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?