Is The Binding of Isaac A Duel Between God and Abraham?

There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, thanks to Rachel Held Evans’ post. She also has some follow-up resources that are great. When I was pregnant with my now ten year old son, I was tasked with preaching this text, and it was the most grappling I think I’ve ever done. I read so many commentaries, read the story so much my eyes glazed over, turned and turned in my sleep trying to make sense of it. I still don’t like the story, but I found a way of looking at it that made sense to me. Below is the sermon I preached, with minor edits. I thought it might be helpful for others, too.

 

I confess that I spent a lot of time wrestling with God over this text. Perhaps this isn’t the best story for a pregnant woman to be preaching on. Perhaps my maternal instincts are too high for me to see anything but pure insanity in this text right now. But I’m not the only one, obviously, who has struggled with this passage. Indeed, many think it is one of the most terrifying stories in all of Scripture. Countless volumes of theology and commentary have been written on this, all of whom try to reasonably explain why God would ask such a thing, why Abraham would concede, and why Isaac seems to willingly go along with it.

Just briefly, let me say that this story is often used as a parallel to Christ’s death on the cross. But despite a number of parallels between the two stories that can be powerfully persuading, the situations are COMPLETELY different. We are told from the very onset that this is a test for Abraham. I doubt any of us would say that God the Father was “testing” Himself to see if He was willing to kill His son out of faith in…Himself. And Jesus was fully aware and fully chose to die for a reason no less powerful than providing all of humanity with the ability to have everlasting life. Isaac was simply traveling unassumingly with his father, unaware of his innocent bystander role in his father’s test from God. So I’m sticking to the text tonight. There’s plenty in there for us to discuss. Jesus spent his whole life studying these Scriptures, so I’m sure he’s fine if we stick to studying them just for one night.

Let me also quickly say this: many people spend their time defending God and going into long lectures about our lack of faith and Abraham’s abundance of it and how we shouldn’t EVER question God, no matter what the circumstance. I don’t feel the need to defend God blindly. God can handle our questions, guys. If we don’t believe that we should’ve given up a long time ago.  Questioning is a central, valuable part of our relationship and faith in God. Just two weeks ago we read about how Abraham bargained with God in an attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and there are countless other stories of people of faith questioning God boldly in the Bible.

Many try to skip quickly to the end of the story, and solely emphasize the fact that God didn’t, after all, require Isaac to be killed. That’s true. But that doesn’t do justice to the incredible amount of tension in this story. And I think it misses the point. I don’t think the point of the story is about what happens once they reach the top, but about what happens as they walk to the top. Abraham is faced with an unbelievable dilemma. He has to sit with the thought of killing his son for three whole days, and then journey up the long path to the top of Mount Moriah with his son at his side. To kill Isaac would be to completely obliterate the future of Abraham’s descendents, descendents whom God has promised to bless and sustain no matter what. What would become of a future without Isaac, emotionally and literally? Abraham is faced with a totally unknown future, one that just three days ago held incredible promise. Does he trust God enough that God can make a way out of no way? Whatever this text is about, I think it’s about us wrestling with those kinds of questions. Let’s not let ourselves off the hook.

After wrestling with this question all week, I still don’t know why it is that God wanted to test Abraham, and why God would choose this as the test. There are, of course, a lot of theories. Some say God wanted to know if Abraham still had faith after his promised son was given. And it’s true that it seems to be human nature to sort of forget God after things start going our way. How do fulfilled promises affect our relationship with God? We’re joyful and filled with the Spirit for a little while, and then we quickly turn all our attention to the promise that was fulfilled and forget about Who fulfilled it. Maybe Abraham needed a little shaking up to remind him exactly Who gave him that son, and Who can take him away.

I think this story would be easier to engage if we take a cue from our Jewish brothers and sisters who see problems in Scripture as not to be ignored but to be delved into, to be questioned, to be wrestled with. One rabbi said, “A textual problem is the grain of sand in the oyster whose irritation creates the pearl.” Jewish Midrash is a central way to argue and dialogue with a text. Midrash is a Hebrew word that means “to examine, to seek out.” Midrash poses questions to the story and then grapples with possible answers. The purpose of the midrash is not to find the “right” answer, but to learn something in the process of questioning.

Some midrash stories suggest Satan came up with the whole idea, similar to the Job story. Satan tells God, “Look at that- your faithful servant Abraham just threw a huge party for his son Isaac, and he didn’t even set aside for You one measly little sacrifice. I bet he loves that son more than he loves you. I bet if you asked him, he wouldn’t lay a hand on his son.” So God seeks to prove Satan wrong.

Another Midrash asks, “Why was Abraham tested on Mount Moriah?” And it answers, “Because he favored his son Isaac over his eldest, Ishmael.”

Whatever the reason, we cannot hide from the fact that God chose to test Abraham, and God chose to do it in this way.

We also can’t deny that Abraham was willing to do such a thing. He was willing to follow God’s command all the way to the top of Mount Moriah, to the point of reaching for his knife. There are some midrash that claim Abraham therefore failed the test, because he didn’t refuse God’s command. This is actually a pretty compelling thing to say, and I think they are onto something there. Because you and I both know (or I sure hope we know) that we don’t worship a God who asks us to sacrifice our children. As a woman carrying her son in her womb right now, I can tell you: I’m not doing it. Every atom of my very pregnant being is focused on one, solitary thing: I keep this baby safe. And that goes for the sweet baby girl that’s now living on the outside, too. My job is to keep them safe from harm, not inflict harm upon them. No amount of textual gymnastics are going to convince me that God thinks that’s a bad thing.

So- let’s think about this idea that Abraham failed the test, because he refused to argue with God. (And don’t we love how arguing with God is so reverently expected? We have lost that.) I appreciate the point, but I’m not sure he completely failed the test. When I first started thinking about this story, I felt this complete dichotomy between this appeasing, unquestioning Abraham we see walking up the mountain, and the Abraham we saw two weeks ago, bargaining with God like he was at an antique auction. Something just doesn’t fit. Granted, Abraham is a complex guy, but I don’t buy that he would just grab a knife and head up the mountain without a second thought.

And then I read what Elie Wiesel, a Jewish author, had to say. It was a “double-edged test,” he said. “God subjected Abraham to it, yet at the same time Abraham forced it on God. As though Abraham said, ‘I defy you, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether you shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son- who is also Your son- is at stake!’”

Wow. Maybe Mount Moriah was a game of duel. God says, “Prove that you trust me to keep my promises, even if the person who embodies that promise is gone.” And Abraham says right back, “Fine. But I dare you to be the kind of God who would kill my son just to make a point. I DARE YOU. And I don’t believe it for one second.”

Abraham knew very well that God was bound by God’s own commandments, and to kill anyone, much less your innocent son, was certainly not in the parameters of God’s commands of righteousness. I can picture Abraham thinking, “If you need me to prove to you that I trust you, that I see you as the provider of all things even when I am faced with a future that seems ruined, that I haven’t forgotten about you after the promise of my son was fulfilled, I will willingly walk up this mountain, knife in hand. But I dare you to be the kind of God that makes me go through with it.”

And of course, God isn’t that kind of God, and God tells Abraham to stay his hand before the knife comes down on Isaac.

When I was seven or eight, I remember being very upset with my parents about something. I don’t remember what, but whatever it was, it was so bad that I took out my little Strawberry Shortcake suitcase and I started packing my bags because I was going to go live at my friend’s house instead. My mom came in, and she asked what I was doing, and I told her I was leaving the family and going out on my own. And she said, “Ok, well, let me help you then. You’ll need a coat. And here’s your pillow. And don’t forget extra socks.” And I was just completely incensed by all of this. How could she want me to leave?! How could she just sit here and HELP ME PACK? What kind of mother wants her child to run away? And when I was done, I walked to the door, and she opened it, and said, “Honey, I love you and I’d hate for you to leave. But you can go if you want.” I didn’t even get to the mailbox before I came back. She still had the door open.

Both of us knew, the entire time, that I was not actually going to run away. It was never really an option. But for whatever reason, I needed to pretend like I was leaving, and my mom went right along with it, even to the point of helping me pack.

I’m not trying to draw a straight line here metaphorically, but I wonder if Mount Moriah were not this same kind of active pretending, where something is at stake, but the players are all aware that the premise of the thing is not ever actually going to happen. I’ll pack my bag, but I’m not running away. Abraham will walk with Isaac up the mountain, but he will never sacrifice him. The thing is, in both instances, love and trust is what gets us out of pretending. I didn’t make it past the mailbox because my mom had just said she loved me, and she was standing at the door waiting for me to come back. I was no fool.

If we look at the Genesis 22 text, we can see this same sort of play-acting. Abraham gets up without any commentary whatsoever and he packs up for this trip. He cuts the wood. And then, here’s where it gets tense, when he can see the top of the mountain, he tells his servants to stay behind, and he puts the wood on Isaac’s back. It’s like he’s staring down God. “We’re almost at the top, here. I’m just going to have my son Isaac go ahead and carry the wood of his own sacrificial altar, then. What do you think of that, God?” And then when Isaac asks him where the lamb is, Abraham says (and I think he’s telling the absolute truth here) “God will provide it.” I don’t think Abraham is hiding Isaac from the awful truth that he’s about to murder him. I think he’s letting Isaac overhear what he is telling God. They make the altar, he even binds Isaac and sets him there. He terrifyingly raises his knife, and then God calls halt. The play acting is over. They’ve both proven their points.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still a terrifying story, any way you look at it. I don’t think I could even pretend to hurt my child, even for dramatic purposes. I still think that’s really messed up. (Can you imagine the walk back down the mountain? What on earth could Isaac say to his dad after that?)

But maybe the reason Abraham could so willingly walk up that mountain is precisely because he has an unshakable faith in the character of God. He knows that God will not, in the end, require such a thing. And because of that, he does not question why it is that God requires him to go through this.

The midrash I read about Abraham failing the test? It said the reason an angel addressed them at the top and not God was because Abraham should have known better than to let it get that far. In other words, Abraham went way past the mailbox. Maybe he failed the test after all. Maybe he sought a duel more than he sought a truce. God was trying to prove a point, but Abraham doubled down on it and made it a spectacle. And maybe he didn’t have to.

If this is a story about trust and faith, then Abraham shows us that we can challenge God’s character and be found right. He was right about God, in the end. But if we want to have faith stronger than Abraham, we’ll refuse to walk up the mountain altogether. Because we know God better than that.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent sermon! I love how open, honest, and vulnerable you were with your congregation. At the end of the day, Jesus is the one we are called to look to and follow, not the OT heroes of faith:)

  2. I just read this post and find your blog interesting. There are a few things I’d like to respectfully add. I think it is well written but there are some key points that I’d like to introduce. Let’s start with the promise/covenant:

    Genesis 17:19-21.

    19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 BUT MY COVENANT I WILL ESTABLISH WITH ISAAC, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

    So, God promises Abraham that Isaac will be the one to establish the covenant. “But what is the covenant?” Let go back.

    Genesis 17:3-8

    3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

    So when we take it from the context of the covenant and how it hasn’t yet been fulfilled through Isaac at the point of Mt. Moriah, then we must ask, “What is happening here?” or “What is the point of all of this?”

    I think it is three-fold (and probably more-fold) :)

    1. Abraham Was Found Testing Faithful— I believe that, yes, Abraham was being tested, and doing what God had asked of him. He was following through with the request by God to remain “blameless and faithful” which the Lord told him to do in Genesis 17:1-2. (I would also call this being obedient to God)

    2. The Lord Was Setting Himself Apart From Other Gods— When I think of Jesus in the New Testament, I always think about what a great teacher he was. Always using parables and stories. Some simple and straightforward. Others very dramatic and symbolic with deep parallels. During Abrahams day there were countless god’s that were being worshiped. Some gods were going to the extreme of asking for child sacrifices (ie. Moloch). What better way for the Lord to set himself apart by using Mt. Moriah and this dramatic experience to teach a lesson, tell a story, and to get the ball rolling as a way to set Himself apart from all of the other Gods that were being worshipped. This is God setting the scene to say “Look at what these other gods desire and take from you! On this day I will provide a spotless lamb/ram to take your only son’s place as the sacrifice! Serve me and you no longer need to offer sacrifices of this kind!”

    3. The First Introduction of Resurrection—If Abraham truly believed that God was going to follow through with the covenant, then Abraham must have believed that if the knife plunged into Isaacs chest and he died, then surely the Lord would bring him back to life to fulfill the covenant that had been promised.

    Look at how Abraham worded his sentence in Genesis 22:4-5

    4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. WE WILL WORSHIP and then WE WILL COME BACK to you.”

    I truly believe the second use of the word “WE” speaks volumes here. If Abraham believed Isaac was going to die and not be resurrected, wouldn’t he say, rather, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. WE WILL WORSHIP and then I WILL COME BACK to you.”

    As with many bible stories, there’s probably a lot more going on than meets the eye. I believe this is one of those stories that has some very basic surface level parallels as well as very deep symbolism and truths that I’m still excited to try and figure out.

    _____________________________________________________

    To give a statement towards answering, “How could Abraham kill a child?” I honestly think that it isn’t an overly complicated answer. But we have to attempt to put ourselves into Abrahams time period. It was not uncommon for certain “gods” to receive first born children as sacrifices. It was a normal thing in Abraham’s time. It’s not normal within our western culture which makes it hard to believe he would do something so opposite of what our culture stands for. Bringing in the context of Abraham’s faithfulness, the promise from God, and the introduction of resurrection, it might make it a little bit easier to understand Abraham’s responses, obedience, and faithfulness (although it would still be very very difficult).

    -Jordan

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Jordan. I’ve heard the discussion about resurrection before- I’m not enough of an ancient culture historian to know if that’s viable or not. But I kind of wonder if we’re not assuming too much based on what we know happens later in the story? To me, the “we” could also mean that Abraham just didn’t think God would go through with it. In my opinion, that’s just as faithful. I’d love to know more about the resurrection question- let me know if you have a book or a source that would be helpful on that.

    As for your second point, I actually think that’s the most bothersome part of this story for me- the fact that God looks very much like the other gods of the time who did require sacrifices of this sort. I think we are letting ourselves off the hook too easily when we jump to the end and say that God set Godself apart when it was all said and done. God still asked, and let Abraham go so far as to raise a knife. I think this is why many rabbinical scholars say Abraham failed the test. He should have known God was different from the very beginning and refused the request.

    This is why people have been grappling with this text for thousands of years- it’s so hard! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts as you wrestle with it.

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