It is most important to realize that in biblical days and even in the days of the Mishna and the Talmud, hardly anybody doubted the existence of God. That He exists was beyond doubt. It is for this reason that we do not find any discussion in the Tenach, Mishna or Talmud about God’s existence. It is only in the Middle ages that Jewish philosophers started to debate this matter.
For the biblical personality and those living in early post-biblical times, the existence of God was apparent. One would discover His fingerprints everywhere: in heaven, on earth, in the colors of a flower, in the stormy sky, in the thunder and lightning, in the smile of a baby or the beauty of the seashore. To ask for proof of His existence was just as absurd as asking people for evidence that their parents were alive while they were standing right in front of them. “Belief that He is” was beyond all doubt.
A careful study of the biblical personalities shows however that they struggled with different problems. First of all how one can endure God’s presence. How can man survive this ongoing and radical encounter with God? Is such an encounter not life threatening? Is it not too much for man to bear? Man’s awe of God’s greatness was of such a quality that it carried the potential to paralyze him.
But besides this, it was the “belief in” which was constantly challenged. Was it possible to trust God when one was constantly confronted with situations which could be understood as if God seemed to “fail” man.
The foremost example of this dilemma is shown in the life of the father of monotheistic faith: Avraham. His is not the concern about God’s existence but of God’s trustworthiness.
When we compare two occasions on which Avraham was tested by God, we realize that it was not “believe that God is” which was the issue but clearly his trust in God, which was challenged. Even more important is the fact that we discover here two distinct conditions of “belief in”. *
Twice Avraham is asked to show his absolute trust in God. In chapter 15 of Bereshith, God promises Avraham that he will have a son and that his descendants will become a blessing to the world. This was clearly a test of faith. As an elderly couple there was little chance that Avraham and his wife Sara would still have a son. This was no longer possible within the boundaries of the laws of human biology. It is therefore not surprising that the Torah emphasizes the unprecedented faith of Avraham when he showed complete confidence in God’s promise: “And he believed in the Lord and He (God) counted it to him for righteousness” (15:6) Indeed this was an unprecedented act of faith which few would ever reach.
How surprising therefore is the fact that Avraham’s belief in God is once more challenged on a later occasion: at the incident of the sacrifice of Isaac. After Avraham passes this test with flying colors, showing a willingness to even offer his son for God, the Torah again attests to the unfaltering belief of Avraham in God. This time God responds and says: “Now I know that you fear God”.
This however gives us reason to pause. What was there in the second case which was not detected in the earlier case? Why give Avraham another test of faith, when his unlimited belief in God has already been established at the first test concerning the birth of a son? Why would Avraham only now prove his “yira” for God which in the Hebrew language is not so much an expression of fright but of awe? Was this not proven in the first case? How much more awe could one expect after it had become as clear as the light of the sun that Avraham believed God’s word even when that promise defied all human experience and in fact touched on the absurd?
There is however a long road to travel for the man who believed and feared God when he was promised that he would have a son and the man, who against all expectation, is being asked to take the life of that very son on a later occasion. After all it would negate all that God had promised earlier, i.e. that this son would continue his mission long after he, Avraham, has passed on.
In the first case man believes in God because His promise responds to a human desire: The possession of a son. In the second instance, it is belief in God despite the message it entails. Instead of man being rewarded for his belief, he is asked to suffer because of it and pay a bitter price. No doubt, many would ask what kind of God this is and how trustworthy.
Avraham could have protested against this command to sacrifice his son. His arguments would have been strong: How can You go back on Your word? You promised me that my son Yitzchak would live a long life so as to guarantee the success of the great Jewish mission. Why this sudden “change of mind”?
It is here that Avraham reaches a much higher level of belief in God, compared with the case where he is promised a son. His God is no longer a God who protects and secures a pleasant life for man, but it is the God who just is.
Avraham realizes that if God really exists, His existence is of such otherness that man can never be sure of His ongoing protection, or demand any answers concerning His deeds or intentions. He can only hope that God may grant him some insight at a later date. As long as man is man and God is God, man can have no claim on God whatsoever. As such, God is unknowable, and hence His deeds are beyond the grasp of man. One can hope and pray for His protection, but one could never fully rely on it.
This indeed is one of the great contributions which Avraham made to the authentic meaning of faith. It is not the belief that God exists which he promulgated, not even the belief in a compassionate God. Rather it is the belief in God on His own terms.
To be continued.
*We are indebted to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz z.l. for the following insight. (See Notes and Remarks concerning the Weekly Parasha, Chemed books, NY, 1990, pp 21-28)