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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23 thoughts on “Was Abraham’s Attempt to Sacrifice Isaac a Faithful Response to God?

  1. Thanks for this Richard. I’m in the middle of moving offices, but when I saw the title of your post I had to read it! I agree with you fully, and I’ve been teaching this text this way in my classes for the past few years.

    • This in in response to no one in particular, but it seems to me that looking at the narrative through the experience of other involved but ‘secondary’ characters in the story provides some helpful interpretive clues. Most discussions revolve around the character and intentions of God or Abraham. What of Sarah? Did Abraham inform her of his word from God and his plan for action? It was her child too. What of Isaac? When did he discover the nature of his involvement in this father/son outing? Was he a willing participant? If not, how could he have possibly been subdued by an elderly Abraham? Did the servants that joined them on their journey help with that task? What story did they take home about the event? Finally, after the miracle of impeccable timing, we’re told that Abraham called that place ‘The Lord Will Provide’ and the event and its meaning are concluded as unproblematically as it began. I wonder how Isaac memorialized that event?

      It’s all too neat and tidy, and it is clearly a testing narrative – one of many in the Bible – and testing, in reality, is never neat and tidy (the story is kept neat and tidy because we’re never given any emotional markers for the characters. God, Abraham and Isaac seem emotionless through the whole ordeal). Abraham, Isaac, and God come off as robotic in the way they are depicted. Job and Jesus struggled more than this in their temptation narratives. I think the neat and tidiness of the story is meant, as Richard says, to call into question neat and tidy forms of obedience that are legitimated by an appeal to a neat and tidy God.

      • Eric, Thanks for your further comments. Your questions note some of the lacunae in the text, gaps that the reader is to fill in (by educated inference).

        Interpreters often comment on the fact that Abraham never told Sarah he was leaving with Isaac (after all, what do you think she would say?). One of the things I noted in my paper was that Abraham and Sarah are never represented as seeing each other again after this; in fact, they are living in different locales (even before this!)–Sarah in Hebron and Abraham in Beersheba (I once thought that this event resulted in their alienation; but they may have been alienated ever prior to chap. 22).

        On the question of how Isaac memorialized the event, I suggested that we turn to Jacob’s description of God as “the fear of Isaac” (Gen 31:42 and 53), where “fear” is the Hebrew word *pachad* (which is typically used for “terror” or “dread”). That’s what the son learned from the father.

  2. I would also agree with this interpretation. When Abraham argued with God about how many righteous people should be in Sodom and Gomorrah for them to be saved, he stopped at ten when he could have gone even further. Perhaps he felt like he was testing God too much and did not want to be punished for it so he stopped there. However, after seeing God’s favorable response to his argument for saving the cities based on the righteous people living there, he could have gone even further, but simply gave up after reaching ten.

    In the Aqedah, Abraham, like you have argued, had another chance to discern the character of God. This time, however, he was even worse at it than in his first attempt. He blindly followed God’s command without a second thought instead of understanding that God is a God of mercy instead of just another member of the ANE pantheon.

    Thanks for the great post! I would love to read the paper too!

    • Dan, thanks for your affirmation.

      This is the way I would relate Genesis 18 to Genesis 22:

      In the first text God informed Abraham that he was considering bringing judgment on Sodom since the cry of the victims had come to him. He didn’t even say he was going to judge them, but Abraham over-interpreted this and assumed God was intent on bringing destruction.

      So Abraham told God outright that this wasn’t right and God agreed to every request to save Sodom that Abraham proposed. As you note, it was Abraham who stopped at ten. And God saved Lot anyway.

      Yet Abraham didn’t learn the lesson about God’s mercy that God wanted to teach, because he drew back from asking outright for God to just save the city. (We don’t even know if Abraham knows Lot was saved; he saw the smoke of the city rising from afar, perhaps with a sinking feeling in his stomach.)

      So God decides to try another strategy in Genesis 22. This time is will not be his nephew who will die, but his son. And it won’t be God doing the killing, but Abraham has to do it himself. If anything will force Abraham to object, it would be this. He could say: “No, that isn’t right! Don’t force me to do this, Lord.” And I imagine God would say, okay. He is spared.

      But, to God’s dismay, Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son, not saying a word of protest.

      It is significant that at this point the Abraham-God relationship is pretty much over. It doesn’t develop any more. I imagine that God figures he has to wait out Abraham and work with the next generation (or the one after that).

  3. If God was testing Abraham, whether for obedience or his moral discernment or what-have-you this undermines God’s alleged omniscience, his ability to know both the future and the interior of a man’s heart. As for Abraham testing God, why would God submit to that, then turn around and tell Moses that “you shall not put the LORD your God to the test?” That would undermine his alleged immutability. So the whole affair amounted to a divine twiddling of the thumbs, except that it terrified the teenaged boy Isaac, and traumatized him for life. He became a momma’s boy, going almost immediately from under the wing of his mother Sarah to his wife Rebecca.

    • Linuxgal,

      You’re right that this text, like many texts in the Bible, undermines aspects of the classical view of deity that we have inherited from Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy. The God of the Bible evidently changes in his response to the actions of people. I’m not particularly wedded to classical theism.

      I have studied philosophy (that was my M.A.), and I’ve read Plato and Aristotle (and also Plotinus) in some depth; so I’m aware of the influence of these ideas when they show up in the history of theology.

      However, I’m also an Old Testament scholar, and like most OT scholars I recognize that God is portrayed as often changing in the Bible. This is what we might call strategic change; it is change in the service of God’s faithfulness. God adapts out of love to honor his commitment to redeem the world.

      I am presently working on a paper that argues that God’s changeability in a particular text (1 Samuel 2-3) is not evidence of fickleness (as is sometimes thought), but is evidence of mercy.

      I’m glad you’ve commented. Please feel welcome to post more if you are interested in furthering the conversation.

  4. Thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking post. However, I am not entirely convinced by your argument. Here are a few of my thoughts. First, it is not clear to me that Abraham is motivated by concern for his nephew Lot in his conversation with God in chapter 18. It seems to me that Abraham is more concerned with God’s justice than with a personal plea for Lot. Also, it would be quite a stretch to argue that Lot and his family were either righteous or innocent (Gen. 19:7-8, 30-38). A stronger argument, I think, comes from chapter 21, where Abraham is upset over sending Ishmael away to the desert (Gen. 21:10-11). If Abraham is so “greatly distressed” over sending away Ishmael, then why would he show no sign of trepidation over the command to sacrifice Isaac?

    Second, I am not convinced that Abraham responded with “blind obedience” in chapter 22. Although Abraham obeyed God’s command, that doesn’t necessarily mean he was blind to the testing. Some commentators portray Abraham as being completely unaware that he was being tested by God, and that therefore his response to God’s command was this kind of virtuous obedience. I personally don’t see much merit in this “blind obedience,” and I think it is disguised as false piety among many Christians today. Abraham, I believe, knew full well he was being tested, but that did not make the trial any less painful. He was put in a precarious position; if he did sacrifice Isaac, then he would be obedient, but only obedient to a God who was not willing to keep a covenant, and, paradoxically, not worthy of our obedience (Gen. 17:19-21). If he did not sacrifice Isaac, then he would be in obvious disobedience, and demonstrate a lack of fear of Yahweh (Gen. 22:12). What results, in my mind, is a game of “chicken,” where God and Abraham are on a collision course, waiting to see who will yield first. Abraham, for his part, does not let on much to either his servants or to his son; in the two instances where he speaks, he is both vague and enigmatic (Gen 22:5,8). He seems to be holding out hope against hope that God will provide, that the trial will pass, and, ultimately, that the covenant will be upheld. God did provide for Abraham, but not until his fear of God shook his every nerve. When hope was nearly extinguished, God yielded.

    Thanks again for the post. I’m looking forward to reading the paper.

    • Jon, great to hear from you.

      On Abraham and Lot, it might take a bit to convince you. But here are some considerations.

      Abraham went out of his way to rescue Lot in Genesis 14, which suggests that he cared about him. Another factor is that God sends angels to rescue Lot and his family even though Abraham stopped asking for God to save the city if there were ten righteous/innocent living there (the angels tell Lot that they are not allowed to destroy the city until his family escapes). Then there is the poignant picture of Abraham watching the smoke of the city’s destruction rising from afar. All of this suggests that Abraham cared deeply about Lot. This has led almost all later interpreters, in both Jewish and Christian traditions, to regard Lot and his family as the innocent/righteous ones that were spared because of God’s mercy.

      Part of my argument turns on God’s soliloquy before he reveals to Abraham what he is considering with Sodom. God says that the reason he is revealing it is because Abraham is to teach his family and household “the way of YHWH” which includes justice and righteousness.

      Later, in Exodus 33, after God has forgiven the people for the idolatry of the golden calf (due to Moses’ intercession), Moses asks God to show him God’s “ways” (33:12), restated as a request to see God’s “glory” (33:18). What is God’s way/glory? It is described as love/ compassion/ forgiveness first, then comes judgment/consequences (34:6-7). By the way, according to 32:14 God “repented” of the disaster he was going to do; that is, he changed his mind in response to Moses’ intercession. This is a God who wants to show mercy–if only we would ask (so this God’s righteousness/justice is characterized by mercy).

      I believe that God wanted to teach Abraham that his character was mercy (without omitting judgment). Abraham had to be weaned off the typical ANE notion of a vengeful deity. But he didn’t learn that; and so he didn’t teach that to his son. The result was a dysfunctional family for at least three more generations (recounted in Genesis).

    • Jon, So far I only responded to your first point. Let me try addressing your second here.

      I think that what I meant by “blind obedience” was a bit different from what you mean by the term. I think you are taking “blind” to mean that Abraham didn’t know he was being tested (you suggest that he did). By the way, I personally wonder how you know that; or how Abraham would know he was being tested. The person being tested doesn’t typically know that it is a test. (Also, I’ve never seen any commentator who had suggested this.)

      What I meant by “blind obedience” is that Abraham thought he had to obey without asking God why he wanted him to do this terrible thing. So I meant unquestioning obedience. The biblical model of prayer is lament, where the supplicant pleads with God to hear his cry and respond, sometimes with quite abrasive protest.

      I am currently at a colloquium in Michigan with a dozen other Christian scholars (Protestant and Catholic) to discuss our papers on evolution and the fall (a very difficult subject). Each day we frame our academic work with communal worship (morning prayer and evening prayer). Having just come from evening prayer, it is fresh in my mind that we just prayed through a lament psalm (there is a lament psalm as part of each liturgy). I am struck by what a wonderful sort of prayer lament is, since it teaches us as we pray that God cares about our suffering.

      Blind/unthinking obedience, in silence, when our hearts are in pain, would serve no-one (neither God nor ourselves). Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then later on the cross, prayed in the lament genre: “Father take this cup from me”; and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

      It seems to me that if Abraham prayed a similar prayer about sacrificing Isaac it would have been an act of obedience, and one more faithful to Scripture than unquestioning submission. And he would have learned, in the process, that God was a God of mercy.

      • Dr. Middleton,
        Thank you for your clarification of the term “blind obedience.” I apologize on my own part for the confusion over the issue of Abraham’s testing. I was reading Genesis 22 in light of James 1:2-4, where he writes “Consider it pure joy . . . whenever you face trials of any kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” The specific trials (or even crises) in a Christian’s life are proof of the ongoing testing of faith. Of course, this is far removed from the story of Abraham, and I am more than guilty of making a gross hermeneutical leap!

        I completely agree with your comment about lament prayers. There was a time a few years back when I went through a series of trials, and, instead of producing perseverance, this testing of my faith crippled me; I felt like I was chewed up and spit out, and the experience left me altogether numb. It was actually Psalm 73 that helped me, over a period of time, back to a state of homeostasis (particularly vv. 13-17).

        I think it’s great that you are a part of that interdisciplinary research project. I’m particularly interested in how evolutionary theory shapes our ideas of human nature. I look forward to reading some of the fruits of your labors.

  5. This is Classic Middleton! I like how you sometimes bring up other ideas that many of us have not previously considered (carefully). I’ve seen (but not read) your posts on the book you read on Evolution. I hope to make time to read it soon. Regards from Accra, Ghana

    • Jeff, Rob Bell is fine company on this point. I don’t have to agree with him on everything; but I also won’t demonize him, as some Christians have. It turns out that I am joining a lot of interpreters throughout history (especially Jewish ones) who have problems with Abraham’s response to God (though they wouldn’t all agree with all the interpretive moves I make).

  6. Interesting point, Richard.
    But if this is the case (i.e. Abraham kind of “misunderstood” what he was supposed to do/ answer), so, what do you say about Hb. 11:17? I mean, for me, the author is commending Abraham for his faith. What do you think?

    • Hi Thiago,

      Hebrews 11:17 was brought up the first time I broached my interpretation in a public lecture. The text certainly seems to be commending Abraham for his faith. I’ve thought about how to relate this text to Genesis 22.

      First of all, Hebrews 11 attributes belief in the resurrection to Abraham, something that is historically implausible. But, you might still take from it that Abraham believed that God would bring some positive resolution; and Jon Levinson has shown how the future of progeny is a trajectory that leads to resurrection. So let’s say that Abraham trusted that God would somehow work it all out.

      Even so, I don’t think his unquestioning obedience was optimal, given the biblical alternative of protest (modeled in the lament psalms, and even found on the lips of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross; also remember Jesus’ parables of the friend at midnight and the importunate widow).

      That unquestioning obedience (even rooted in faith) is not optimal is reinforced by the outcome of the event on Mt. Moriah, namely father-son alienation.

      The effect on Isaac is suggested by the very structure of the book of Genesis. While the promises are to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the ancestral narratives of Genesis focus on the Abraham story, the Jacob story, and the Joseph story. Isaac isn’t a significant narrative agent with his own story; he is a diminished character.

      This structure of Genesis is confirmed by the absence of a toldoth of Abraham. While there is a toldoth of Terah (= Abraham’s story), a toldoth of Isaac (=Jacob’s story), and a toldoth of Jacob (= Joseph’s story), there is no toldoth of Abraham (which would be Isaac’s story).

      So, any way you cut it, I think that unquestioning obedience (no matter what the honorable motive) does not justify me thinking that Abraham made the best choice.

      Surely commitment to the one true God should not require destroying one’s family.

      But I realize there is a lot more to be said.

      • Hmm, I think I see your point! I’m gonna think about it!

        And I couldn’t agree more with: “Surely commitment to the one true God should not require destroying one’s family.” The thing is: I always understood this passage as God wanting to show his power to Abraham (in my head, for example, Abraham “offered” Isaac completely confident that God would raise him). So, for me, it never appeared as if it was God’s plan to destroy Abraham’s family and for me Abraham never understood the command to sacrifice Isaac as a “death sentence” for him (I’m not sure if I could express well enough my thoughts here, sorry).

        Well, going beyond this post (and feel free to edit this post and erase this question), what do you say about Job? This is a book I simply never could get along with…I think we see there a so much worse version of Abraham’s episode with Isaac.

  7. Actually, I think that the book of Job is an answer to Abraham’s silence; there are clear intertextual connections between Job and the Abraham story, including the fact that both are called “God-fearer” and that the phrase “dust and ashes” appears in both.

    When I have some time, I’ll post on this this topic. (At some point I hope to write a book on this, maybe called The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job.)

  8. Hi Richard (et al). A most fascinating take on the Akedah, albeit somewhat difficult for me in light of vv.16-18. If Abraham is tacitly culpable for ‘blind obedience’ why is he also explicitly praised and rewarded for it? Covenantal blessings are guaranteed ‘because you have not withheld your son . . . because you have obeyed me’. God’s response in vv.16-17 form a confirmatory inclusio around this theme of Abraham’s (exemplary) obedience. I’m assuming you address this in your longer paper?

    • Hi Ed, I was hoping that someone would raise this, since it is one of the “problems” for my interpretation that I will be addressing in my fuller paper (when I complete it). I am quite aware that the angel commends Abraham, when he says that because he has done this thing, his descendants will be blessed and all nations will also be blessed. No contest there.

      So, here’s my issue. Prior to this, on a number of other occasions, God has promised Abraham that his descendants will be blessed and that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants. And those previous promises were all unconditional. So why are they now tied to Abraham’s obedience?

      I think that this is an example of God’s mercy.

      Let me make an (imperfect) analogy. If I have a student doing an independent study with me, who writes a major paper that is really not very good, but the student tried his best and didn’t slack off (but still didn’t do what I was looking for), how should I respond?

      Well, I wouldn’t give an A for the paper, but I probably wouldn’t fail it either. I might give the student a C, which is a compromise grade.

      Also assume that I was planning to give the student a gift of a book (say a new biblical commentary I knew they wanted). Originally, I was planning on giving this a a gift. But now that I had to give a C, I want the student to feel better, so I tell him that because he worked so hard I have a reward for him—the commentary.

      I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but it feels like God is here grading on a curve and trying to salvage a relationship that has disappointed him.

      This may also explain why he sends an angel. Initially, God spoke directly to Abraham; but now through an angel.

      After the story of the golden calf (Israel’s idolatry at Mt. Sinai), God refuses to go with the people because he is so disgusted with them, but says he will send an angel instead. Could the angel in Genesis 22 be God distancing himself from Abraham? (Perhaps God is distancing himself precisely so that he can show mercy.)

      I know that hasn’t solved the question of why what was an unconditional promise is now made conditional on Abraham’s obedience. But it is a suggestion I am considering.

  9. Hi Richard,

    I’m grateful that you dedicated a blog to the very challenging Akedah. Your original post and follow up comments are a real treat. Over the past few years since we first began talking about this passage a few thoughts have stuck in my mind. The first is a question. Was Isaac really Abraham’s to give? To me the answer seems clear and I would prefer to articulate this as a statement rather than a question. Abraham does not have the right to give Isaac. Some commentators indicate that the long lingering narrative of the Akedah is evidence of a mild protest and shows the existential struggle which Abraham is experiencing. The emotional atmosphere of the this narrative in my opinion seems cold. Why is there no strong emotional outburst which one would expect of a father who wants to protect his son? The overall drama of this narrative seems too subdued considering what is actually going on.

    Second, there is a significant strand of Jewish thought which argues that even if God himself commands a person to do what is contrary to the teaching of the Torah that person is under obligation to disobey. Both God and the human are bound by this covenant. There is no belief in Judaism that whatever God tells a prophet to do must be obeyed even if it is a violation of God’s law or that it must be obeyed without any discussion or objection. Think of Moses, Job, the lament Psalms.

    Abraham knows better and there is little to show that he does in this narrative. However Abraham was not ignorant regarding God’s prohibition against murder because of God’s response to Cain’s murder of Abel (Gen. 4:8-12) and the instruction after the flood regarding taking a life (Gen. 9:1-17). And also remember Abrahams protest to God regarding the destruction of Sodom if any righteous person lived there as already previously mentioned. It is often argued that this is before Moses and the giving of the law as if this is at all helpful. I ask myself another question. Does it really require a Divine commandment to know that it is wrong to kill your child, to save a life? I hope not. I’m grateful for the many Jews who were saved not only by religious rescuers but also secular rescuers who understood the value of a Jewish human life and were willing to risk their lives on their behalf. They became a part of the resistance and offered their protest with their lives. Is it reasonable as one writer argues that it cannot be considered murder because Abraham knew that Isaac would come to life again? It seems to me that this “suspension of the ethical” for religious reasons even a Divine voice is dangerous and deserves to be challenged.

    Richard, you indicate that “Abraham’s response of blind obedience to the command to sacrifice his son was sub-par. It was better than outright disobedience.” I’m wondering in what way Abraham’s methodical step by step course of action in this lingering narrative with the full intention of obeying this immoral command differs from disobedience? I find myself wanting to state this a bit more strongly. Of course, I am probably wrong. Any thoughts?

    Thank you once again for a very stimulating blog and for each of the comments made by others. I look forward to reading the final paper when it is complete.

    With gratitude

  10. Dr. Middleton, this has always been a challenging passage for me so your blog and Mr. McDonald’s comments are greatly appreciated. Thanks, Jack

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