As regular readers may know, I’ve been making a point lately of using the assigned readings from the Hebrew Bible for my lectio divina practice. Because these texts often raise difficult questions, I’ve been intentional about engaging them within an integral framework to get as expansive a reading as I can. (I’ve included a brief overview of this framework below.)
It happens that the lectionary has been following the story of Abraham and Sarah. These are the founding stories of Israel’s — and therefore also the Church’s — identity, which makes it a particularly fruitful time to be undertaking this exercise. Today we come to Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, the child of promise, at God’s command. It’s a tough story to deal with, especially if we don’t immediately resort to Christological allegory and spiritualization. But I’m in a place right now of really wanting to wrestle with the discomfort of these old stories, so, here I go. (Fair warning: This is a complex story and I wanted to give it its due, so this will be a long post!)
The first step focuses on my own experience of reading the text: What message does the text have for me today? The first thing I noticed today was the first line: “After these things God tested Abraham.” My initial thought was “Again?!” Abraham’s entire adult life has been a test: God told him to leave everything behind and go to a new land, and he did it. God told him he’d have a son and made him wait until he was one hundred years old to see it come to pass. And now, God is commanding him to sacrifice that son. It’s brutal. What more could God possibly want from this man? I found myself indignant on Abraham’s behalf and interpreted his silence in response to God’s demand not as heartless blind allegiance but as confused resignation.
Similarly, when Isaac asks where the animal is for the sacrifice and Abraham answers that God will provide the sacrifice, I saw the ambiguity as intentional, as though Abraham himself wasn’t sure what was going to happen. When at last the angel of YHWH appears to stop Abraham, I was torn between gratitude that things turn out well and deep ambivalence about the character of a god who would act so capriciously towards someone who has demonstrated such faith. Yet, I felt the ambivalence was itself important, that the passage was definitely calling me to trust God, but crucially, to trust God especially when things look bleak and don’t make sense.
Because I am well versed in traditional Christian hermeneutics, I also couldn’t help but see the ram as a type for Christ’s saving death; however, today, this image didn’t really move me. It’s a beautiful analogy and it works, but I felt like I wanted more from the story. And so, I was eager to move on to the next steps in the interpretive process.
This step instructs me to look at not my own experience of the text, but what the text itself might be trying to say. The first thing I noticed here is that there isn’t much to encounter. The details are sparse, and the narrator keeps a light touch. There is little information about the scene, or what Abraham, Isaac, God, or the servants are thinking during this story. And so we encounter Abraham, but Abraham remains a complete mystery to the reader. I realized that this spartan style is part of what makes the text so compelling and rich. The characters are blank slates for us, which allows us to read ourselves easily into the story. And so, even in trying to encounter Abraham, we might end up encountering ourselves.
What little detail the text does provide leans into the horror of what has been asked of Abraham. God even calls Isaac “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,” almost as though to twist the knife in Abraham’s heart. The same might be said of the line where Isaac asks where the lamb is. The details are clearly designed to heighten the pathos. Whoever wrote or compiled the story wants us to feel it.
In this close re-reading of the text I also noticed that there is a shift in how the story refers to God. For most of the story, it uses the general word (and likely an older name) for God, El. But at the end, when the angel appears, suddenly God is called YHWH, the covenant name that will eventually be revealed to Moses. I noticed this as an interesting change, and wondered if it might be meaningful.
Now we turn to the broader context of the story, what we might learn from archaeology, history, and biblical scholarship. Archaeology and history remind us just how prevalent human sacrifice was in Abraham’s cultural milieu. At one point not so long ago it was trendy for scholars to suggest rumours of child sacrifice in Ancient Near Eastern religions were exaggerated, but in recent decades it has become clear that the old stories of child sacrifice are true. Specifically, it was common for the gods to demand the life of the firstborn son. And so, while the idea of God telling Abraham to kill his child might be shocking to us, it wouldn’t have been shocking to him. The dissonance for Abraham was not that God would ask him to kill his son, but that he would demand the life of this son: the son whom God twice promised would be the one through whom Abraham’s line would be established. His whole life led to the birth of Isaac; to kill him would empty his life of meaning and call his entire relationship with God into question. So for Abraham, the question is likely less whether God is a child-killing monster than it is whether the God he follows is truly faithful to his promises — whether his God is a God worth following.
A related historical point is that this is the last time the possibility of this God demanding a human sacrifice comes up in the Bible. By supplying the ram, narratively speaking, God has closed the door once and for all on human sacrifice. This marks a turning point in differentiating the Abrahamic traditions from the broader Ancient Near Eastern world.
The shift in the story between God being called El and God being called YHWH has certainly not been lost on biblical scholars. Regardless of whether one sees the different names as indicative of separate traditions being woven together (a majority of the scholarly community) or as a matter of emphasis within the work of a single writer, the use of these names is so striking within the Pentateuch that it must be meaningful. Even in the most guarded approach, the transition seems here to represent a movement in the story’s understanding of God. In the final revelation that God does not in fact want Abraham to kill Isaac, God is revealed not in the generic but specifically as YHWH, the God who will be most fully revealed to Abraham’s descendents several generations later in the Exodus.
The challenge portion asks me to look critically at the text and my interpretation of it: What power dynamics are at play here? Whose story isn’t being told? What role is tradition playing in my interpretation of the text? There are three main areas I wanted to explore here in this text: 1) The power dynamic between Abraham and God; 2) The question of divine violence; 3) the absence of Ishmael; and 4) Jewish readings of the text as a vaccine against overly simplistic Christological interpretations.
1. Obviously, God has all the power in relationship to Abraham. Looking at the story from a power-dynamics perspective, the question is whether the power differential becomes abusive. The consistent apparent changing the terms of their covenant — leave your family, now separate from Lot, I’ll give you a son but I’m going to make you wait for it, no not that son, yes this son, but now you have to kill him — could reasonably be interpreted as psychological abuse, almost like a story of someone getting pulled into the mob. There is a cruelty to this reading. Because the story ends with both Abraham and God vindicated, this reading doesn’t seem compelling to me, but it raises important questions about Abraham’s complaint to God, which is a theme that will appear when we look at some Jewish interpretation of the text.
2. A more interesting (to me) set of questions are raised by proponents of Christian non-violence, such as Rene Girard and Michael Hardin. They read the shift in the names of God in the story in a very literal way: The old gods of Ancient Near East, represented by the old generic name “El” are the gods that demand child sacrifice. By following through with what this old system demanded of him, Abraham was able to transcend it in his encounter with the ‘new’ God, represented by the name “YHWH.” The true obedience that God commends at the end of the story is the obedience to stop the sacrifice by listening to the voice of YHWH and putting aside the voice of El. As Hardin concludes:
“I want mercy not sacrifice.” This is a summary of the entire biblical journey of faith, because in it we learn to hear the voice of the true God of what God truly wants us to do. And implied in that is also learning to hear who God truly is. God is a God of mercy, and never about killing of any kind, even the religious killing of the past in every religion, the killing of ritual blood sacrifice.
3. Next, to the question of “Whose story isn’t being told?” the answer is clearly Ishmael. He has been completely erased from this story, to the extent that God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only son.” In the previous chapter God encouraged Abraham to send Ishmael away, promising him that Ishmael would be okay and would also be the father of many nations. Ishmael’s absence may be narratively important since the near eastern gods demanded the sacrifice of the firstborn son. The question of whether Ishmael, the son of Sarah’s servant Hagar counts as Abraham’s firstborn son has hung over the story since his birth. It’s interesting that the question of child sacrifice doesn’t come up until he’s out of the picture. One almost wonders if, with the question of succession and inheritance now settled, the old questions about the demands of the old gods start to come up from deep within Abraham’s psyche.
4. The biggest consequence, however, of Ishamel’s absence is that it means the story is fundamentally Isaac’s story, and therefore fundamentally a Jewish story. And so, finally, I have to ask what the Jewish interpretive tradition might tell us about what two millennia of christological readings of this story might hide? As beautiful as the christological reading may be from a Christian perspective (and it really is!), it can also function as a crutch, emptying the story of its meaning rather than filling it. What happens when we remove the crutch? In my cursory exploration of Jewish readings of this story, I encountered three interesting insights.
The first comes from an eleventh-century midrash by a rabbi known as Rashi. Rashi has Abraham lay his case against God. God’s response is very interesting: “I did not say to you, ‘Slay him’ but rather take him up.’ You have taken him up; now take him down!” (B’reishit Rabbah, 56.8). In essence God is saying, “I said ‘Take Isaac up to the mountain for a sacrifice;’ you thought I meant ‘Offer Isaac up on the mountain as a sacrifice.’” This is a really interesting argument (and one that’s possible, if not exactly likely from the Hebrew); we could easily put a twenty-first century spin on this eleventh century reading and think about how many of our misunderstandings are based on the hold the past has on us and the narratives we bring to our interactions with others. If Abraham grew up with ideas of gods demanding human blood, maybe God’s words triggered his longstanding but dormant fears about what God might ask of him.
The second interesting reading I uncovered was by Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger. Riffing off of a tradition from the Mishnah that considers the ram provided by God for Abraham to be a miracle created on the last day of creation, Rabbi Loevinger notes that when Abraham sees the ram it was already there, caught in the briars. The angel’s intervention in this reading is not to provide the ram, but to stop Abraham from killing Isaac before he sees the ram that has been there all along. The solution to Abraham’s problem was there all along; he just needed to “lift up his eyes,” to change his perception enough to see what God was truly calling him to do.
Finally, Rabbi Stephen Greenberg notes that since the destruction of the Temple put an end to the sacrificial system as a whole, it has been understood that blood sacrifice has been replaced by Torah study. The saving of Isaac represents an important link in this chain: the blood of Isaac is replaced by the blood of animals; the blood of animals is replaced by dedication and devotion to God (Wrestling with God and Men, 76f).
This section has been long, but I think it was well worth exploring these questions, these challenges to my own and my tradition’s interpretation of the text.
In this step, we bring the different pieces together and see how the expanded reading might encourage us to grow. To summarize the journey so far:
- In my own Experience of the text, I felt indignant on Abraham’s behalf and yet also called to trust God even when what’s happening doesn’t make sense.
- In the Encounter step, I saw how the very limited detail in the story turns the characters I was trying to encounter into a mirror for myself and my own state of mind. It was also here that I noticed the change in the language around God, a change that was picked up and interpreted in the other steps.
- The biggest insight I took away from the Explore section was the reminder that Abraham could very well have expected child sacrifice as a reasonable request from God. It also provided some interesting suggestions for what the transition in the story from El to YHWH might mean, namely that it is specifically the God of the Covenant who is revealed in the merciful move away from human sacrifice.
- The Challenge section interrogated the text, my reading of it, and the scholarship with important questions about divine violence and power, as well as about alternative traditions of reading the text. Rene Girard’s distinction between El as a false god and YHWH as the true god made me think about the false gods, the “principalities and powers” that influence human experience. It’s helpful to ask ourselves whether we’re truly following God or if we’re actually following Mars (the god of violence), Mammon (the god of wealth), or Eros (the god of desire), or any of the other forces and social contagions that might distract us from the true path. The Jewish readings were interesting in their own right, with their suggestions of Abraham’s expectations clouding his hearing and the miracle of transformed perception, but they’re most challenging to large swaths of the Christian interpretive tradition by rejecting divine violence without the need for the blood sacrifice of Christ. In this they precede the questions of Christian advocates of nonviolent atonement by several centuries.
So what do we make of all this? We’re certainly never going to resolve the difficulties with this story. We’ll never be able truly to get into the minds of either Abraham or God. The end of the story tells us for certain that God did not intend for Abraham to actually kill his son, but Abraham still believes that this is something that God might demand of him, until the very end. When the angel distracts him and he sees the ram waiting there, he knows once and for all that his faith has been well-placed. God is true to God’s word.
The true challenge God put to Abraham wasn’t to kill Isaac, but to kill those lingering voices from his past that rejected the idea that a god could be faithful and good. If God had seemed capricious and toying to Abraham, it was because Abraham still believed that God could and would be so. At last he can leave the old gods behind and truly encounter God as his descendants would, as YHWH, “I Am What I Am,” “I Will Be Whatever I Will Be.”
What I like about this reading from a Christian perspective is that it can stand on its own without undercutting the Christological readings that have been so meaningful to Christians for two thousand years. The ram is still an expression of God’s love, there for Abraham and for us from the beginning of time, the love which we Christians believe was made incarnate in Christ.
How does this reading help me to grow or expand my awareness and empathy? By reminding me to be aware of the false gods — anything that seeks to keep me smaller than I am and distracts me from the true voice of the God who is Love. By reminding me that, whether it’s demanded of me or not, in offering up the best of what I have, I can encounter the best of God. And, in removing the threat of divine violence that the story suggests at first glance, by helping me me leave behind my own lingering doubts and fears of what God might demand of me.
What a rich text this is! I hope that this long journey was as worthwhile for you as it has been for me.