Looking Back on Abraham and Isaac

Looking Back on Abraham and Isaac January 11, 2010
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt

As I wrote on Saturday, I led the sermon time at Solomon’s Porch on Sunday.  As is our practice, we’re working our way through a book of the Bible, and this time it’s Genesis (I think it’s the second time in the 10-year history of Solomon’s Porch that we’ve gone through Genesis).  Last night it was the part of Genesis that we moderns refer to as “chapter 22,” otherwise known as the “Binding of Isaac,” (or sometimes misleadingly called the “Sacrifice of Isaac”).

It was a brilliant and fascinating discussion at both the 5pm and 7pm gatherings.  Here are some of my random highlights:

The tone was set early in the discussion by a young mother who, with a baby at her breast, declared, “I’ve got to be honest.  I hate this text.  I wish it weren’t in the Bible.”  Others agreed, including another woman who told me afterward that whenever people try to apologize for Abraham, it reminds her of growing up in a dysfunctional home with an abusive parent, about whom people would often say, “I’m sure she’s doing the best she can,” instead of dealing with the problem.

That being said, others did speak up on Abraham’s behalf.  An effort was made to get behind the text and determine what really happened as opposed to what was reported by Abraham and Isaac, the only two eyewitnesses to the incident.*  To that, another person responded that as he is reading through Genesis, he’s convinced that the book’s power is its mythopoetic nature, and he encouraged us not to take it literally.  I responded that regardless of whether one thinks this episode actually happened, and whether it happened as it’s written — and we surely had persons on all sides of that in the room — we nevertheless have to roll up our sleeves and deal with what’s actually on the page.

We wondered why the Angel of the Lord is so intent in referring to Isaac twice as, “your son, your only son.”  In other words, what is Ishmael, chopped liver? It’s clear that the narrators of the story are making it doubly clear that Ishmael was not only excommunicated from Abraham’s camp, but is no longer even considered a product of Abraham’s loins.†  A product of the Pagitt loins told us that in the Koranic version of this story, it’s Ishmael and not Isaac who is bound by Abraham.

We considered the silence of Abraham: Why didn’t he argue with God?  It’s not like he has a compunction against talking back to God, for earlier in the narrative he negotiates with the Lord on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Job argues with God when tragedy befalls him, and even Jesus asks that the cup be taken from him on the night of his arrest.‡  It would be very much in keeping with the biblical narrative for Abraham to try and talk his way out of the slaying and burning of his own son, but he doesn’t.

We also considered the silence of Isaac.  The question of Isaac’s age was asked, for which there is no answer (we often think he was a boy, but there is a rabbinic tradition that he was 33).  The narrators humanize Isaac by giving him a voice when he asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?”  With all of the conversation that must have occurred during their three day journey to the land of Moriah, it’s surely significant that this is the only interaction that’s recounted.  We’re not told that he argues as he’s being tied up.  The always brilliant Tim Lyles asked if this entire episode has something to do with the fact that, among the patriarchs, Isaac gets far fewer column inches in Genesis than either Abraham or Jacob.  To the question, why does Abraham alone return to camp after this, we decided that Isaac may have needed a little space from his dad.  We also briefly considered Isaac’s therapy bills.

We talked briefly about the passage in Hebrews in which it’s reckoned that Abraham had faith that Isaac would be resurrected by God after the slaying and burning.§  I think it’s safe to say that very few in the room found this explanation of Abraham’s behavior very compelling.

I talked a bit about Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling, in which he makes Abraham an archetype of the Knight of Faith and argues that religion is an absolute relation to the Absolute which on occasion transcends the universal ethical code.  The more I consider this, the more I think that even Kierkegaard’s treatment of this text is something of a cop-out.

And we closed with a song by Ben that ruined Mike Stavlund’s faith.  In the song, Ben considers the only two options that he thinks are reasonable: Abraham either believed that the Lord would provide a way of escape from the slaying of his son, or else he was crazy.  Ben’s song also gives Isaac a voice as he’s being bound: “Daddy, I promise I’ll be a good boy.”

In the end, I can agree with the several people who talked to me after the gathering and said that they’ve never been to a church that could have such a deep — and deeply troubling — conversation about Abraham’s binding of Isaac.

*I distinctly recall Walter Bruegemann at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation in 2004 saying that we cannot get behind the text, especially with the Old Testament.  We’ve got to deal with what’s on the page and not try to divine what “really happened.”

†At this point, I made an allusion to The Jazz Singer starring Neil Diamond and Sir Laurence Olivier (yes, that’s right), in which the latter rips his own coat and declares, “You are dead to me,” because his son has decided to sing jazz rather than be a cantor.  It may go without saying, but this movie reference was lost on all but three people in the room.

‡There’s “rule” at Solomon’s Porch (we’re not so good at rules) by which we are not to look to other books of the Bible to help us figure out the book that we’re studying.  I broke this rule repeatedly last night.

§See ‡.

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  • carla jo

    It was a fantastic conversation. The guy sitting next to me wondered if there was a “part 2” coming after Ben’s song because it seemed like we were just hanging there. I told him I wasn’t sure there was anything to do but hang there.

    Here’s one of the things that kept me awake last night. We are so troubled by this story of a father being asked to sacrifice his son and yet this story is, I think, clear foreshadowing of the crucifixion. So why aren’t we troubled that God kills his own son? Is it because we are the beneficiaries of that act? Is is because we know that it ends well? How can the same act–a father sacrificing his son–be seen as a horrific request in one case and a glorious act of love in another? How would we feel about this story if the sacrifice of Isaac was what reconciled humanity to God?

    And don’t even get me started on all the other children who DO die in the Bible because God is making a point.

    Where is Luci Arnez when you need her?

  • Kenton

    I don’t get that rule. Can you not let ANY outside sources comment on the text, or does Solomon’s Porch just single out the rest of scripture for commenting on the text? Either way it seems strange – if not downright stupid – to think you can have a conversation about scripture and then censure some of the best voices (including Jesus himself) from contributing.

  • Dave H

    I LOVE an interesting play-by-play monday morning recounting of what happens at churches i’m curious about. I often think during discussions and worship events at my own fellowship that other faith communities might be curious about what we’re doing. I also really appreciate the follow up from Saturday’s post. After getting us all thinking about the story, it was nice for you to follow through. Thanks, Tony!

  • No criticism here, just curiousity: why do you have the rule about not using Scripture to interpret Scripture? And by the way, I hate that story too. And I wonder: did you leave the study of the text in your gathering as inconclusive as you did the blog post?

  • carla jo

    It’s not really a rule, more of a desire to stay focused. The temptation is to use a verse from here and a verse from there to “explain” something, particularly OT somethings. So we try to just sit with what’s there and see where it leads us. Sometimes it leads us to pull something out of another part of the Bible and when it does, we try to recognize that the people originally hearing the story we are hearing didn’t have that hindsight and consider what the text would have meant for them in their time and place. It really does help us consider what it means for our time and place to do this. And believe me, Jesus comes up plenty.

  • Did anyone bring up Jim Butler’s idea that the entire story is there as a firm warning against the practice of child sacrifice so prevalent in the surrounding cultures? That’s been banging around in the back of my head since seminary days. Or note that in verse 5, Abraham says to his servants, “We will come back to you?” Which is, to my eyes and heart at least, further backed up by A’s response to I’s query of, “The LORD will provide a sacrifice…” I know this reading makes it a bit harder to see this difficult story as a true ‘test of Abraham,’ as it’s commonly labeled in English translations. Nevertheless, for me it becomes a greater test of A’s absolute faith in God’s goodness – his resolute trust that somehow, Isaac would be spared. I choose to believe that A trudged up the mountain believing that. And one other voice in the Bible that might apply here (and I emphasize ‘might!’) is the response of Eli to the news he pries out of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3: “He is the LORD. Let him do what is good in his eyes.” That’s the hardest piece for us, I think: to relinquish ourselves to the will of God AND to believe that, no matter what, it will be good.

  • “An effort was made to get behind the text and determine what really happened as opposed to what was reported by Abraham and Isaac, the only two eyewitnesses to the incident.* To that, another person responded that as he is reading through Genesis, he’s convinced that the book’s power is its mythopoetic nature, and he encouraged us not to take it literally. I responded that regardless of whether one thinks this episode actually happened, and whether it happened as it’s written — and we surely had persons on all sides of that in the room — we nevertheless have to roll up our sleeves and deal with what’s actually on the page.”

    I’ve heard/read Brueggemann say what you recall as well. I appreciate your response to efforts to evade what the text says. Whether the events described happened in a historical sense or not (and we can’t get behind the text with certainty), the people of God–first Jews and then Christians–chose to preserve and eventually canonize this story. Apparently, they saw some value in it. A more important question than Did this story happen? is What is the value of this story in our time and place?

  • Rick

    I’m not able to see how the Hebrews passage didn’t receive higher consideration. I get that the “rule” is for maintaining focus, and I think that’s a pretty good idea, and probably a guard against folk hi-jacking the text to some other end, but this one is so specific… Also, what about the difference in perspective between an infinite God outside of time and little us all time-bound? Neither comfortable nor comforting, but there might be something in that. And then there’s the hint of something I googled up about Rob Bell’s take on it where maybe God was freeing Abraham from his former notions of Who God is and just how He operates – the why behind the call for Abraham to leave the land of his father…

  • RDD

    excellent discussion. I love this sort of dialog. I see this in 2 ways both previously mentioned. 1. A clear foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ, the “lamb of God” and 2. I believe the A knew somehow I would be spared in the end.

  • ben

    Rick – I agree. It is completely foreign to me that in a Christian congregation 1) the Hebrews passage wouldn’t be discussed much, and 2) that only “very few” would find it a “compelling” explanation. I do appreciate the desire to deal first with text according to the context of its original hearers, but maybe the reason so many found this to be such a disturbing story was because they dismissed the explanation of Hebrews (seemingly) handily.

    carla jo – there are many connections between the binding of Isaac and Christ’s crucifixion, but also important differences. 1) The cross was the Son’s chosen self-sacrifice, pursued even with joy (in the midst of deep anguish, to be sure: Heb 12:2). 2) From a classic perspective of Christian Trinitarianism, the cross was the complete Godhead’s SELF-sacrifice. It cannot be reduced to the killing of One by Another, but is the sacrifice of One by Oneself for many others (his Church).

  • Jane Smith

    The binding of Isaac.

    Surely one of the darkest of all the bible’s dark patriarchal texts. Rope, stone, knife, terror. All at the behest of some terrible god. No human blood, though.

    Isn’t it interesting how we westerners are so desperate in our attempts to rationalise such an account?

    We are not comfortable with this god, and yet there he is.

    Jane Smith

  • Dan Hauge

    There’s a great sermon on the silence of Abraham by Robert Krulwich (who happens to be one half of the dynamic duo of Radio Lab): http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2009/04/07/in-silence/

  • carla jo

    So Ben, what do you think the Israelites might have thought about this story without the benefit of the Book of Hebrews? What about the earliest Christ-followers who would have known this story but obviously wouldn’t have had the Hebrews explanation? It seems that wrestling with an OT text calls for at least a recognition that the original writers and readers didn’t have the same tools we have.

    Again, we really try to sit with the Bible and recognize it as the living Word of God. We try to honor the words on the page and see where they lead us. We aren’t trying to dissect the story or come to definitive conclusions. And sometimes pulling out “well Hebrews says this…” gives us an excuse to assume there is a conclusion and we don’t have to think about it anymore. As Tony said, we break this “rule” all the time and broke it several times in the context of this sermon, not only with the Hebrews passage but with lots of other references as well.

  • Rick

    Well, Carla Jo, I’m just thinking that Abraham really thought that if he had to sacrifice Isaac, then God would just resurrect him. Maybe we discount that because Paul brings it up. It still leaves room for plenty of rich savoring of the passage and putting yourself in Abraham’s place and wondering about everything going on in his mind and emotions and how was he able to do that.

    And in the midst of all that consideration, Paul comes along and says, here’s how he did it. And then we’re free to compare ourselves to Abraham. I think Tony’s exact quote was, “I think it’s safe to say that very few in the room found this explanation of Abraham’s behavior very compelling.” Which 1) might say more about Tony’s thoughts on it than anyone else’s, or 2) most everyone present thought Abraham was crazy, or 3) very few believed that Paul knew what he was talking about. Hard to say from the sentence.

    I eat up everything I read about SP, so I’m not being a hater. That’s just the direction my question would have gone had I been fortunate enough to be there.

  • carla jo

    I think the issue for us as a community was that, even though we believe in God, even though we believe in the resurrection of the dead, none of us would sacrifice our children. So putting ourselves in Abraham’s place, even in the context of Paul’s explanation (which you’ll note doesn’t come from anything in the Genesis text. Abraham doesn’t say anything about resurrection) didn’t do much to help us get over the real struggle we have with this story. We want to do more than figure out how Abraham was able to do this. We want to consider what it means that God would ask him to.

  • Rick

    I don’t think I would be willing to do so either, at least not from today’s perspective, but part of today’s perspective is maybe that comfort thing where I tell myself there’s no way God would ask ME to do that in this day and age.

    This is what Tony was getting at with the reference to Kierkegaard’s book, but as Tony said, I don’t think I like what Tony reported (I haven’t read it) as K’s conclusion: the occasional transcending of what we understand to be the universal ethical code. But there was no codified law yet – Moses is still a long way off – the covenant was still basically brand-spanking new! There’s nothing else present to give Abraham any depth perception, any context to the situation. All he’s got are his own perceptions of a very small set of data points. I think that 1) changes things, and 2) makes it really hard for us to know what headspace Abraham is inhabiting (‘cuz in contrast we have so very many data points).

    What I don’t like about Kierkegaard’s thing is this: once you say that sometimes we’ll just set aside the universal ethical code, the door is open for all kinds of awful things that no one else can examine. So, for me the question of what does it mean “that God would ask him to,” suggests something about community – it’s really hard and dangerous to have a relationship with God in a vacuum – we just don’t have enough bandwidth. I still wonder if Abraham was misunderstanding God right up until the lamb was provided.

    What do you think?

  • Jane Smith

    Rick asked:

    “I still wonder if Abraham was misunderstanding God right up until the lamb was provided. What do you think?”

    What I think, Rick, is that we civilised, rational westerners simply Do Not Get It. We want a god we can play theological and moral chess with, a god who will act in kind, moral, loving and predictable ways. The idol of the comfortable suburb, in fact. Is it any wonder He’s sick of us?

    What about the fierce God, the God of the mountain and desert. Islam knows this God, and we should too.

    And if we aren’t prepared to meet Him, we’d better stop calling ourselves “Christians” and take up Marcion’s cause instead (if my memory serves me correctly, he was the heretic who wanted nothing to do with the OT).

    Trouble is, that won’t help us much either, because you meet the same God there – this time in a garden, the Garden of Gethsemane.


  • carla jo


    I think you’ve nailed a big part of the challenge of this story–and a big part of why we didn’t spend much time on the Hebrews passage: “All he’s got are his own perceptions of a very small set of data points. I think that 1) changes things, and 2) makes it really hard for us to know what headspace Abraham is inhabiting (‘cuz in contrast we have so very many data points).”

    And I’m with you on the Kierkegaard explanation. It actually made me think about people like Andrea Yates who drowned her 5 children in the bathtub. She thought it’s what God wanted her to do. We see her story and it’s clearly marked by mental illness. No one even considers asking if God really did tell her to do it because that’s not the God we know. And believe me, I’m not suggesting that I think God told her to do it. I’m just saying that I agree that Kierkegaard’s explanation leaves a lot of wiggle room.

    As for Abraham, I think he was ready to do it. I think he hoped with everything in him that he wouldn’t have to and that God would make a way out but that he was really going to do it. I don’t get it. And I am still trying to recover from the God who asks this of a person. I can’t trust that God. Maybe I should, but I can’t.

  • Some thoughts on Hebrews and Hebrews 11:19:

    1) Hebrews was not written by Paul (nowhere does it claim Pauline authorship, nor is its style Pauline); rather, it was written by an anonymous preacher, probably a Jewish Christian.

    2) Hebrews reads more like a sermon than systematic theology.

    3) A single verse, Hebrews 11:19, is at issue.

    4) The preacher makes an addition to the Genesis story, which makes no mention of resurrection (in fact, the Old Testament as a whole makes little mention of resurrection or an afterlife). Read in its literary context, the point of this addition is not to explain how Abraham could consider killing his son; rather, it reinforces the message found throughout Hebrews that the Old Testament is a shadow of what is to come. In this case, the preacher interprets the deliverance of Isaac from death as a figurative resurrection–as a shadow of the promise that is seen clearly in the resurrection of Jesus. Is the preacher engaging in psychoanalysis, a modern and individualistic exercise? More likely, he is using an Old Testament story as a sermon illustration to underscore what he has been arguing throughout his sermon–namely, that the “first covenant” points forward to “a new covenant” (Hebrews 8:7-8) in Jesus Christ.

  • Rick

    Here’s what I’m thinking. Chapter 11 of Hebrews is all about how faith influenced the actions of various OT examples. In Abraham’s case, the author spells out the front end of Abraham’s faith two different times. The second half of verse 17 says, “…He who had received the promises…” and then verse 18 says, “even though God had said to him…” Based on this information – what God had said – Abraham “reasoned” that the promise would indeed be carried out, even if he had to do the unthinkable. And this is what faith is, the decision to act based on what God has said, to give more weight to what He’s promised than we give to present circumstance. I can’t see that the over-arching theme of Hebrews (old covenant pointing toward new covenant) changes that. I like Josh pointing out the part about “figurative resurrection” – that’s stated right there in the text. But the text also plainly says that Abraham weighed what was promised against what he was asked to do, and decided that God would remain true to the promise, no matter what. It actually says that, so it seems like that’s what happened. I’m thinking the author of this passage was inspired by the Spirit, and therefore has special insight into what was going on – mind of the Spirit, and all that…

  • it amazes me that we find it so hard think that 1′ abraham may have been just blind dumb enough to follw god’s commands to kill his son through and 2′ God might have been just blind sick enough to want to test abraham in this way

    it seems this would be how most other pre hbrew readers would have to roll with it