Reflections on Genesis 22:1-14
by the Rev
This Sunday's Old Testament reading
begins a series of subsequent lectionary passages on the patriarchs.
Abraham is the key figure whom God tests and then blesses abundantly.
One could look at Abraham's faith
and calling as well as his willingness to be sent, and compare
that to our calling for eco-justice. What stops us from responding
as fully and as trustingly as Abraham did? What sustained his
faith that he would even sacrifice his beloved son? What sustains
our faith for justice for the environment?
The most common exegesis of this
passage looks upon Abraham as extremely faithful, but a reflection
from the margins takes a different viewpoint. It poses the question,
"Why didn't Abraham speak
up for his son?! How can we hail him as a hero for that?"
This can lead to reflection about the use of one's voice for
justice. What does it do for your spiritual life when you fail
to speak up for a deafening need, such as for the environment?
I heard, for example, that 30,000
people in Santiago, Chile, walked the streets of downtown in
the spring of 2011. They raised their voices about the proposed
hydroelectric dams in the Patagonia, which so far has been undeveloped.
Giving voice for eco-justice is certainly a faithful and heroic
thing to do.
This passage ends with Abraham
naming the place where God has acted. He names the place where
Isaac was saved, calling it "The Lord will provide".
This was an honoring of that place on earth and an honoring
of God. What if we always honored the land where God has acted,
or where we have encountered God? There is nowhere in creation
that we would not honor! The name includes future tense, also
encouraging us to move forward as we honor the earth and God.
John G. Gibbs, PhD
This is for us a curious story,
freighted with many challenges for interpretation. There is
the issue of child sacrifice. The question arises for some:
why would God choose this means of "testing" Abraham?
There is the significance of Isaac for Abraham. There is the
relation between God's promise and its fulfillment. What about
references to this story in the NT?
Child sacrifice is abhorrent to
us. For the teller of this tale, however, human sacrifice could
credibly be in play, for it was present in surrounding and preceding
cultures (e.g. Canaanites). But one accomplishment of this story
about the "binding" (Jewish term) or near-sacrifice
of Isaac is to make clear that now and for all time human sacrifice
is no part of Israelite worship. The last-minute provision of
a ram instead of the son emphasizes that God does not demand
Why would the Elohist (who wrote
this story) portray God (Elohim) as making the frightful
command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac? Given the way
the story concludes, possibly one reason for doing so was to
set Israel's faith emphatically against its environment. The
story does not elaborate any theology of sacrifice, so it appears
that the Elohist's story simply used a pagan practice for the
apologetic practice of showing the distinctiveness of Israel's
cultic practice; namely: they would never sacrifice a human
But much more is at stake than
such an apologetic purpose. We remember the laughter with which
both Abraham (at age 99) and Sarah responded to the promise
that she would bear a son (Gen. 17:17; 18:9ff.). But what seemed
to them incredible happened, and Isaac was born (his name meaning
"he laughs"). This event was not only the birth of
a new son. It was also the down-payment of God's promise that
through Abraham all nations would be blessed in the future (Gen.
12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:17-19). If Abraham and Sarah had died without
an heir, on the other hand, there would be no tangible way for
that promise to be fulfilled.
Isaac must live in order for
God's promise to be fulfilled. That is the theological significance
of Isaac for Abraham. As von Rad claimed, the motif of promise
runs as a uniting theme through all Abraham narratives. [Genesis
(Westminster Press, 1972), pp. 237-45]
This exalted theme does not, however,
displace the father's affection for his son, which is clearly
emphasized in this story. The father takes the knife and the
fire, lest the son be injured thereby. The father lives on the
basis of his faith, which he shares with his son: "God
himself will provide
" (22:8). Accordingly, there
is a normal father-son relationship here.
What was "tested" in
this story? Abraham's faith, of course. The relation between
God and Abraham is open, according to this story, and there
is ongoing communication between them. The plot does not portray
a game. It describes real development from God not knowing (22:2)
to God saying "Now I know" (22:12). The story does
not provide psychological information about the state of Abraham's
mind, or Isaac's, so it is useless for us to dwell on that lacuna
of data. The point of the story does not emerge psychologically.
It is driven home theologically. Abraham had such faith in God
as to trust that God would provide a way for fulfillment of
the promise whether or not Isaac, the last known means for God
to fulfill the promise (Gen. 21:12), was taken away.
For the early Church Abraham's
faith amounts to faithfulness. This conviction is particularly
clear in Romans 4:3, 9, 12ff. and in Hebrews 11:17-19. His faith
"is reckoned" to be "righteousness."
Some other reflections:
- Faith is not sight. It has no "proof." It has
promises. It "worships" (22:5). As the story proceeds
from its beginning the question is: would Abraham's faith
survive the loss of the only living evidence (i.e., Isaac)
that God's promise could be fulfilled? Faith is a long journey
with no guarantees.
- Abraham's worship takes place at a distance from familiar
surroundings: "in the distance" (22:3), "far
away" (22:4), "on the third day" of the journey
toward a certain mountain. His trust that "the Lord will
provide" is not passive resignation. His worship is active,
it journeys, it makes preparation for sacrifice, it engages
in earnest dialogue with both son and God.
- "provide" is the usual translation for this text
of a Hebrew verb that otherwise designates "seeing."
Karl Barth suggested that we take "provide" as "pro-video,"
in which case God sees beforehand, according to the story.
A ram would be needed for sacrifice, God sees in advance,
and so provides it. [Church Dogmatics 3/3, pp. 3, 35] Brueggemann
- The most helpful clear discussion of Gen. 22:1-24 is, in
my view, Brueggemann's in his commentary on Genesis
(John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 185-94.
- In Fear and Trembling (1843) and his return to this
story in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) Soren Kierkegaard
displays a depth of psychological insight that caught the
attention even of Freud. The translation by Walter Lowrie
(Princeton Univ. Press, 1941, 1954) includes an account of
Fear and Trembling written by David F. Swenson who
rightly sees SK focusing on "some of the distinctive
traits of the religious concept of faith." These include:
the particularity of faith's relationship to God (without
intermediary of community or tradition), infinite resignation
and removal from wish-fulfillment, independence of reason,
"teleological suspension of the ethical as exemplified
in Abraham," and the paradoxical movement of faith. That
is, Abraham had to find his own way as he journeyed up the
mountain with his son. At the summit, his son was given back
to him as a kind of second confirmation of the promise that
through Abraham the nations would be blessed.
- There is nothing explicit here about the Creation. Instead
we have in Abraham's faith a model of faith that is open to
God's own future with the world and with himself and his family.