9Marriage to Hagar
10Circumcision at age of 99
11Sarah Taken by Avimelech
12Send Hagar away
13Send Ishmael away

Test 1 – Hid underground from Nimrod

The Midrash Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 26) relates that when Abraham was born the astrologers of Nimrod foresaw that Abraham would become Nimrod’s rival and advised Nimrod to kill him. His family hid him underground for his first 13 years. During the early years he was nursed by his mother and fed by his father.  Others explain that he was miraculously fed by an angel. In any event when he left the cave he instinctually rejected idolatry and placed his trust in Hashem.     

Test 2 – Thrown into burning furnace

The Midrash Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 26) combines the imprisonment of Abraham with the trial of being thrown into a burning furnace as the second test.  In both cases, Nimrod persecuted Abraham for his rejection of idolatry hence they are considered as one test. Although both of these tests are not explicitly mentioned in scripture, the commentators on this Midrash find allusions in scripture. The Talmud also mentions both of these trials (Bava Batra 91a and Eruvin 53a respectively).

For example in the verse (Genesis 15:7) Hashem says to Abraham, “I am Hashem Who (divine) brought you out (אשר הוצאתיך) from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.” Nachmanides on Genesis 11:28 notes a similarity between the expressions “Brought you out” in Genesis 15:7 to Isaiah 42:7, “Hashem brings prisoners out of a dungeon and those who sit in darkness out of a prison”, which  implied that Abraham was imprisoned. In addition the Torah uses the expression “Brought you forth” in reference to the Exodus from Egypt. The verse (Exodus 20:2) states, “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who (divine) brought you out (אשר הוצאתיך) of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”, also implying confinement. The verse alludes to 10 years of imprisonment because the expression “אשר הוצאתיך” contains 10 letters.      

The place name Ur of the Chaldees or in Hebrew כשדים אור alludes to a burning furnace because the word אור can mean fire or light. Hashem rescued Abraham from the furnace as hinted in the Genesis 15:7, “I am Hashem Who (divine) brought you out (אשר הוצאתיך) from Ur of the Chaldees (furnace of the Chladees).  The Talmud (Pesachim 118a) elaborates on this miracle, “When Nimrod threw Abraham into the fiery furnace, Gabriel said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, I will descend and cool the furnace, and I will thereby save the righteous Abraham. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: I am unique in my world and Abraham is unique in his world. It is fitting for the unique to save the unique. Therefore, Hashem went down and saved him.”

Since the other tests are clearly mentioned in scripture the author will briefly describe each test by quoting the related verse and explain that Abraham:

  • Kept his faith in Hashem
  • Did not complain about the difficulty.
  • Did not give up hope. 

Test 3 – Leave his family

Genesis 12:1 – “Hashem said to Abram: Leave your land, birthplace, father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.”

Hashem commanded Abraham to leave his family and venture into the unknown. Hashem tested the faith of Abraham because it is difficult to leave one’s surroundings especially at the age of 75 (ibid. 12:4). In addition Hashem did not even tell Abraham his final destination as the verse states, “To a land that I will show you.” Abraham willingly accepted the test and traveled though Canaan moving southward (ibid. 12:9).  

Test 4 – Famine in the land

Genesis 12:10 – “There was a famine in the land therefore Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there.”

As soon as Abraham tried to settle in Canaan a famine broke out. Abraham could have complained and said to Hashem, “Where are the blessings that You (Hashem) have promised (ibid. 12:2)?” Nevertheless Abraham kept his peace. 

Test 5 – Sarah Taken by Pharaoh

Genesis 12:15 – “When Pharaoh’s princes saw Sarah they praised her to Pharaoh. Consequently, Sarah was taken to the house of Pharaoh.”

When Abraham arrived in Egypt his beautiful wife Sarah was taken to Pharaoh’s harem. The Midrash (Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer ibid.) questions, “Is there a husband whose wife is taken by force and does not become upset?” Again Abraham kept his peace. Pharaoh gave Abraham gifts of cattle and servants (Genesis 12:16) thinking that he was Sarah’s brother.

Hashem protected Sarah by bringing a plague upon Pharaoh thereby preventing him from intimacy with her (Genesis 12:17). This Midrash (ibid.) comments that Sarah was taken on the night of the 15th of Nissan which would later become the night of Passover foretelling the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt through plagues. Awed by the power of Hashem, Pharaoh had his servants escort Abraham out of Egypt and let him keep the gifts (Genesis 12:20). As a reward for his faith Abraham became wealthy (Genesis 13:2).

Test 6 – War against the Kings

The Torah (Genesis 14:1-11) records a war between the kings of Canaan and surrounding areas in which Lot, Abraham’s nephew was taken captive (ibid. 14:12). Although outnumbered Abraham took a small number of his associates (318 in particular) to rescue Lot (ibid.14:14), thereby jeopardizing his life. Abraham demonstrated his great faith in Hashem and defeated the 4 kings who captured Lot (ibid. 14:16). The Tosafot (Shabbat 10b) explains that Abraham was either 73 or 75 at this war. The two views are based upon a calculation of the settlement of Sodom, after the tower of Babel, or following the flow of the verses, respectively.

Test 7 – Belief in Hashem’s Protection and Promises

After the war, the Torah (Genesis 15:1) relates that Hashem promised to Abraham, “Fear not Abram because I (Hashem) am your Shield. In addition your reward is exceedingly great.” Abraham feared that he may have killed some innocent people in the battle. Furthermore he was wary of reprisals which would result in never ending battles that would interfere with his mission of spreading monotheism. Hashem also promised Abraham a son who would spawn a large nation (ibid. 15:5). The Torah praises Abraham’s faith in Hashem as the verse says (ibid. 15:6), “He (Abraham) believed in Hashem and He (Hashem) accounted it to him as righteousness.”  

Test 8 – Covenant of the parts    

Hashem informed Abraham that the Israelites would endure a difficult exile in the future as the verse predicts (Genesis 15:13), “You (Abraham) shall surely know that your offspring will be strangers in a land that is not theirs. In addition they will be enslaved and oppressed. The entire exile (i.e. being strangers, enslaved, and oppressed) will be 400 years.” The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 44:21) explains that Hashem informed Abraham that his descendants would endure painful exiles with persecution comparable to the punishments of purgatory. Nevertheless Abraham accepted Hashem’s promise and sought an heir as explained in the next test.   

According to the Seder Olam (Chapter 1) Abraham was 70 at the covenant of parts based upon the 430 years mentioned in Exodus 12:41. Rashi explains that the 400 years mentioned in Genesis 15:13 started from the birth of Isaac when Abraham was 100. Hence the covenant occurred 30 years prior to make a total of 430 years.

Test 9 – Marriage to Hagar

After Abraham had lived childless for 10 years in Israel, his wife Sarah told him to take Hagar, her handmaid, as a wife (Genesis 16:1). Even though Abraham realized that this marriage would lead to conflict as it did (ibid. 16:4-6) he accepted Sarah’s suggestion (ibid. 16:2) which led to the birth of Ishmael. 

Test 10 – Circumcision at age of 99

Hashem commanded Abraham to be circumcised at the age of 99, as the verse states (Genesis 17:1), “Abram was 99 years old when Hashem appeared to him. Hashem said to him: … walk before Me (divine) and be complete (i.e. circumcised).” Abraham complied with Hashem’s command at his advanced age as the verse relates (ibid. 17:24),” Abraham was 99 years old, when he was circumcised.”  The Torah (ibid.17:5) records the change of name from Abram to Abraham as a result of the circumcision. The commentator Rashi (Genesis 17:25) explains that Abraham was worried at his age that he may not perform his circumcision properly. Therefore Hashem assisted him in the act which is another example of Abraham’s faith leading to miraculous divine assistance (Genesis Rabbah 49:2). By contrast the Midrash Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 29 suggests that Shem, son of Noah, performed the circumcision.

Test 11 – Sarah Taken by Avimelech

Within the same year of the circumcision the Torah (Genesis 20:2) records that Sarah was taken by Avimelech, king of the Philistines. The Midrash (Pirkei of Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 26 in reference to Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah) questions, “Is there a husband whose wife is taken by force and does not become upset?” Again Abraham kept his peace. Hashem appeared to Avimelech in a dream (Ibid. 20:3) and informed him to return Sarah to Abraham otherwise he would die. Avimelech heeded Hashem’s warning and in addition to returning Sarah to Abraham he gave gifts to both of them thereby acknowledging his error (ibid. 20:14-16).

Tests 12 and 13 – Send Hagar and Ishmael Away

Abraham made a feast either at the weaning of his son at the age of 2 years or at the majority age of 13 (Genesis Rabbah 53:10). Since Abraham was 100 years old at the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:5), Abraham was either 102 or 113 at this feast. At this party Sarah saw that Ishmael was trying to harm Isaac (Genesis Rabbah 53:13) and decided that Abraham must send way both Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:10). Even though Abraham was distressed about sending them away (ibid. 21:11), overcame his natural tendency of kindness and hospitality (Genesis 18:2-8), followed Hashem’s instruction, and sent them off with only bread and water (ibid. 21:14).   

Test 14 – Akeidah

The Akeidah, binding of Isaac, was the final test of Abraham when Abraham was either 126 or 137 as explained in Appendix 2. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 56:11) writes that after the Akeidah Abraham asked Hashem to promise that He would no longer test him. Hashem agreed to this request because Abraham had successfully passed all of his 10 tests.   

Duration of Tests

According to the views that Abraham was tested by imprisonment his tests lasted over 100 years from his youth until the Akeidah. According to Maimonides his tests spanned over 50 years from his age at 75 (i.e. leaving for Canaan) until the Akeidah.         

Appendix 2 – Age of Rebecca at Marriage   

Marriage at 3

This approach assumes that death of Sarah immediately followed the Akeidah as related by Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Vayeira 23). This Midrash explains that the Satan appeared to Sarah (perhaps in a dream) in the form of Isaac and related that Abraham was prepared to slaughter Isaac but was stopped by a command from Hashem. Sarah was shocked by the news and immediately passed away. If the birth of Rebecca immediately preceded the passing of Sarah (i.e. Isaac was 37) then she was 3 years old her marriage to Isaac when he was 40.

Marriage at 14

Tosafot (Yevamot 61b) base their opinion of Rebecca married at 14 on a Sifrei (Parshat Vzot Habrachah) and Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 100:11) that Rebecca lived the same number of years as Kehat son of Levi which is 133 years. Although the Torah does not record the death of Rebecca nor her lifespan, the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 81:5) states that Rebecca passed away when Jacob was on way home from the house of Laban based upon the verse (Genesis 35:8). The verse reads, “Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and she was buried near Beth el … and he named it Allon Bachuth”. Since Deborah was a nurse and not one of the matriarchs, the Midrash finds it unusual to record her death and not that of Rebecca. Hence the Midrash finds an allusion to the death of Rebecca from this verse.

The reader may ask, “How old was Jacob at this time, because the Torah does not record his age in this verse?” The following table lists the events where the ages of Jacob or Joseph are clearly indicated with the associated verses in Genesis.

Jacob went to Egypt13047:8-9
Joseph became viceroy of Egypt3041:46

The Talmud (Megillah 17a) provides a time line by drawing inferences from different verses in Genesis as follows. The Talmud (ibid.) establishes that Joseph ruled for 9 years before Jacob went to Egypt (i.e. 7 years of plenty – Genesis 41:47 and 2 years of famine – Genesis 45:6). Hence Jacob was 121 years old (i.e. 130 -9 =121) when Joseph became viceroy of Egypt. Since Joseph was 30 years old at this point then Jacob was 91 years old (i.e. 121-30 = 91) at the birth of Joseph. However we still do not know the age of Jacob when Rebecca passed way. The Torah (Genesis 30:25-26) states that Jacob wished to return home after the birth of Joseph which coincides with his 14 years of service to Laban on behalf of Jacob’s two wives. Jacob served Laban for another 6 years (Genesis 31:41) and therefore was 97 years old (i.e. 91+6) when he left Laban to return home. The Talmud (ibid.) states that Jacob spent another 2 years on the before arriving at Shechem (Genesis 33:17-18). The following table presents the timeline by listing the events, age of Jacob, and associated verses in Genesis.

Jacob went to Egypt13047:8-9
Joseph became viceroy of Egypt12141:46-47 and 45:6
Rebecca passes away9933:17-18 and 35:8
Joseph born9130:25-26

If Jacob was 99 years old when Rebecca passed away at the age of 133, then Rebecca was 34 when Jacob was born (i.e. 133-99 = 34). Furthermore the Torah states that Isaac was married at the age of 40 (Genesis 25:20) and was 60 when Jacob was born (ibid. 25:26) indicating a difference of 20 years from the marriage to the birth. Since Rebecca was 34 years old at the birth of Jacob she was 14 at her marriage to Isaac (i.e. 34-20 = 14).         

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