Thursday, July 7, 2011

Difficult Passages: Abraham and the Binding of Isaac

As a father, I have a tendency to get pretty darn emotional about my two boys. I’m generally extremely good at controlling my emotions (my wife says I’m downright Vulcan-like at times, but I’m working on it); those kids, though, have an amazing ability to touch me in the deepest part of my heart. So I understand very well why so many people struggle with the passages in Genesis 22 where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac—and it is considered a sign of faith and accounted to Abraham as righteousness.

After all, the way we usually think of the story is rather horrid, is it not? When you hear this story growing up, you are probably like I was: you picture a middle aged man tying up his eight year old, and trying to stab him at the command of God as the child struggles for freedom. In going up the mountain, Isaac asks where the sacrifice is, and (we imagine) Abraham tearfully lies to him that God will provide, fully knowing what he was about to do. It’s barbaric and horrifying. And yet…the God of love tells us that this is a great act of faith. And indeed, no one else in the Bible—even in the far more enlightened times of the Roman Empire—express any concern about this passage. None of the Biblical authors or early church fathers write a single word trying to explain away how this was a good thing. Why?

The Sacrifice of Abraham, Giuseppe Vermiglio (1585-1635)

As usual in my “Difficult Passages” descriptions…it all has to do with context. Context is everything. So I invite you to stay with me as I go through this story again. Try to read it with fresh eyes and see it anew, in the proper context. Then I think you will see exactly the amazing faith that Abraham had.

To understand this story we need to at least briefly understand Abraham’s history. We won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say that Abraham was a very wealthy, Middle Eastern man with a wife named Sarah. (Before finding God they were Abram and Sarai, but for the sake of ease I will call them by their later names through the entire story.)

Abraham had it all—a beautiful wife, wealth, spirituality, wisdom…all but one thing. He had no children. He and Sarah had tried for decades to have children. And while everyone else was getting pregnant…Sarah wasn’t. Month after month, her cycle would be a harsh reminder that she was barren. Barrenness at the time was seen as the ultimate curse of God: doubly so for a wealthy family like Abraham and Sarah, for an heir was needed to inherit all that Abraham had earned. It would have been common – even expected – for Abraham to have a mistress and father children with someone else. But he and Sarah remained faithful. And well into their 90s, they were barren.

Then God tells Abraham something radical. (God seems to have a tendency to go for the outlandish when He gets involved!) He tells Abraham that Abraham will have a child, and that child will go on to be the father of many nations. In fact, they make a covenant about it—the most sacred bond one can make. And, in an act of amazing faith, Abraham and Sarah make themselves vulnerable again, and sleep together and conceive of Isaac. (They at first did not believe in God. They got antsy, and tried to figure out what God really meant. The result was the conception of Ishmael by a handmaiden, and millennia of unrest in the Middle East. If only Abraham had trusted God’s covenant!)

So, fast forward several years. We do not know exactly how old Isaac is at the time of this story, but it is likely that he is a young teenager. (UPDATE 15FEB2013: According to Dr. Michael Brown, an expert in Semitic languages, the ancient rabbis of Judaism say that Isaac was 37 at the time of this event, and willingly volunteered, believing himself to be chosen as an atoning sacrifice for their tribe.) His father, Abraham, is over a hundred years old—undoubtedly weak and frail. God reminds Abraham in Genesis 21:12 of his promise to him, and is very specific: through Isaac, Abraham will father many peoples. Life is pretty good. Abraham truly has it all.

And then, “some time later” (22:1) God gives Abraham a terrible command: go to the mountain and sacrifice Isaac.

Whew. Try to imagine Abraham’s line of thinking as he loads down the donkeys, and they undergo a three day journey to the mountain. Then the painful climb up the mountain, the old man almost certainly helped along by his younger, stronger child. What was he thinking? On the one hand, God promised him that Isaac would be the father of many nations; on the other, he told him to kill Isaac. Has God changed His mind? Has He reneged on the covenant?

Now the story gives us three very interesting points of context. Let’s look at these facts, which become crucial to understanding the story.
1. God reminded Abraham that His covenant was to provide a future through Isaac, yet then gives him a seemingly contradictory plan. (21:12, 22:2)
2. When arriving at the mountain, Abraham tells the servant to wait…”I an the boy...we will worship and then we will come back to you.” (22:5)
3. When Isaac asks, Abraham says that God will provide the sacrifice. (22:8)

Now the standard method of interpreting this passage is that Abraham was lying to his servant and lying to Isaac. That Abraham fully expected to kill Isaac, but just wanted to avoid making a scene. The frail, elderly man then captured, and forcibly tied down, someone who was certainly faster and stronger than he.

I disagree.

Remember my post about Ockham’s Razor? Well, I think that we are multiplying too many assumptions here, in this standard interpretation. We assume that Abraham did not still believe God’s original covenant that Isaac would be a father. We assume that Abraham lied to his servant. We assume that Abraham lied to Isaac. We assume that Abraham was able to forcibly restrain a much younger man. (Even if Isaac was four…I can tell you, my four year old could easily get away from a hundred-year-old man.)

That’s a lot of assumptions. Instead, step back, turn the story at a bit of an angle, and look at it fresh.

What if…the Bible means exactly what it says? What if Abraham was telling the truth to Isaac and his servant?

That is precisely, I think, what happened.

Abraham and God have a covenant, that Isaac would be a father from whom many nations would descend. For that to happen, obviously Isaac must grow up and have children. So Abraham has a rock-solid promise from God that Isaac lives to at least father one child. And yet, here is God telling him to sacrifice Isaac--apparently contradictory to His covenant.

The "test" of Abraham was not whether he was willing to sacrifice his son; the test is whether he believed God was reliable when He made His covenant.

So Abraham has three days to contemplate it. At the end of those three days, he apparently has reached his conclusion—God is testing his faith, and will provide another sacrifice. Thus he tells the servant that he and the boy will return; thus he tells Isaac to lie down and God will provide another sacrifice; and thus Isaac obeys.

Abraham’s act of faith was not his willingness to kill his child. His act of faith was that he believed God’s promise for him, even when the evidence was apparently overwhelming to the contrary. That is faith after all—the hope for things not seen (Heb 11:1).

Going along that path, Abraham had to come to one of three conclusions. Either:
1. God lied during His covenant and now Isaac will die.
2. God will provide a substitute sacrifice.
3. Isaac will die, but God will raise him from the dead.

Those are the only three options that I can think of, and I’m sure Abraham concluded the same. So Abraham’s test was not one of obedience (will he do what God asks) but one of faith (do you believe God will honor his promises—even so much that you will risk your son?).

Recall that once before Abraham had received a promise from God and tried to “interpret” it another way. The result was the bastard child, Ishmael. This time, Abraham was not going to make the same mistake. God’s test was not to see whether Abraham was willing to commit infanticide; His test was to see whether Abraham believed God was good and would honor the covenant.

That is why this is a story of faith—because when God led him in a way that seemed to contradict God’s promises, Abraham trusted that God’s promise would not change. Abraham didn’t go up on that mountain thinking he would kill Isaac at all. He had complete and utter confidence that God would provide an alternative. That is why it is a story of faith. And also, not nearly as horrifying as you might originally think.

And also, that is why we can grow from it. God gives us many promises in His word--and at times it is tough to believe them because of the world or the Devil or whatever. The lesson of Abraham is this: God's promises are solid, even when your life seems to be going another way.