If anyone tried to do what Abraham did today, we would obviously call him a religious nutcase. Nor do we have to stretch our imaginations to look for people who think that God has asked them to kill someone. We see it on the news quite frequently. So what are we to do with such a difficult passage?
A few weeks ago we had the very famous Genesis 22 reading of God testing Abraham. It came immediately after the feast of the Sacred Heart, which prompted me to starting thinking about the connection between the two. Ultimately, I believe, the point of the legend of Abraham for us and for Israel’s readers was not that Abraham was the perfect example of faith, but rather than Abraham was a primitive example of the rocky path of salvation history. Nor does this downplay Abraham at all. Within his context, knowing nothing other than common religious practice around him, he thought he knew what God wanted. And he got it wrong. Yet we, as did Israel for many centuries, can still learn much from the example of Abraham.
It seems to me, with passages like this one, we have to make certain interpretive decisions. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son has always been held up as a paradigm of faith. However, if we take the notion of salvation history seriously, it seems to me that we need to be pretty careful here. It seems there are at least two ways to read some of these difficult passages in the Old Testament. First, we can read them as God slowly revealing himself to his people in the same way that a child slowly grows in his understanding of, say, mathematics. The Old Testament is God teaching his people addition, subtraction, division, etc. I have often heard the OT described this way to me. With Jesus, we have the calculus, but God had to reveal himself to his people slowly, and so he taught them slowly, starting with easy stuff and moving towards the full revelation.
Now I definitely agree that this is true: in the Old Testament God slowly revealed himself over time until finally he fully revealed himself in Christ. However, it seems to me that the incompleteness of the OT is not entirely on God’s part; the reality of contextual reception also comes into play. Israel often received God’s revelation of himself imperfectly, just as we often do. God intends one thing, and we think we hear something else. What still makes the OT inspired literature? The fact that, despite the incomplete revelation and the imperfect reception, God was able to slowly prepare his people for the full revelation of his Son.
In light of this, I can’t help but read Genesis 22 as an example of imperfect reception that God used to make a further point about himself. Is Abraham a paramount example of faith in this story? Well, maybe more a paramount example of zeal. The difference is that faith is a kind of knowledge requiring trust in the accurate self-revelation of the other. Faith knows something about God. Zeal says something about us. In this case, Abraham gets God wrong. God does not ask people to kill their kids to prove their love. Now we know that, in the light of the full context of revelation. Abraham, coming before the Ten Commandments and living in a culture of child sacrifice, did not. And so he erred in the reception of God’s self-communication.
The question of the point of the story then shifts direction. Is the point that Abraham had great faith that we should all imitate? Or is the point that the kind of sacrifice that God wants is not of our children but of our heart, our will? I think the latter is the main point of this story, which is what connects it for me to the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Abraham, imperfectly understanding what God was asking of him, became the occasion for further revelation on God’s part, which is precisely how salvation history works. What did God actually ask Abraham to do? I don’t know. I do feel pretty confident that he didn’t ask him to kill his son. And I’m also pretty sure that the redactors of Genesis did not include this legend of Abraham in order to show that sometimes God asks us to do things that we know are wrong and we need to prove our love by doing them. Rather, they included the legend of Abraham and Isaac to remind Israel in their own context that God hates child sacrifice (a regular temptation for Israel even up until the Exile). The sacrifice God requires is of the human heart.
The legend of Abraham is a first faltering, imperfect, incomplete step. I can’t accept with Kierkegaard that it represents some kind of perfect example of faith beyond morality. I think the answer is simpler: Abraham, with his very rudimentary and primitive understanding of this new god, interpreted in his prayer God’s request in relation to the religions around him, and thought he was supposed to offer child sacrifice. God used this mistake to further reveal himself. And the revelation is a profound one that threads its way all the way through the Old Testament: God desires obedience not sacrifice, mercy not dead animals, circumcision of the heart not the foreskin.
Typologically, Jesus reveals to us, in the Sacred Heart, the proper attitude towards God. It is not that God the Father, like Abraham, was also willing to kill his son. Rather, the lesson that Abraham learned comes to completion in Christ. In the Garden, Christ fully surrendered his will and his heart to his Father and chose to take upon himself the suffering of Israel and of the world. That is very different than God sending his son to be killed.
Therefore Abraham is not an example to us of perfect faith. He is our father in faith because, as the first to be called by God, he made within his own context, many of the same mistakes that we make. He showed great zeal, but also got it wrong. We do the same all the time, which is why we need the community of interpretation that we call the Catholic Church, to fully understand the true sacrifice of Romans 12:1-2. That, I think, is why the legend of Abraham is in our Bibles.