Abraham, Model of Faith? The Binding of Isaac

413px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_035One of the hardest stories in the Old Testament comes in Genesis 22. Here God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac – his beloved son of the promise. This passage is next up in our slow walk through Genesis.

Walter Moberly discusses this passage in Old Testament Theology: The Theology of the Book of Genesis in a chapter provocatively titled Abraham: Model or Monster? Although the history of both Jewish and Christian interpretation see Abraham’s response as a model for faith, and the incident as in no way validating child sacrifice, for many scholars today the passage is far more sinister. It is not uncommon for this passage to be raised as an example of “bronze age” or “iron age” religion as morally bankrupt and dangerous. Something we are best off leaving behind us. But this view arises from a flat out-of-context reading of the passage.

The story starts with the test.

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.

He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

This is followed by an expansion and restatement of the covenant promise to make Abraham a great nation.

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Most sermons and Sunday School lessons don’t do justice to the shape or impact of this story. There are several important points to consider, but we will focus on two for this post.

First, this passage stands against child sacrifice. John Walton (NIVAC Genesis) makes an important point – one not generally appreciated by secular or conservative Christian scholars.

It goes without saying that Abraham is utterly distraught at the prospect of losing his son, Isaac, in this way. Despite that emotional response, however, the command to sacrifice his son would not have been as chocking to Abraham as it is to us. In the Caananite worldview, the god who provided fertility (El) was also entitled to demand a portion of what had been produced. This was expressed in sacrifice of animals and grain and in the sacrifice of children. (p. 510)

That it goes without saying is an understatement – it is unstated! Nothing specific about Abraham’s response is related, only his obedience. A hint may possibly be drawn from his reticence in answering Isaac’s question about the lamb for the offering: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Of course, this is true however the encounter goes – God himself provided Isaac in the first place. The story does not dig into the emotions of any of the characters. That the story relates Abraham’s obedience and doesn’t raise these emotional questions “suggests that human sacrifice is familiar to his conceptual worldview” and to that of the editor and original audience of Genesis – whenever that was. Walton goes on:

However saddened he may have been, he is not dumbfounded by the macabre or peculiar nature of Yahweh’s demand. It was culturally logical, despite being emotionally harsh, and only baffling in light of the covenant promises. (p. 510)

Tremper Longman (Genesis) comments on this as well:

It is debated how widespread was the practice of child sacrifice in ancient Near Eastern religion. It is unlikely that it was a regular feature of any one of them, but there is no doubting that it was practiced on occasion. (p. 299)

566px-El_sacrificio_de_Isaac_(Domenichino)Based on the location of the story in Genesis there is no reason to think that Abraham would know that child sacrifice is out of bounds for the Lord. That human sacrifice including child sacrifice is not a part of Israelite or later Jewish religion is made clear in a number of later passages. But it was part of the ancient cultural surroundings. There are many biblical references to child sacrifice but not where it is viewed in a positive light. Jeremiah 7:30-31 provides a case in point.

The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

Children are not to be offered in sacrifice to other gods, or to the Lord. Although the firstborn son belongs to the Lord, he is to be redeemed not sacrificed (Exodus 34). The only possible exception to the biblical revulsion toward human sacrifice is the incident with Jephthah in Judges 11. It is important to realize, however, that there is much in Judges that is morally ambiguous with few heroes worthy of our emulation – things were a mess (part of the point of the book). The Lord used Jephthah to defeat the Ammonites, but there is little to suggest that Jephthah was of exemplary character or godliness. Nor is there any indication that the Lord required him to follow through or approved of his action. The incident is merely related as fact, without commentary.

Back to Genesis 22, Bill Arnold (Genesis) suggests that “the narrator has explained, by the means of this episode, why Israelites do not practice child sacrifice, as other people did in the ancient world.” (p. 200) Given the presence of child sacrifice in the ancient world, it is quite possible that this is part of the intended message. Tremper Longman offers this possibility as well:

Indeed, one way of reading the Abrahamic narrative is as a revelation of God’s rejection of human sacrifice as a means of worshiping him, and instead substituting the sacrifice of an animal, a practice already known (for instance, see Gen 8:20-21). (p. 299)

Second, the focus of this passage is on the faith and obedience of Abraham. This isn’t a story about human sacrifice. It is a story about Abraham’s willingness to surrender his past (Genesis 12) and his future (potential for descendants) to God. Bill Arnold sums this up.

The text continues the characterization of Abraham as the father of faith, exemplary in every way. Indeed, this text is associated with previous ones in several ways, and serves in the extended narrative as the culminating episode of Abraham’s obedience and faithfulness. (p. 200)

Walter Moberly makes the point that we must consider the story in canonical context as well as cultural context.

Whether or not the story (in some form) was once freestanding, and despite a tendency on the part of those who appear to the story (both positively and negatively) as freestanidng, the story stands as the climax to Abraham’s long journey of faith. Abraham’s story begins with God’s promise to make him a great nation (12:1-3), yet the promise seems impossible to fulfill. … Against all expectation Sarah at last gives birth to Isaac (21:1-7) and it appears that the years of perplexed waiting are over and that God’s promise to Abraham can now be realized through Isaac. This narrative context of Isaac as the child of promise adds to and intensifies Isaac’s intrinsic value to Abraham as his beloved son (22:2), and gives Isaac enormous symbolic significance as the focus of Abraham’s hope in God and the future. Yet it is precisely at this moment that God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. … At the beginning, Abraham is commanded to relinquish his past, and at the end, Abraham is commanded to relinquish his future. (Old Testament Theology p. 185-186)

This is about the right response to God. Tremper Longman relates this to the fear of God (v. 12). “The phrase “fear of God” and the related “fear of the Lord” describe a proper relationship with God. One who fears God knows their proper place in the cosmos.” ( Genesis p. 290) Moberly agrees: “Fear is the Old Testament’s prime term for right human response to God/ When used in relation to God, it does not indicate fright, or even (usually) awe, but rather a right attitude and obedience.” (p. 187)

The great people of faith in Scripture have a proper understanding of their relationship to God with an appropriate attitude before the Creator of the cosmos. As such the passage has never been used to justify child-sacrifice. The sacrifice of Isaac was not demanded and other passages clearly condemn the practice of ritual human sacrifice. “Rather, it has been a resource for coping with some of life’s worst extremities.” (Old Testament Theology p. 195) Abraham’s hope and faith was firmly established and the text demonstrates this fact for the reader.

Although none of the commentaries make this connection, there also seems to be a strong relationship here with the message of the book of Job. Job fears the Lord and this right attitude survives the test. He does not maintain a right attitude because of the blessings he receives, but because God is God although he does wonder why he is suffering in his innocence. The message that God delivers when he speaks following many chapters of speeches by Job and his friends is basically to reaffirm this basis. God is God. Abraham is to trust God, even if God requires the return of what God has given.

We, too, must rest in the fear of the Lord.

When we focus on the “problems” with the passage and fail to read it in light of its cultural and canonical context we will miss the point.

Is the binding of Isaac a troubling story? If so why?

What are the major “preaching points” of the story?

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