In one class, we are reading through Eleanore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness, a book that explores the problem of evil through relational, non-propositional knowledge. I’m not going to explain the book here, but it’s enough to say that she tries to trace the narrative flow of several biblical stories to provide a unique defense against the problem of evil and/or suffering, and one such story she focuses on is Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.
This famous story, in Genesis 22, is admittedly one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible, at least at face value. Critics of the Bible have jumped on this story, arguing that it shows how barbaric the God of the Old Testament is: Even though God ultimately does not require the sacrifice of Isaac (and never wanted it), the fact that he even tested Abraham in this manner is all sorts of messed up, they argue. Basically, God gave Abraham a ton of grief by pretending that he wanted Abraham to basically murder his own son, and then after Abraham is prepared to do it (under great distress, presumably), God goes, “Psyche! j/k. Trollolololol!” Generally speaking, we would find such behavior repugnant. Not only that, it seems to give justification for those wackos who do murder their own kids or blow up something because they argue that God told them to do so. How is Abraham, the patriarch of faith, any different? He got a command from God and was prepared to follow through, even though the command seemed wholly contrary to God’s promise and God’s character.
This is an incredibly significant story for Jews and Christians. It gives justification that Israel is the elect nation, and for Christians it goes further to foreshadow the sacrifice of Christ. Also, it showcases the greatest act of faith of Abraham, in whom all Christians, who likewise have faith in God, have adopted familial ties. How can we explain this story?
If you answered, “Faith,” you are right. That also doesn’t explain too much. What does this faith look like? How was Abraham so obedient in the face of such a test? Why was it not cruel for God to do that, and why was it not stupid for Abraham to listen?
The problem, I think, with many readings of this story is that they divorce it from not only the canon but, most importantly, from the narrative of Abraham itself. Taken as an isolated event, it is understandable how it can be confusing, if not downright offensive. However, when we understand Abraham’s story and follow his development of faith in God, we can see why God would test Abraham in such a way and, more importantly, why Abraham could obey with full confidence that God would fulfill his promise.
Let’s start first with God’s calling of Abraham: In Genesis 12, he tells Abraham to up and move to a land promised to him, and Abraham obediently follows. Unfortunately, in a brief stop in Egypt due to a famine, he (half) lies about Sarah because she is hot stuff so that the Egyptians don’t kill him over her. This is a lack of trust in God, and could have cost Abraham if the Egyptians were peeved enough at his lie after God punishes Pharaoh for taking in another man’s wife. However, he actually comes out fine from this and keeps going. He witnesses more of God’s faithfulness when he delivers his enemies to him in Abraham’s rescue attempt of Lot (Genesis 14), and again he promises Abraham descendants and land (Gen. 15). After this, mistakenly taking matters into their own hands, Abraham and Sarah utilize a fairly common practice of having children by using a maidservant, Hagar to have a child, and in comes Ishmael.
Ishmael is probably one of the most important facets of Abraham’s life that will help understand God’s test in Ch. 22. It is worth repeating that what Abraham and Sarah did here was not out of the ordinary for the time, although that doesn’t make it right. Thus, Abraham clearly thought the Ishmael was the child of promise until God rocked his world by promising that Sarah herself would have a child, and that child would be the child of promise (Gen. 17). In fairness to Sarah, she wasn’t the only one who laughed; Abraham laughed too (17:17). But God delivered on his promise in Ch. 21. In between those chapters, Abraham pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, thus seeing God’s merciful character when God promises he will not destroy those cities if he even finds ten righteous people (unfortunately found just Lot’s family), and Abraham sins again by lying to Abimelech in Ch. 20. Still, God is faithful to Abraham throughout all of this.
After the birth of Isaac, Sarah does not want the inheritance shared with Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, so demands that Abraham send Hagar and the boy away. Abraham, naturally, is distressed about his son, knowing full well that sending him away in the wilderness is just as good as a death sentence. However, and this is very important, God assures Abraham that while Isaac is the child of promise, he will not forsake Ishmael and will make him into a nation also. Abraham, acting on God’s promise, sends Ishmael away, and while Hagar and Ishmael never return to Abraham, it is reasonable to conclude that Abraham would know of their survival and success, given that he and his descendants would be around the area. Thus, Abraham sees again how trustworthy and faithful to his promises God is.
Now we get to Genesis 22, the test. It is interesting to see that when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham doesn’t say a word and just obeys. Up to this point, despite Abraham being the model of faith in the Bible, we’ve seen him lack trust in God (lying about Sarah being his wife twice), challenge God (Sodom and Gomorrah), and freak out over the danger posed to his son (Ishmael). However, this time around, when God asks him to do something almost unthinkable, Abraham quietly obeys. I think the implication is clear: Abraham trusts God’s promise, and he believes that somehow, some way, God will deliver on that promise and that no harm will come to Isaac. In other words, he is well aware that this is a test of some sort.
I think this is what Hebrews 11 is referring to when it says that Abraham thought, against seemingly long odds, that God could even raise Isaac from the dead. God had continually showed himself to be faithful up to that point. He had protected Abraham even when Abraham messed up, kept Ishmael safe, and gave him and Sarah a miraculous baby in their old age. Finally, Abraham trusted God to the point where he did not doubt what God was doing. Far from being overly distressed on the matter, Abraham reacted with full confidence that Isaac would be fine and God would not fail to keep his promise. And once again, God did not disappoint.
So, what can we say on this whole episode? As an isolated event, Genesis 22 is a pretty hard story to understand in light of biblical teachings that God despises human sacrifice (Lev. 20:1-3). However, in the narrative flow of Abraham’s life, one can see why God tested Abraham and why it was not cruel (and why Abraham did not take it as cruel). God had proven himself to Abraham over and over again, and he wanted to show Abraham that he must trust God completely, even when it comes to the life of Isaac. Abraham, seeing how God gave him Isaac miraculously and how he proteced Ishmael his son, believed that God would not let Isaac be taken away, and he was right. In the context of their growing relationship, the test makes a lot more sense.
This has some interesting implications for how Christians deal with seemingly bad things or challenges in their lives, though I do not wish to get into that here. It’s enough to point out, at the moment, that the narrative context is the key to understanding God’s purpose in asking for the sacrifice of Isaac, and when we understand that context, we see what God is doing and how Abraham trusts him. It’s not random or cruel, but part of the process of Abraham trusting God with his great promise, a promise that would eventually result in the seed (Jesus) that would be a blessing to all mankind. Abraham’s faith was therefore not just blind, mindless obedience, but obedience built upon his trust that God would not fail to keep his word regarding the child of promise.