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

The Binding of God: Genesis 22 as a Test Case for Open Theism in the O.T. (part 4) August 16, 2011

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.

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