This past weekend, The Table tackled one of the First Testament’s most difficult texts in Genesis 22. Our Jewish forefathers referred to it as the binding of Isaac or the akedah. In an attempt to understand, explain and resolve the text, Jewish midrashim has volumes devoted to this story. Without doubt, Judaism struggles with this passage as much as you and I.
The story begins with these words from Yahweh: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, the one you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Now I can’t resolve the tensions found in this story for you or me. I’m not sure anyone can. The best I am able to do is to encourage you to do what we at the Table have done: honestly and deeply engage and struggle with the text, ourselves and the God whom Abraham heard utter these horrific words.
The traditional interpretation is that Abraham proved his faithfulness by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. We revere him for his faith and obedience; the writer of Hebrews enters him into the Hall of Faith for this very act (Hebrews 11). If you’re like me, you struggle with the many questions this story raises. Why didn’t Abraham tell Sarah his plans? Why didn’t he tell Isaac? Or the servants he brought along on the journey?
By the far the biggest struggle I have with this text concerns Abraham’s response. If Abraham was willing to question, argue and negotiate with God over the fate of the strangers residing in Sodom and Gomorrah why would he not do so for his very own son? As a father of four, I cannot imagine any circumstance where I wouldn’t fight tooth and nail or at the very least attempt to bargain my life for theirs. What was Abraham’s response? Basically, nothing. Just where and when.
So how are we to understand this test. I think we all agree it was a test – the text tells us that clearly. But what kind of a test? A test of faith? A test of obedience? Both? Neither?
The Table’s narrative/historical approach to scripture really comes to our aid in this instance. This test is the tenth of ten increasingly difficult tests that Abraham has undergone in the ten chapters that precede this one. We could think of those previous nine exams as true/false or yes/no obedience tests. Abraham has done remarkably well on each of these previous tests. This one feels like a final exam to me. Len Sweet suggests that this test is actually a two-part exam: a yes/no obedience test followed by a relational test in the form of an essay. All of the language of the chapter – including the first occurrence of the word love in the First Testament – points toward this interpretation.
Abraham passed the obedience test with flying colors. He was willing and obedient to the command God had given him. He’s rightfully placed in the Hall of Faith for his consistent obedience. But what about the relational test? I believe that Abraham failed that test miserably. While God wanted Abraham’s obedience to his command, I can’t help but believe that God wanted him to fight for Isaac with every step he took toward that mountain. God wanted Abraham to battle for Isaac the way he did in an earlier chapter for people he didn’t even know.
His failure can be evidenced by the results of the story. Isaac is spared. God mercifully and gracefully intervenes and provides a lamb. But things are never the same between Abraham and Isaac, Abraham and Sarah and Abraham and God. The text tells us that Isaac “went down another way,” never to see or speak to his father again. After returning to the foot of the mountain and the servants waiting for him, Abraham never speaks or returns to Sarah again. In fact, when Sarah receives word of what has happened, the Scriptures tell us she died shortly afterward. Jewish tradition says she died of a broken heart.
Though Abraham went on to marry again and father many other children, never again do we hear of Abraham and God having conversations like they had before. Abraham went from speaking TO God to speaking ABOUT God. One has only to do a cursory reading of the events that precede and follow this text in Genesis to see disastrous relationship skills – or lack thereof – on full display.
It seems that Abraham’s greatest gift was his willingness to obey no matter what the cost but his greatest blindspot was his inability or unwillingness to battle with God when it mattered the most.
Those are my thoughts. What about you?