Was Abraham’s Attempt to Sacrifice Isaac a Faithful Response to God?

In my last post I mentioned that I had just attended the 2014 Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences, at Brock University, in St. Catharines, ON, Canada.

One of the academic societies I participated in was the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, where I presented a paper on Genesis 22, known in Jewish tradition as the Aqedah or “binding” of Isaac (Abraham “bound” [‘aqad] Isaac and placed him on the altar; Gen 22:9). I titled my paper (somewhat ironically): “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition.”

The gist of my paper was that contrary to traditional readings in both Judaism and Christianity, we should not understand Abraham’s response as a paradigm of virtue. Rather, I argued that Abraham’s response of blind obedience to the command to sacrifice his son was sub-par. It was better than outright disobedience. But a truly faithful response would have been to follow the example of the lament psalms (and Job) by questioning God, even protesting that this command wasn’t right.

Central to my argument was the fact that Abraham had previously (in Gen 18) protested the possibility that God might destroy Sodom, despite the fact that there were righteous/innocent people living there (the Hebrew word tsadîq can mean either). Whereas Abraham’s motive for that protest was the fact that his nephew Lot and his family were living in Sodom, it is strange that when God tells him to offer up his own son as a burnt offering, Abraham’s silence is deafening. He says nothing whatsoever (he certainly does not protest the death of this innocent victim), but blindly moves to obey—and has to be stopped in the act by an angel calling from heaven: “Abraham, Abraham! . . . don’t do anything to the boy!”

It is also significant that the text reports that Abraham returned to his servants and that they went off together, but that Isaac is not mentioned at the end of the story (Gen 22:19). Also significant is that Isaac is then reported as living in a different geographical location from Abraham (and Sarah is living elsewhere, by the way), and father and son never again see each other. This is why the subtitle of my paper was: “How Abraham Lost His Son.”

In the end, I argue that the test (“God tested Abraham”; Gen 22:1) was not whether Abraham would obey. Rather, what was being tested was Abraham’s discernment of the character of God. Was this a God of mercy or a deity just like one of the other ancient Near Eastern gods who required child sacrifice?

Well, there’s a lot more to be said (and the paper says more, and even recognizes the arguments against this interpretation). But this should give you the gist of what I presented. I am presently expanding the paper and preparing it for publication.

What’s your response to this interpretation of Genesis 22? Do you find it jarring? Or does it resonate with you? Why?

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The Canadian Evangelical Theological Association

I just returned from the 2014 annual meeting of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA), which was part of the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences, held at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. The Congress is an annual meeting of about 80 academic societies and it moves around to a different Canadian university each year.

The CETA meeting was held on May 25 and there were eight excellent papers on topics ranging from violence in the Bible, to the (im)mutability of God, using jazz as a metaphor to understand the church’s mission, and the application of trauma studies to the Hagar narrative in Genesis 16. The meeting was marked by a wonderful sense of collegiality between graduate students, new graduates, and senior scholars. For a schedule of papers and abstracts, click here.

A particular highlight of the CETA meeting was the presence of J. Gerald Janzen (professor emeritus in Old Testament at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, who was born in Saskatchewan). Janzen gave a brilliant paper on Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Not only did his gentle manner and stunning intertextual reading of the New Testament, the Old Testament, and evidence from Hellenistic literature convince those in attendance about the meaning of Paul’s “thorn,” but the paper had profound practical implications for living with under the sign of the cross.

I also gave my “exaugural” address as outgoing president of CETA (yes, that really is a word; the opposite of inaugural). I’ve had the privilege of being president of CETA for the past three years, and I took the opportunity to give a brief history of the organization (including the  rationale for its founding in 1990). I also highlighted some of CETA’s exciting recent initiatives (such as a peer-reviewed journal and an annual Fall conference that moves around to different theological schools). And I shared my vision for the future of CETA. The text of the presidential address is available here.

CETA’s journal, the Canadian Theological Review, is actively soliciting articles and book reviews, which may address any area of theology—including biblical studies, systematic theology, historical theology, practical/pastoral theology, and philosophical theology. Information for contributors can be found here.

CETA will be having its next Fall conference in Toronto, at Wycliffe College on October 18, 2014 and a call for papers will be going out soon.

Learning to Ask Good Questions

I absolutely love when students ask questions in class.

Questions outside of class are great too, whether they come by email or through one-on-one conversation over a cup of coffee. I’ve often come to clarity about some of my own ideas in trying to answer a student’s out-of-class question about some complex issue.

But questions in class have a special importance. I learned as an undergraduate student that once you start asking questions in class something important happens.

Two things, actually.

First, the quality of your own learning goes way up.

You become more engaged with the material being taught and you develop a better grasp of it. I think the way human psychology works is that when you say something out loud you become more personally invested in the topic. And when you articulate your inchoate thoughts (even in the form of a question) it helps you gain a degree of clarity you hadn’t yet achieved.

But something also happens to the class as a whole.

The learning of the other students goes up. The interactive aspect of a class (the back-and-forth between student and teacher) helps other students pay more attention. And it stimulates their thinking. Just one person asking good questions can get others talking, and then the effect snowballs.

The Value of Questions for Shy People

But it’s certainly hard to get started, especially if you’re a shy person.

I was shy from childhood right through my late twenties. So I know that it requires a certain amount of effort to start speaking up in class. As an undergraduate student, I used to have to spend time thinking about the assigned readings in advance of class and I would jot down comments—and especially questions—to bring to class.

The good thing about questions for a shy person is that you don’t have to worry about being right or wrong. You aren’t trying to show off your knowledge by giving answers. You’re trying to expand your knowledge by seeking answers.

I didn’t begin asking questions in class until my junior undergraduate year—yes, I really was that shy! Although I didn’t always get the answers I sought, my professors graciously hosted my questions. And the process of raising questions (and having them welcomed in class) turned me into a much more active learner.

After a while I started thinking of questions even while the professor was speaking, and I would raise my hand, and off we’d go.

I remember one episode in graduate school when my back-and-forth with a philosophy professor lasted for a full ten minutes (I kept asking about the basis of a particular idea—see below—and then about the basis of that one, and so on. The back-and-forth only ended when the professor lapsed into silence for what seemed like an eternity (but was perhaps only a few seconds). Finally, he admitted: “I have no idea. I really don’t know.”

But that wasn’t a problem, either for him or for me. It was simply an honest moment. And I even gained the professor’s respect for probing so deeply.

Three Kinds of Questions to Stimulate Learning

Looking back at my intellectual development, I’ve found there are three main kinds of questions that I’ve learned to ask, which have contributed most to my learning. These sorts of questions are the basis of developing critical habits of thought.

They set me in good stead for interacting not just with the classes I took, but also with any points of view I’ve encountered in my interactions with others, whether orally or in writing. So I ask these questions also of the books and articles I read.

But since I learnt the importance of these questions when I was a student, I’ll phrase them in terms of a classroom context.

Where Does That Come From? 

First, there are questions about the basis of an idea.

You’re in class, listening to the professor say something and a nagging question comes to mind:

  • “Why would we think that?”
  • “How do we know that is true?”
  • “Is there some ground for that idea?”

So, put up your hand and ask the question. (This was the sort of question that reduced my philosophy professor to silence.)

How Does That Relate?

Then there are questions about the relationship of different ideas.

You wonder about something the professor says in class that doesn’t seem to jibe with something you read in the assigned text or with something you thought the professor said in a previous class (or simply with something you know—or think you know—is true).

So you ask (respectfully):

  • “How would you reconcile what you said last week about this topic (or some other topic) with what you’re saying in class today?”
  • “If what you say is true, how does that fit with what today’s reading says on the same subject?”
  • “I’ve always thought thus-and-so, but now I’m wondering if it’s compatible with what you just said. Do you think there is any tension there?”

The point isn’t to try and trip up your teacher (though you might well do that). Rather, you learn the meaning of one idea by having its relation to other ideas clarified.

So What?

Finally, there are questions about the implications of an idea.

No matter how interesting an idea sounds, the rubber hits the road when you address the consequences of what is being taught. These consequences might have to do with how you think about something, but they might be relevant to practical action in the world. So you verbalize your question:

  • “What follows from this idea?”
  • “If that is true, what are the implications for X?”
  • “What would this mean for how we think about topic Y?”
  • “Does this mean we need to change our behavior?”

These kinds of questions engage your higher critical functioning, and after a while they become second nature to you.

Of course, not all questions have definitive answers. But in learning to ask good questions, your learning in all your courses goes up. And you get more out of conversations with others. And your reading comprehension improves drastically.

Have you had any positive or negative experiences asking questions in class?

Are there other questions that you’ve found helpful to ask?