In Search of a Definitive List of Abraham’s Ten Tests

In this week’s parasha, Vayera, we read one of the Torah’s most famous narratives, the Akedah, or “Binding of Isaac”. The passage begins by stating that God sought to test Abraham. Although this is the first time the Torah uses such language, Jewish tradition maintains that God tested Abraham a total of ten times (Avot 5:3). What those ten tests were is not exactly clear. There are multiple different lists of the tests, and they don’t all agree with each other. What follows is an attempt to put together a definitive list of Abraham’s ten major life challenges.

This task requires first going through ten major ancient Jewish sources—spanning from the late Second Temple era through the time of the Rishonim, and no later (ie. before 1500 CE)—to see where they agree, and to remove the outliers. Next, it needs to be determined which tests make sense logically, and have strong support from the Torah narrative. Finally, it is important to be able to fit the Ten Tests under the framework of the mystical Ten Sefirot. One reason to do this is because it is an established principle in Judaism that all Tens (Commandments, Plagues, Utterances, etc.) parallel the Ten Sefirot. A second reason to do this is that it opens the door to see practically how Abraham’s Ten Tests can fit into one’s own personal life.

The Oldest Source

The most ancient text to discuss Abraham’s ten tests is the Book of Jubilees. We must mention again that this text is not totally accepted in Rabbinic tradition, though it is clear without any doubt that our ancient Sages used it considerably. (Ethiopian Jews are perhaps the only Jewish community that has retained Jubilees fully in their tradition.) Since Jubilees was written in the Second Temple Era, it is the oldest written text to explicitly mention that Abraham was given ten tests (Jubilees 19:8). However, the exact enumeration of the ten is unclear. Jubilees 17:17 states:

And God knew that Abraham was faithful in all his afflictions; for He had tried him through his country and with famine, and had tried him with the wealth of kings, and had tried him again through his wife, when she was torn from him, and with circumcision, and had tried him through Ishmael and Hagar, his maid-servant, when he sent them away.

The first test was when God instructed Abraham with the fateful words lech lecha, challenging him to leave everything behind and migrate to a new Promised Land. We read in the Torah that when Abraham arrived there was a great famine in the land. This was his second test. Later on, he would go to war with four mighty and cruel kings (who had also abducted his nephew Lot) in Genesis 14. The circumcision was another test, as was the Akedah, and later in Jubilees we are told that the death of Sarah was Abraham’s tenth and final test (19:1-8). That only makes six tests. What are the other four according to Jubilees? Is the abduction of Sarah two separate tests (as most later Rabbinic authorities hold) since she was first taken by Pharaoh, and later by Avimelech the Philistine? Is sending away Hagar and Ishmael two separate tests (as some later authorities hold), one for each of them? And perhaps the struggle with infertility in general was a major test for Abraham, as suggested by Jubilees 14:21. In order to clarify, we must move on to the early Talmudic period.

13 Years in a Cave

There are two major texts from the early Talmudic period which present a list of Abraham’s tests. The first is Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, which originated with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (who lived at the end of the 1st century CE and was a teacher of Rabbi Akiva), though it wasn’t published until the 9th century CE. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer is the most comprehensive source, spending a whopping six chapters (26-31) on Abraham’s ten tests. However, it is also the most unique, naming tests that do not appear on other lists. It should be mentioned that this is the same list summarized by Rashi in his commentary on the Mishnah.

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer holds that Abraham was tested right from birth, and spent the first 13 years of his life in a dark cave by himself. This is because the soothsayers of King Nimrod prophesied that a child would be born who would cause the king’s downfall. Nimrod sought to kill the baby, so Terach had to abandon his son Abraham in a cave. There are different version of this Midrash, some suggesting that Abraham spent the first three years of his life in a cave, raised by angels. Rabbi Eliezer says 13 years.

This is a difficult point to accept, for if Abraham was raised by angels for so long, he would have already been a righteous saint who knew God right from the beginning. Rabbi Eliezer says as much, and holds that when Abraham emerged from the cave he already knew that idolatry was false and man “should trust in his Creator” (Who miraculously sustained Abraham for 13 years). That notion contradicts the accepted tradition that Abraham came to recognize God on his own, without any divine intervention. That’s what makes him so special in the first place!

If this is the case, why would Rabbi Eliezer include a story that contradicts every other source and everything we accept about Abraham’s life journey? I believe there may be a more mystical answer at play. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer would have been first composed around the same time that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (aka. Rashbi) emerged from his own time in a cave. Like Abraham, Rashbi had to flee from the authorities who sought to kill him and, like Abraham, spent 13 years total in a cave. He was accompanied by his son Rabbi Elazar, and the two spent all of their time learning Torah together. This sounds like a perfect tikkun, a spiritual rectification, for the fact that the idol-worshipping Terach abandoned his son in a cave for 13 years. To fix that mistake, Terach’s soul returned to spend 13 years of his own in a cave, with his son, learning Torah in order to purify the idolatry of his past.

10 Years in Prison

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer lists Abraham’s second test as having spent 10 years imprisoned by Nimrod for his “proselytizing” activity. He spent three years in a place called Kuthi, and seven years in a place called Budri. (This point, too, betrays the mystical nature of Rabbi Eliezer, as anyone who has dabbled in Kabbalah would immediately recognize the division of three and seven on the level of Sefirot. Note that the Talmud speaks of this, too, and has Abraham imprisoned in Kutha and Kardu [Bava Batra 91a].) At the conclusion of these ten years, Abraham was thrown into the fiery furnace by Nimrod.

While no other source explicitly mentions Abraham’s imprisonment, most of the others do mention the famous Midrash of Abraham being thrown into the flames for refusing to recant his faith. Some explain that this happened when he was 52 years old, and this was the first point when God revealed Himself to Abraham, miraculously saving him from the flames.

[That he was 52 years old is important, since Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948, making the year of his miraculous salvation 2000. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) states that human history is divided into three eras, each of two thousand years’ length. The first 2000 was the era of chaos. It ended with Abraham being selected by God, thus starting the second “Era of Torah”. This era lasted 2000 years, from Abraham until roughly the time of the Mishnah—the setting down of the Oral Law—completing the major corpus of Judaism. The final 2000 years are the preparation for the coming of Mashiach.]

The next four tests in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer agree with the Book of Jubilees: lech lecha, the famine in Israel, Sarah being abducted by the Egyptians, and the War of the Kings. The circumcision and Akedah are there, too, of course, as is sending away Hagar and Ishmael. Lastly, the seventh test listed in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer is the “Covenant between the Parts”, when God showed Abraham that his future offspring would be slaves. It is difficult to see how this is a test, since it entailed no response on Abraham’s part.

This was argued long ago by Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361-1444) in his Magen Avot (5:3). He begins his comments with the list of Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer and noted how Rashi used this list. He questions how the Covenant Between the Parts could be a test, and why Rabbi Eliezer didn’t include Sarah’s second abduction. He also argues that Abraham’s childhood in the cave could not be a test either, since he had no control over these events. The Magen Avot concludes with a definitive list of his own:

First, the fiery furnace of Ur Kasdim. Second, lech lecha. Third, the famine. Fourth, the abduction of Sarah by Pharaoh. Fifth, the War of the Kings. Sixth, circumcision. Seventh, the abduction of Sarah by Avimelech. Eighth, sending away his maid and her son. Ninth, Akedat Itzchak. Tenth, the burial of Sarah.

One Migration or Two Migrations

The second ancient Rabbinic source is Avot d’Rabbi Natan, originating with Rabbi Natan (sometimes called Rabbi Natan haBavli, the Babylonian). He lived in the second century CE and was a contemporary of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who composed the Mishnah. Some consider Avot d’Rabbi Natan a “minor” tractate of the Talmud. Rabbi Natan (33:2) summarizes the ten tests most succinctly: “Twice with lech lecha, twice with his two sons, twice with his two wives, once with the kings, once with the Covenant between the Parts, and once with circumcision.”

Rabbi Natan is the first source to speak of two separate migrations: one test was moving from Ur Kasdim to Haran, and once test was for moving from Haran to Israel. The later sources that interpret Ur Kasdim as the fiery furnace (since ur literally means “flame”) list lech lecha as one test. Since Rabbi Natan doesn’t mention the fiery furnace, it has two separate migration tests. The Zohar (I, 77b-78a) states that he was thrown into a furnace in the city of Ur, then immediately told lech lecha to go to Israel. However, when Abraham arrived in Israel he was unable to settle there at the time, and ended up in Haran for many years. He finally made it to Israel at the age of 75, as we read in the Torah.

“Twice with his two sons” refers to the Akedah of Itzchak and the troubles he had raising Ishmael, culminating with his expulsion. Rabbi Natan groups the two abductions of Sarah as one test, and all the struggles with Hagar, culminating with her expulsion, as one test.

The debate regarding one or two migrations finds itself in the next source, Midrash Tehillim, also known as Midrash Shocher Tov, which actually has two different lists. They are nearly the same, except for their order of events, and one distinction in tests: chapter 18 has lech lecha as one migration, while chapter 95 has the two migrations, one from Ur and one from Haran. Instead of the second migration, chapter 18 lists Abraham having to take Hagar as a test of its own.

The Other Rishonim

We have already mentioned that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) cited the same list as Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, and the Magen Avot made his own list. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), in his Commentary to the Mishnah, has a unique list, too, and in characteristic fashion, avoids any Midrash. He does not mention the fiery furnace, and has instead Abraham dealing with infertility (or Sarah’s infertility more specifically). The Rambam also divides Abraham’s separation from Hagar and Ishmael as two distinct tests.

The last two Rishonim are Meiri (Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, 1249-1306), in his Beit HaBechirah, and the Bartenura (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bartenura, c. 1445-1515). They have the same list, just with a different order. Meiri presents an analysis of his own, and goes through the various other lists. He mentions lesser-known lists that have other ideas for tests, including Abraham’s separation from Lot, which Meiri rejects as a test. He holds that having to take Hagar should not be a test either. Even though most lists have the fiery furnace, Meiri admits that this is a Midrash and not obvious from the Torah. He suggests, like Magen Avot, that the Covenant Between the Parts is not really a good candidate.

To summarize:

The Definitive List

If we were to make one definitive list of Abraham’s Ten Tests, what would they be? The majority agree on Lech Lecha and on the fiery furnace of Ur Kasdim. (Among Rabbinic sources, the Rambam is the lone wolf when it comes to not including Nimrod’s persecutions, yet he does speak of this in another work, Moreh Nevuchim, Part III, Ch. 29.) The majority also agree on the famine, circumcision, War of the Kings, and the Akedah, of course. Most agree that Sarah’s abductions should count as two, and that sending away Hagar and Ishmael should count as one. Two of the early sources count Lech Lecha as separate tests (one from Ur and one from Haran), and the Zohar cited above seems to concur.

Several sources mention the Covenant Between the Parts, though logically it is a weak choice since it required no actual response on Abraham’s part. It was simply a prophecy of a future test to befall the nation that would emerge from Abraham. Two of the earlier sources avoid listing the famine as a test. This makes sense, for the famine was only a trigger that caused Abraham to go to Egypt, where the real test occurred. It may be best to include the famine within the test of Egypt.

The Book of Jubilees and Magen Avot hold that the passing of Sarah is the final test. The evidence agrees with them. The passing of Sarah is the last narrative in the Torah where Abraham is the main actor. After this, Abraham is only mentioned in passing, and the story shifts to Isaac, even though Abraham lived nearly four more decades, got remarried, and had many more children. More significantly, following Sarah’s death we no longer see any communication between God and Abraham! It is as if the death of Sarah caused the Shekhinah to depart from him.

The Zohar (I, 81b-82a) states that when Abraham looked at Sarah, he actually saw the Shekhinah. This is the deeper meaning behind Abraham calling Sarah his “sister” when he came to Egypt. He was actually talking to the Shekhinah, who is sometimes referred to as “my sister” (as in Proverbs 7:4, which uses the exact same expression as Abraham used to refer to Sarah in Genesis 12:13). Therefore, the passing of Sarah meant that Abraham no longer saw the Shekhinah revealed, and this explains why he wept so bitterly for the loss, as the Torah tells us. There is little doubt that this loss was a huge test for Abraham. And, it fits perfectly into the array of Sefirot:

The Shekhinah is always associated with the final, feminine Sefirah called Malkhut, and Sarah’s passing was Abraham’s final test. On the other end of the Tree of Life, at the top of the Sefirot, was Abraham’s greatest test, the Akedah. This is when he fulfilled the task of doing God’s inexplicable will, or Ratzon, which is the other name for the first Sefirah, Keter.

The Sefirot of Chokhmah and Binah correspond to the two abductions of Sarah, one by the Egyptians and one by the Philistines. The Sages state that Abraham went to Egypt specifically (as opposed to some other land) because he wanted to tackle Egyptian idolatry head-on, just as he had previously done in Ur and Haran. This is quite clearly a test of Chokhmah, pitting his wisdom against the most advanced civilization of the day. Interestingly, it is after Egypt that Abraham first becomes a father through the Egyptian handmaid he acquired there, Hagar. Chokhmah is also called Aba, “father”. Similarly, right after the abduction of Sarah by the Philistines, she conceives and first becomes a mother. The Sefirah of Binah is also known as Ima, “mother”.

In between Chokhmah and Binah lies the quasi-Sefirah of Da’at (never enumerated among the Sefirot on its own). Just as Da’at emerges out of Chokhmah and Binah, we can parallel Da’at to the general test of dealing with Sarah’s infertility. Following this comes Chessed, and our Sages note that the test which was most contrary to Abraham’s super-kind nature was sending away Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham was the kind to always bring people in, not send them away. Gevurah is strength and clearly relates to the War of the Kings.

Tiferet is the central Sefirah (and often the most important in mystical texts); the one that intertwines with all the other Sefirot. It is also called Emet, “truth”, and parallels Abraham’s early years searching for the Truth and discovering God on his own. It culminates with Nimrod’s persecutions and the fiery furnace, where Abraham’s Truth was put to the test.

Netzach and Hod are always described as the “two legs” of the Sefirot, and neatly parallel the two great migrations of Abraham. Yesod, which corresponds to the sexual organ, is undoubtedly the test of circumcision. And finally, there’s the feminine Malkhut, the death of Sarah, as explained above.

To summarize:

Abraham was the first Jew, and every Jew ever since has a spark of Abraham within him. (In fact, our Sages state that a “Jew” who evidently doesn’t carry the key traits of Abraham may be suspected of not being a Jew at all!) We read about Abraham’s tests because they are meant to teach us about our own tests. These tests (like the later Ten Tests the Israelites faced in the Wilderness), correspond to the Ten Sefirot with which each of us is composed of spiritually. And so, we all have these ten major types of tests in our lives:

Struggling to do God’s will (Keter), even when it sometimes seems inexplicable. Confronting the idolatries and immoralities of our day (Chokhmah), and dealing with separation from loved ones—both physical and emotional (Binah). For some, there’s the struggle with infertility (Da’at). Then there’s having to “send away” bad influences, or break up relationships that we know are not good for us (Chessed). Everyone has their physical struggles and adversaries to battle (Gevurah). There’s searching for Truth (Tiferet); and making a difficult migration, whether geographic, career-related, or other (Netzach and Hod). The hard work of building a happy home, maintaining a pure, monogamous marriage, and resisting temptations (Yesod). Lastly, the death of loved ones, and all those difficult times when it seems the Shekhinah has abandoned us (Malkhut).

May God give us the strength to, like Abraham, overcome all of life’s tests and challenges.