Women in Theology is happy to publish a guest post from Alexis James Waggoner.  Alexis is a theologian and educator. She teaches at Belmont University and is the founder of The Acropolis Project (http://theacropolisproject.com), an organization dedicated to raising the bar of theological education in communities of faith. She also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and is passionate about ministering to women in places where they are often marginalized. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a husband of 13 years, and a baby named Junia.

https://www.facebook.com/theacropolisproject/

@alexisjwaggoner

@acropolisproj


What if we’re making the wrong assumption about the “testing” happening in the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1-18)? Traditional interpretations often take this story to be about God’s call for Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son. Different modes have been used to try to make sense of this: Maybe Isaac knew God would provide a different sacrifice; maybe it’s a (disturbing) lesson in priorities; maybe the authors – from their position writing at a later date and knowing the outcome – created or read into this story the extent of God’s involvement in order to convey themes of obedience and faithfulness to a people that was prone to wander.

These are positions that need to be wrestled with, but what if the interpretation hinges on the fifth word of this narrative. What if the “testing” isn’t about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but is about his willingness to engage with God about what he knows to be right? What if Abraham’s response isn’t the one God is looking for? What if Abraham is taking faithfulness to an ungodly conclusion?

The heroines and heroes of the Bible are frequently tested – it’s a literary tool just like the plots in our favorite epic adventure tales: ordinary people are called into overwhelming circumstances which they manage to conquer through reliance on a divine power.

Perhaps no tale comes to mind to better illustrate this point than the story of Job.  His character is cast as being righteous and good (Job 1:1). When calamity befalls him and he is tested, he continues to put his faith in God – but he doesn’t take it lying down. In fact, his push-back leads to a dramatic revelation of God’s character and power (Job 38-41). God is seen reminding Job of who God is, but not as rebuking Job for having complaints and questions in the first place. The authors put Job and God in dialogue, and without Job’s half of the conversation, we might not have had the opportunity to witness divine revelation.

Moses’ story has a similar effect. He pushes back against God’s call to lead the Israelites, and in the course of the back-and-forth, God reveals the core of God’s essence: God is I AM, being itself (Ex 3:14).

So at the very least God can definitely handle push back, and we could even make the argument that God encourages or rewards a healthy dialogue. A well-reasoned back-and-forth is exactly NOT what happens in the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s clear from different parts of the story – and absolutely expected! – that Abraham doesn’t WANT to do what’s been asked, but he isn’t fighting back. It’s not because he’s afraid to fight back: he has argued with God in other instances, like when he questioned whether or not he and Sarah will have a child, or when he advocated on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16-33).

Maybe God is expecting Abraham to continue in this vein, in which case we can only speculate about the outcome. Maybe God had another point to teach that would have been illustrated through a discussion with Abraham, maybe God was actually encouraging Abraham’s love and devotion to Isaac. Of course, these are all hypotheticals gleaned from reading between the lines. What we do know is that – regardless of if there was another, more ideal way this story could have played out – in the end God praises Abraham’s faithfulness.

Yes, God commends Abraham for not withholding Isaac, but this doesn’t mean God wasn’t surprised at Abraham’s compliance. It doesn’t mean this couldn’t have gone another way. As it is, Abraham complies with God’s literal request, and prepares to sacrifice Isaac. And here, as elsewhere, God make senses out of humanity’s mess.

In the creation story, God demonstrates provision by clothing and caring for humanity after they gain the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:20-22). God promises protection to Cain, even after rebuking and punishing him for killing Abel (Gen 4:15-16). God makes a covenant of blessing with Hagar and Ishmael, after Abraham and Sarah take matters into their own hands to produce an heir (Gen 16). In the binding of Isaac story, when Abraham is ready to take his faithfulness to disastrous ends, God steps in to calm the chaos and provide another sacrifice.

Following Abraham’s story, we will see God’s tendency to make order out of chaos again, many times over. When Israel is wandering in the desert, grumbling, God sends them guidance (Ex 13:21) and provisions of food (Ex 16). When things start to spiral a little too far out of control, God calls judges, prophets, and ultimately kings. When the Israelites are eventually exiled to captivity, God finds a way to draw order even into such desperate circumstances through characters like Daniel who remain faithful, or the remnant of Israel that helps Nehemiah rebuild the city of Jerusalem.

In fact, at just about every turn, God is creating order out of chaos. It’s a recurring theme in the Biblical narrative and – I would argue – an overarching theme throughout all of creation.

I think we can read Abraham’s “testing” as a call to engage with God in discerning dialogue when things don’t make sense or we feel too much is asked of us. But whether or not we behave this way, God continues to weave God’s spirit through our stories, leaving open the possibility for divine redemption – no matter what results our decisions lead to.

Image: Sacrifice of Isaac, by Adi Holzer, 1997

30 thoughts

  1. I agree and disagree. There are several topics interweaved, but may not go together, such as Job and Abraham.
    Our assumptions of Abraham are actually not assumptions because God precisely tells us this was a demonstration of his faithfulness and hence the promises to be passed down. The conversation Job has with God demonstrate man’s despair to the point of losing faith, even questioning Gods inerrancy and God having to show up and for all generations beautifully articulate who is man in comparison to him, especially the foolishness to question His perfection and righteousness.

    That said, and as you noted, God loves His creation. He loves for us to talk to Him, to share our emotions, our time with Him. To fellowship with and worship Him. From the opening chapters in Genesis with Adam the first thing we’re told is how God would walk with and talk with Adam in the garden. This theme is replete throughout the Bible. He absolutely loves us and wants us to spend our time with Him in thoughts and conversation, similar to the relationship between a father and son or husband and wife. Incredibly beautiful!

    We have seen the displeasure of God and the consequences as a result of arguing or disagreeing with him. Nothing supports the conclusion that this is a good thing to do obviously. Nothing supports the conclusion that God will change his ways or that God needed to be made aware of something by the argument of man. This is all impossible because God is outside of time and at all places at the same time. Meaning He knows our decisions and actions and the consequence long before we made it, did it and suffered (or rewarded) as a result. He cannot be surprised, disappointed, let down or discouraged as a result.

    He does communicate, so we can understand, “emotion” – but in a way or with the intent of training our thought process to focus on what God would desire for us.

  2. I like this article because it is thoughtful, and that’s what we do, that’s how God made us to be. So, since we are thinking, could it have gone another way? Sure. But would the story have served to foreshadow certain future events, had it gone another way? I don’t think so. Abraham does pushback plenty, this is called sin. Everyone does it. It doesn’t mean we hate God, nor does it mean that God hates us unless we atone. However, remember, there are rules and the wages of sin is death. Abraham knows this. He also knows how God feels about human sacrifice. This is where faith comes in. Abraham, haveing disobeyed God in the past, knows exactly what God is capable of, and how he feels about insubordination. He also knows that if God requires this act, which goes against what he knows of God, then there is a reason for it. Even if that reason is not made particularly clear to Abraham at the time, the events of the story become clear to us, far into the future. It is truly a simple matter. In those days, atonement for sin required a blood sacrifice. If you were to atone, you obeyed God, and did what was required. Imagine, after living a full and well life, Abraham was well acquainted with this ritual. He understood that he had spent most of his life needing to do this. When he takes Isaac to that altar and the Angel stops his hand, why didn’t he just simply collect his son and leave? “Whew, that was close!” No. A sacrifice was required or atonement could not happen. Then, as if by miracle, a lamb appeared for the specific purpose of supplying the sacrifice. Know anyone else in the scriptures that is often referred to as a lamb?

  3. Thank you for your piece. Some in other religions say that it was Ishmael not Isaac that was almost sacrificed. And that Ismael was completely on board with it because he submitted to God’s will. Whereas in the biblical tradition Isaac was tricked (don’t worry it’s an animal that will be sacrificed), in the Islamic tradition, Ibrahim explained the situation to Ishmael and Ismael consented. That’s the best of my knowledge.

  4. Great article. I have often thought that the key to Job’s story was his persistence in pressing his “case” until God showed up. And then, his case didn’t matter any more! Because God showed up.

  5. I feel obligated to suggest that the story of Abraham and Isaac is not focused on Abraham’s “faithlessness” but on his utter and complete devotion to God. When God makes the request of Abraham he mentions it to nobody, not even Isaac while he takes him on the three day adventure, knowing the whole time what action he must take. Abraham’s faith is in his not questioning God, the moral of the story is his ability to resign himself entirely to God without doubt or apprehension of losing worldly delights. Though it is true God presents these heroins with the possibility of choosing otherwise the inevitable conclusion is the one chosen in faith. If you would like an apt account of the story of Isaac and Abraham I would suggest Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling where he presents the near impossibility of having the type of faith which Abraham possesses.

  6. At the age of six or seven, around the time I had begun to read the Bible on my own, I recall watching a made-for-TV movie about the life of Abraham with my Dad. When they showed the story of Moriah, I was stunned, because I had always imagined Isaac as fully complicit in his role as the intended human sacrifice to Yahweh. These filmmakers, however, portrayed Isaac as a confused and terrified little boy.

    Just like in Genesis 22, Abraham lays his son on the altar, ties his hands and feet, and raises a knife to plunge it into Isaac’s heart. “Stop!” an Angel says, much to the grim relief of Abraham. As soon as Abraham realizes that his son will live, he cuts the ropes binding him to the altar. This is where the film took an unexpected turn.

    There is no embrace. There is no joy at the great mercies of God. Instead, Isaac simply runs away from his father as fast as he can. Abraham is alone when the ram is discovered in a nearby bush, the ram that would take Isaac’s place. He is alone when the animal is bound and stabbed with the same knife Abraham had carried up to the mountain for the purposes of murdering his own child. He is alone as he walks back down the mountain, wondering if his son is nearby, watching him from behind some tree. He is alone as he approaches his home, wondering if Isaac has already spoken with his mother, wondering if he has told her what has happened.

    How many days or weeks or months later did they speak of it? Did Abraham secretly tell Isaac he was wrong, or did he justify himself? Did he proudly tell the tale to everyone around, turning it into a fireside story to be told to every guest and stranger their house gave shelter to?

    This story, in all of its mystery, with all of its possible truths and hidden lessons, has fascinated me my entire life. Thank you for adding to the story, to my story.

    Grace and peace to you.

    Jason

  7. One would still have to go with obedience on Abraham’s part to the voice of God. Here’s why, my opinion, Abram wasn’t raised in the fear or knowledge of God rather he was raise amongst much idol worship and idol traditions. Yet when God speaks to him for the first time, the first time….he didn’t waiver. He proceeded to obey what he was hearing and not only him but he moved his family and everything directly associated with him…all from an unknown voice of an unknown God. That’s obedience. #imstillLearning
    Forgive me I’m just now seeing the rest of this…I’ll read and comment again if necessary.

  8. ok I understand your viewpoint a little better now from reading the entire post. Seems like you are saying God encourages and wants healthy conversation. I agree. However, I disagree with this concept in regards to Abraham simply because his background and family tradition was idol worship. Idol worship at times meant that someone had to offer up a human sacrifice. This would not have seemed to be an odd request, coming from a god, despite whether or not he wanted to actually kill his son Isaac. I think one should also consider that he is still becoming acquainted with God.
    The others you mention, one could say have at least knowledge of God. Abraham did not. Perhaps that is why latter on as the story continues and he begins to learn the voice of God towards conversation.

  9. Good questions! Love it. Romans is littered with the connection between Abraham and faith. Faith and God’s previous record of being good helps the medicine go down. What I mean is, it helps guide us through the chaos when everything in us wants to run the other direction. I love when you said, “…God is creating order out of chaos.” It makes me think that He often allows chaos to exist so that the order that comes through His presence makes His existence that much more radiant.

  10. “What if the “testing” isn’t about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but is about his willingness to engage with God about what he knows to be right?”

    This has always been my view of this.

    “God continues to weave God’s spirit through our stories, leaving open the possibility for divine redemption – no matter what results our decisions lead to”

    Not sure I all together agree with this part.

    Either way, it’s a good read.

  11. I have wondered about Isaac’s faith through this test. He was young. He knew he was a promised child. He knew God’s promise to his daddy and was obedient to Abraham. Surely he knew his mother and daddy were aging. When the boy asked daddy about the sacrifice, Abraham replied, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” Genesis 22:8 NKJV Abraham knew Isaac only came from God. He had sent Hagar and Ismael into the wilderness because God said hearken to his wife.
    Grateful heart for sharing “The Binding of Isaac and a Call to Argue”🙌🙌

  12. I appreciate this hypothesis because I’m sure many people have not considered it. I have also wrestled interpretation of this story and come to different conclusions at different times of my life. With that said, here are some of the follow ups I think you need to address to flesh this out – simply questions to generate better understanding:

    Is there really any Theological similarity with the other stories you mentioned? In those stories, God has given commands and the characters are disobeying. With Abraham, he is actually doing what God asked him to. If you are suggesting God intended one lesson and Abraham messed it up so God just gave him a different one, that makes it seem like God is actually the one who messed up since he would have known what Abraham would do.

    Where else in the Bible does God command someone to do the opposite of what he wants in order to create a context for him/her to argue with God?

    What hermeneutic are you using/suggesting? Where is the meaning in this text? With the author? Is it divinely inspired? Is it relative to the reader? If this story is divinely inspired or crafted by an author, would you agree there is no evidence in this story to suggest the lesson was intended to go a different way?

    What is the purpose of your speculation? If the other stories strongly demonstrate the points you are making, why try to place it here when it’s not clear?

    You are right on the money with God making order our of chaos and intervening in spite of humanity’s shortcomings. Thanks for the post.

  13. I love your “Meta-view” of this story. I am a student of Andrew Wommack, Joyce Meyer and John Hagee. Growing up Christian, I was saved, but not interested. Five years ago my life changed. Today, the reading the Bible is like reading a good story. It comes alive in that movie in my head. I enjoyed your take on the story.

  14. Hello. Thank you for the article. I think that this is an implicit message of this story, but the explicit message can be pointed to with something that you wrote: “In the binding of Isaac story, when Abraham is ready to take his faithfulness to disastrous ends, God steps in to calm the chaos and provide another sacrifice.” The lamb that God provided “last minute” is a foreshadowing of God providing the Lamb, Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed for all of our sins. We are Isaac, about to be killed to pay our sin debt, and God sends Jesus in as a once-for-all substitution sacrifice.

  15. I so agree with this! An honest dialogue between God and man, even if spirited, is healthy – if only for the reason that it allows us to fully appreciate who God is, and exactly where our place in the world lies. Thank you for this reminder. 🙂

  16. I always read the story of Abraham and Issac as a foreshadowing of the greatest sacrifice in history. When Abraham goes to sacrifice Issac, God provides a lamb as a sacrifice in his place. In the New Testament He provides His own son, Jesus, the lamb of God, as a sacrifice for our sins in our place. Just another way to look at it.

  17. I don’t believe that God was surprised by Abraham’s decision to obey Him. God knows everything we have done and everything we will do. Yet, we are not pawns in His Hands, He has given people the freedom to make their own decisions. I don’t believe that a human being could ever surprise his Creator.

  18. Thank you for posting! Definitely a unique perspective. We are all called to have a relationship with God. Each and every relationship has different dynamics. They can be loving, open, honest, and caring Or, they can be rocky, challenging, tough, and abrasive. These are just a few examples of course. What is most important is that we create and develop a lasting relationship with God. All relationships have journeys, especially with our creator.

  19. Similar to Kierkegaard’s perspective. Perhaps we need to become radical individuals and take the leap of faith when we feel in our heart, though all other sense goes against it, what is right.

  20. This is a very thoughtful piece of writing. Like many, I have long been puzzled by this story. I keep coming back to the conclusion that what God doesn’t want from us is a robotic obedience and want us to wrestle with the truth. Fundamentalism in any religion seems to be at root a desire to follow ‘religion by numbers’, rather like those old drawing books where you drew a picture or painted a sketch by following the numbers. Such a form of religion easily feels threatened by notions of generosity of spirit and the notion of grace

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