The Binding of God: Genesis 22 as a Test Case for Open Theism in the O.T. (part 4)

Zgodbe Sztároga i Nóvoga Zákona (1873)

In what follows, you will read an “academic paper” in which I explore some elements of open theism (the link is to a brief introduction to open theism).  This is a view of God’s foreknowledge that is controversial, but still in the evangelical family of belief.  The most well known Christian leader who holds to this view is Greg Boyd.  This will be a nine part series.

—————————————————————–

The Unbinding of God Through Abraham’s Passing of the Test

“The binding of God” is demonstrated in that he must now test Abraham in order to have full confidence that this called one will move the redemption narrative forward.  Earlier when we examined the structural and rhetorical strategies of the text, we held off on this final consideration.  Verses 1 and 12 have a unique link with the former demonstrating that God wants to find something out through a test.  He is in a bind and needs to know for sure that Abraham will be a faithful partner in restoring shalom.  God is in a bind as he deals with doubt.  Will Abraham actually choose obedience to God over the child of promise?  Then verse 12 reveals that God gets the answer he was looking for: “…now I know that you fear God.”  As Walter Brueggemann notes:

It is not a game with God.  God genuinely does not know.  And that is settled in verse 12, “Now I know.”  There is real development in the plot.  The flow of the narrative accomplishes something in the awareness of God.  He did not know.  Now he knows.  The narrative will not be understood if it is taken as a flat event of “testing.”  It can only be understood if it is seen to be a genuine movement in the history between Yahweh and Abraham.[1]

This reading of the text, on its own terms, is controversial for it demonstrates that God may not know every detail of the future.  God did not know if Abraham would choose to use his freedom for good or for ill.  Certainly neither option would have surprised God or caught him off guard, but because the future had not yet occurred God genuinely did not know for sure how things would play out.

Putting all of our Christian presuppositions aside, if we can be comfortable with a God who does not know every detail of our future decisions, would not such an interpretation actually make sense out of this whole incident of the near sacrifice of Isaac?  God tested Abraham because so that God could learn something.  It was a genuine discerning on God’s part to make sure that he had selected the right person for the job of creating a family that would eventually bless the world.  If Abraham ended the test with a failing grade, a new plan would need to be initiated.[2] But in fact the test is passed with flying colors and so God reiterates the covenant to him in the verses that immediately follow (Genesis 22.15-20).  Abraham, for a time, helped release God from the immediate bind at hand.

Most commentators refuse to take this reading of the text to its natural conclusion, that God faces a partially open future.  Some equate this incident with God cheering on Abraham through the whole test with the absolute foreknowledge that he would pass.[3] The problem is that if God knew that Abraham would indeed pass the test, it then follows that “there was, in fact, no test and that God put Abraham through unnecessary suffering.”[4] This contradicts the character of God that is revealed throughout the Bible.  If God knew that Abraham would ultimately be obedient in this test because of absolute foreknowledge, then this story demonstrates that God was in fact playing a cruel game by causing unwarranted anguish.  God’s desire is shalom for people (and all creation) and this test either contradicts this fact (traditional reading) or affirms it as necessary for God to find out if Abraham would indeed exorcize his free will toward this end.  Abraham’s obedience unbound God in this immediate situation.


[1]. Brueggemann, Genesis, 187.

[2]. Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, 51.

[3]. E. D. Radmacher, R. B. Allen, and H. W. House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), (Gen 22:11-12).

[4]. Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, 51.

Print Friendly

  • Anonymous

    In a society where the gods were often believed to demand human sacrifice, there might be a way to approach this text that makes it not a “test” at all, either open or otherwise.
    What if this was YHWH’s way to demonstrate, unequivocally, that he is not like the gods Abraham had known the first 70+ years of his life after all? (Rob took this approach in The Gods Aren’t Angry and it seems to fit contextually).

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @masonslater:disqus , many of the newer secondary sources don’t see any evidence for that perspective… especially in the text.  Here’s what I said about it in the previous article:

      The key to understanding the whole passage is to discern issues
      surrounding the test of Abraham by God clearly stated in the first verse
      of the chapter.  As readers we must ask: What is the purpose of such a test?
      Many assume that this is all about Abraham.  God tests him to teach him
      a lesson.  For instance, many argue that “the story… provides a model
      for the substitute of an animal for a human sacrifice that clearly draws
      a distinction between Israelite practice and that of other cultures.”[1]
      In other words, this text is a subversive kind that attempts to
      demonstrate that the God of Abraham does not demand or approve of child
      sacrifice.  Unfortunately the passage itself fails to give any
      indication that God is for or against such practice.  Ellen Davis
      states: “…if all we had were this story, then we might reasonably
      conclude that God admires the practice as a real show of faith.”[2]
      Certainly, this reading could make God look good to us moderns, but it
      seems that the purpose of the story is not to be read as a polemic
      against wicked pagan religion.  Source: http://wp.me/p1uh82-Rw

      • Brittgudowski

        Kurt,
        I have to totally disagree with Ellen Davis.
        This is a historical text written within a historical context that is set within the frame work of Ab’s calling and Journey with God and Isreal Story.Because this is true…It it also set within the frame work of THAT culture, Ab’s and (and the surrounding cultures) Israel’s.
        Mason Slater is right.What would Ab have learn in real time and history(it wasn’t Christ)? So i must of had to do with the back drop of his belief in gods or God first.It’s doubtful when God called Ab,that he did not take with him all his religous idols with him(because he was fully human and into worshiping them),so it seems from the whole text God is revealing himself to him with this as one of the back drops to Ab’s belief system of Gods.All text found from that time pierod show that those cultures believe in gods who killed people for fun or revenge,or disloyalty,and we know they offered up humans to win them over for protection,crops,travel, etc…
        The test was for Ab not God.Not even in the Talmud(which i have been reading fr a year now) admits or talks about open T.
        Question:Are you approaching this text from a doctrinal point of view?

        I not sure sure how we can ignore that culture and dismiss it with a more modern reading,when we appeal to culture and context for the NT.

  • http://superrustyfly.wordpress.com/ Russell Purvis

    Interesting musings. I like that you are approaching an issue that is controversial and yet you are quite mature about the matter. I do have curiosity over the use of the word “know”. The thing that I wonder also at the idea of testing. 

    Is testing for God or for us? Does the use of the word to know merely represent God simply learning, or what we percieve God to be doing? 

    I know I ask these things at the risk of entering muddy waters, but I think that’s the nature of this entire conversation. Grace and peace to you.

    • http://superrustyfly.wordpress.com/ Russell Purvis

      Although I seem to be begging the questions you’ve answered. Mine is more rooted in what the lexical meaning for the original languages would have meant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1353247002 Julie Smith Stirnaman

    “God’s desire is shalom for people (and all creation).”  I fear this may sound like a silly question, but where does this come from? I must admit I am confused.  Yesterday’s post was about death and grieving and yet how we should have hope.  If I am to accept the above statement and follow your logic then it seems that I should look at death and grieving as cruel and not in his character too, because it is not peaceful – no matter the end outcome.  I do not think that is what you mean to say, but that is how I am reading it.  
    Also, to suggest that it is “unnecessary suffering” if God indeed did know the outcome, seems to make some broad assumptions.  How can we really know what Abraham gained from the experience and if he saw it as unnecessary?  I have had occasions where many others have deemed a situation that I went through as unnecessary suffering and cruel – but I experienced it very differently and had a peace knowing the situation was right – even thought it was painful and scary, and it completely changed the trajectory of my life.  How do we know that Abraham did not experience that same inexplicable peace?  As far as I can tell we don’t read anything from his perspective to suggest otherwise? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1353247002 Julie Smith Stirnaman

      Rather ta

  • Ian

    When I was reading this I randomly thought of Matthew 24:36 “However, no one knows the day or the hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son Himself. Only the Father knows.”
    I just realized how this passage seems to suggest that Christ doesn’t have foreknowledge. 1 point to Open Theism. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/philthompsonlive Phil Thompson

    Kurt, are you familiar with Gordon Olson’s writings? I’m an old YWAMer that studied under him and Howard R Elseth. 

  • Ericamcclincy

    I’ve been through some pretty difficult times in my life in which the hope that carried me through was that God knew the outcome. There is no doubt in my mind that He does. Could God have been reassuring Abraham of his worthiness instead of the other way around? And while difinitive purpose as to my times of suffering may not be laid out plainly before me, I have a clear view of my own character now that I didn’t have before, and I have to say I like it better. So my suffering definitely was not without purpose

  • Ericamcclincy

    I’ve been through some pretty difficult times in my life in which the hope that carried me through was that God knew the outcome. There is no doubt in my mind that He does. Could God have been reassuring Abraham of his worthiness instead of the other way around? And while difinitive purpose as to my times of suffering may not be laid out plainly before me, I have a clear view of my own character now that I didn’t have before, and I have to say I like it better. So my suffering definitely was not without purpose

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      @3c24825689f7ab1d3e6b0031271ced0b:disqus … This view will actually give us a greater understanding of suffering.  In about two more posts, I will deal with the problem of evil as an application of this view that God only knows every possiblity of what will happen, but not the route we will choose until we choose it.  I know this is a weird thing to think about, but give me a chance.  I hope you will read the whole series!

      • Ericamcclincy

        Will do :0)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X