RJ Magazine Top Menu

First Love

When does the word “love” first appear in the Bible? When God says to Abraham: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and…offer him…as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). Love is expressed in the very worst act to be found in the Book of Genesis.

There are several other oddities in this first mention of love. This is the love of a man not for his wife, but for his son—yet in the natural order of things, love between a man and woman comes first, for without it there’d be no children to love parents in return. (Love of one’s wife will come second in the Bible, in Isaac’s love for Rebecca.)

We have a father’s love, not a mother’s—even though from literary, societal, and legal standpoints, a mother’s love is thought to be greater than a father’s. (Motherly love—Rebecca’s love for her son Jacob—came third in the Bible.)

It is apparent that the Bible favors the family, and in this case, the family that will become a nation. Thus, Abraham’s love for Isaac is put in first place. (The love of a parent for a daughter is never mentioned in the Bible at all.)

One last oddity: Abraham does not tell Isaac that he loves him; nor does the author tell the reader that Abraham loves his son. God is the one who says it to Abraham, as if informing not only us, but also the first lover himself.

In effect, God returns here to his hallowed habit from the days of creation—assigning names. God called light “day,” and darkness he called “night.” Dry land was “earth,” the waters “the seas,” and the heavens “sky.” He tells Abraham: What you are feeling for your son is called “love.” And now that I have given a name to your love, take your son whom you love and sacrifice him to me as a burnt offering.

This is how the first love story in the Bible begins: “Early in the morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, and split the wood for the burnt offering, and set out for the place of which God had told him.”

First to appear is the loving father, the only one who knows where they are going and why. Mentioned next are one donkey and two servants. After them comes Isaac, the story’s supporting actor, who also doesn’t know the truth; and finally the props of the play: first the firewood, mute and puzzling and intimidating; and later the firestone and the butcher knife. At the end God will dispatch the ram and the angel.

Three days they walk together, the loving father and the beloved son, without exchanging a word. On the third day Abraham recognizes the appointed place. He tells the servants to wait with the donkey: “The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and will return to you.”

Here Abraham’s lie is twofold. He speaks of worshipping God, not of making a burnt offering; and he promises to return in the plural “we,” he and his son together.

“And the two of them walked together.” The loving father carries the tools: a knife to slaughter his son and fire to roast his flesh. The beloved son carries the raw materials: the wood and himself.

After three days of silent walking, words are exchanged. “My father,” the beloved son addresses his loving father, as if trying to confirm that the man with the knife is actually his father and not some stranger who wants to kill him.

“Here I am, my son,” the loving father answers, as if trying to confirm that their family bond is intact.

“Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

He can’t bring himself to mention the knife, but it is there too, in his father’s hand.

“God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.”

The reader doesn’t know how to parse Abraham’s last words. Should the comma between “offering” and “my son” be read like a colon? Is it “God will provide the offering, my son,” or “God will provide the offering: my son”? Is “my son” an appellation of Isaac, or a definition of the sacrifice?

These words, “my son,” are the last ever to be spoken between the two. Abraham and Isaac continue to walk to the appointed spot. Silently the father builds an altar, ties up his son, wields the knife above him.

Isaac, too, does not say a word, or utter a cry. Not as his father binds him with ropes; not when he brandishes a butcher knife over his neck. This defeatist passivity is astonishing: The text doesn’t tell us how old Isaac was, but it is clear he was not a small, weak child. He had traveled on foot for three days and then climbed to the mountaintop with firewood on his back. The rabbis of the Talmud say he was 37 years old. Had he wanted to, he could have saved his own life—run away or fought his father, who was by then well past his 100th birthday. But, it appears, from the moment Isaac realized what was happening, he was struck dumb with terror. Perhaps it is something deeper: not just Abraham is on trial. His son Isaac is too.

From this time, Abraham and Isaac never see each other again. The Bible never states this outright, but it’s possible to derive it from the text. When Isaac and Abraham take leave of the two servants, it is written: “And the two of them walked together.” But after the akedah it says: “Abraham then returned to his servants.” Where is Isaac? And what happened to “together?” From now on, the word “together” will apply to Abraham’s walking off with the servants: “And they departed together for Beersheba.”

It’s possible to understand Isaac. After your father hides the truth from you, ties you up on an altar, and waves a big knife over your neck, you might not want any more of that “togetherness.”

Isaac avoids his father until the latter’s death, at which time he and Ishmael bury him. It is unclear whether they come to pay their last respects or to make sure he is dead and buried.

The akedah drives a wedge not merely between father and son. We will no longer find Sarah at Abraham’s side either. After the akedah, Abraham settles in Beersheba, whereas she, at the start of the next chapter, perhaps upon hearing the news about her son, dies in Kiryat Arba. The Bible tells us: “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her,” meaning he has not been with her. He travels from Beersheba to Hebron to bury her in the Cave of Machpelah.

The akedah also leads to a disconnection between Abraham and his God. From the akedah onward there is no further mention of conversations between the two. Abraham has passed the test, but it would seem that they now prefer not to see each other anymore, as though the akedah were a breaking point for both.

Time passes, but does not, as is commonly hoped and supposed, heal all wounds. The mother has died; the beloved son is 40 years old and still alone, without a wife.

Talking is impossible, but taking action is not. The damage has been done, but Abraham will be able to repair it, just a little.

At last Abraham does something of personal significance without getting instructions from his God or his wife. In contrast with the two horrors he perpetrated at their command, banishing Ishmael and binding Isaac, this is a good deed: he sends his servant to Haran, Abraham’s hometown in Mesopotamia, to find and bring a wife for his son.

And so a small caravan arrives in Haran: a few men, headed by Abraham’s servant, and 10 camels, laden with provisions and valuable gifts. The servant parks the caravan near the well outside the city, lets his weary camels rest, and asks God for a sign. He suggests to the Almighty that he will ask the maidens who draw water from the well for a drink. The one who replies, “Drink, and I will also water your camels” will be the one that God intends for the son of the servant’s master Abraham. Such a maiden—generous, resourceful, strong, kind, self-confident—will make a good wife for Isaac.

Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel, granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, comes to the well with her jug on her shoulder. The servant asks her for water. She says: “Drink, my lord,” and gives him some, adding: “I will also draw water for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Again and again she draws from the well and empties the jug into the trough, until all 10 parched camels have drunk their fill—a lot of heavy lifting. Thrilled, Abraham’s servant gives her a nose ring and bracelets made of gold, and she hurries home to tell her family about him. Her brother, Laban, excited by the expensive gifts, runs to the well and invites the visitor to his home.

Rebecca is revealed as not only generous and virtuous, but also independent and decisive. Aware of this, when the servant declares his wish to leave right away with Rebecca, her family members respond with words seldom heard in the Bible: “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.”

“They call Rebecca and say to her: ‘Will you go with this man?’ And she says: ‘I will go.’”

She and her maidservants mount camels and ride after the servant, who brings her straightaway to Isaac, 40 and still a bachelor, dwelling in the Negev desert:

And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening 
And, looking up, he saw camels approaching 
Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. 
She fell from her camel and said 
to the servant,
“Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” 
And the servant said, “That is my master.” 
So she took her veil and covered herself. 
The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 
Isaac then brought her into the tent 
of his mother Sarah,
And he took Rebecca as his wife. 
Isaac loved her,
And found comfort after 
his mother’s death.

“He loved her” in biblical Hebrew is expressed in a single word: vaye’ehaveha, an elegant condensation of feeling, time, man, and woman and the first expression of a man’s love for a woman in the Bible.

Immediately after Isaac takes Rebecca for a wife, Abraham marries Keturah, a much younger woman than he, and the old man speedily sires many sons.

The father’s marriage and his astonishing fertility represent a joyful flowering. There is little doubt that Abraham has changed for the better. The akedah distanced him from his son but released him from the demanding omnipresence of his God and his wife. He finally sheds his role of father of a nation and a faith, quits being a symbol, and turns into a private person. He undergoes a great transformation which is more personal, happier, and lovelier than the national and religious metamorphoses that preceded it.

He has found love. 

Meir Shalev is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. This article is adapted fromBeginnings: Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts. Copyright © 2011 by Meir Shalev. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.