The Binding of God: Genesis 22 as a Test Case for Open Theism in the O.T. (part 3)

The Binding of God: Genesis 22 as a Test Case for Open Theism in the O.T. (part 3) August 11, 2011

Anthony van Dyck - Abraham and Isaac (Source: Wikimedia commons)

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 Test

As readers of this story our advantage lies in our knowledge of this circumstance being a test from God.  Abraham did not have such a luxury.  He lived this situation out into its most brutal of moments when he held a knife over his child.  Nothing indicated that this was an examination by God.  For Abraham this is real life and possibly real death for Isaac.

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.

Another perspective is that this test demonstrates Abraham’s obedience and thus teaches him a valuable lesson about his attachment issues to his son.  This idea makes sense to us as we read the story because we know that Abraham had to wait until old age to have a child to receive his promised seed.  We can imagine the affection he had for his child and then extrapolate that this was taking priority over his devotion to God – so came the test.  The problem with this view is that “nowhere does the text say that he now trusts more in God or has learned a lesson of some sort.”[3] So, what does the text actually say?

Sticking to a close reading of the passage, we can observe that Abraham demonstrates profound trust in God throughout the narrative.  As we noted earlier, verse 8 reminds us that the patriarch believed that God would provide a substitute lamb.  This is the center of the story.  Just as God provided a child for him in his old age when such seemed impossible, Abraham trusted that God’s command and God’s declared future would find resolution.  Never for a moment are we given any indication that he wavered in his trust in God’s faithfulness as he journeyed to Mount Moriah.  He stayed the course en route to the mountain never expressing any second thoughts.  In this way he passed God’s test.

If the test was not designed to teach Abraham a lesson or demonstrate the subversive nature of Israel’s God, then who exactly needed to learn something as a result of this exam?  Earlier I suggested that the proper title for this story should be “the binding of God.”  I want to propose that the character in the story that benefited most from the test was God himself.  With the weight of cosmic redemption on the shoulders of the Divine, God pushed the limits with Abraham for the greater good of humankind’s eventual salvation.  This may seem cruel to us as modern readers, but in God’s wisdom it seems he saw no other way forward.  The one who faced the greatest bind was not Isaac or his father, but the Heavenly Father.[4] To demonstrate this, we now must turn our attention to some related texts in Genesis.

Related Texts That Demonstrate God’s Bind

Genesis 1-2 give us a picture of God arranging creation in a way that it will function for God as his cosmic temple with human image-bearers reflecting his divine care into the world.  The world was exactly as God wanted it to be, in a state of shalom.  Eden is a picture of this kind of harmonious relationship.  Elmer Matins defines shalom as “harmony of an individual with oneself, with nature, with the world of people, and clearly with God.”[5] When God’s world is as it ought to be, this harmonious web of relationships function to make creation thrive, to be developed and cultivated.  Consider Terence Fretheim’s observation:

In Genesis 1-2, creation is understood not as a finished product or a static state of affairs but as a dynamic process in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which God’s engagement with creaturely activity is crucial for creational developments. God’s creation is intended to go somewhere; it is a work in progress.[6]

The unfortunate reality is that humanity chose to rebel rather than to partner with God in the open-ended possibility of shalom, which is evidenced in Genesis 3-11.  In the Garden, for instance, we find the earliest test of obedience in the forbidden tree.  God wants to discover if the humans will choose to live in a state of shalom or if they will use their freedom to their own demise.  In placing the tree in the Garden, the possibility for rebellion is out in the open.  He warns them that if they eat from the tree that they will die, yet oddly enough when they fail the test – they live on.  Why is this?  Perhaps this could be noted as the first time in the history of the earth that God chose to change his mind.  This may actually be the most natural reading of the story.

Many have suggested that the kind of death being discussed in Genesis 3 was spiritual and not physical.  The problem lies in the fact that the word for death in the text is not given any qualifiers.  John Sanders offers this explanation:

Though God is not caught off-guard, since he is ready with a response, God does adjust his plans and go in a direction that was not his first choice…  God had declared emphatically that they would die on the day they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…  If it is interpreted as immediate physical death, then God does not follow through with the threat but rather expels them from the garden.  In this case we have the first instance in the Bible of what will become a major theme: divine relenting from negative consequences in favor of mercy. God had threatened to terminate the relationship if the humans failed to trust God.  But when God faces the sin, he cannot bring himself to fulfill this threat…  God continues to work with his creatures, showing grace in the face of sin.[7]

The pattern of human evil spirals into more wickedness until finally God calls Abraham in chapter 12.  This is the first time that God promises that through Abraham’s family that the whole world would eventually be blessed.  N.T. Wright rightly argues, based on the narrative flow of Genesis and the whole of the biblical story, that out of the problem in God’s good creation project (humans) that God initiates a solution.  God is in a bind already, as he desires to restore shalom to the whole creation (as evidenced by passages like Isaiah 66.22-23), but chooses to make himself vulnerable by cooperating with humans who have a track record for using their freedom in a destructive way.  Redemption of the cosmic order rests on the shoulders of the Creator, but his commitment to giving his creatures freedom to choose means he will have to accommodate his plan based on their actions.  And indeed, even Abraham lived in the strange dichotomy of being a rebellious human and an obedient saint.[8]

Abraham is God’s response to the crisis of the fall.  Yet he often chose to “fall” himself.  In the first verse of Genesis 22, there is a seemingly simple statement that is loaded with significance.  In many translations the English is rendered: “After these things…”  The question that these words beg of us is: What are the “things” that the narrator is telling us about?  Well, we already looked at Genesis 1-11 which describe the creation and fall.  Then, the solution, Abraham shows that he does not trust God to meet all his needs.  In Egypt and later on in Canaan he passes his wife off as his sister to avoid potential harm.  Rather than trusting God, he trusts in his own wisdom to knave his way into safety.[9] As Ellen Davis notes: “…a shadow of doubt has fallen over Abraham’s total faith in God.”[10] God is truly in a bind.

[1]. V. H. Matthews, M. W. Chavalas, and J. H. Walton, Old Testament. The IVP Bible Background Commentary, electronic ed. (Ge 22:1): Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[2]. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 52.

[3]. Fretheim, Genesis, 497.

[4]. Ibid., 496-97.

[5]. Elmer A. Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology, 3rd ed. (N. Richland Hills, Tex.: BIBAL Press, 1998), 24.

[6]. Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters, Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), 150.

[7]. John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, 2nd ed. , rev. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2007), 46-47.

[8]. N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 47-48 and 53-54.

[9]. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 60-61.

[10]. Ibid., 60.

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  • Justin B.

    Hi Kurt,

    I was curious about what you wrote about God changing His mind about Adam and Eve dying. Here are my thoughts on it:

    Adam and Eve’s story closely reflects Israel’s. They’re a chosen people placed in a chosen land and given a purpose. If they obey God, they get to live long in the land and be blessed. If they disobey, then they’re cast out of the land. I bring this up because it seems there are a few times in the Old Testament where exile from one’s homeland is described as a type of death. And when Adam and Eve sin, they are exiled from Eden, which could be what God means when He promised they would “die.”

    Anyway, those are my thoughts.

    • Ian

      Or it could mean that they became mortal.

      • Justin B.

        Were they immortal prior to their sin?

        • Justin B.

          What I mean is, were they inherently immortal, or did they not die because they still had access to the tree of life?

    • Paul Clutterbuck

      Justin, that sounds like a great gospel for homebodies…lol jk!!! Seriously, though, there is both good and bad in being uprooted and scattered from one’s homeland, as I was this year after a massively destructive earthquake in my home city of Christchurch, NZ, and the loss of 13 of my family. It’s tough when you’ve lived all your life in an area no bigger than modern Israel, and to have no family around you for months on end. It’s not the end of the world, though, and you do live to see better days.

      The exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden was a way of fulfilling the command in Genesis 1:28, to “fill the earth.” You can’t fill the earth by staying where you are! The Jewish diaspora that followed the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 wasn’t just a dispersion or scattering in the sense of judgment, but also a sowing of seeds wherever the Jewish people went. Likewise with the persecutions of Christians, which forced them to move on and sow the Gospel seed in new locations among new peoples.

  • Ian

    I’ve never really embraced Open Theism, but I have always maintained like many Open Theists that God obviously works with His creation dynamically in that often times what He does is in response to our actions. I’m interested to see the rest of your thoughts about this passage.

  • Brian M.

    I would argue that Adam and Eve were always charged with going out into the world. The garden of Eden was not their “home” per se, it was their sanctuary – it’s where they worshipped God. They were cast out of their place of worship because you can’t bring sin into God’s presence. It’s clear that Adam and Eve renewed covenant with God, because we are told that they later offered sacrifices to God – which is the catalyst for Cain’s rebellion. They couldn’t return to Eden, though, because they could not partake of the Tree of Life. There’s a lot to unpack here, of course, but ultimately – for the sake of this particular post – I’m not sure that we can say with certainty that God changed His mind. I would argue that they did “die” as soon as they sinned. First, I think it’s problematic (gnostic) to separate spiritual and physical death. Second, separation from God is death – they were cut off – a running theme throughout the Bible. Third, just because they did not collapse on the ground and stop breathing as soon as they bit the fruit doesn’t mean they didn’t begin to die. You could argue that the physical effects of sin began immediately and death entered their bodies. I personally don’t believe they would have physically lived forever had they obeyed God, but I believe they would have passed on similar to the way Elijah or Enoch did – except their bodies would not have been corrupted. Just my own guess, though. Regardless, though, even if it was clear that God “changed His mind,” it’s clear that the Bible speaks about God’s eternal character in one sense, yet shows God dealing with man in another sense. God has an eternal decree – you can’t ignore those passages – but God also talks about changing His mind and asking men’s opinions, etc… but always in the context of God interacting with man. The two are not mutually exclusive and while mysterious, really do meld together quite nicely. 

    • Brian M.

      Oh, one more thing in regards to “death.” I agree with Justin’s premise, if not with his specific example. There are all kinds of “deaths” in the Bible – exile being a prominent one along with barrenness. This, of course, is a perfect picture of death and resurrection when the exiled are returned to their land and the barren are given children. 

  • Anonymous

    I read your responses to Rachel Held Evans, and came to your blog…I enjoy your writing style and love a good theological post.

    In reading this, I have to say I disagree with your premise that if God knew the outcome, it was cruel (and not in accordance with his character) over the obvious alternative, that he didn’t know, which supports an open theism perspective.  My opinion is that although Abraham had no idea HOW God was going to change the result (including the possibility of resurrection) he was convinced that God did have a plan.  Which, to me, means that while it was a difficult path, it was one he could take in faith.  And by the way, the events serve a much greater purpose than just ‘a test’ – what this demonstrates (to me, anyway) is that my obedience to God has some purpose, even when the face of the request seems counter-intuitive.  It is also the fore-shadow of the sacrifice of Christ. 

    I think God knew exactly what his creation was going to do, and what was going to be necessary for its redemption.  That he KNEW and created us anyway – that makes me humbly grateful. 

    • Harry Fox

      Hi luv2bowljen,
      I like your post, probably because it makes sense to me. I think this third post by Kurt is reading something into the text that is not there. God is omniscient, so He was not going to be caught by surprise, and He was in no bind. God knew that Abraham would pass the test, but Abraham did not know, and neither does the reader. Only by this demonstration does Abraham become the example of faith that he is, and a hero to all of those in the family of God. God could have told us all in His word that Abraham was a man of faith, but this demonstrates it in a way that is not easy to forget. I think that is the main point.
      I somehow don’t get the idea that this was cruel….