Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thoughts on Isaac

My friend Rachel wrote a powerful piece last week called “I Would Fail Abraham’s Test.” She refers to the mind-blowing story in Genesis 22 of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read it here.

Rachel’s conclusion (dramatically over-shortened) is that obedience should be secondary to love, or more accurately that those who refuse to “disengage their emotions in the name of obedience” have done an admirable thing. Perhaps these commandments are not meant to be followed. Perhaps God wanted Abraham to refuse.
I am not yet a mother, and still I know, deep in my gut, that I would sooner turn my back on everything I know to be true than sacrifice my child on the altar of religion.

Maybe the real test isn't in whether you drive the knife through the heart.

Maybe the real test is in whether you refuse.
It’s an appealing reading of a difficult passage, neatly fitted to our modern sensibilities. But I don't think this reading works. While Rachel probably isn't often accused of whitewashing the Biblical text, there are actually far greater problems here than she lets on. The situation here is actually worse than she says. The passage ends in a way that brooks no argument:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 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.”
Abraham isn't castigated by God for “passing” the test... he is praised! How could this God have anything to teach us about morality? That’s a question better answered by Derek Rishmawy, who articulates an understanding very similar to my own. It’s worth reading that link fully, and maybe several times. It’s a piece I would have written if I were a better writer. And smarter. Derek does a great job explaining a position that’s difficult to explain, but he does a great job of clarifying and (mostly) simplifying it. I say mostly because he insists on dragging in a dead Danish philosopher to the discussion, which is the opposite of simplification (Love ya Derek). He concludes:
That doesn't mean we should stop questioning, thinking, reading, studying, and just settle for the first, obvious reading of any text we come to. No, all too often that will lead us astray and may even lead us to affirm things out of “deference” to God that he himself would never affirm.
So maybe that resolves the difficulty of the Genesis narrative. Or maybe you just scratch the whole thing and write it off as a primitive-but-unsuccessful attempt to understand God’s will. “The Old Testament God is so violent,” I hear people say all the time, “unlike the New Testament God who is so loving and kind.” I think this is a false dichotomy, but I hear it all the time.

Regardless of what you do with the Old Testament, though, the problem gets worse. Fast forward to the New Testament and check the book of Hebrews. Almost all of the New Testament is written by Jewish Christians, but this is the only book written exclusively to Jewish Christians. It’s the only book of the Bible ever speculated to have been written by a woman. The writer has vast sections of the Old Testament memorized and structures every argument in the book as an extension of the Hebrew Scriptures. This guy knew his stuff. And in Chapter 11, the author lists the great heroes of the faith. For some of them, it’s obvious why they’re in the list. For others, it’s harder. The first time you read it, you think “I see why Gideon and David made the list, but what’s the deal with Abraham and Jephthah?”
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”
Again we see Abraham being praised for offering Isaac as a sacrifice. Derek’s “cultural distance” may work for the original story, but to the author of Hebrews child sacrifice has been forbidden for a thousand years. What gives?


Quick sidebar here. This may look like a terrible story, but I am seriously invested in it. After having kids, I wrestled with this passage for a long time. It’s changed my understanding of God and faith in some important ways. At this point, it’s fundamental to my faith. One of the many results of this wrestling is that we named our third child Isaac.

Crossed 20 pounds before hitting 4 months. We call him Goliath. And Shaquille.
I love each of my kids more than life itself. I’m quite serious about that: I’d die to save one of my children, and I certainly wouldn't sacrifice him on any altar. I’m convinced that Derek is correct: that God asked Abraham to do something that Abraham did not consider immoral. In fact, you can see this yourself in both Genesis and Hebrews. Abraham’s objections to sacrificing Isaac aren't moral or emotional ones, they’re logistical. Isaac is the Child of Promise, whose descendants will be like the stars. How can he have descendants if he dies?

There’s a hint in Hebrews.
He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Isn't this a revisionist reading? Where did the author get this idea? Child sacrifice is a pretty major no-no (i.e., Leviticus 20:2-5, Deuteronomy 18:10, Proverbs 6:17, Jeremiah 32:35, etc), so what is he commending Abraham for?

The author of Hebrews commends Abraham not for blind obedience, but for faith. Faith, he says, is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Faith isn't having the right set of beliefs or even rote obedience to a creed, it is believing in and acting on the promises and character of God, even when it’s difficult to understand how those things could be true. God promised Abraham that Isaac would have descendants. God will keep his promises.

And we see this in the story of Abraham, in a small detail that’s often overlooked. Abraham journeys toward the mountain with his son and with two servants. On the third day, he tells 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.”

The obvious reading is that Abraham is lying to his servants. Yet why would he? As the patriarch and head of the house, they would sacrifice Isaac themselves if he told them to. As Derek points out, this was not in the least bit uncommon. Is Abraham lying to his son? There’s no reason. If he’s a heartless murderer, why not knock the kid out or just tie him up?

The obvious reading is wrong. Abraham wasn’t lying, he was demonstrating ultimate faith. God had stood in front of him, face to face, and promised that Isaac would live to have children. Therefore, whatever happened on the mountain, Isaac would live. Abraham is practically daring God here. “You promised,” I imagine him thinking. “You promised that my son would live. If you are true to your word, if your character can be trusted, then my son and I will walk up the mountain, and my son and I will walk back down.”

That is faith: believing that God is who he says he is, and that he will do what he has promised to do.

Stories in the Bible aren’t about the people in them, they’re about God. This story is no different. God accomplishes two things here: he begins to show the ways in which he is different from the tribal deities with which Abraham is familiar, and he shows that he can be trusted to keep his promises. The fullness of his will regarding child sacrifice (i.e., all the ways he’s against it) will be revealed in time. For now, it’s enough for Abraham to know that God can be trusted.

The writer of Hebrews calls Abraham "He who had embraced the promises."

Let it be said also of us.


Joel said...

Very well said! One more piece of evidence for this line of thinking comes from verse 8 of the chapter. When Isaac asks where the lamb is, Abraham answers "God himself will provide the lamb," which as we know is precisely what happened. Again assuming that he wouldn't lie to his son, we get the sense that Abraham didn't consider the mountaintop experience to be the end of the story.

Gary Good said...

“The Old Testament God is so violent,” I hear people say all the time, “unlike the New Testament God who is so loving and kind.” I think this is a false dichotomy, but I hear it all the time."

Yes, it is a false dichotomy. God is the same in the New Testament as He is in the Old Testament. God does not change. The problem for some people is that they see God's righteous wrath (although they often don't understand that it is "righteous") in the Old Testament but miss it in the New Testament. All those curses that God gives His people for disobeying Him in the OT, they don't realize are in the NT. We see the wrath of God poured out on Jesus as he hung on the cross. All the curses, that we deserve for our sins against a holy and eternal God, were poured out on Jesus.